Im Jemen versuchen Religionsgelehrte, inhaftierte Islamisten von einem gemäßigten Islam zu überzeugen. Auch Europa interessiert sich für das Dialog-Programm. Von Kristin Helberg
Der Richter Hamoud Al-Hitar ist der Hoffnungsträger seines Landes | "Nicht-Muslime sind Ungläubige und müssen getötet werden."
Hamoud Al-Hitar, Leiter des "Komitees für den Dialog", beschreibt eine typische Diskussion zwischen Gelehrten und Gefangenen, wie er sie seit September 2002 oft erlebt hat. Mit religiösen Argumenten versuchen insgesamt 30 Imame, inhaftierte Islamisten von ihren radikalen Positionen abzubringen und von der Toleranz und Friedensbotschaft des Islam zu überzeugen.
Nach dem Motto: Reden hilft, auch gegen Terror. "Hinter jedem Terroranschlag steckt eine Ideologie, und Ideologien lassen sich nur mit anderen Ideologien bekämpfen", so Al-Hitar. Eine Ideologie mit Gewalt zu bekämpfen, verstärke diese nur.
Den Hass in Toleranz umwandeln
Der Richter ist zum Hoffnungsträger seines Landes geworden. Er soll die Brücke bauen zwischen gewaltbereiten Islamisten und einem konservativen, aber friedlichen Islam, wie er im Jemen offiziell propagiert und von der Mehrheit der Bevölkerung gelebt wird.
Entspannt sitzt Al-Hitar im Empfangsraum seines Hauses, auf dem Kopf eine weiße Kappe, auf dem Gesicht ein weises Lächeln. "So wie ein Arzt einen kranken Körper behandelt, wollen wir einen kranken Geist heilen."
Dafür müssen Al-Hitars Leute – allesamt respektierte und moderate Gelehrte – den Hass, den radikale Prediger in den jungen Leuten gesät haben, in Toleranz und Respekt umwandeln. Ein hehres Ziel. Aber lassen sich jahrelang indoktrinierte Extremisten in ein paar Diskussionsrunden bekehren?
Nicht alle, meint Al-Hitar, aber viele. "Ihr starker Glaube an Gott und den Propheten Mohammed hilft uns, denn dadurch haben sie großen Respekt vor theologischen Argumenten", sagt Al Hitar. Die Islamisten hätten lediglich einige Dinge im Islam falsch verstanden, daher ihre radikalen Ansichten.
Während der mehrmonatigen Dialogrunden geht es vor allem um drei Themen: das Konzept des Jihad, den Umgang mit Nicht-Muslimen und die Vorstellungen von einem islamischen Staat.
Dialog auf Augenhöhe
Beide Seiten argumentieren mit Koran und Sunna, die Imame bekämpfen die Islamisten also mit ihren eigenen Waffen. "Wir begegnen einander mit Respekt", sagt Al-Hitar. "Jeder hört dem anderen zu und nimmt ihn als Gesprächspartner ernst."
Der Richter bezeichnet das als "Dialog auf Augenhöhe", was Kritiker bezweifeln. "Wie kann zwischen jemandem, der unschuldig im Gefängnis sitzt und einem Richter, der ihn freilassen kann oder nicht, ein gleichberechtigtes Gespräch stattfinden?", fragt Mohammed Naji Allaw von der Menschenrechtsorganisation HOOD.
Tatsächlich haben die Teilnehmer des Dialogprogramms in der Regel keine Straftaten begangen, sondern sitzen "präventiv" im Gefängnis. Für eine Verurteilung fehlt die gesetzliche Grundlage.
Al-Hitar hilft dem jemenitischen Staat somit aus der Klemme: Statt die Extremisten aus Mangel an Beweisen freizulassen – womöglich weiter radikalisiert durch die unrechtmäßige Inhaftierung – werden sie vorher gedanklich "unschädlich" gemacht.
Woher aber wissen die Gelehrten, dass die Islamisten tatsächlich ihre Meinung geändert haben? "Viele tun nur so, um entlassen zu werden", vermutet Menschenrechtsanwalt Allaw.
Al-Hitar ist sich jedoch sicher, dass die Gefangenen ihre Ansichten aus Überzeugung widerrufen und nicht, um frei zu kommen. Denn als gläubige Muslime fühlten sie sich vor Gott verantwortlich – und der ließe sich nicht täuschen.
