Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Imams called in as Aboriginal inmates warm to radical Islam

Australia's spy agency has been enlisted to help crack down on radicalisation in jails after revelations Aboriginal prisoners are converting to Islam and risk becoming extremists.

Sheikhs and imams are being brought into prisons to deliver de-radicalisation messages during Friday prayers, but two prominent Sydney sheikhs have told a high-level forum that chaplaincy services are grossly under-funded and prison converts are misinterpreting the religion.

A small but high-risk group of radicals are causing concern to Corrective Services NSW and it is believed recruitment to Islam is active, particularly among Aboriginal inmates.

Sheikh Omar Hammouche, who has worked with inmates and prison chaplains, says faith is a powerful tool in the reformation of prisoners but the lack of Muslim chaplaincy services in NSW means prison converts are misinterpreting Islam.


There are just two Muslim chaplains spread across 10 of the state's prisons.

Sheikh Omar told a Corrective Services-sponsored forum at Sydney University's Law School last month that Islam was primarily taught face-to-face and knowledge needed to be properly explained.

He cited the case of one of British soldier Lee Rigby's killers, who wildly misinterpreted a line from the Koran - "kill the unbelievers wherever you see them" – to justify the stabbing on a London street.

"There isn’t enough capacity to address the needs and the requirements of the Muslim inmates," Sheikh Omar said. "When there are insufficient chaplaincy services appointed, we find that people then rely on other means to get their Islamic education ... Yes, you may be able to police the information they have, the books they receive but you can’t police the understanding they take from that or the application."

About 9 per cent of inmates in NSW are Muslim, even though only 3 per cent of the general population identifies as Islamic.

Sheikh Omar said many had a poor understanding of Islam. "Dare I say, if they knew their religion ... they wouldn’t be in prison in the first place so they need that face-to-face instruction."

Some imams and sheikhs struggled to communicate effectively with inmates. Senior management began consulting with the Muslim community in western Sydney a year ago and sharing information and contacts with intelligence authorities.

Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman, secretary of the Australian National Imams Council, told the forum many prison imams were avoiding hot topics such as jihad, Syria and Iraq for fear of being labelled jihadi supporters.

"These are topics our youth want to hear," he said. "If I’m not going to address it in the proper form, then they will go listen to someone else."

Australian National University researcher Clarke Jones, who is writing a book on prison radicalisation, said extremist conversions were rare because terrorism inmates tended to be at the bottom of the prison pecking order in Australia.

He cited the recent case of Sydney man Khaled Sharrouf, who posted images of himself fighting in Iraq and standing over slaughtered bodies, as an unusual case of an inmate committing acts of jihad upon release.

Sharrouf served four years for his role in the Pendennis terror plot and recently said on Twitter he received weekly lessons from al-Qaeda leader Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi via the jail phone, a claim that had not been verified.

"The problem is a lot of these de-radicalisation programs are very generic ... and tend to be a one-size-fits-all model," Dr Clarke said.

Asmi Wood, senior research fellow at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, was aware of Aboriginal conversions in prison and said elders were concerned that converts would join foreign jihad but he had seen no evidence of it.

Rod Moore, chaplaincy co-ordinator for Corrective Services NSW, told the conference NSW had "a long way to go" to increase chaplaincy services but the program led the way globally

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