By Marie Barse
Prisoners expressing radical views are to be deprived of privileges such as visitors, and will be isolated so they cannot influence others. That is, at least, according to the Danish Government’s counter-terrorism package passed in February 2015.
The hope is that it will prevent future incidences like that of Omar El-Hussein, who shot and killed two people and wounded police officers in Copenhagen earlier this year. One of the victims had just participated in a debate about cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed. The other was a Jewish guard at a synagogue in Copenhagen.
However, this strategy to stop radicalisation in prisons may well have the opposite effect of what it intends to achieve, warns Linda Kjær Minke, Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Southern Denmark.
She spent over 1,000 hours in a closed prison in 2006 and 2007 studying the prison culture and how prisoners socialise and adapt to life behind bars. To fight fire with fire risks creating further radicalisation, she says.
“Isolation confirms their view that society is unfair and that it exerts total power over them. Sitting alone with only themselves and their thoughts, whilst simultaneously feeling that they are being treated worse than other inmates, can reinforce the process of radicalisation. It is a strategy that sets the stage for further isolation,” says Minke.
A study from the Philippines in 2012, published in the scientific journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, also showed several examples where isolated prisoners earned a level of martyrdom-status.
Research on anti-radicalisation missing
Evidence suggests that the crackdown chosen by the politicians may not work. But what are the other options?
“It’s a really good question. It’s really hard, and we do not know much about it,” says Minke, who explains that there has not been enough research in this area.
Moreover, she suggests, radicalisation is a political term that does not have a scientific definition. She says that, on the contrary, experience suggests that inclusion, education, and meaningful activities, provide a fair way to avoid both radicalisation and criminalisation of prisoners.
“It’s also important that they have someone suitable to talk with, someone that they can rely on. It could, for example, be an Imam or a person from another religious denomination,” she points out.
The Danish government has nevertheless chosen to focus on isolation. The government’s anti-radicalisation plan was adopted one month before the anti-terrorism package, which had also excluded Imams from the fight against radicalisation.
Prisons are full of marginalised people
There is no doubt that it is important to look at prisons in relation to radicalisation. Inmates, who are already on the outskirts of society, are often marginalised and, according to Minke, are considered to be at risk of becoming radicalised.
“An important common feature for people in prison is that they are all marginalised and often seek an identity for themselves. At the same time, prison can be a cruel world. Some will seek protection in groups that can also be rooted in radicalised religion. International research has found that the rules of these groups will be a mix of gang rules and religious rules,” she says.
Minke suggests that prisons play a role in both radicalisation and criminalisation of the inmates.
“The prison population is already separated from society. They are marginalised and need to find some meaning in life. Research shows that it is thus important to be aware of the role prisons play in further marginalising these people,” she says.
Is anger towards society the same as radicalisation?
Although prisons are aware of the behaviour of the inmates and keep an eye on those who express radical ideas, it is very difficult to determine who will actually commit crime upon release.
Minke sent questionnaires to nearly 1,700 inmates as part of her study of prison culture.
“Some people wrote what could be interpreted as radicalised views. One writes, for example, that he feels put down by Danish society. He feels a victim in a big game where the police have all the power and come down hard upon all Muslims. According to him, God’s wrath will pour down on society,” she says.
This may sound radical, but is someone with these views really a threat to society?
“Even if you’re talking about it in prison, few would actually try to overthrow society when they get out. With Omar El-Hussein – the gunman who killed two people and wounded five at a cultural centre and synagogue in the Danish capital – we do not know what prompted him to act as he did, but it is unlikely that he was radicalised in prison,” she says.
A term used too lightly
Scientists believe that the challenge to prevent radicalisation is further hindered by the way in which the term is used so broadly today.
“The problem is that the concept of radicalisation today is used to describe individuals rather than processes. We use it as a sort of diagnosis, but it has no scientific foundation to stand on. It’s a problem if we then base policy actions on these perceptions. We’re acting in blindness and making strategies that might worsen the situation,” she says.
As a society, we need to explain why young men, who grew up Denmark, suddenly have a desire to overturn society.
It is easy to label them as radicalised, suggests Gemmerli. It provides a simple explanation of something that is otherwise inexplicable; but, in fact, it precludes us from understanding what underlies their thoughts and actions.
Violence and radicalisation are linked
Both researchers emphasise that radicalisation does not have any special relationship with Islam. There are many examples of Christians becoming radicalised and of radicalisation taking place across the political spectrum from extreme left- and right-wing groups.
Minke and Gemmerli both mention the Red Army Faction in Germany as an example of a group that underwent radicalisation. The extreme left-wing group wanted to overthrow the capitalist society through a violent revolution.
“The group members didn’t see themselves as criminals, even though they killed people. They believed that their struggle was justified because it would overthrow the capitalist society. They saw themselves as victims of the capitalist system,” says Minke.
Red Army Faction accurately fit the definition of radicalisation, as a group that begins to accept the use of violence and even killing to transform society. They did not adhere to or respect the laws of Germany, believing that killing was fair when it was part of the overall struggle to overthrow capitalism.
Democracy should accommodate radical views
Radical views do not automatically mean that an individual or group are radicalised and dangerous, according to Gemmerli. As an example, he mentions Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamic party in Denmark whose goal is to establish a caliphate.
“If they are to undergo radicalisation, they must be ready to be violent, and they are not. They comply with the country’s laws, even if they do not recognise them, and they do not subscribe to the overthrowing of democracy through violence,” he said.
The Danish Government’s initiatives to prevent radicalisation and de-radicalise individuals, may themselves be undemocratic, suggests Gemmerli.
“We need a discussion about how to include criticisms of society into society. Do we believe there’s room for radical views in our democracy – or do we believe that even considering these views could destroy society?” he poses.^