For those of us living in freedom, it is easy to forget that there are more than 10.35 million people incarcerated worldwide, with the majority of them – over 2.2 million – being in the United States. These prisoners may be out of sight and out of mind, but studying them and where they come from is important because prison statistics provide a deeper understanding of how well various ethnicities and religious groups integrate into society.
Muslims Grossly Overrepresented in Prisoner Population
One of the startling facts about the prison population in the West is that the number of Muslim inmates is disproportionately large compared with other immigrant groups and the wider society. According to the latest available data, Muslims are only about 1 percent of the US population, but they make up about 9% of state prisoners and as many as 12 percent of federal prisoners. This means out of the more than 1.3 million state prisoners and roughly 200,000 federal inmates in the American prison system, approximately 141,000 are Muslims. Interestingly, of the 1.5 million names in the FBI’s Terrorism Screening Database, 98 percent, or roughly 1.47 million, are Muslim names.
In contrast, Hindus, who are also around 1 percent of America’s population, comprise just 0.2 percent of the prison population. Putting it differently, Muslim immigrants have a much higher propensity for crime than other communities, whereas Hindus are one of the least crime-prone communities.
This seems to hold true consistently across the globe.
For instance, across the border in Canada, Muslims are 4.9 percent of the total population, yet they comprise 6 percent of the adult population in correctional services. In comparison, Hindus, around 2.3 percent of the population, are the lowest contributor to prisons at 0.2 percent.
In France, an estimated 50 percent of prisoners are Muslims, despite the followers of Islam being only 8-10 percent of the country’s population. A Brookings Institution report says: “Muslims are greatly overrepresented in prisons, and within the 18- to 24-year-old age group in particular, they make up only 8.5 percent of that age cohort in France, yet 39.9 percent of all prisoners in the cohort.”
France is not the only country in Europe with a serious problem with Muslims integrating themselves into society. In Britain, Muslims comprise 4 percent of the population, but their numbers in prison have reached a record high, with nearly one in five prisoners now followers of the Islamic faith. According to a report provided to the British Parliament, 18 percent of prisoners in England and Wales recorded their religion as Islam in 2021.
In London, the figure is a shocking 27 percent, more than double the 12 percent of the capital’s Muslim population. In two prisons, Feltham and (the ironically named) Isis, a third of the inmates are Muslim. Half of the top British prisons with the highest Muslim populations are in London, including Belmarsh (29 percent), Brixton (24 percent), Pentonville (28 percent), Thameside (25 percent), and Wormwood Scrubs (27 percent). By contrast, while Hindus represent 2 percent of the population in the UK, only 0.4 percent of prisoners identified as Hindu, the lowest of any religious cohort. In 2021, there were just 329 Hindus in British prisons.
In Europe’s largest country, Germany, which accepted a whopping 750,000 Muslim refugees in 2015 alone, the Muslim population now stands at more than six million, or 7 percent of the overall population of 82 million. By contrast, roughly 20 percent of the 65,000 inmates in the German prison system are Muslim, according to data collected from regional justice ministries.
In the city-states of Bremen and Hamburg, the proportion of Muslims among the prison inmates is particularly high at 29 and 28 percent; even large federal states such as Hesse and Baden-Württemberg report a high proportion of Muslims at 26 percent.
A similar picture emerges in next-door Austria, where 22 percent of the inmates are Muslim, compared with 8 percent of the total population.
Down under, the story is the same. A 2015 report in The Australian stated that Muslims made up 9 percent of prisoners but just 3 percent of the general population. In Victoria, 8 percent of the prison population identified as Muslim (versus 2.2 percent). By 2018, the proportion of Muslims in the prison population had increased to 10.3 percent, while the community formed 4 percent of Australia’s total population.
Is poverty the reason?
The Muslim Council of Britain admits the number of Muslims in British prison is an “unwelcome social reality” but claims that offending was more common among younger and poorer people, which are “both factors affecting Muslims in the UK.”
Zubaida Haque, a researcher on race disparity for equality think-tank, The Runnymede Trust, who has studied the experience of ethnic minority men in prisons, says poverty is a major factor in explaining why so many Muslims are in prison, to begin with.
While it is true poverty is a big contributor to crime globally, it doesn’t explain why poor Hindu immigrants don’t embark upon careers in crime. The vast majority of Hindus who migrated to the West arrived virtually penniless. The Ugandan Hindus, for instance, had lost everything after being expelled by dictator Idi Amin. Yet, today those Hindus are part of thriving British communities, and one of them, Rishi Sunak, is now the Prime Minister of Britain.
