LONDON // The UK's Muslim adviser on prisons said that outdated attitudes among imams were the reason record numbers of young British Muslims are turning to crime.
Mosques fail to offer facilities relevant to young, British-born Muslims while imams are often brought in from abroad, do not speak English and focus only on religious rituals, said Ahtsham Ali, who has been adviser to Britain's Prison Service for the past eight years.
Mr Ali also blamed family breakdowns, arranged marriages and drugs for the fact that there are almost 11,000 Muslim males, most in their teens or 20s, in prison.
That figure is almost six times what it was 20 years ago and represents 12.6 per cent of the total prison population, compared to the 3 per cent of Muslims in the population as a whole.
In an interview in The Times newspaper this week, Mr Ali said that old-fashioned attitudes in mosques had resulted in young people turning away from religion in droves.
"It is a tragedy," he said. "I have seen youngsters - the next generation - just totally switch off from it. This is dangerous. It allows others to take advantage, to take up the vacuum.
"Nearly all mosques are their own independent kingdoms and they will decide what to do. Mosque committees have supreme power. Most will get imams imported from other countries who can't speak English. More importantly they can't relate to second and third-generation youngsters growing up here."
Mr Ali said that it was often only when Muslims ended up in prison that they encountered imams who could speak English fluently. Currently, 55 full-time imams work in jails, backed up by 59 part timers and another 96 available on an occasional basis.
"I believe I have got the cream of Muslim imams in Britain, which is a shame in one sense," he said.
"Prison imams will play five-a-side football, will go around and chat. Ask: 'How was the film last night?'. That kind of relevant bonding is very good. I have had prisoners say to me: 'Tell me why do I have to go to prison to get an good imam?'. That is the sad state of affairs we have." But Ibrahim Mogra, who chairs the mosque and community affairs committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, rejected Mr Ali's argument saying that "hundreds of imams and mosques have woken up to the dangers faced by the youth and have been preaching solutions and remedies against them".
"Not only that, but they are highlighting the opportunities that they should take advantage of to better themselves and society. Imams and mosques have realised that in the mosques they are preaching to the converted. They are now taking their message out to the youth."
Inayat Bunglawala, the chairman of Muslims4UK, a group promoting participation by Muslims in UK society, said it seemed "rather unfair" to blame imams for the high Muslim jail population.
He felt failings in parenting and peer pressure were much more influential factors.
"If we are really looking to point fingers at who is responsible for Muslim criminality then I don't think it is appropriate to blame imams, who are very often poorly paid. As a rabbi friend once told me, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys."