Muslim convicts in British prisons. AFP

Muslim convicts in British prisons. AFP

The independent reviewer of terrorist legislation, Jonathan Hall QC Jonathan Hall QC,  said in his report "Terrorism in Prisons" that prisons should not provide militants with opportunities to plan new terrorist attacks. He concluded that the Prison Service "has lost its role in national efforts to reduce the risk of terrorism."

According to Hall, the influence of Islamist groups in prisons has been underestimated. And the discussion of religion, and Islam in particular, has become a "no-go zone" for prison staff. The report says that instead of fighting extremist ideas in prisons, employees sometimes use leaders or "emirs" to maintain order.

According to him, there was not nationwide "toolbar" where it would be possible to indicate where Islamist gangs are operating or gaining strength in the penitentiary system.

Prisons are an ideal place to cultivate Islamists. In places of detention, there is a process of transferring experience to newcomers. Islamists are getting stronger ideologically, structural ties are being built. For example, the former leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Zarqawi, finally ideologically took shape when he found himself in prison with one of the ideologists of modern radical Islamism, al-Maqdisi.

Pascal Meichlos, director of the French National Security Agency, says that about 100 active Islamists take into circulation those petty criminals who have decided to find themselves in religion. According to French intelligence services, radical Islamists are conducting an active proselytizing policy in prisons. Thus, in 2005, 175 cases of the emergence of radical Islamist cells were recorded in 168 prisons in the country (there are 188 prisons in France in total), and 30% are spontaneously emerging cells, 20% are cells that arise under pressure from cellmates in order to follow a certain direction in Islam.

In prisons, there is a steady increase in people following radical Islamist ideology, categorically rejecting the Western system of values, and calling for violence as the only way to achieve their goals. The French authorities have been monitoring this dangerous trend since the mid-1990s, when the number of radical Islamists who committed terrorist attacks, who were prisoners in the past, increased.

The combined actions of crime and radical Islam were noted during the riots in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and finally, in January 2022 in Kazakhstan.

In Azerbaijan, cases of pairing of criminals and Islamic radicals have become public knowledge in the past as a result of information leakage from places of detention, when an institute of emirs was established in one correctional institution, or a politicized Islamic organization was launched.

It is not known for certain how the situation is today in Azerbaijani correctional institutions due to the closeness of these institutions. But the fact that the number of practicing believers is growing rapidly in correctional institution is no longer a secret.

Many people who profess Islam in Azerbaijani correctional institutions  do not pose a danger. The overwhelming majority of Muslims, both inside and outside the Islamic Republic, peacefully profess their faith and adhere to the principles of Islam that promote peace, justice, and compassion.

It is extremely important to approach the topic of Islam in Azerbaijani correctional institutions with nuances and not to make broad generalizations or assumptions about the beliefs or behavior of all persons professing Islam in this context. It is also important to understand the complexities of the criminal justice system, the diversity of backgrounds and motivations of prisoners, as well as the role that religion can play in their lives.

Azerbaijani Islam through the prism of correctional institutions

Azerbaijan is a predominantly Muslim country, the majority of the population adheres to Shiite Islam, which is the dominant branch of Islam in the country. Thus, it is quite possible that persons in Azerbaijani prisons who identify themselves as Muslims can find solace and a sense of belonging to their faith by professing it during their imprisonment.

Religion can sometimes play a role in the rehabilitation and re-education of prisoners. This can give them a sense of purpose, morality, and guidance, and can also serve as a means of positive change and transformation in their lives.

For some prisoners, Islam can provide a sense of community, support, and emotional solace during their time in prison. This can provide them with companionship, a support network, and a structure to their daily lives that can be appealing to those who may feel isolated or marginalized in prison.

The growing influence of Islam in Azerbaijan's correctional institutions may also be influenced by external factors, such as religious leaders or organizations that actively participate in outreach programs or provide religious materials and support to prisoners. These efforts could help spread Islamic beliefs and customs among prisoners.

The individual reasons for the growing influence of Islam in Azerbaijani universities may be different. Some prisoners may sincerely convert to Islam because of personal beliefs, spiritual quest, or desire for change. Others may see it as a way to gain protection, privileges, or other benefits in a prison environment.

In the context of correctional institutions, some individuals who become practicing believers may be attracted to radical interpretations of religion that promote violent or extremist ideologies. These individuals may hold extremist views or engage in illegal activities in the name of Islam, posing a potential threat to the protection of the prison environment, as well as to society as a whole.

The specific reasons for the growing influence of Islam in Azerbaijani  correctional institutions  can be complex and multifaceted, and a more in-depth analysis of the social, cultural, religious, and political dynamics in Azerbaijan will be required to fully understand this phenomenon.

Religion and Crime

Religion can influence criminal groups and the situation in the correctional institutions in various aspects. However, the relationship between religion and crime is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, and it can vary depending on specific circumstances and context.

