Religious Care in the Reinvented European Imamate Muslims and Their Guides in Italian Prisons


Number of prisons

Detainees present

Of whom foreigners



National total





The number of detainees who are not Italian citizens amounts to 20,521, about 34.38 % of the entire number of prisoners. Based on the criteria used by the Pew Research Center (2009), adding the figures for the nationals of those countries where Islam is either the state religion, or is the religion of the majority of the population, we estimate—as you can see from Table 8.2 below—that the number of Muslims in Italian jails amounts to 10,684, i.e. more than half the foreign population (Table 8.2).

Table 8.2
Estimated number of Muslim detainees, based on country of origin (30/04/2014). (Source: Table based on statistics provided by the Ministry of Justice. Cf. http://​www.​giustizia.​it/​giustizia/​it/​mg_​1_​14_​1.​wp?​previsiousPage=​mg_​1_​14&​contentId=​SST950282)

















Bosnia and Herzegovina




















Palestinian autonomous territories
















Other countries








aI use the percentages of Muslims given by the Pew Research Center in all cases, except for those countries (Nigeria, China, India, etc.) in which the migrants to Italy come from regions with nearly no Muslim presence. I also applied a figure of 100 % where the percentage given was greater than 95 %

More significant and reliable data could be made available to researchers and scholars if the Department of Penitentiary Administration (DAP) were to release the information from the individual detainees’ declarations on their religious beliefs, which each inmate is required to give when she/he is first inducted into the prison. This information, however, is collected from the prisoners for purely organizational purposes, and contains highly sensitive and personal data: for this reason it cannot be readily released8. A statistical elaboration of the information on religious affiliation (Table 8.3) was—exceptionally—made available to a group of researchers, including myself, only once in 2010 (Rhazzali 2010).

Table 8.3
Foreign detainees according to their religious affiliation. (Source: Data provided by the Department of Penitentiary Administration (situation at 31/01/2009))

Total foreign detainees


Other religion

Religion not known





A further element that makes this information so important is the fact that at least 80 % of prisoners accepted to declare voluntarily their religious affiliation. Whatever the reasons that may have induced the prisoners to declare themselves as Muslims, including mere tactical considerations, here we have a first declaration actually provided by the inmates themselves: it is, of course, influenced by a variety of circumstances, but it is an occasion on which the inmates are speaking their mind, it is something closer to a self-definition than the usual conventional classification.

As compared to other prison contexts in Europe9, Islam in Italian jails has a specificity that needs to be interpreted in relation to the overall characteristics of the Islamic presence in Italy. It is a migrant Islam, that has grown to reach a considerable size over a relatively short period of time, basically just the past twenty years, and which includes people from a wide range of provenances (Allievi 2009; Rhazzali and Equizi 2013). Unlike other European countries, immigrants to Italy do not come from one or a few predominant country(ies) of origin, as a result of official policies; although it must be added that Italy has, in recent years, entered into specific agreements with some foreign countries (starting with Albania, Morocco and Tunisia), based on two laws on immigration (Law no. 40, dated 6 March 1998, known as the Turco-Napolitano Law and Law no. 189, dated 30 July 2002, known as the Bossi-Fini Law), aimed in part at establishing an annual planning of the flow of migrants, but—more importantly—at securing the collaboration of these States in the repression of so-called ‘clandestine’ immigration, i.e. the flow of clandestine migrants (by guaranteeing that these countries would take in the migrants that were sent back, and provide cooperation in border surveillance).

Today the presence of irregular, or undocumented, migrants is lower than it was in the early 1990s (the years when Italy was definitely undergoing its transformation from a country of emigration to one of immigration). Yet, in prisons, the majority of foreigners are those called ‘irregular’ or ‘clandestine’, for two main reasons: either because, in the majority of cases, a regular migrant loses her/his status as legally registered if she/he commits a crime (except for those cases where the migrant is related to an Italian citizen), or because the very condition of being undocumented was—for a certain period—a crime punished with incarceration.

Therefore, the Islam in Italian prisons , as well as being a ‘migrant’ Islam, is also a ‘clandestine’ Islam . Yet this condition is, on the contrary, representative of only a small proportion of Muslims in Italy generally, who are fairly well established in the country. Despite many difficulties, they are quite well integrated although there is always a risk of falling back into a precarious condition, and even into a status of irregularity (government policies on the acquisition of Italian citizenship have ended up creating a sort of ‘waiting room’, where immigrants, and especially their children and grandchildren, born and raised in Italy, are forced to live in a status of permanent migrants, with reduced rights, and no entitlement to act and exercise their rights in the public space)10.

Another specificity is the absolute predominance of men over women (Table 8.3). Islam in prisons would appear to be linked to the world of those men who migrate alone, without having a real plan for their new life, and who are exposed to the risk of organized exploitation of undocumented migrants, teetering on the brink of falling into the circuits of organized criminal entrepreneurship. For these men, a period in prison is—paradoxically—more like attending a training course, an induction into crime, rather than a deterrent; or perhaps it is merely that one mistake leads the person to live in a condition where that mistaken lifestyle become the norm (Sbraccia 2007). It is not within the scope of this chapter to provide a complete analysis of the events that lead to such a large proportion of inmates being Muslims, nor is it my task to understand why there is such a huge difference between the numbers of males and females. But it will be useful to gather from these objective characteristics, relating to Islam in prisons, some relevant information for our subject, religious care provided in prisons, and the social factors involved.

