Interview: France

‘Basement imams’ spreading radical Islamism, Muslim prison chaplain warns

The entrance to Fleury-Mérogis prison
The entrance to Fleury-Mérogis prison AFP/Mehdi Fedouach

In the wake of last month’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, the French government is trying to tackle Islamist radicalisation in prisons. More than half of France’s 70,000 prisoners are Muslim, served by 182 chaplains, leading to a promise to recruit 60 more. But one chaplain, Mohammed Boina M’Koubou, is not sure that will be enough.


Boina M’Koubou visits the Fleury Mérogis prison twice a week.

Like anyone trying to enter the complex, some 20 kilometres south of Paris, he must pass through a lot of security. After the checkpoints, he goes by the office to say hello to the staff on duty and to his mailbox, where he picks up a list of the Muslim prisoners who have signed up to worship.

He has been leading prayer sessions at Fleury Mérogis since 2006. On Wednesday and Friday afternoons he lays out carpets in a multi-purpose room and waits for the guards to bring inmates to pray.

Boina M’Koubou started studying the Koran as a young boy in his native Comoros. He came to France in 1960, but did not study to become an imam until after he retired in 2001. He spent four years at the training institute at the Paris mosque.

Wearing a suit jacket and jeans, a skullcap on his head, he is speaking in a cafe in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine, ready to go to the hospital, where he spends several hours a week as a chaplain. The other days of the week he goes to Fleury Mérogis, where he works with the younger detainees, those 35 years old or younger.

Prisoners are given a form when they first enter where they can indicate their religion.

“At the top of the paper it says he you have the right to practice your religion,” explains the imam.

The majority are Muslim and they “have the right to have religious objects, a rug, a hat, etcetera”, he adds. They have the right to pray, collectively or individually, and they “have a right to meet with a Muslim chaplain at any time”.

But he cannot meet with everyone. Fleury Mérogis is the largest prison in Europe with 4,000 detainees, although it was built for 2,800. Security regulations limit the imam to seeing only 23 people at a time and he is only there for a few hours a week.

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Boina M’Koubou says most Muslim prisoners are already practising but others discover religion behind bars.

“Those people need to be taught,” he says. They need learn the Koran, the pillars of Islam, even how to pray. “There are even those who don’t know how to do the ablutions [ritual washing],” he says. “You cannot pray if you have not done the ablutions.”

Until a few years ago, he didn’t even think about the issue of radical Islam in the prison.

“It came up during the Merah affair,” he says.

In 2012 Mohammed Merah killed three soldiers and four people at a Jewish school around Toulouse, in southern France. He’s believed to have turned to Salafism, a radical form of Islam, while serving short prison terms.

Boina M’Koubou says he has little, if any, contact with prisoners who recruit people like Merah.

“It’s not written on their faces, that so-and-so is a radical!” he insists. “When they see that I am moderate, that I am teaching Islam of France, they do not come to my prayer sessions.”

And he cannot force them, though he would like those with “dark ideas” to be required to come, to come pray with him.

Recruiting additional prison imams could help, he says. But they must be trained and that is something that is lacking.

“Our Muslim high authorities are considerably behind,” he says, pointing to the difficulty of recruiting and training people to be imams.

He also insists that the issue of radicalisation cannot be solved only by prison chaplains: “Often they are radicalised outside, once they leave prison.”

Prison destroys people, he says, and ex-convicts find themselves in difficult circumstances. If they are not supported – if they cannot find work, a place to live and a supportive community - they are very susceptible to “basement imams who take in abandoned prisoners”.

To counteract this, Boina M’Koubou is firm on the need for religious education. He sees many Muslims who have never learned the Koran, so when they are faced with radical versions of Islam they have no terms of reference to counter them.

He has started a weekly Koranic school for children in Ivry-sur-Seine, where he lives, as “prevention”.

“If you want a long-term solution, you need to provide the resources,” he says, for people before, during and after prison.

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