A major driver of Muslims into prisons is the increasing number of the faithfuls dabbling in extremist activity, including terrorism. As far back as 2006, a British official warned that one of Britain’s highest-profile jails –Belmarsh maximum security jail in London – could barely cope with the deluge of Muslim inmates facing terrorism charges. Said the then-Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers: “The prison’s high security and special security units were at full stretch, holding, among others, those suspected of the failed suicide bomb attempts of July.” Her report also raised concerns about the intimidatory behavior of some of the younger Muslim prisoners.
Is the unprecedented increase in immigrants from a particular region or community causing a law-and-order problem in the West, thus contributing to these immigrants ending up in prison?
Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes in her book ‘Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Human Rights’, that alongside the increase in arrivals to Europe, sexual violence has proliferated on the continent. “Between 2017 and 2018, there was a 17 percent increase in instances of rape and a 20 percent increase in other forms of sexual assault in France. In French public places, 3 million women have experienced unwanted sexual attention and advances. In Germany in 2017, the number of victims of ‘sexual coercion’ rose by 41 percent.”
Hirsi Ali reminds readers of the 2015 New Year’s Eve incident in Cologne, after which 661 women reported to the police that they had been sexually harassed by hundreds of Arab, African, and foreign-looking people. The attacks were carried out by groups of young men ambushing lone women. While such gang rape is condemned and viewed as socially unacceptable in Europe, Hirsi Ali argues that in Muslim societies, it is a commonly reported phenomenon, and it is called taharrush gamea in Arabic or the rape game.
Hirsi Ali says [Muslim] immigrant men commit these crimes not because they feel oppressed or disenfranchised in Europe, but because in the countries they come from, they get away with such crimes and believe they can do the same in Europe as well.
Again, the UK’s “grooming gang” scandal is a phenomenon that the American media have almost entirely ignored. The scandal has affected thousands of young girls, who were “groomed” by [Muslim] men from mainly Pakistani communities for sexual abuse, prompting a senior official to acknowledge that “cultural reasons” could be at play in the behavior of perpetrators.
Radicalisation in prisons
The radicalization of inmates in Western prisons is another serious problem. According to a study funded by the US Department of Justice, ‘Terrorist Recruitment in American Correctional Institutions: An Exploratory Study of Nontraditional Faith Groups,’ there are cases where religion has been used for breeding terrorists. For example, Kevin Lamar James recruited more than a dozen fellow prisoners into a terrorist group called Jam’iyyat UiIslam Is-Saheeh (JIS). James convinced these men that his interpretation of the Koran (called the JIS Protocol) was the true version. Members of JIS were also recruited outside prison walls. Prospective JIS members outside the prison were instructed to blend into society by marrying, getting a job, dressing casually, and needed to acquire two pistols with silencers and learn how to make bombs. These men were later instructed to attack government agencies and military stations throughout the US.
Michael Radu, a terrorism analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says the cycle of “criminality and Islamism” is closed when radicalized ex-prisoners re-engage in terrorist activity. Two of the men involved in the 2004 Madrid train bombings fit that mold. Incarcerated for petty crimes, Trashorras, who was a nominal Christian, and Jamal Ahmidan, a nonobservant Muslim, were both indoctrinated into radical Islam in prison and joined an al-Qaida-linked Moroccan group that used drug trafficking to fund terrorist activities before taking lead roles in the bombings that killed 193 commuters.
Richard Reid, known as the ‘shoe-bomber,’ who attempted to blow up an American Airlines flight between Paris and Miami in 2001, also converted to Islam while serving time for a string of muggings.
A survey of prison chaplains in all 50 US states by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that a sizable minority of chaplains say that religious extremism is very common (12%) or somewhat common (29%) among inmates. Religious extremism is reported as especially common among Muslim inmates.
In 2021 the UK’s Ministry of Justice published research findings that showed that more prisoners convert to Islam than any other faith and that some convert in order to join faith-based gangs in their prison. In some cases, non-Muslims were threatened with violence if they refused to convert. The researchers said: “Becoming Muslim while in custody was often seen as a mechanism for surviving in prison either through the comfort and support that religion could offer, through protection, friendship, and support from fellow Muslims, or as an opportunity to engage in gang behavior by associating with the Muslim criminal gang.”