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Sunday, 20 April 2008

The book, the bog seat and Mr Ali

First it was a call to be allowed to opt out of prison treatment programmes for sex offenders, now it’s a call for training for prison staff in how to handle “holy” books.

Yes, Islam wants things its own way again. After earlier stories about the report of the Inspector of Prisons and how screws should be more sensitive to Muslim “complexities”, the Muslim adviser to Britain’s prisons, Ahtsham Ali, said on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme today that there should be special training so that the “holy Koran” might be treated in whatever special way this religion dictates. (You can listen again for a week from today by going to this page and clicking on the link in the first line. It’s 30 minutes and 50 seconds into the programme.)

He tells the anchor, Roger Bolton, that it should be the same for all religions. There have been instances, he says, when officers, while searching cells or copies of the Koran, have put the book down on a toilet top on a cloth. They haven’t dropped it onto a dirty toilet seat, or even a clean one, but have put it on a cloth. That’s what he said. A cloth.

So, given the probable scarcity of suitable surfaces in a prison cell, was there another option? If they’d carefully placed it on the floor, what then? More moaning? On the bed? I honestly don’t know. But how is placing it on a cloth on what is, after all, just another surface, doing any harm? And would the prisoner complain if his copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were placed there?

Book lovers will tell you that all books should be treated with respect, in that you don't tear them, damage the spine, fold down the corners of pages or dirty the paper with grubby fingers. But putting one down on a cloth that happens to be on a toilet seat doesn't seem to come into the "extreme bibliophobe" category, somehow.

Training is needed, Ali says, on how to treat artefacts and religious sensibilities. Why? Why do those who believe in certain unprovable bits of nonsense need to be treated any differently from someone who thinks he sees ghosts? In fact, would the latter prisoner not be hauled off to the prison hospital for psychiatric care? Yet he's no less deluded than his religious fellow inmates, who are demanding special training for the screws, so they can deal “sensitively” with their “complexities”?

Training for officers in religious sensitivities could avoid tensions and anti-Western attitudes, said Ali. That sounds like a threat from the “religion of peace”. If you don’t treat our nutty beliefs with the tenderness and sensitivity they deserve, we get antsy. And that may not be in your interests.

Unsurprisingly, no one asked Mr Ali who would pay for this training so that Muslim and other religious inmates can have their “sensitivities” and “complexities” massaged. But it will be the taxpayer, of course.

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