Judge Hamood Al-Hitar: Dialogue as antidote to fanaticism

(Via Reason mag’s HitandRun)

“If you can convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in your struggle,” Judge al-Hitar tells militants. “But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence.” According to the story, Al-Hitar “invites militants to use the Koran to justify attacks on innocent civilians and when they cannot, he shows them numerous passages commanding Muslims not to attack civilians, to respect other religions, and fight only in self-defense.” The exchanges may last for weeks. If prisoners renounce their Islamist views, they are released.

The judge himself notes that, “Since December 2002, when the first round of the dialogues ended, there have been no terrorist attacks here, even though many people thought that Yemen would become terror’s capital. Three hundred and sixty-four young men have been released after going through the dialogues and none of these have left Yemen to fight anywhere else.” . . .

Koranic duels ease terror, by James Brandon. Christian Science MonitorFeb. 4, 2005.

The soft-spoken Hitar, who quotes liberally from the Koran, said his team had so far held two dialogue sessions for almost 200 militants, mostly detainees and radicals who surrendered.

A third session, with some 250 suspects, is under way.

Sessions can last up to a year and involve lengthy discussions aimed at proving Islam preaches peace. Many of the participants fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and then joined Al Qaeda.

Participants who espouse this “right” thinking sign an oath to revoke violence. They are then released and, to ensure the programme’s success, put under surveillance for several months.

Hitar admits most participants are not the die-hard Al Qaeda militants which Yemen is hunting down. But he points out the sessions have helped to reduce the number of smaller attacks, especially against security forces.

“Yemen judge wields Holy Koran to battle Al Qaeda”, by Miral Fahmy. Jordan Times, Reuters, Monday, January 12, 2004

See Also: Judge Hamoud al-Hitar praised, Peter Willems. Yemen Times Feb. 8, 2005.
* * *

I saw an interesting film last month — The Hamburg Cell. It is probably one of the more intelligent movies I’ve seen in the genre of 9/11 films (Review by Jamie Russell, Channel4.com):

“When the world talks about the men who carried out this holy operation they will be talking about the men who changed the course of history,” exclaims a senior Al Qaeda member in this fictional docu-drama from director Antonia Bird. Charting the planning and execution of the World Trade Center attacks by a handful of Muslim fundamentalists led by Mohamed Atta (Kamel), The Hamburg Cell is a devastatingly powerful work that puts faces and personalities to the men who carried out the attacks against the US on the fateful morning of September 11th.

Based on a wide range of documentary evidence, from court transcriptions to video footage, this simmering yet understated little movie focuses on Lebanese student Ziad Jarrah (Saleh) as he’s transformed from rich-boy student at the University of Applied Science in Hamburg to jihadist hijacker of United Airlines flight 93 (which crashed en route to the White House shortly after simultaneous attacks struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon).

The movie was highly controversial because it bestowed a human face on the 9/11 attackers — it does not condone their actions, but neither does it demonize them. One of the chief lessons that The Hamburg Cell tried to convey was that militant Islamic terrorists aren’t made overnight. There is usually a gradual psychological process of recruitment and philosophical indoctrination, an internal engagement of conflicting ideas. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for those already disillusioned by the false promises of secular culture to develop an appreciation for the potent arguments of Islamic fundamentalism. And it is precisely at this stage of recruitment that the war on terror could use more people like Judge al-Hitar. To echo Paul Berman’s challenge in “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror” New York Times March 23, 2003):

It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas — it would be nice to think that someone is arguing with the terrorists and with the readers of Sayyid Qutb. But here I have my worries. The followers of Qutb speak, in their wild fashion, of enormous human problems, and they urge one another to death and to murder. But the enemies of these people speak of what? The political leaders speak of United Nations resolutions, of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and noncoercion. This is no answer to the terrorists. The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse.

But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society’s every failure? . . . Philosophers and religious leaders will have to do this on their own. Are they doing so? Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding — one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all.

There will always be those who are well beyond the reach of “dialogue” and disputation, and circumstances will certainly merit a justified use of military force. But alongside the force of arms, we had better pay attention to the philosophers and religious leaders who — like Judge al-Hitar — are winning the intellectual battles.

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