Talking to Terrorists Can Work

There is much talk of terrorists, and little talking to them. But a bold move in Yemen to open a dialogue with branded terrorists is bringing unexpected results.

The dialogue has been initiated by the Theological Dialogue Committee set up by the Yemeni government to talk to al-Qaeda suspects and militants who have returned from jihad in Afghanistan. Many of these have been in prison up to three years.

The dialogue aims to “re-educate” militants, says Hamoud Abdulhamid al-Hitar, a Supreme Court judge and head of the National Human Rights Organization who was picked to head the committee. The dialogue group includes five senior clerics.

Hitar claims 90 percent success in the experiment. More than 200 suspects have been freed after the committee became convinced they had given up violent ways.

“It’s similar to the work of a doctor,” Hitar told IPS. “We diagnose and we treat it. We tell them if you are right we will follow you, but if we are right you should follow us.”

The committee members find themselves talking to militants about the true concept of jihad, the need to respect the rights of non-Muslims in a Muslim country and renouncing violent ways. Hitar says their arguments are based on the Koran.

“We listen to their views in which they differ from most of the religious clerics,” Hitar says. “Then the committee tries to establish a mid-way with extreme issues on which there is no clear-cut statement in Islam.”

The committee is dealing with people who also know the Koran. “Most of them had learnt the Koran by heart and were quite knowledgeable in Islamic rules, but they misuse them,” Hitar said. “But we have been pleased by their positive responses.”

Talking in this situation is a delicate job, psychologist Nadeem al-Sharee told IPS. “You should know their mental situation and circumstances beyond their radicalism, particularly in a conservative country with a high rate of illiteracy like Yemen.”

Clerics on the committee say many of the debates with militants have been successful because the committee listens to the militants with respect. “We do not talk to them in custody, we take them to a neutral place so that they feel equal to us, and open their minds and hearts,” cleric Moqbil al-Kudhi, member of the committee told IPS.

In other moves, the militants are split into groups of five to seven for discussions. Each group is then told of positive outcomes of other group meetings.

In theological debates. militants are reminded that the Koran describes non-Muslims in a Muslim country as “people of truce.”

“The three American doctors killed in Jibla (north of Sana’a in November 2002) were an example of people of truce and they should not have feared for their lives in our country,” Hitar says. “Prophet Mohammed clearly preached about the importance of respecting such people and their rights.”

But not everyone is ready to talk or listen. The committee has invited several al-Qaeda suspects at large for discussions. “We can have a dialogue with them according to Islamic rules, even with Osama bin Laden if he is willing,” said Hitar.

It is not just bin Laden who has not turned up to talk. The al-Qaeda suspects staying away include many believed to be close to the ruling General People Congress (GPC) party.

A group calling itself the Al-Qaeda Supporters in Yemen said its members would never associate with the “tactics of the government.” It said all al-Qaeda recruits support jihad against non-Muslims who oppress Muslims.

Clerics from the Islamic opposition party Islah declined to comment on the dialogue with militants. GPC assistant general secretary Hussein al-Aidarous said some leaders and clerics of the Islah party are colluding with terrorists. “Some of them give militants shelter,” he said.

The committee is also up against many radical youths who see the government as pro-Western and failing to govern in accordance with the Koran.

The government’s peace moves are often undermined by the United States.

“U.S. mistakes in the region may inflame Muslim anger and create more extremism and hatred,” political analyst Mohammad al-Sabri told IPS. “We cannot convince militants that America is not against Islam while we see the U.S. forces inhumanely abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, and unlimited U.S. support for Israelis against Palestinians.”

Sheikh Haza’a al-Maswari, Islah party member of parliament declared at Friday prayers recently that “we cannot tell militants ‘don’t terrorize Americans’, or ‘don’t attack their interests.’ Those who plant hatred will harvest hatred.”

The dialogue is making headway despite such difficulties, officials say. “The committee’s approach is now under great demand in many countries,” says AbdulKarim al-Iryani, adviser to President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Hitar recently travelled to Britain at the invitation of the British government to share his experiences on the methods of the dialogue.

Hitar is carrying on despite several death threats. “I am not afraid of continuing the dialogue because of these threats,” he said. “I believe in what I do.”

Read more by Nabil Sultan