The attack on the Bir-Hakeim bridge in Paris on December 2, 2023, highlighted a very particular function: that of “mediator of religious matters”. After his release from prison on March 25, 2020, the main suspect in the attack, Armand R.-M., had in fact been followed for a period by a psychologist and a religious mediator. To date, he is the only former detainee who has been through this monitoring system to have reoffended.
Unlike a chaplain, the religious mediator does not have a spiritual role, but his academic religious knowledge is essential. Since 2018, within a team made up in particular of educators and psychologists, these professionals – seventeen in number – have been working in prison and in open environments from the angle of religious knowledge.
They work to “disengage” from radical violence of prisoners convicted of jihadist terrorism and radicalized common law prisoners. With a first concrete objective: to avoid attacks or proselytism in prison, but also, in the long term, to protect society.
Strengthen the critical thinking of prisoners
Within the radicalization assessment districts (QER) and the radicalization management districts (QPR), these professionals with a university profile, with a solid background in both Islamology and social sciences, attempt to strengthen the critical thinking of the inmate. The goal is to make it impervious to violent radical ideas. To do this, mediators work to broaden their knowledge of Islam and introduce them to a historical-critical reading of religious texts, which takes into account, for example, the context in which they were written. “It’s about fracturing the agglomerated certainties, conveyed by jihadist propaganda channels,” explicit Ariel Planeix, head of the religious and interculturality division within the Mission to Combat Violent Radicalization.
In other words, the strategy is not to intervene directly on the beliefs, nor even on the religious rigorism of the prisoners, but on a sectarianism which can legitimize violence. “We are not strictly speaking fighting against Salafism or Islamismspecifies Ariel Planeix car someone can be completely rigorous and never have violent impulses, nor threaten their environment. » This is why professionals are in fact more attentive to phenomena of “break” with the values of the Republic, society or the family, than to simple religious signs.
Mohamed Loueslati, mediator of religious affairs from 2019 to 2022, remembers having faced him with inmates endowed “poor religious knowledge”, who often practiced “a la carte Islam: without constraints but legitimizing violence”. To get them out of an attitude of breaking with society, he worked with them, for example, on freedom of conscience. “But if I had chosen the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, they would all have left the room,” he explains. He therefore took as support the “farewell testament of the Prophet”, a text which addresses the question of otherness, taken from the hadiths. “They have developed a distrust of institutions, and Islam is the only thing they trust. »
Continue support after detention
As treatment progressed, Mohamed Loueslati saw progress which he measured in changing the attitude of the prisoners. “We sometimes see a real openness among some, he testifies. It manifests itself by the formulation of a family and work project, but also, in Islam, by a change of legal school. » For example, a detainee asked him if he could lend him a book that was not Wahhabi. He has also seen inmates move towards vocational training, to become bicycle repairers or landscapers.
“Successfully making progress on returning to work constitutes an objective indicator, confirms Naoufel Gaied, head of the Mission to combat violent radicalization within the prison administration. The return to employment reflects a social reaffiliation and a recognition of the rules and laws of society, compatible with their conception of the law of God. For many, at first, complying with the laws of the Republic is unthinkable. » Upon release from detention, certain detainees who are still strongly ideologically imbued are supported within the Pairs system (individualized support and social reaffiliation program), which includes a team of professionals including a religious mediator.
Some figures on radicalization in prison
At 1er January 2024, French prisons have 389 prisoners prosecuted or convicted for jihadist terrorism and around 450 radicalized common law prisoners.
The radicalization assessment districts (QER) have around 60 people, and the radicalization treatment districts (QPR), around a hundred.
Out of 130 files filled out by religious mediators with prisoners convicted of jihadist terrorism, 43% have a regular practice of religion, 24% have an occasional practice and 4% have no practice at all (1).
(1) “Sociology of French jihadism. Prosopographic analysis of more than 350 incarcerated terrorists »In French journal of political science, Xavier Crettiez and Romain Sèze, p. 265-285., 2022/3.