Archive for the ‘New York Times’ Tag

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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New York Times adds Obama to long list of presidential candidates they’ve endorsed

In a move that I’m sure will surprise absolutely no one, the New York Times has endorsed Barack Obama for president.

Mr. Obama has met challenge after challenge, growing as a leader and putting real flesh on his early promises of hope and change. He has shown a cool head and sound judgment. We believe he has the will and the ability to forge the broad political consensus that is essential to finding solutions to this nation’s problems.

The editors also praise Obama for promising to “restore a climate in which workers are able to organize unions if they wish,” a probable reference to the very undemocratic card check system, which I blogged about critically here and here. The measure in question would reduce worker’s ability to decide whether or not to unionize and it has garnered opposition from both conservatives and liberals.

They take McCain to task for wanting to make permanent the tax cuts for higher earners that he previously said were fiscally irresponsible, “and while he talks about keeping taxes low for everyone, his proposed cuts would overwhelmingly benefit the top 1 percent of Americans while digging the country into a deeper fiscal hole.” While they credit McCain, who they said was the best Republican candidate during the primaries, with taking tough positions on climate change and other previous issues, they have some harsh criticism:

Senator John McCain of Arizona has retreated farther and farther to the fringe of American politics, running a campaign on partisan division, class warfare and even hints of racism. His policies and worldview are mired in the past. His choice of a running mate so evidently unfit for the office was a final act of opportunism and bad judgment that eclipsed the accomplishments of 26 years in Congress.

This blog has been a critic of Sarah Palin’s selection and considers it a gimmick by McCain, a decision calculated to secure the votes of social conservatives, not to promote good government. That she could become president if something happens to McCain is troubling; what his willingness to take that risk says about his governing style is more troubling. It is the opinion of this blog that Governor Palin’s inclusion on the ticket is a significant reason to question McCain’s suitability to be president.

The Times provided historical context and information on all of their previous presidential endorsements, back to Abraham Lincoln in 1860; they provide pdf files of the actual editorials. The reason that no one, I trust, was surprised by their endorsement of Obama is that the paper hasn’t supported a Republican candidate since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.

The New York Times endorsed this man over FDR.  Had he won, he'd have been the only president besides Millard Fillmore with double Ls in both his first and last name.

The New York Times endorsed this man over FDR. Had he won, he'd have been the only president besides Millard Fillmore with double Ls in both his first and last name.

Interestingly, the New York Times endorsed Thomas Dewey, governor of New York, over Harry Truman in 1948. Fortunately, they didn’t run with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman!” as some other papers did. They also supported Wendell Willkie over Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, though they endorsed FDR in his other three bids. On account of the Willkie endorsement, Grover Cleveland is the only candidate that the paper has endorsed three consecutive times. Given the term limits which now exist and the difficulty of running again after you’ve lost an election, it is unlikely that the paper will endorse another candidate three consecutive times.

Since supporting Woodrow Wilson in 1912, the paper has supported the Democratic candidate 21 out of 25 times, though their first six endorsements all went to Republicans (who all subsequently won).