8.3 Religious Care and Authority: A Testing Ground for Imams in Europe

In most cases, upon entering the jail, these prisoners are not practising Muslims and have very little knowledge of the theological foundations of their religion as has been shown by the rare research projects carried out in Europe on Islam in jails11. Nevertheless, either spontaneously or through the pressure of circumstances that fail to honour their cultural diversity, very few would renounce to resorting to the symbolic resource that Islam can offer, whilst attempting an interpretation of their own existence or seeking a form of guidance for their conduct. So it is not entirely surprising to learn that many become practicing Muslims once again, or undergo a reconversion during their detention (Khosrokhavar 2004; Spalek and El-Hassan 2007; Rhazzali 2010), and that sometimes the reconversion only lasts for the period of their incarceration. Another element is the propensity of Muslim inmates to group together based on their faith, so as to try and organize a lifestyle in prison that is consistent with their religious commitment, and recreate—to the extent that prison regulations allow—the proper settings and rhythms of worship. This matter cannot help but raise issues relating to freedom of worship as a subjective right of human beings, a right connected in its implementation to the relationship between Church and State, both as a result of the mediation with organized confessions, and as the consequence of the secular principle of freedom of thought (Ferrari 2006). In different ways and to varying extents, the constitutional set-up of all European countries acknowledges religious pluralism. This means that in some countries, especially those where the plurality of religions is a historical characteristic of its local population, laws and prison regulations have favoured the adoption of legal and organizational solutions providing religious care for Muslims (Beckford 2011a, b).

It is worth pointing out that, for Islam , the provision of religious care in prisons is a novelty, occurring only in a Western context, and in what in this chapter we have called the European Imamate 12. There is no similar tradition in the prison systems of Muslim countries, or rather, there is no form of religious care provided, except very recently, as a consequence of a more general introduction of prison systems based on European or American models, resulting from the development of a greater awareness and acceptance of the rights of individual freedoms in the societies and political institutions, thanks to the ratification and adoption of the international declarations of human rights13.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the space for religious care in prisons underwent an evolution, which was not at all free of problems. The Roman Catholic or Protestant chaplains, or those of other religions in those States where the socioreligious context allowed their presence, witnessed a reduction of their roles as guardians of the prisoner’s humanity. And, further, they were gradually also losing their function as providers of the inmates’ moral and cultural discipline, which they had acquired during the course of the modern age; this occurred as a more comprehensive set of sociopsychological skills were required, aimed at the management of and care for the detainees, leading towards their recovery and social rehabilitation (in the group of professionals that today addresses the needs of inmates, the chaplains share their role with psychologists, educators, social workers). On the other hand, it is at least since the 1960s, although at different times and in different ways in the various countries of Europe, that migrations and their consequences on the prison population have highlighted the importance of the religious phenomenon. In particular, the presence of several faiths that do not originate from Christianity has given rise to the need to organize religious worship in jails in an entirely new way. The chaplains resume their important role, either because they, as Christian religious care providers, take it upon themselves to acknowledge the right to worship of other confessions; or because a religious care provider from other confessions is organized as a mirror image of how they are organized, with these new figures acting in a sense under the auspices—or in the shadow of—the Christian chaplain. Even in those cases where there has been an acknowledgement, in principle, of the right of Muslims to enjoy the benefits of religious care , the life of the person who has been called upon to provide such care in the prisons was certainly not easy.

Islam is probably the most striking example of a religion appearing to resist formatting (Roy 2008), in other words resisting against its neutralization through standardization into a common, shared and sedated religious dimension, a process borrowed from the customary adaptation of Christian churches to the needs of their interaction with statehood; and, more recently, from the religious and cultural homogenization promoted by the processes of globalization. And, actually, it is precisely in the context of religious care provision in prisons that we can get a fuller understanding of the still unresolved tension between the formatting of Islam and the spontaneous and noncompliant reaction of the European Muslim world to the pressure of the ‘formatting forces’ pressure. When the admission of an Imam to a prison setting is considered plausible, through a forced analogy with the figure of the Christian chaplain, as we shall see below, undoubtedly what we are witnessing is an episode of the pressure exercised by European institutions on Islam, to shape its forms so as to match those of the Christian churches. At the same time, in the figure of the Imam , the function of the religious care provider acting within the penitentiary system’s organization appears to merge with the function of the representative of the Islamic community outside the jail. And this double function is one of the most distinctive features of the new and radical reinvention of his role, which results in the creation of a new Imamate, which can be considered a novel development within European Islam. The fruits of that belaboured process through which European Islam has tried to react creatively, feeling the need to refuse to be merely the passive object of transformations resulting from its involvement in processes that change its habitat, and affect its sociocultural condition and development.

