Saudi Arabia tries to reform jihadists

The Saudi flag bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet"). Note that the hoist end is to the right.

The Saudi flag is green, a color associated with Muhammad, and bears the shahada ("There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet").

The New York Times Magazine has an interesting article on a several year old Saudi program to deprogram jihadists.  The issue of deconverting people from radical, violent Islam is an important one for the Kingdom, which has produced huge numbers of terrorists recently, including 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers and bin Laden himself.  In may areas of the world, from Chechnya to the Philippines, the largest contingent of Islamic militants is comprised of Saudis; it’s a big problem.

Of course, to get someone to renounce terrorism it is important to understand why people join terrorist groups in the first place.

Though the exact nature of the role that religious belief plays in the recruitment of jihadists is the subject of much debate among scholars of terrorism, a growing number contend that ideology is far less important than family and group dynamics, psychological and emotional needs. “We’re finding that they don’t generally join for religious reasons,” John Horgan told me. A political psychologist who directs the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Penn State, Horgan has interviewed dozens of former terrorists. “Terrorist movements seem to provide a sense of adventure, excitement, vision, purpose, camaraderie,” he went on, “and involvement with them has an allure that can be difficult to resist. But the ideology is usually something you acquire once you’re involved.”

The article points out that other scholars disagree with this assessment and do stress the significance of political belief and grievance.  “But if the Saudi program is succeeding, it may be because it treats jihadists not as religious fanatics or enemies of the state but as alienated young men in need of rehabilitation.” 

At the end of the two-month program, which includes instruction in the correct understanding of jihad as well as art therapy, many of the men are given a car and financial assistance to rent a home along with help getting additional education and employment.  They are also encouraged to get married since “getting married stabilizes a man’s personality … He thinks more about a long term future and less about himself and his anger.”

I found the description of what the rehabilitation centers are like to be interesting.

On arrival, each prisoner is given a suitcase filled with gifts: clothes, a digital watch, school supplies and toiletries. Inmates are encouraged to ask for their favorite foods (Twix and Snickers candy bars are frequent requests). Volleyball nets, PlayStation games and Ping-Pong and foosball tables are all provided. The atmosphere at the center — which I visited several times earlier this year — is almost eerily cozy and congenial, with mattresses and rugs spread on stubbly patches of lawn for inmates to lounge upon. With few exceptions, the men wear their beards untrimmed and their thobes, the long garments that most Saudi men wear, cut above their ankles in the style favored by those who wish to demonstrate strict devotion to Islam. The men are pleasant but many seem a bit puffy and lethargic; one 19-year-old inmate, Faisal al-Subaii, explained that they are encouraged to spend most of their daytime hours in either rest or prayer.

The article also describes one of the classroom sessions, a discussion of jihad, and some conversations that the men have with their instructors.  Their experience as people who went to Iraq to fight the infidels was very interesting for me to read about.  On man, Azzam, said that he “didn’t have the chance [to fight]. For months, we went from safe house to safe house. There wasn’t anything to do — no action, no training. Finally, they asked me to be a suicide bomber. But I know that suicide is forbidden in Islam, so I came back home.”  It sounds incredibly banal.

Riyadh, the Saudi capital, at night.  Your gas money at work.

Riyadh, the Saudi capital, at night.

Another former militant, Abu Sulayman, said that “most people just want to carry weapons,” and didn’t really have any well thought out religious reasons for joining the fight.  Many of the men were disappointed with the poor organization of the militants in Iraq and disapproved of the infighting between the various Muslim groups.  The rehab process encourages them to feel victimized by propaganda and a distorted form of Islam.

One topic they especially want the men there to correctly understand is takfir, a concept in Islamic jurisprudence referring to the declaration that a fellow Muslim is an apostate and, therefore, subject to attack.  Some extremists have been applying this to the Saudi regime, which ranks up there with American support for Israel on the list of Al Qaeda’s grievances.  The Saudi Royal Family is pretty corrupt, but they rather like being in power and would really rather not have to change too much.  But they need to, if they really want to eliminate terrorism, both against their country and exported from their country, they’ve got to stop using textbooks in their schools that portray the rest of the world as being against Islam and call for a literal application of Shariah.  They also need to create better opportunities for their people.  This rehab program seems to recognize that, as it tries to reintegrate the men back into society in a productive role.

Doing that will be a better long-term solution than simply trying to blow up as many of them as possible before they blow us up, without all the collateral damage and blowback.  The Times article also gives some indications that police action may be more effective in breaking up terror cells than military force. 

In any event, there’s a lot of work to do still.  Saudi officials claim that no graduate of the program described here has returned to violent jihad.  We’ll have to see if that holds true.

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1 comment so far

  1. omegamormegil on

    Interesting. I wonder how they came up with that idea? Strange as it is, it sounds like it’s working. Perhaps this tactic could be applied to re-socialization elsewhere?


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