Why does the criminalisation of Muslim people need our attention? — Clean Break



Filter by topic

Filter by format

a production photo for Favour, Aleena is holding Leila's face in her hands and looking at her. In the background a banner reads 'Welcome home

Why does the criminalisation of Muslim people need our attention?

Nejma Collective on why it's important to provide specialist support for Muslim people in prisons

Nejma Collective (meaning ‘star’ in Arabic) exists to support Muslim people in prison in the UK, and raise awareness around their experiences.

We asked the collective to write about their work and why the criminalisation of Muslim people needs our attention, in order to give context to the themes in our play Favour, which was a co-production with Bush Theatre.

Written by Ambreen Razia, the play follows three generations of Muslim women navigating life after one of them returns home from prison. The play tackles themes of duty and expectation felt by women within an East London, South Asian community, and what happens when women are criminalised.

“People are usually very unforgiving if you’re a Muslim woman coming out of prison."

– Anonymous beneficiary of the Khidmat Centre [1][2]

In January 2016 then Prime Minister, David Cameron, commissioned an independent review of the treatment of, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) across England and Wales. The Lammy Review, published in 2017, finally revealed the shocking extent of racial discrimination across all sections of the CJS – including policing, sentencing and imprisonment.

One of the key findings to emerge from the Lammy Review was the unnerving increase of Muslim people in prison in the last decade, from around 8,900 to 13,200 [3]. In short, the number of incarcerated Muslim people had almost doubled. Muslims made up 4.8 percent of the UK’s general population, but 15 percent of the prison population.

In the years that followed, further research unveiled a dystopian trend: In London, Muslims made up 27 percent of the prison population, in Immigration Removal Centres they comprised 50 percent of the populace and in women’s prisons they accounted for 35 percent of the BAME population. [4][5]

Once in prison, Muslims were (and remain) subject to considerable bullying, harassment and violence. According to research conducted by Maslaha, for example, Muslim men face increased surveillance in prison, are deemed suspicious if they pray in congregation (largely because it is considered to be an indicator of ‘radicalisation’) and targeted for being “visibly Muslim” [6]. Dr Patrick Williams, from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), comments “Traditionally religion was seen as a really valuable feature of rehabilitation, religion was seen as a way of reducing likely offending behaviour, today it is now seen as causing offending behaviour, it is now seen as criminogenic, crime causing.” [7]

Meanwhile, Muslim women who become entagled in the CJS complain about extreme isolation: they are disowned by their relatives for having bought the family into “disrepute”, face prejudice from prison authorities and face significant ostracisation from the wider Muslim community upon release. Indeed, one client from the Khidmat Centre in Bradford recounted, “Where are we supposed to turn? The community we have joined doesn’t seem to accept us and the one we left behind doesn’t want to know us either.” [8]

Enter: The Nejma Collective. The Nejma Collective is a UK-based collective of Muslim volunteers who work in solidarity with people in prison by offering financial aid, resources and mutual support. There are three motives that underpin the aims of our collective:

  1. To assist our Muslim siblings in prison;
  2. To raise consciousness about Muslim prisoners’ experiences, and;
  3. To envision an Islamic vision of justice that goes beyond the crude, judgemental and punishing forms of policing we see around us today.

In particular, we believe that prisons are not a just medium of responding to harm: they neglect to offer victims accountability, they reproduce social inequality and they tend to punish perpetrators without seeking to contextualise the harm they may have caused.

Rather, the Nejma Collective is interested in interrogating the relationship between restorative justice, transformative justice and Islam. We can see principles of these alternative forms of justice in the Hadith whereby Umar (RA) [9] suspended punishment for theft during a famine under his rule [10]. This shows how an understanding of people’s contexts should be recognised by those who have the power to enact laws.

During Ramadan, we launched our fundraiser in aid of Muslim women in prison [11]. The purpose of the fundraiser was to enable Muslim women to purchase basic necessities in prison, to use this as a means to build a relationship with Muslims in prison and to highlight the scale of institutional Islamophobia in the CJS. Thankfully, we managed to raise over £6,000 in donations, as well as being awarded an additional £5,000 by Fearless Futures. We hope to go live with the project in August 2022 by advertising our services in Inside Time: a non profit organisation providing monthly newspapers for people in prison across the UK.

If you would like to learn more about the Nejma Collective, please email us, visit our website, and/or follow our social media account(s).

[1] Ishtiaq Ahmed and Sofia Buncy, ‘Sisters in Desistance: Community-based solutions for Muslim women post-prison’, p.20 (2019).
[2] The Khidmat Centre is a community centre in Bradford that works with local people to deliver user-led, culturally appropriate and transformative services that address inequality.
[3] David Lammy, The Lammy Review, p.3 (2017)
[4] Gregory Cuéllar, ‘Religion in Immigration Detention: Comparing the US and UK’ (2020).
[5] Ishtiaq Ahmed and Sofia Buncy, ‘Sisters in Desistance: Community-based solutions for Muslim women post-prison’, p.25 (2019).
[6] Maslaha, ‘Time to End the Silence’, p.47 (2020).
[7] Maslaha, 'Young Muslims on Trial', p.45 (2016).
[8] Ishtiaq Ahmed and Sofia Buncy, ‘Sisters in Desistance: Community-based solutions for Muslim women post-prison’, p.28 (2019)
[9] Umar (RA) was a companion and the father-in-law of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). He served as the Caliph (political successor to Prophet Muhammad, SAW) between 634 to 644.
[10] The term ‘Hadith’ refers to collected accounts of the the words, actions and habits of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) during his lifetime compiled by close companions of the Prophet.
[11] https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/nejma-collective

You may also like

• Donate to CLEAN BREAK • Donate to CLEAN BREAK • Donate to CLEAN BREAK • Donate to CLEAN BREAK • Donate to CLEAN BREAK

Keep up to date with Clean Break news, productions, training and more.