Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Saving our prisoners from evil | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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“Whilst in prison in Saudi Arabia, I shared a cell with a number of Islamist extremists. Once, a prisoner who supported Osama bin Laden baked a cake and decorated it with his leader’s name, announcing that whoever ate from the cake would be accepted into the fold while those who didn’t would be considered agents for the Kingdom’s government and judged as infidels.” This is the testimony of a Saudi preacher, Sheikh Mohammed bin Dalim al Dalim who upon his release from prison became convinced that fundamentalist sentiments must be eradicated.

Upon listening to these words, I wondered, “What sort of prison permits offenders to exchange extremist ideas, bake cakes, and celebrate the glory of their leaders?”

Prison ought to be a life changing experience; yet, in this case, it is more of a cooking class and a forum to encourage violence. Many ex-prisoners, recalling the time they spent behind bars, speak of terrorist recruitment drives and meetings to plan the next attacks. I’ve read incredible stories of preachers of fanaticism allowed into prisoners in the West because of laws that allow religious guidance when incarcerated. These sheikhs brainwashed prisoners and selected a few men they believe were ripe to convert to their version of Islam and support violence.

Ironically, many criminals who were imprisoned for robbery and physical violence later became peddlers of extremist ideologies. Many of al Qaeda’s members developed their religious fanaticism in jail, not in mosques or religious institutions. This is a clear indictment of guards who have, perhaps purposefully, turned a blind eye to the increasing popularity of fundamentalism in prisons. It is worth mentioning that the criminal system had encouraged religious teachings, believing that it will reform prisoners. Regrettably, this guidance wasn’t monitored, resulting in a spread of extremism.

Prisoners are easily corrupted by fundamentalist ideologies because, in the majority of cases, those behind bars are dissatisfied with society and their respective upbringing. Their criminal provides the background for a life of violence and terror. In addition, the lack of education means prisoners are unable to comprehend the fundamentalist ideology they are taught behind bars is anathema to the teachings of Islam.

An acquaintance of mine, imprisoned years ago, once told me, “Despite being an avid book reader and being interested in a wide range of subjects, I’ve never read books by Sayyid Qutub denouncing infidels except when incarcerated.” He indicated guards never fully appreciated the danger of extremist literature spreading amongst prisoners, regarding them, instead, as religious books calling for the worship of God and cleansing of one’s soul. The guards also respected every prisoner who embraced religion and shunned his criminal past. This is no surprise as the wider society views religious men as trustworthy, wise, and knowledgeable. While this might have been the case in the past, nowadays, many religious beliefs promote hatred and extremism.

Abu Musab al Zarqawi is one of those criminals who embraced religion whilst serving time in prison. The Jordanian terrorist turned away from his criminal past and subscribed to fundamentalist ideologies that promote terrorism. He is an example of how far extremists can go, when terrorists who claim to defend religion attack and kill innocent people. Zarqawi remains a criminal by nature who is plying his trade wrapped in a religious extremist shroud.