PARIS – France’s main Muslim organization has appointed its first national chaplain for prisons, an effort to root out the causes of deadly religious extremism and prevent the spread of Islamic militancy behind bars.
Speaking to reporters Friday for the first time since his hiring last week, Moulay El Hassan El Alaoui – a Moroccan-born high school math teacher – said that Muslims make up about half the 56,000 inmates in French jails and that one of his top priorities will be “teaching about how to interpret the Quran.”
The government hopes his selection will help improve religious counseling for imprisoned Muslims, though authorities do not keep figures on the religious affiliation of inmates, in accordance with French laws that guarantee state secularism.
Justice Minister Pascal Clement, who met Friday with El Alaoui, called his appointment “extremely important” and said he would work to “shelter us from militant proselytizing that would be very dangerous for all of France.
“We are responsible for ensuring that our prisons don’t become a hotbed of proselytizing for any religion,” Clement said.
Mostly Catholic France has been trying to come to grips with its growing Muslim community – at 5 million-plus of the nation’s 62 million people, it is the largest in Western Europe.
El Alaoui, formerly prison chaplain near the northern city of Lille, was selected by the French Council of the Muslim Faith to draw up a report over the next three months about the needs of imprisoned Muslims and to nominate regional chaplains.
“It is a heavy responsibility,” El Alaoui told the press after his meeting with the justice minister, adding that he wants to double the number of Muslim chaplains and address inmates’ concerns such as the widespread lack of access to halal meat in prisons.
For years, prison administrators have sought a national contact person for the Muslims, as there are for Roman Catholics and Protestants. Despite the large Muslim prison population, only 66 of the 900 prison chaplains are Muslim, the Justice Ministry said. Clement recounted instances of Catholic priests providing detainees with Qurans.
There was no overarching Muslim organization in France until the French Council of the Muslim Faith was created in 2003. The umbrella organization for the Muslim community, it is the government’s chosen point of contact with Islamic leaders.
Germany, Italy and Spain do not have national Muslim chaplains for prison populations; Britain has a national Muslim adviser for inmates’ religious issues.
French Council of the Muslim Faith head Dalil Boubakeur noted the case of Khaled Kelkal, a Frenchman of Algerian origin behind a wave of deadly bombings in Paris and Lyon in 1995 who later was killed in a police shootout. He adopted Islam while in jail for theft.
Boubakeur said his group was “responding with a high priority to the protection of the community and the French population overall against the slide to this political, violent form of radical Islam.”
The government revisited the issue of religion within the secular state in a landmark 2003 report commissioned by President Jacques Chirac. It noted a shortage of Muslim chaplains not only in prisons but also in public schools, hospitals and the armed forces, where Muslim soldiers’ spiritual needs were sometimes attended to by rabbis.
There are still no Muslim chaplains in the French military, but there are plans to appoint some by the end of the year, the Defense Ministry said.
Jean-Francois Ricard, one of France’s top anti-terrorism judges, told The Associated Press that naming a national Muslim chaplain for prisons is only part of the fight against extremism.
A common worry for authorities is stopping communication between religious extremists behind bars, he said. But even if that is achieved, some inmates with no previous religious ties have became Islamic radicals while in prison, showing the fight against proselytizing is not easy.
“It’s indispensable that there are people who explain their religion and give a different vision than the one given by extremists,” Ricard said in an interview. “It’s good that they are doing it – but there is still a lot left to do.”
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