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Hamilton Imam: Prison chaplaincy privatization a national security threat

The CBC's Anna-Maria Tremonti spoke with Hamilton Imam Yasin Dwyer to get his reaction to news that a terrorist in France became radicalized while in prison. Dwyer worked for years as a prison chaplain in Canada serving Muslim inmates and counselling many away from radicalization.

'A vacuum will be left and perhaps some very dysfunctional voices will fill that vacuum'

A Hamilton Imam believes that offenders converting to Islam in prisons need Imams who are there to help guide them. Without that oversight, they could misunderstand Islamic texts and become national security threats. (Conrad Collaco/CBC)

The CBC's Anna-Maria Tremonti spoke with Hamilton Imam Yasin Dwyer Wednesday morning to get his reaction to news that a terrorist in France became radicalized while in prison. Dwyer worked for 11 years as a prison chaplain in Canada serving Muslim inmates and counselling many away from radicalization. In October, he resigned to protest the Conservative government’s privatization of prison chaplaincy and the negative impact he says it is having on public safety.

Here is a transcript, edited and abridged for clarity, of the interview he conducted with The Current on CBC Radio. For the full interview listen to the audio content on this page.

CBC: What were you thinking when you heard that two of the gunmen involved in the Paris terror attacks embraced this violent form of Islam while in prison?

Yasin Dwyer: I asked myself what could a chaplain had done to offer this individual an alternative. There are narratives of Islam that are being projected on and out of prison that perhaps are not grounded in traditional Islamic sources. There is an emphasis on religious formalism that perhaps has taken over the projection of Islam in certain circles. In religion we often have a tension between text and context.

We need to make spirituality relevant and real. Why? Because a vacuum will be left and perhaps some very dysfunctional voices will fill that vacuum if someone is not offered the ABC's of what Islam is all about.

CBC: Do you see any similarities between what you saw in Canadian prisons and what happened in French prisons?

YD: My own experience is unlike what I've heard coming from the prison system in France. One benefit here is that the communities had a major role to play to project their own religious tradition. All chaplains projected the best of their religious tradition. A few years ago that system was disrupted by the new privatization model that took that role from the chaplains and gave it a private company.

CBC: Imam Dwyer I would like to play a clip for you. This is John Tonks, he is the President of Kairos Pneuma Chaplaincy Inc, the corporation that took over chaplaincy for federal prisons in Canada. Listen to what he had to say.

Tonks: "The most effective is a moderate approach to the faith. The Imams we hire are all of a moderate viewpoint. So far the studies are showing that that is the best approach to deal with radicalization of individuals in any faith including the Muslim faith."

Imam Dwyer, how do you respond to what John Tonks just said?

YD: The problem with the system is that qualified religious chaplains are not necessarily in a position to work in our federal institutions because there is not accountability. The Imam hired after I resigned had never been in a federal prison before and was not qualified in any way by the religious community. The private model does not allow for professional accountability.

CBC: You have worked with members of the Muslim community who were convicted on terrorism charges, including some members of the Toronto 18.  How receptive were they to what you had to say about Islam?

YD: Very receptive. I was surprised that they were so receptive. I was surprised how young they were. Our traditions are transmitted through people. With the power of personality and persuasion I thought we could work with these people and help them understand there is no place for violence in religious expression.

Did you see evidence of efforts to recruit inmates to extremist inside the prison system?

YD: No. Over the years I gained credibility with offenders I worked with. We did a lot of positive work to connect Muslim offenders with the community. We saw them as a part of our community. That helped gain respect.

CBC: There was a conference held in Canada about radicalization in prisons. Countries that came included the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Israel, France, Spain and the Netherlands.  Were you invited?

YD: No I was not. The first I heard about the conference was an article I read from the CBC.

CBC: What would you have said?

YD: I would advise them it would be helpful to actually have people who have worked with offenders who have been radicalized to be a part of the conference. Give us an opportunity to offer our thoughts and provide insight into what is happening on the ground.

CBC: How big a problem is recruiting for radical Islamist extremists in Canadian prisons that you have seen?

YD: I do not a see a major reason for concern in the prisons where I worked. We do need to be concerned about how our religious communities project the best of their tradition in polarizing environments like prisons. We need qualified Imams speaking with authority on the best of their religious traditions.

CBC: Imam Yasin Dwyer is a former Muslim chaplain with Correctional Service of Canada. And he was in Hamilton, Ontario. We did put in a request to speak to someone at Corrections Canada and the Public Safety Minister. No one was made available. However we did receive a statement from the CSC that reads, in part:

"CSC addresses the challenges linked to radicalization through existing case management practices, which are individualized for each offender as part of his or her correctional plan. CSC has shared, and will continue to share, information and best practices on this important topic with both its domestic partners — including the RCMP, CSIS and Public Safety, etc. — and its international partners, including the United Nations, Interpol, foreign governments, etc."

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