Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
SEQUEDIN, France — Samia El Alaoui Talibi walks her beat in a cream-colored head scarf and an ink-black robe with sunset-orange piping, an outfit she picked up at a yard sale.
After passing a bulletproof window, El Alaoui Talibi trudges through half a dozen heavy, locked doors to reach the Muslim faithful to whom she ministers in the women’s cellblock of the Lille-Sequedin Detention Center in far northern France.
It took her years to earn this access, said El Alaoui Talibi, one of only four Muslim holy women allowed to work in French prisons. “Everyone has the same prejudices and negative image of Muslims and Islam,” said Moroccan-born El Alaoui Talibi, 47, the mother of seven children. “When some guards see you, they see an Arab; they see you the same as if you were a prisoner.”
This prison is majority Muslim — as is virtually every house of incarceration in France. About 60 to 70 percent of all inmates in the country’s prison system are Muslim, according to Muslim leaders, sociologists and researchers, though Muslims make up only about 12 percent of the country’s population.
On a continent where immigrants and the children of immigrants are disproportionately represented in almost every prison system, the French figures are the most marked, according to researchers, criminologists and Muslim leaders.
“The high percentage of Muslims in prisons is a direct consequence of the failure of the integration of minorities in France,” said Moussa Khedimellah, a sociologist who has spent several years conducting research on Muslims in the French penal system.
In Britain, 11 percent of prisoners are Muslim in contrast to about 3 percent of all inhabitants, according to the Justice Ministry. Research by the Open Society Institute, an advocacy organization, shows that in the Netherlands 20 percent of adult prisoners and 26 percent of all juvenile offenders are Muslim; the country is about 5.5 percent Muslim. In Belgium, Muslims from Morocco and Turkey make up at least 16 percent of the prison population, compared with 2 percent of the general populace, the research found.
Sociologists and Muslim leaders say the French prison system reflects the deep social and ethnic divides roiling France and its European neighbors as immigrants and a new generation of their children alter the demographic and cultural landscape of the continent.
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