Staunton, November 16 – Prisons in many countries have often become seedbeds for radicalism, but rarely have those in charge done more to make that so that the Russian Federal Penal Service, which is now putting materials on jihad in prison libraries in the mistaken hope that learning more about radical Islam will dissuade prisoners from turning to it.
As Yekaterina Trifonova of Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out, those in charge of Russian prisons believe that “having found out more details about non-traditional trends in [Islam], prisoners will more rarely fall under the influence of extremist groups,” a conviction that is at best naïve and may be extremely dangerous.
The Russian penal system has reached an agreement with the Foundation for the Support of Islamic Culture and Education to provide books for prison libraries with titles like “Salafism. A View from the Inside,” “Salafism. Briefly about the Main Thing,” and “A Scientific Understanding of Jihad.”
According to one official, “the criminal milieu is a favorable source for recruiting people into the ranks of extremists. Some convicts during their incarceration may become followers of radicalism because they see in its postulates a similarity with the ideology of the criminal world.” That is all the more likely as the number of people behind bars for extremist crimes grows.
And their numbers are rising: At present there are 40 percent more people in Russian prisons for radicalism than there were only two years ago.
While most specialists say that the provision of materials on radical Islam is a logical step, some of them say that the whole program is not working as the authorities intend. Teyub Sharifov, a lawyer, for example, says that prisoners who read such pamphlets and books may draw conclusions exactly the reverse to those the authorities want them to.
If a prisoner reads about the fight between the Salafis and the Russian police, who, Sharifov asks, is the prisoner likely to identify with – and perhaps decide that he shares the same values as others who are fighting the powers that be?
The decision of the Russian penal authorities to provide books and pamphlets on radical Islam to prisoners is especially striking given that last year these same authorities banned books by Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Lermontov because of the battle scenes these two great Russian writers offer.
Another expert, Mikhail Remizov of the Moscow Institute of National Strategy says that the penal officials are fighting a losing battle. Today, he reports, many radical Muslims are getting themselves incarcerated precisely because they believe they can recruit jihadists more easily inside prison walls than outside.
For officials to provide Muslim literature, he suggests, runs the risk that they will end by helping the jihadists rather than restraining them. According to Remizov, the only way that will work is to follow the example of European countries and separate Muslims from other prisoners and treat them as a special case.
Aleksey Malashenko, one of Russia’s leading specialists on contemporary Islam, says that the problem of Islamist extremism in prisoners has been critical since the 1990s. As the authorities have arrested more people they classify as extremists, the number of prisoners seeking to recruit others to that banner has risen as well.
Human rights specialist Lev Ponomarev, however, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that in his view, “the role of religious literature in prisons is strongly exaggerated.” What the penal authorities are doing is no more than what other Russian officials are doing with regard to the population outside prison walls.
A second human rights activist, Vladimir Osechkin, provides another perspective. He points out that the penal authorities are going to have a difficult time determining which prisoners are doing what and why. Some Tajiks incarcerated for drug trafficking are in fact Islamist radicals and “some of them assert that jihad is a holy war against Russia.”