Italian law enforcement officials have developed a new strategy to prevent the radicalization of Italian muslims — sending approved Imams to teach in prisons.
Italy has yet to suffer a high profile Islamic terrorist attack like those seen in France, Belgium, the U.K., the Netherlands, and Germany, despite having no shortage of Muslim immigrants. How has Italy staved off such a threat? The answer is due in part to Italy’s policy of arresting and deporting suspected extremists, but also to their newer strategies of prevention, according to a Wednesday report by the Associated Press.
Government vetted imams, confirmed to teach “moderate” views with a message of respect for the West and for non-muslims, have been sent to teach in prisons in an effort to prevent Italian prisons from becoming hotbeds for the indoctrination and training of radicals. So far, 13 imams have been approved for this work in eight prisons.
El Hachmi Mimoun is one such Imam and has met weekly with a group of seven muslim inmates at Terni Penitentiary, urging them to keep to the “right path” of a peaceful life. One of the seven, a 35 year old Tunisian inmate, said Mimoun’s visits have helped him do just that.
“If I am praying, I am not cooking up ideas to harm others on the outside,” the inmate told AP.
The prevention effort began in February with a recruitment agreement between the Italian government and the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy (UCOII). Izzeddin Elzir, UCOII president, said the union seeks to cultivate Islamic pluralism in the country.
“We stress that we are Italians of Muslim faith, Europeans of Muslim faith … We are 100 percent citizens with rights and duties,” Elzir said.
Unfortunately, an act of violence served as the genesis of the idea for preventing Islamic radicalization in Italy. Two days before Christmas, Italian police in Milan shot and killed Anis Amri, a radical Islamic terrorist who drove through a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin. Amri was said to have become radicalized in an Italian prison after his arrest for rioting at a migrant center. Amri’s radicalization and terrorist acts spurred Italian law enforcement to prevent other Italian inmates from following in Amri’s footsteps.
Twenty percent of Italy’s prison staff began taking courses to learn how to identify signs that an inmate was becoming radicalized. But radicalization efforts have evolved, as terrorist recruiters have recognized which signs are recognized by Italian police, like long beards. Law enforcement officials are further hampered in their attempt to identify signs of radicalization because of their lack of knowledge of Arabic.
The effort to define the process for approving imams has also been difficult, according to Islamism expert Lorenzo Vidino.
“Where do you set the bar,” Vidino asked, according to AP. “Is it OK if someone is saying Western society is decadent, but at the same time condemns ISIS?”
Of Italy’s foreign inmates, which make up over a third of the Italian inmate population, a 2017 report from the inmate advocacy group Antigone revealed 42 percent come from predominantly Muslim countries, according to AP.
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