A monk accompanies Muslim detainees in the “Dozza” prison in Bologna in a rediscovery of their religious and cultural heritage. This experience has given birth to a project involving 150 students, a “constituent assembly,” a documentary and a radicalization-prevention programme

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A monk from the Family of the Annunciation accompanies Muslim detainees in the “Dozza” prison in Bologna in a rediscovery of their religious and cultural heritage. This experience has given birth to a project involving 150 (mostly Maghrebi) students, a “constituent assembly,” a documentary and a radicalization-prevention programme that has been exported throughout Europe.


I have spent many years in the Middle East, in the houses run by my religious community. It was there that I studied Arabic and Islam in depth. This was the reason why, upon my return to Italy, I was asked to carry out voluntary service amongst the Muslim detainees in the “Dozza” prison in Bologna (one of the biggest in Italy, with a very high number of Muslims: currently over 200 out of approximately 600 detainees).


In Italy, more than one third of all detainees are foreigners and it is estimated (on the basis of country of provenance) that between 30 and 50 per cent of those foreigners are Muslim. My presence amongst them may seem rather a paradox: a Catholic monk devoting himself to the spiritual care of Muslims!


I began with personal conversations and then started meeting small groups. This then developed into taught courses included annually in the university programme for the prison’s internal school. At all levels of my work, the starting point is making the effort to really take account of my interlocutors’ religious and cultural heritage. Indeed, I consider that this heritage provides valuable resources for stimulating the moral rebirth of people who have broken the law and will continue to do so after they leave prison if there is no educational intervention specifically tailored to them (the recidivism rate is over 70 per cent in Italy). Religious motivation can be decisive for resisting the trauma of passing from a drug-dealing income of 20,000–30,000 euros a month to the 800 euros a person receives under a training contract. At the same time, one must be aware that it is precisely within these prisoners’ traditions that the germs of radicalism lurk. As we know all too well, radicalism can begin in prison and then develop, outside, in a number of directions, including terrorism. Thus, on the one hand, the rediscovery of one’s religious and cultural traditions is a positive thing but, on the other, it presents risks that must not be underestimated. For this reason, it needs to be very carefully accompanied. “DIY” in prison is the greatest danger. I have had the opportunity to observe, close up, many cases in which the rediscovery of a person’s faith has evolved in the direction of religious radicalism.


When working with the detainees, I usually read in their original language and then translate into Italian texts concerning ethics and the body of virtues deemed most important in Islam, as well as edifying biographies, but we also look at poetry, literature, fables, history and travel diaries. The wide range of themes is intended to prompt the passage from an Islam reduced to its exclusively dogmatic and ritual aspects—something that paves the way to radical drifts—to an Islam understood as civilization; a civilization that, without forgetting its own nucleus of faith and worship, is genetically plural because it has developed, over the centuries, in close relationship with other faiths, peoples, cultures and traditions.



From an Intuition to an Educational Project


This type of work (which began in 2009) required a framework within which the other elements could be allowed to operate with greater clarity. This framework was achieved in 2014 with the project “Rights, Duties and Solidarity” (Diritti, Doveri, Solidarietà–DDS). This was conceived for the prison school and, within the span of two years, involved approximately 150 students, most of whom were Muslims from North Africa. The DDS project was born of a felicitous collaboration between institutions: the Adult Education Centre in Bologna, the office of the regional Rights Authority in Emilia Romagna and the prison’s management. The basic idea was to use the Italian Constitution as a text for intercultural dialogue. In order to achieve our objective, we compared the Italian Constitution with three Arab Constitutions produced during the period of the so-called Arab Spring: the Moroccan one dating to 2011 and the Tunisian and Egyptian ones drawn up in 2014. The comparison between constitutions was not a chance one: historically, right from its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, the constitutional movement in the Arab-Islamic world has been the fruit of a growing relationship with the northern Mediterranean countries. A relationship that has certainly been painful, due equally to colonialism’s heavy legacy and the internal limitations imposed by the shariatic system, but a real relationship, nevertheless, and not just one of conflict.


The DDS project has existed in two versions: a longer one and a shorter one. In the first, we have involved a good number of external lecturers: Islamicists, constitutionalists and imams. The second has been achieved with a greater use of internal resources, starting with a stable nucleus of three lecturers: a social scientist, an Islamicist and an Arabic-speaking cultural mediator. We have looked, above all, at the themes of the freedoms, rights and duties that define a citizen’s dignity and identity, including religious freedom. In all these areas, an attempt has been made to show the points that the various documents examined have in common. In another sense, we also want to show the differences. This is indispensable if people are to understand the identity of the country to which they have moved any better. The comparison of the texts, the use of Arabic as the second “official” course language, the recourse to video material downloaded from the Arab web, as well as (recorded) video links with Arab exponents of culture and politics, all serve to stimulate interest in the topics covered and make the student-detainees feel that they are the protagonists in their own learning.

