The abuse crisis made Catholicism confront its dark side. Terrorism should do the same for Islam

An inmate at the Young Offenders Institution attached to Norwich Prison (Getty images)

A report we regularly hear after a terrorist attack by Islamic extremists is, “terrorist X was believed to have been radicalised in prison”. One would have to be blind not to recognise that something is going wrong in our prisons.

Before moving to my current parish I spent 6 years as the Coordinating Chaplain at a prison in Yorkshire. It’s fairly unusual for a Catholic to hold this position: normally the role is performed by Anglicans or (increasingly) Muslims. My experience over those six years suggested that we are indeed getting it wrong in our prisons – though recognising the problem is often easier than offering a solution.

It is beyond doubt that Muslims make a vastly higher percentage of the prison population than they do in the general population at large, and a large proportion of those Muslim prisoners are prisoners who converted in prison. So many convert, in fact, that I once jokingly asked the prison imam why he thought that Islam was so attractive to criminals.

I admit it was a barbed joke, and not my finest interfaith moment. But I think these questions need to be asked (though in a less barbed manner). It is utterly pointless for faith leaders to stand on the steps of the local council house after every atrocity carried out in the name of Islam and pretend that we are all the same, and that there isn’t a problematic issue in the Islamic community.

The refrain that such acts have “nothing to do with Islam” is thankfully less commonly heard, because it is so patently untrue. We do a better service to the Muslim community (and certainly the wider non-Muslim community) by forcing them to confront the dark side of their community (just as the media forced the Catholic Church to face her dark side over the abuse crisis). To pretend that there isn’t an issue is simply denial.

So why do so many young men convert to Islam in prison? I can only offer my opinion. We need to remember that many young men in prison already feel a raging anger at the “state” or the “system”, a system from which most of them already felt disenfranchised, and a system which has now taken away their freedom (many prisoners, like many people in general, aren’t great at accepting responsibility for the consequences of their actions).

Islam gives them a channel for their rage, and the brutal reality is that there are streams within Islam that justify violence against the “kafir”, against those who won’t “submit” to Islam (and let us remember “Islam” doesn’t simply mean “peace” as is so often claimed, but “submission”). This stream can be found in the Koran itself, and in the life of Muhammad himself, who was actively involved in the mass beheading of a Jewish tribe. While the majority of Muslims (of course) abhor terrorism, the proven reality is that a frighteningly large minority of worldwide Muslims do have sympathy for such acts. Islam can give young angry men with a sense of rage at the “system” a narrative through which to channel their rage, to justify their rage, to make their rage part of something bigger.

Those who argue that “all scriptures can be twisted in this way” are playing a delusional game. Yes, the Old Testament has passages that can be used to justify violence, but there is nothing in the teaching and life of Jesus that can be used to justify violence, and Christians interpret the Scriptures through the life of Jesus.

If there were a way of justifying violent rage against the society that one felt disenfranchised from in the teaching of Christianity, then presumably we would see lots more angry young men converting to Christianity in prison, and then on their release performing acts of violence in the name of Jesus.

Islam has a unique problem with violence, and unless our governments (and “faith” leaders) are honest enough to face up to this, and challenge the Muslim community to face up to this, it won’t go away.

When Pope Benedict made this observation in Regensburg, he was roundly condemned by leaders in the West, and the Muslim world was so outraged by his suggestion that Islam might have a problem with violence that there were many violent protests and even killings in response, rather tragically proving his point.

I pray and hope that we are eventually beginning to wake up. I hope it isn’t too late.