Judge Fights Terror through Force of Conviction

Religious scholars in Yemen are trying to persuade imprisoned Islamists to pursue a more moderate approach to Islam. Europe is also showing interest in the innovative program. By Kristin Helberg

Religious scholars in Yemen are trying to persuade imprisoned Islamists to pursue a more moderate approach to Islam. Europe is also showing interest in the innovatove dialogue program. By Kristin Helberg

photo: Kristin Helberg
The only way to fight ideologies is to offer alternative ideologies, says Al-Hitar

​​"Non-Muslims are infidels and must be killed." "Why?" "Because Mohammed said: Pursue them and kill them until they acknowledge God." "That's not right." "Why not?" "Because you can't force someone to have faith. - The relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims rests on security and peace. There are 124 suras on this subject in the Koran and only one says to make war on them if they make war on you. So violence is only allowed in self-defense in the case of war."

Hamoud Al-Hitar, director of Yemen's "Dialogue Committee," is describing here a typical discussion between a scholar and a prisoner, the like of which he has experienced often since September 2002.

A total of 30 imams are endeavoring to talk imprisoned Islamists out of their radical positions by using religious arguments and convincing them of Islam's message of tolerance and peace.

Their motto is: Talking helps, even against terror. "Behind every terror attack is an ideology, and the only way to fight ideologies is to offer alternative ideologies," says Al-Hitar. Trying to fight an ideology using violence will only serve to further entrench it.

Transforming hate into tolerance

Yemen is now pinning its hopes on the judge. He intends to build a bridge between violence-advocating Islamists and a conservative, yet peaceful Islam, as it is officially propagated in Yemen and lived by the majority of the population.

Al-Hitar sits, relaxed, in the reception room of his home, a white cap on his head, and on his face an all-knowing smile. "Just as a doctor treats a sick body, we heal a sick spirit."

To do so, Al-Hitar's team – all of them respected and moderate scholars – must transform the hate that radical preachers have sown in the young people into tolerance and respect. A noble goal. But is it possible that just a few rounds of talks can change the minds of extremists who have been indoctrinated for years?

Not all of them, says Al-Hitar, but many. "Their strong belief in God and the prophet Mohammed helps us, because it gives them great respect for theological arguments," says Al Hitar. In his opinion, the Islamists have merely misunderstood a few things about Islam, leading to their radical viewpoints.

During the months-long rounds of dialogue, the focus is on three main themes: the concept of Jihad, how to treat non-Muslims, and the visions of an Islamic state.

Dialogue at eye level

Both sides back their arguments using the Koran and Sunna, which means the imams can fight the Islamists using their own weapons. "We treat each other with mutual respect," says Al-Hitar. "Each person listens to what the other has to say and takes him seriously as an equal partner in the dialogue."

The judge describes this as a "dialogue at eye level," but critics are skeptical. "How can a dialogue on equal terms take place between someone who has been falsely accused and imprisoned and a judge who has the power to release him or not?" asks Mohammed Naji Allaw from the human rights organization HOOD.

It is in fact true that the participants in the dialogue program usually have committed no crime and are instead sitting in prison as a "preventive" measure. There is no legal basis on which to convict them.

Al-Hitar is thus helping the Yemeni government out of a tight corner: instead of releasing extremists for lack of evidence – people who have possibly become even more radical as a result of their unjust imprisonment – they are first intellectually "disarmed."

Development work in reverse?

But how do the scholars know if the Islamists have really had a change of faith? "Many just act that way in order to be released," suspects human rights lawyer Allaw.

Al-Hitar, however, is certain that the prisoners recant their views out of conviction and not just to get out of prison. After all, as devout Muslims they feel responsible before God – and He cannot be fooled.

photo: Kristin Helberg
German chancellor Schröder has shown interest in the dialogue program for imprisoned Islamists

​​The judge reports that 364 prisoners have already been released on parole. They must swear an oath to their new beliefs and sign an agreement.

Afterward, every freed prisoner is kept under double surveillance: by the secret service and the scholars. "Our people meet with him regularly to check on his views and, if necessary, to correct them," explains Al-Hitar. "The secret service makes sure he is obeying the law." As of today, none of those released has violated the agreement.

The success is showing an impact. After initial skepticism, the Yemeni experiment is now arousing interest in Europe. During his visit to Sanaa in early March 2005, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder met with Al-Hitar to hear detailed reports of the program.

When it comes to dealing with Islamists, the decades-long intensive German-Yemeni development work might now be reversed: with the Germans learning from the Yemenis.

Kristin Helberg

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida