Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone is on a mission to promote to promote “religious enlightenment.” The programs he oversees as commander of U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, are designed to shape Iraqi detainees and “bend them back to our will.” It sounds like Stalinism.
The idea of rehabilitating jihadists isn’t new; this just sounds like a somewhat mangled version of a program that was devised in Yemen and has been applied with great success. Yet the philosophical approach is profoundly different. Contrast Stone’s aim of bending wills in what he calls “the battlefield of the mind,” with the approach masterminded by former judge Hamoud Abdulhameed al-Hittar, who is now the Minister of Human Rights in Yemen.
This is how Hittar lays the foundation for his work:
Dialogue is a part of human nature. The first step in the creation of human beings was dialogue.
The Qur’an addresses the idea of dialogue with people we don’t agree with. The Pharaoh called himself a god. He said that he was the creator of Mankind. And even then, God granted a dialogue with the Pharaoh. This is an example for us to talk with people, regardless of how bad they are. No matter how much we agree or disagree with them, we should not avoid talking with them.
It is under this principle, that we dialogue with the people from Afghanistan [returning jihadists]. In the tradition found in all religious scriptures, as transmitted by Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Jonas, etc., dialogue is a necessity.
The Committee for Dialogue that Hittar started operates on principles that the war on terrorism has never embraced, yet it is an approach to counter terrorism that is both effective and stunning in its simplicity. This is how it has been described:
Expecting little and hoping for the best, the members of the Committee outlined an approach to dialogue with the detainees that would turn out to be as effective as it was simple. The process of dialogue between the clerics and the radical Islamists is founded on a single-page manual. This interesting document differs from any Western interrogation manual both in size, scope and working principle. The foundation of the dialogue is equality and respect; literally a conversation between individuals of equal standing. The basic fact that one party in the dialogue was behind bars appears not to have had much influence on the process. The manual is simple in the extreme in that it stresses the need for mutual respect and recognition, courteous behavior and a duty to speak the truth, common definition of goals and methods, recognition of differences and agreement to revert to common ground when the dialogue stalls. As such the manual more resembles a form of social contract than an interrogation checklist, which it is certainly not.
In this context, it would be misleading to speak of an interrogation. The dialogue is decoupled from whatever questioning and interaction that takes place between the detainees and the intelligence and security services. The basic pre-requisite is voluntary participation; coercion does not serve any purpose in this setting. For this reason the content of the manual is presented to the detainees and the topics and format is discussed until mutual agreement has been reached.
At the first meeting between the detainees and the clerics there is the unavoidable suspicion that must be dealt with immediately. Not surprisingly, the detainees have been quite skeptical about the motives of the clerics and have often bluntly enquired into their “true” motives. The clerics would then proceed to explain that the purpose of the visit was to initiate a dialogue to exchange views on important matters of mutual interest, although seen from different angles. Knowing fully well the detainees’ obsession with religion, it was explicitly stated that the foundation of the dialogue would be the Qur’an and the Sunnah and nothing else.
The way to attract their interest was through the proposal of an all or nothing deal. The clerics who approached the detainees insisted that the dialogue would center on the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. If the detainees could persuade the clerics of the legitimacy of their Jihad they would join them. If not, the detainees would have to give up the idea of armed struggle. Somewhat surprisingly to the clerics, the detainees were eager to accept the deal. However, their arrogance and zeal was seldom matched by their knowledge of the scriptures, and in the end they were not able to present a convincing concept of Jihad based on the authoritative sources. Over time it was proven that the legitimacy of Jihad as outlined by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda does not stand up to close scrutiny.
To some degree, the US military is attempt to apply some of the lessons learned from Hittar’s approach. At the same time, a fundamental presupposition is missing: that respect and the willingness to engage in dialogue are the foundations for human relations.