In traditionally Muslim countries the Imam, as he who leads the community in prayer, or as the khatib14, the preacher, or the person who gives the Friday sermon, has a clear place within a fairly complex and diversified system of figures representing religious or legal authority (even in the absence—at least in the Sunni context—of a clergy that is comparable to the Christian model). In the European context, however, this organized system of authority figures is totally lacking. The functions that were shared among them, as well as other functions that have emerged as needs in the experience of the newer communities of believers in their interactions with their social and institutional surroundings, are all condensed in the evolving but ever-present figure of the Imam. The Imam, thus, ends up becoming an agglomeration of formal and, more often, informal roles. Apart from ensuring the essential services related to worship, the Imam’s community of faithful—and more frequently the Islamic organizations that are responsible for the place of worship in which he preaches—demands that he addresses a wide range of issues. In different situations, individuals with the most diverse life-stories, in their role as Imams, create for themselves a personal mosaic of activities that may range from leading the faithful in prayer, to providing care for the sick and for prisoners, to celebrating weddings, to teaching Arabic or religion to the youth. In European countries, the latter activities are moving towards a form of institutionalization that is clearly modeled on the role of the Christian priest (Allievi 2009), although in some communities a clearer division of roles and professions is beginning to take root (the Imam-chaplain, the administrator of mosques, the teacher of religion in public schools, etc.). And the Imam can even become the community’s administrator, keep the books of their associations, manage their public relations; if he is well-versed in the dominant rhetoric circulating in the public arena, he may even take on the political representation of his community, maybe even in order to gain access to benefits or advantages that religious organizations are entitled to, through European welfare systems (Dassetto 2003). In such cases the outcome is that of an Imam who is the leader of his community, a figure who can cross paths—but this is a topic that is beyond the scope of this chapter—with religious leaders, lecturers and speakers, preachers, and sociocultural mediators, who are becoming increasingly important in European (Frégosi 2004) and transnational (Caeiro 2010) Islam.

However, his raison d’être lies in being able to perform activities that will enable the Islamic heritage to remain alive in the present, and from this he obtains legitimation for his service as ‘Islamic action’ (Dassetto stresses this, in a Weberian analysis of categories, 2011). Although it may at times appear to be less evident in the tangled web of negotiations practised by the Imam , this element remains decisive and represents a non-negotiable symbolic nucleus, from which the renewal of the energy produced by the interactions of Islamic communities through religion depends.

This last aspect is essential, if we are to understand how the religious care provider—precisely in order to be able to perform all those complicated and wide-ranging ‘secular’ functions that pertain to him—must in any case, even in these innovative forms, embody a clear continuity of religious inspiration.

8.4 The Imam-Religious Care Provider: Profiles

In Italy religion is commonly equated to Catholicism and also in the provision of religious care for the inmates of the prison system this notion is expressed in full force. To actually give real space to other faiths is something that is accepted in principle, but has a difficult time in being implemented in practice, since it needs to overcome anything from inertia to outright suspicion (Ferrari 2013). The idea of Muslims, as held by the Ministry’s penitentiary administration bureaucrats, appears still to be primarily preoccupied with the potential links between Islam and terrorism, and the officials still consider that spaces for Muslim worship, granted for use inside prisons, need to be kept under constant vigilance, and the religious care providers as well, so as to ensure that the activities carried out do not become those extremist political gatherings that the administration fears15. The prisons we have visited over recent years (Rhazzali 2010, 2014) act according to decisions taken to some extent at their own discretion, which means that some periods are more favourable than others towards collaboration with Muslim detainees and with the Islamic organizations and associations outside the prisons.

In the prisons, on the other hand, there is a pragmatic approach, in which the main restrictions to worship are those imposed by the organizational constraints of the jail, whereas the presence of religious leaders and groups of inmates getting together based on their common faith, so that they can worship together, is often seen as an indirect contribution towards making the prison more governable, since the more devout inmates, apart from being forceful in demanding their rights to freedom of worship, are quite unlikely to create disturbances or serious conflicts in the prison. The general climate in prisons, however, is still suffering from the consequences of 9/11, affecting the relations between prison administrators and Islamic organizations. Combined with the fact that there is still no formal agreement between the State and the Islamic communities and no financial backing that would allow for an agreement to be implemented, this means that the effectiveness of the existing provisions is truly limited, with no chance of actually finding a positive solution for many of the issues. The President of the Republic’s Decree no. 230, dated 30 June 2000, addresses in Article 35 the question of the guarantees to be provided to foreign detainees in relation to cultural-linguistic differences and promotes the role and action of Intercultural Mediators. Article 58 then explicitly states that prisoners have the right to participate in the religious celebrations of their own faith, as long as they are not in any way in conflict with ‘the order and security of the institute’. The display of religious symbols in cells is allowed and individual worship is permitted, if it occurs in the inmate’s free time, and is therefore not in competition with any activity planned by the institution’s regulation. The same Decree establishes the right of detainees of a faith different from Roman Catholicism to enjoy the guidance of a minister of their own faith, chosen by the prison governor from the list of those granted accreditation by the Ministry of the Interior.

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