A few weeks ago, I visited a Western Sydney primary school as part of the project organised by a terrific rabbi. We spoke to the kiddies (most from Kindergarten to Year 3) about the common values our faiths share.

The kiddies were asked to guess which religion we all belonged to. Almost all said I was Jewish and the rabbi was Muslim! Still, they’re kids. Anyone wearing a long beard and cap fits the stereotype of the radical Muslim freak.

But can we forgive our corrective services bureaucrats and our journos for succumbing to infantile stereotypes? Certainly plenty were on show from the NSW Department of Corrective Services and the Sun-Herald, whose front page showed the images of Goulburn super-max prisoners sporting beards that would make rabbis, imams and/or ZZ-Top fans proud.

So apart from their criminal records, how do we know these guys’ religious conversions are dangerous? SkyNews says one allegedly flouts Islam’s strict monotheism by worshipping Osama bin-Laden. Today’s Herald reports: “The Corrective Services Minister, John Hatzistergos, and Mr Woodham said authorities were not targeting Muslims.”

However, Corrective Services Commissioner Woodham was quoted yesterday about prisoners showing “no interest in religion at all during their lives but, on coming to jail … convert[ing] to Islam”. Especially hysterical are his claims of Aboriginal converts “denounc[ing] their Aboriginality for Islam”, suggesting Aboriginal heritage and religious conversion are mutually exclusive. Such cultural and theological expressions surely must compromise the Government’s claims it isn’t clamping down on conversions per se.

Even if it is true that the gang leader had bin-Laden posters on his cell wall, how did he receive them? My sources report corrective services officials have been repeatedly approached by mainstream non-Salafist Muslims and warned about the infiltration of fringe Salafist material into prisons. Further, Muslim prison chaplains (like their colleagues from other denominations) are strictly limited to playing liturgical and pastoral roles.

The net effect is that more isolated prisoners have little access to material of more mainstream non-Salafist materials routinely barred. Some three years ago, Aboriginal Sufis tried introducing a program combining mainstream Islam with a successful prison program developed by a Hindu couple in the United States. The program consisted of tapes (chosen to overcome literacy problems) with spiritual music (frowned upon by Salafists) and material that projected a strongly apolitical message. The material was blocked.

Perhaps the super-max conversions are a cover for a prison escape. But the language used by corrective services officials suggests a wider aversion to prisoners (especially indigenous ones) adopting the “wrong” faith or, at the very least, having access to a range of religion beyond the most radical and stereotypical type.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey