PARIS, June 19, 2005 (IslamOnline.net)—French prisons are teeming with Muslims, a phenomenon chaplains and sociologists blame on marginalization and towering poverty and unemployment rates among the Muslim minority.
“It really harms the image of Islam and Muslims in France that prisons are teeming with Muslims,” Mamdo Sango, a Muslim chaplain, told IslamOnline.net.
Iranian-French researcher Farhad Khosrokhavar said in his recently published book Islam in Prisons that Muslims make up some 70 percent of a total of 60,775 prisoners in France.
As ethnicity-based censuses are banned in France, he said complexion, names and religious traditions like prohibition of pork indicate that Muslims constitute an overwhelming majority in prisons.
Khosrokhavar also noted that Islam has become a sought-after religion in prisons with a Christian prisoner asking prison authorities to provide him with halal meat almost on a weekly basis.
Afro-French Sango, for his part, complained about a severe shortage in the number of Muslim chaplains in French prisons.
“I have to move from a prison to another on Fridays to meet the religious needs of Muslims prisoners,” he said.
There are only 69 Muslim chaplains in a total of 185 prisons, a figure which is dwarfed by 500 Catholic chaplains.
France is home to some six to seven million Muslims, the largest Muslim minority in Europe.
Although none of the French Muslim organizations approached by IOL had a clear answer to the mind-boggling phenomenon, some heaped blame on failed integration policies.
“The successive French governments failed to come up with a successful integration policy,” said Ammar Al-Asfar, a Muslim prison chaplain.
Asfar, who doubles as the prison affairs official at the umbrella French Council for Muslim Faith (CFCM), said French governments should have adopted programs putting all French citizens on equal footing.
“Young French Muslims are more vulnerable to fall prey to depression and suffer the grave consequences of academic failure and family break-up,” he told IOL.
Sociologists and French Muslim leaders further hold racism and discrimination as the root cause of unemployment and crime rates among the Muslim minority.
French Muslims and Arabs are pinning high hopes on the appointment of a Muslim of Algerian origin as junior minister in charge of equal opportunity under the new cabinet of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.
Azouz Begag, 48, has already gained the reputation of being a fighter for equality and a struggler against all sorts of discrimination.
A Sorbonne research released earlier in the year by the French Observatory Against Racism found that Arab names and dark complexion represent an obstacle to jobseekers.
The “Discrimination at Workplace” research said that the organization sent 325 CVs of competitive applicants, who only differ in names and origin, to find that the opportunity for North African applicants to get a job is five times less than natives.
French analysts further warned that prisons might be a breeding ground for extremists.
They cited the case of a young Muslim, Khaled Khilkhal, who was blamed by the authorities of involvement in terrorist operations.
Some experts claim he was influenced by extremist ideas in prison though he used to lead an extravagant life before serving time.
Secretary of State to the Rights of the Victims Nicole Guedi has also warned that fanaticism was gaining ground among Muslim prisoners, mostly aged 18-35.
Prison authorities have even become phobic about rising fanaticism in prisons to the extent that they sometimes deny Muslim prisoners the right to have prayer rugs, Asfar said.
“It is paradoxical that prison authorities seek the help of those so-called extremist prisoners to maintain public order when quarrels erupt as they are revered by most of the prisoners,” he noted.
In April, the Fleury-Merogis prison in south Paris punished a Muslim prisoner with eight days in solitary confinement for performing a congregational prayer.
The Administrative Court in Versailles, however, did the prisoner justice and reaffirmed his right to practice his religion.