The influence of religion on criminal groups can manifest itself in the form of the use of religious beliefs and symbols to legitimize and justify their criminal actions. Uncontrolled distortion or extremist interpretation of religious teachings can serve as a basis for the formation of ideology and motivation of criminal organizations, such as terrorist groups, nationalist or separatist movements, sects, and other illegal organizations.

The religious situation in correctional institutions

A separate aspect of religious influence on crime is related to the religious situation in the  correctional institutions. There may be religious groups or communities that can influence the behavior of prisoners. Religion can be a source of comfort, support, identification, and solidarity for prisoners, especially in conditions of limited freedom and lack of other resources. However, in some cases, religious groups in prisons can also encourage radicalization, extremism, violence, or other illegal actions.

Criminal communities can use religion in various ways. Here are some examples:

Justification and legitimization. Criminal groups can use religion to justify their actions and legitimize their existence. They may attribute religious significance to their actions, presenting them as fulfilling the "divine will" or following a "higher commission". This can help them attract new members, provide support within the community, and achieve social recognition based on religious identity.

Financing. Religious communities can serve as a source of financing for criminal communities. Criminals can use religious organizations, mosques, to collect money, launder money or invest in legal or illegal businesses. This may allow them to finance their criminal operations and maintain their activities under the cover of religious activities.

Abuse of believers. Criminal groups can abuse believers by forcing them to participate in illegal activities or exploiting them. For example, they may recruit young people or vulnerable people from religious communities to perform illegal tasks, such as violence, drug trafficking, smuggling and human trafficking, using their religious beliefs or promises of religious protection.

Control and management. Criminal groups can use religion as a tool to control and manage their members and communities. They can establish their own religious rules and rituals to maintain discipline, loyalty, and submission to their leaders. This may also include using religious dogmas and ideologies to create and maintain an internal hierarchy, as well as manipulating religion.

There are several factors that may contribute to the expected growth of this interaction:

Socio-economic factors. Economic and social inequality, lack of opportunities and marginalization can create fertile ground for radical ideologies to take root. In some cases, people who feel excluded from mainstream society or face economic challenges may be vulnerable to recruitment by criminal networks or extremist groups that offer financial incentives, protection, or a sense of belonging.

Political instability. Regions suffering from political instability, conflicts, and poor governance can create favorable conditions for radical ideologies to flourish. Criminal networks can take advantage of the chaos to engage in illegal activities such as smuggling, human trafficking and money laundering, which can provide funding and resources to support extremist ideologies.

Some extremist groups that claim to act in the name of Islam exploit vulnerable individuals, including Muslims, and manipulate them into committing terrorist acts. These groups use ideological and religious rhetoric to radicalize individuals and recruit them to conduct their violent designs.

The interaction between radical Islam and crime can also cause erosion of social cohesion within communities. Criminal activity conducted by individuals or groups claiming to be motivated by radical Islamic beliefs can sow fear, distrust, and suspicion among various religious, ethnic, and cultural groups. This can lead to social division, polarization, and destruction of social relations, which can have long-term negative consequences for social harmony and stability.

Overwhelming majority of Muslims do not adhere to radical or extremist ideologies and do not engage in criminal activities. However, the interaction between radical Islam and crime can pose significant risks and challenges to public safety, stability and cohesion and requires close attention and effective responses from law enforcement agencies, politicians, and communities.

Export of the Iranian religious model

Since Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991, there have been numerous cases where Iran has sought to expand its influence here, especially in areas with a large Azerbaijani Shiite population, such as the southern regions of Azerbaijan.

Iran has used various means to spread its religious and political influence in Azerbaijan, including through cultural and educational exchanges, religious propaganda, economic investments, and diplomatic relations.

One of the areas where Iran has sought to exert influence is the promotion of Shiite Islam and the strengthening of ties with the Shiite population of Azerbaijan. Iran has supported the establishment of Shiite religious institutions, including mosques, religious schools, and cultural centers in Azerbaijan. Iran has also provided scholarships to Azerbaijani students to study at Iranian universities, which may contribute to the spread of Iranian religious and cultural influence.

Another area where Iran has sought to exert influence is the political sphere. Iran has sought to develop close political ties with Azerbaijan, especially with political groups or individuals who may sympathize with Iranian interests. This may include diplomatic visits, trade agreements and joint economic projects. Iran has also sought to use its energy resources, such as natural gas, to deepen its economic ties with Azerbaijan, which could have political consequences.

It is important to note that Azerbaijan, as a sovereign state, has its own interests and policies, and they may not always coincide with the interests of Iran. Azerbaijan pursues a policy of preserving its independence and balancing its relations with various regional and international powers, including Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Western countries. Azerbaijan has also always sought to develop its own cultural and religious identity, which may not necessarily correspond to Iranian influence.

Not everyone agrees with this in Iran. It is no coincidence that the Iranian criminal and religious trail was highlighted in high-profile political murders, such as the murders of academician Zia Bunyatov in February 1997, and publicist Rafik Taghi in November 2011. In the light of the recent aggravation of Azerbaijani-Iranian relations, public calls are growing for the resumption of the investigation of the Tagi case, whose killers have not yet been found.

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