Ahmed Kilani is using Islam to rehabilitate extremists
By Eden Gillespie
Imran* became one of Supermax’s youngest inmates when he was imprisoned on terror-related charges.
Disowned by his father, who refused to visit him, Imran was consumed by rage and hatred. But then he met Ahmed.
Ahmed Kilani is one of four Muslim chaplains employed across NSW prisons to counter extremist doctrines and provide spiritual guidance to the small population of Muslim inmates. Every month, he drives hundreds of hours across the state to visit Goulburn Supermax, Long Bay, Lithgow, Bathurst and Oberon prisons.
Our 10-minute phone call is strictly monitored by Corrective Services New South Wales and took more than two months to be approved. His work is controversial, but Mr Kilani believes it’s life changing.
When Mr Kilani finally convinced Imran’s father to visit, Imran asked the chaplain to place his hand through the small opening in his cage. Mr Kilani hesitated — the young inmate had previously threatened to kill him, denouncing him as an “apostate”. He tentatively offered his hand, fearing Imran might break his wrist. Instead, he kissed and stroked it, a sign of great respect in Muslim culture.
Inspired by Mr Kilani’s positive ethos, Imran has asked for forgiveness and started praying. And he’s not the only inmate.
‘Is he a government stooge?’
When Mr Kilani first started as a chaplain he met a wall of resistance from some of the inmates, particularly those with extremist beliefs.
One of Supermax’s most radical inmates, Abdul* often exploded in bouts of rage and hostility towards Mr Kilani, calling him a “sell out Muslim”.
“There’s a lot of trust issues with the guys who are on the very extreme end of the way they practise their religion. It’s like ‘who is this guy? Is he working for ASIO? Is he a government stooge?’,” Mr Kilani says.
Eventually, he won over inmates like Abdul by organising barbeques and providing them with books and prayer mats.
“I kept persevering and showing them a lot of love and being non-judgemental. I told them from the start, ‘my rules are, as long as you don’t call me an apostate and you show me respect, then I’m happy to discuss anything’,” he says.
Can religion save extremists?
Dr Julian Droogan, an academic specialising in violent extremism, believes inmates can cast off extremist religious beliefs and reintegrate with society.
“Although violent extremism is rarely caused solely by extreme religious beliefs, religion can play an important role in correcting some of the mistaken propaganda from groups such as Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State,” he says.
“Religion can also encourage and support extremists in finding a place in positive religious communities and a healthy and non-violent identity.”
However, Dr Droogan says it’s often difficult for these individuals to make a full recovery if extremist beliefs are common in their social circles. “If these social contexts are repeated, people may relapse into violent extremism,” he says.
Backing from victims’ families
The deployment of Muslim chaplains in prisons is controversial. But it’s backed by some of the people most affected by the inmates’ crimes.
Alpha Cheng’s father Curtis was murdered by a radicalised teenager outside the Paramatta police headquarters in 2015.
But the high school teacher says he “can’t hate” Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, the 15-year-old boy who went to a nearby mosque to pray before shooting his father.
“Being a high school teacher and working closely with teenagers, it always hits me that the shooter was a 15-year-old.
“It’s a really tragic and sad element that someone of that age who is a second-generation Australian would believe that such an act is a solution,” Alpha says.
“If we don’t have people working within the prison system or at a mosque, we have people forming views without proper spiritual guidance. If there’s not people doing this, the risk is that the negative or destructive ideology gets perpetrated in prison.”
‘Everyone can change’
At the root of Mr Kilani’s spiritual work is the belief that criminal behaviour is complex and through comprehensive rehabilitation and expert guidance, inmates can change.
“They’re people that were probably going to school with you, going to work with you and catching the bus with you, their kids probably go to school with your kids. They’re probably your neighbours,” Mr Kilani says.
“Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone can change. And we should give them all a chance to change.”
*Name has been changed to protect the inmate’s identity