Prisons, Muslim memory and the making of a terrorist

A man holds a placard reading “I am Charlie” to pay tribute to the victims following a shooting by gunmen at the offices of weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Reuters

The media spotlight on Cherif Kouachi’s life rekindles questions about prisons and radicalization. As an alleged participant of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Kouachi has seemingly led many lives. In one incarnation, he was a marijuana-smoking rapper. Later, he would turn jihadi and find himself jailed, awaiting conviction for jihadist crimes.

Over a decade of research on Islam in prison, I have concentrated on religious conversion and prisoner radicalization – this offers unique insight to Kouachi’s story.

One urgent question is whether jail had anything to do with the attack. Paradoxically, the answer is no – and yes.

Muslim prisoners overrepresented in French jails

For France, Kouachi’s case calls for a close look at its prisons. With a prison population that is, reportedly, 60% Muslim, it is worthwhile to examine what exactly jail had to do with his radicalization.

First, Kouachi’s case suggests imprisonment was the key to explaining what leads an individual to extremism. In his case, however, time spent in jail was the effect of extreme behavior, not the cause of it; for him, jail was merely a pit stop on a journey that started long before.

Others, in contrast, might not participate in extremist activities until well after their release. In such cases, the prison’s impact is nominal. This reality cautions against characterizing an extremist as a case of “prisoner radicalization” just because he spent time in jail.

American misperceptions of radicalization

Such misunderstandings haunt debates in America. For years, top lawmakers have politicized the issue. Representative Peter King has been known to label cases as “prisoner radicalization” with merely proof of incarceration.

In similar fashion, one scholarly book, The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Evolving Terrorist Threat, characterizes Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Adolf Hitler as radicalized prisoners. However, as one critique notes, all three were first-order radicals before imprisonment.

Even the book’s cornerstone study of prisoner radicalization falls prey to this generalization. In this plot, Keven Lamar James planned attacks against Jewish and military targets from his prison cell. Yet James was no stranger to extremes: he carried guns, was in and out of detention facilities, was active in a criminal gang, and convicted of robbery. In his life, prison appears as only incidental to a life of extreme behavior.

Kouachi parallels James in the way he adopted extremism before his own jailing; it is different, however, since animosity toward imprisonment did factor into his radicalization. As one report notes, Kouachi’s path to terrorism took a serious turn after he saw pictures and read accounts of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq. If true, his reaction to the abuse shows that prisons can indeed radicalize, even absent personal experience.

This case presents a different shade of prison radical. As Kouachi was not radicalized in jail, he demonstrates the importance of pre-prison experiences. The fact that his life took a sinister turn because of the mistreatment of prisoners elsewhere cannot be overlooked. His story keeps us vigilant of a prison’s power to exacerbate, rather than alleviate, extremism.

The Muslim experience in France

Moving forward, French officials must avoid the mistakes of their American counterparts. American politicians have been quick to blame foreigners for fomenting prisoner radicalization. This view, however, ignores what Muslims themselves see as the problem: racial and religious discrimination, unfairness in criminal justice, and anti-Muslim foreign policy.

Rather than successful preaching by al-Qaeda, domestic problems are the main catalyst of prisoner radicalization. Americans need no help from abroad – there is plenty of fuel for radicalization at home.

For France and its disproportionately Muslim prison population, the point is worth pondering. With prisons playing such a huge role in the life of Muslims, it is likely to be a locus of conflict for years to come.

The French government’s ability to manage its situation will depend on its grasp of the problem. Understanding prisoner radicalization is always a function of two parties: the watched and the watchers. Any honest assessment of the problem must involve both, lest we ignore what prisons like Abu Ghraib mean to Muslim memory.

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