Staunton, August 9 – Many governments around the world have been concerned about the way in which they believe Islamist radicals confined to prison use their time to spread their message to others and have concluded that the best way to prevent that is to confine the radicals in a special camp consisting only of others like themselves.
Such an approach may address one aspect of the problem, Eldar Zeynalov, the head of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights in Azerbaijan, but it ignores another, the way in which radicals encourage one another and further radicalize each other when they find themselves imprisoned together (echo.az/article.php?aid=87469).
Indeed, many Islamists view their time behind bars as one in which they can deepen their own understanding of the faith, he argues, especially since in prison but often not outside, they are in a position to name their own mullahs who share their radical views and thus become even more committed to an Islamist agenda.
Responding to questions from Baku’s “Ekho” newspaper, Zeynalov says that according to his center, there are at least 329 prisoners who have been convicted of extremist crimes and another 163 who after serving sentences for such actions. He points out that this is “a order more” than the number of secular political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
The rights activist says he opposes segregating the Islamists behind bars into a separate prison not only because that would violate the laws of equal treatment of convicts but also because of what would happen to the Islamist prisoners were the government to take that step, a step which he points out the Islamists themselves would welcome.
Obviously, for the Islamists and for ordinary Muslim prisoners as well, Zeynalov continues, the prison regime is unwelcome at one level in many ways: there are rules about wearing beards, praying after lights out, corresponding with those beyond the prison gates, and having more than ten books and magazines in the cell.
But at another level, he continues, such restrictions add to the Islamist prisoner the conviction that he has been jailed because he is on the right course; and he is thus quite willing to act in ways that will get him sent to the Gobustan prison where others of like mind are being punished for protesting against these limits.
Life in the penal institutions of Azerbaijan is not as many imagine it to be, Zeynalov says. Prisoners can and do associate with each other at meals, games or during walks. Moreover, he notes, “during the day, they have unobstructed access to mosques which now exist in all penal colonies.”
In these mosques behind bars, he reports, there is all kinds of literature, audio and visual materials and the opportunity for join prayers and conversations. What there isn’t is a mullah or imam who has passed attestation by the Muslim spiritual directorate or the state. Instead, prisoners themselves assume that role.
That has consequences: it means at a minimum, that those Islamists who are in prison and who often know more about their faith than others acquire particular authority.
In support of his argument, Zeynalov cites the words of one Islamist to the Azadkheber.az site about his experiences of being imprisoned: “I am proud,” the man said, “that I became ‘a hijab hostage,’ and we will continue the struggle … Inside the colony, our situation is very good. We all pray under the leadership of our spiritual leader haji Tale.”
“After being confined in prison,” the Islamist continued, “our spirit rose a hundred times. We always were filled with joy that we were prisoners of the school of the Imam Huseyn. After this, we are ready to carry out a struggle with our property and lives for the preservation of the values of Islam.”
Moreover, he said, prison holds no terror for us. “We are ready to spend 15 years or even life in prison … When they brought us to prison, there were ten who prayed, but with the help of our spiritual leader haji Tale, that number grew several times.” The community prayed together regularly and more than once a day.
“My word to all brothers and sisters is as follows,” he concluded, “There is nothing horrible in prison. Some are prisoners while in freedom but others are free in jail.” Thus, arrest and jail which for others is “a tragedy and almost the end of one’s biography” is for Islamists “the logical result of their struggle on the path of jihad.”
Consequently, “the isolation of such Islamists in some special institution won’t lead to their reeducation,” Zeynalov argues. What is needed is “serious ideological work,” and most jailors today aren’t cable of that. Instead, they are corrupt and “illiterate in Islam” and can offer nothing “except the nightstick.”
More to the point, he concludes, “the idea of putting Islamists in a separate prison will only play into the hand of those who consider prison a school of struggle” and who in many cases are more concerned with their own further radicalization than even with radicalizing others.