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In France, Prisons Filled With Muslims

Samia El Alaoui Talibi, who with her husband ministers to Muslims at a prison in northern France, talks to an inmate. Activists blame France's social policies for the disproportionate number of Muslims in its prison system.
Samia El Alaoui Talibi, who with her husband ministers to Muslims at a prison in northern France, talks to an inmate. Activists blame France's social policies for the disproportionate number of Muslims in its prison system. (By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
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The figures fluctuate from region to region: They are higher in areas with large concentrations of Muslims, including suburban Paris, Marseille in the south and Lille in the north.

Inside the prisons, El Alaoui Talibi and her husband, Hassan -- a rare husband-wife Islamic clerical team -- are struggling to win for Muslim prisoners the same religious rights accorded to their minority-Christian counterparts. Hassan is an imam. Samia has received religious training and can counsel the faithful, but under Islamic practices she cannot become an imam. The prison system has only 100 Muslim clerics for the country's 200 prisons, compared with about 480 Catholic, 250 Protestant and 50 Jewish chaplains, even though Muslim inmates vastly outnumber prisoners of all other religions. "It is true that we haven't attained full equality among religions in prisons yet," said Sautière, the national prison official. "It is a matter of time."

In recent years, the French government's primary concern with its Muslim inmate population has been political. French national security officials warned prison authorities in 2005 that they should work to prevent radical Muslims from inciting fellow prisoners. A year later, the French Senate approved a bill giving the country's national intelligence agency broad authority to monitor Muslim inmates as part of counterterrorism efforts.

Prison authorities began allowing carefully vetted moderate imams into prisons in hopes of "balancing the radical elements," said Aurélie Leclerq, 33, director of the Lille-Sequedin Detention Center.

Hassan El Alaoui Talibi, 52, who moved to France from Morocco as a student, is the national head of France's prison imams and typical of the kind of moderate Muslim figure the French government seeks for its prison system.

El Alaoui Talibi delivers his Friday sermons with carefully chosen words, he says. He avoids politics and other subjects that might seem remotely inflammatory. He sticks to counseling convicted drug dealers, murderers and illegal immigrants in matters of faith and respect.

But not all the Muslims at Lille-Sequedin share those moderate views. Last year a disgruntled inmate blared a taped religious sermon into the prison courtyard. Prison officials deemed its message inflammatory and sent the prisoner to solitary confinement.

El Alaoui Talibi described years of struggle to win even modest concessions from prison directors. He recalled the first prison visit he made, a decade ago: He was forced to wait an hour and a half to meet with inmates. "If I hadn't been patient, I would have left," said the soft-spoken former high school teacher who became a prison imam after seeing so many of his students get in trouble with the law for petty offenses and end up hard-core criminals after prison stints.

Today, working in France's newest prison -- the sprawling, three-year-old Lille-Sequedin center -- the El Alaoui Talibis say they are more accepted than some Muslim colleagues at other prisons. Prison officials rejected requests by The Washington Post to visit some of the system's older, more troubled prisons.

On a recent Friday, Hassan El Alaoui Talibi, a man with soulful eyes and a beard with the first hints of gray, made his way with a reporter through the men's wings, collecting prisoners' notes from mailboxes shared with Catholic and Protestant chaplains. At one point, several new inmates returning from sports practice surrounded him, requesting personal visits. He scribbled their names and cell numbers on a scrap of paper.

Many of the Muslim inmates in this prison just west of Lille are the children and grandchildren of immigrants who were brought to the northern region decades ago to work in its coal mines.

El Alaoui Talibi moved on to a small room overlooking a tiny garden courtyard and tugged at prayer mats stacked in a closet beside a rough-hewn wooden cross. Every other Friday, he transforms the room into a mosque for some of the male Muslim faithful of the prison. One of his most frequent sermon topics is food.

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