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Friday, 28 December, 2001, 11:00 GMT
Preaching caution in prisons
Home secretary David Blunkett visits a prison
Should David Blunkett worry about jailhouse militants?
The British man accused of trying to blow up an transatlantic airliner became a Muslim while in a UK prison. Are such institutions a breeding ground for a potentially violent brand of Islamic extremism?

Adul Haqq Baker, leader of the Brixton mosque where alleged "shoe bomber" Richard Reid worshipped, has said Islamic militants are seeking a captive audience - quite literally.

UK prisons are allowing their inmates to listen to Islamic speakers deemed too radical for Mr Baker's mosque, he says.

The number of Muslims held behind bars in the UK has more than doubled in the last decade, making Islam the second largest and fastest growing faith in our prisons.

Adul Haqq Baker
Some prison speakers are 'too radical' for Brixton mosque
"There's a potential problem," said Mr Baker, calling for better screening of guest lecturers.

Richard Reid, now held in the US after allegedly trying to bring down an airliner with a bomb hidden in his shoe, did indeed convert to Islam while being held at Feltham Young Offender Institution.

However, his interest in those preaching a more extreme version of Islam is said to have been sparked after he left custody.

Faith behind bars

Professor David Wilson, a former prison governor who has studied the lives of the 4,200 registered Muslims incarcerated in the UK, says he has seen no evidence of extremist recruiting.

This despite a prison system which he says is struggling to cater for the religious needs of Muslim convicts. A recent report by Mr Wilson found some of the 130 imams appointed by the Home Office regularly faced humiliating or racist treatment.

Richard Reid in US custody
Did Reid's terror plot begin in jail too?
"Far from experiencing extremism, I was struck by how the imams were facing up to intolerable conditions. They fulfil a tremendous role."

Mr Wilson says the growth of the Muslim prison population has not been adequately matched by a diversification of a chaplaincy largely geared towards Anglicanism.

It required 10 years' of campaigning to see the appointment of the Prison Service's first Muslim advisor, Maqsood Ahmed, in 1999.

"You do notice a real esprit de corps or solidarity among Muslim prisoners as they struggle to transcend the difficulties they meet in practising their religion. But it would be a step too far to describe that as extremism."

Scrutinising sermons

Nonetheless, the views of prison imams are subject to intense scrutiny, particularly since the terror attacks on America, says Martin Narey, the director general of the prison service.

"We watch very carefully the behaviour of imams. Two have been suspended in the last few months because they have made inappropriate comments about September the 11th."

HM Prison Whitemoor
Extremism is also being kept out
The head of one UK Muslim prison charity told BBC News Online even these suspensions - one at the very prison where Richard Reid found Islam - were not indicative of extremism creeping into jails.

He described one of the suspended imams as a young man of "very good character and certainly not a fundamentalist. It must be a case of misunderstanding or misquoting".

As well as tackling the problems highlighted by Professor Wilson's report, the charity leader - who asked not to be named - said security checks on imams had also greatly improved since the appointment of Mr Narey's Muslim advisor.

Preaching caution

"You certainly can't invite every Tom, Dick and Harry off the street to speak. Imams undergo a security check and their qualifications are inspected by Mr Ahmed."

While the value of encouraging convicts to explore faith is measured in reduced rates of reoffending, prison converts such as Richard Reid are rare and said to be viewed with caution even by imams.

Boxer Mike Tyson leaves prison
Mike Tyson's jail conversion inspires some
Non-Muslims are often even more dismissive of those who find Allah while serving time. A recent press report about the conversion of a convicted rapist, suggested the convict's "enlightenment" may have been motivated by a desire "to be given halal meat at mealtimes".

The reputation of prison converts was further tarnished by the claims of the notorious Scottish convict John Cronin that he had become a Muslim.

"If someone comes into Islam their past is wiped out and they start a new life," said a local Muslim leader. "It is good to ask for forgiveness but better is the one who makes a mistake and asks for forgiveness."

Cronin was arrested by Irish police in November following an armed raid on a bank.

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