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Project work to draft a new Constitution


The “Wide-Angle” that Saves People from Radicalism


The work on the Constitutions is intended to stimulate the recovery of a keener political sense and a civic awareness. It is another way of broadening horizons and it is also very important for the psychological state of a detainee, who lives squashed by his problem. So the effort rotates around helping him come out of this prison cell that is even narrower than the material one and move towards an intrinsically plural society. This movement from a zoom to a wide-angle (to use a photographic metaphor) is also decisive for dismantling the mechanisms of religious radicalism: by its very nature, the latter concentrates obsessively on a few things, leaving all the rest out of focus to the point of cancelling it.


In order to help the students develop a wide-angle vision, we have worked first of all on stimulating their moving away from a strictly dogmatic perspective, since this inevitably pushes them towards a conflict between categories they feel to be irreconcilable (e.g. God’s law vs. man-made law). We have encouraged them to pass to a historical and geographical perspective marked by an intense dialectic not only between sharī‘a and siyāsa (i.e. religious law and earthly politics) but also between the idealised vision of a community that is “religiously realized” and the far more “secular” societal organization. We have further devoted ourselves to motivating an understanding of the fact that sharia and Islamic jurisprudence have developed in a ramified, dialectical and non-monolithic manner and we have invited students to focus more precisely on the negative influence worked by local traditions (maybe pre-Islamic ones) that have been dressed up in the clothes of religious sacredness (one sees this particularly in the field of gender discrimination).


Lastly, we have encouraged reflection on the construction of a “European Islam” in a project that does not involve simply transplanting pieces of Tunisia or Morocco in Milan or Paris but, rather, remodelling identities that can integrate the European reality within the legacy they set out with.


The last step in the DDS project is the writing workshop. That is to say, at the end of the course, the detainees are invited to describe the good and write about it. All the lessons are, in fact, subjected to a constant criticism from the participants: the words of the Constitutions are nothing but...empty words. There is some truth in this, since the failure to enforce laws is an objective problem. To that there is added the subjective sentiment of a destructive pessimism, to which there must nevertheless also be added, more positively, a profound longing for authenticity in political and social life and the desire to see what has been decided and written actually realised. So we transform all this inner turmoil into a challenge for the students: “Put yourselves in the legislator’s shoes!” It is a challenge that can seem paradoxical: the person writing the law is the person who has broken it. But it is precisely the falling into illegality that puts a person in the condition to perceive more clearly which path is the good and legal one, even if he/she does not have the strength to follow it.


Marco Santarelli, a director of social documentaries, followed the whole of the first edition of DDS with his camera. The result is the film Dustur (Constitution), which has gone around Europe and has won prizes at numerous international festivals, including those in Turin, Milan and Paris.



Beyond Intelligence


It is worth noting, finally, that the experience developed over the last few years in the DDS workshop has been developed at a European level. Such development is linked to the investment that the Studio Diathesis in Modena has decided to make in the experience described above. After analysing the DDS’s various components at a methodological and content level and the first results it has obtained, Diathesis proceeded to a formulation that further developed and expanded the best practice carried out at the “Dozza,” whilst involving other entities that are sensitive to this theme. This led to the elaboration of a three-year project (December 2016–December 2019) that has been approved by the European programme “Erasmus plus.”


The project is operating along the lines already tested. That is to say, it is seeking to build an approach to the question of religious radicalism that does not only trust in interventions by intelligence officers but is committed to building the conditions that would make it possible to operate at an educational level as well. This perspective is already contained in its title: “Rights, Duties, Solidarity: European Constitutions and Muslim Integration.”


As is in the nature of this type of project, partnerships between European countries have been set up. In this case, the countries are Italy, Germany, Spain and Romania. More specifically, under Diathesis’s direction, the project’s activities have been implemented in Italy by the Adult Education Centre in Bologna (already responsible for the DDS at the “Dozza”) and the Gruppo CEIS in Modena; in Germany, by the High School in Cham (a municipal district in Bavaria); in Spain, by the Asociación Ambit in Valencia and in Romania by the Association for Continuing Training in Timisoara and “Professional Foundation” in Sângeorgiu de Mureş (a municipal district in Transylvania).


As far as the activities provided for are concerned, the promoters call attention to two basic aspects that not only develop the experience in Bologna and carry it forward but also express the European project’s marked educational value. First of all, there is the fact that its activities will not just cater for immigrants in detention (as in the DDS project) but will also involve immigrants who access the ordinary bodies operating on the adult education circuit. In the second place, the activities will not only cater for immigrants but also for the staff in the education centres involved: in this way, the latter will be able to give stable support to actions and initiatives in this delicate area of immigrants’ cultural and civic integration.


The DDS project has acted as the “trail-blazer” during a two-year period and has produced some encouraging results. Its “European version” has got under way thanks to the commitment shown by new players and protagonists and it has much more ambitious goals and a much vaster sphere of action. There will be an opportunity to check its results and it is hoped that they will be equally, if not even more, encouraging. This in order to be able to proceed further down the path of education, which is considered the most effective way of preventing the risk of radicalisation. When the ideas cherished by “at-risk” subjects are modified, the dangers that they potentially or actually carry within themselves are automatically avoided.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Ignazio de Francesco, “When Dangers Become Opportunities”, Oasis, year XIV, n. 28, December 2018, pp. 120-127

Online version:
Ignazio de Francesco, “When Dangers Become Opportunities”, Oasis [online], published on 27th March 2019, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/radicalization-in-prison-dangers-and-opportunities.