364 Inhaftierte hätten das Gefängnis bereits auf Bewährung verlassen, so der Richter. Dazu schwören sie einen Eid auf ihre neuen Ansichten und unterschreiben eine Vereinbarung.
Auch Gerhard Schröder interessiert sich für das Dialogprogramm mit inhaftierten Islamisten | Anschließend werde jeder Freigelassene zweifach überwacht: vom Geheimdienst und von den Gelehrten. "Unsere Leute treffen ihn regelmäßig, um seine Ansichten zu überprüfen und wenn nötig zu korrigieren", erklärt Al-Hitar. "Der Geheimdienst kontrolliert, ob er sich an die Gesetze hält." Bis heute habe keiner der Entlassenen gegen die Vereinbarungen verstoßen.
Der Erfolg zeigt Wirkung. Nach anfänglicher Skepsis stößt das Experiment nun auch in Europa auf Interesse. Bei seinem Besuch in Sanaa Anfang März 2005 ließ sich Bundeskanzler Schröder ausführlich von Al-Hitar berichten. Im Umgang mit Islamisten könnte die seit Jahrzehnten intensive deutsch-jemenitische Entwicklungszusammenarbeit dann mal andersherum laufen: Die Deutschen lernen von den Jemeniten.
© Qantara.de 2005
Religious scholars in Yemen are trying to persuade imprisoned Islamists to pursue a more moderate approach to Islam. Europe is also showing interest in the innovatove dialogue program. By Kristin Helberg
The only way to fight ideologies is to offer alternative ideologies, says Al-Hitar | "Non-Muslims are infidels and must be killed." "Why?" "Because Mohammed said: Pursue them and kill them until they acknowledge God." "That's not right." "Why not?" "Because you can't force someone to have faith. - The relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims rests on security and peace. There are 124 suras on this subject in the Koran and only one says to make war on them if they make war on you. So violence is only allowed in self-defense in the case of war."
Hamoud Al-Hitar, director of Yemen's "Dialogue Committee," is describing here a typical discussion between a scholar and a prisoner, the like of which he has experienced often since September 2002.
A total of 30 imams are endeavoring to talk imprisoned Islamists out of their radical positions by using religious arguments and convincing them of Islam's message of tolerance and peace.
Their motto is: Talking helps, even against terror. "Behind every terror attack is an ideology, and the only way to fight ideologies is to offer alternative ideologies," says Al-Hitar. Trying to fight an ideology using violence will only serve to further entrench it.
Transforming hate into tolerance
Yemen is now pinning its hopes on the judge. He intends to build a bridge between violence-advocating Islamists and a conservative, yet peaceful Islam, as it is officially propagated in Yemen and lived by the majority of the population.
Al-Hitar sits, relaxed, in the reception room of his home, a white cap on his head, and on his face an all-knowing smile. "Just as a doctor treats a sick body, we heal a sick spirit."
To do so, Al-Hitar's team – all of them respected and moderate scholars – must transform the hate that radical preachers have sown in the young people into tolerance and respect. A noble goal. But is it possible that just a few rounds of talks can change the minds of extremists who have been indoctrinated for years?
Not all of them, says Al-Hitar, but many. "Their strong belief in God and the prophet Mohammed helps us, because it gives them great respect for theological arguments," says Al Hitar. In his opinion, the Islamists have merely misunderstood a few things about Islam, leading to their radical viewpoints.
During the months-long rounds of dialogue, the focus is on three main themes: the concept of Jihad, how to treat non-Muslims, and the visions of an Islamic state.
Dialogue at eye level
Both sides back their arguments using the Koran and Sunna, which means the imams can fight the Islamists using their own weapons. "We treat each other with mutual respect," says Al-Hitar. "Each person listens to what the other has to say and takes him seriously as an equal partner in the dialogue."
The judge describes this as a "dialogue at eye level," but critics are skeptical. "How can a dialogue on equal terms take place between someone who has been falsely accused and imprisoned and a judge who has the power to release him or not?" asks Mohammed Naji Allaw from the human rights organization HOOD.
It is in fact true that the participants in the dialogue program usually have committed no crime and are instead sitting in prison as a "preventive" measure. There is no legal basis on which to convict them.
Al-Hitar is thus helping the Yemeni government out of a tight corner: instead of releasing extremists for lack of evidence – people who have possibly become even more radical as a result of their unjust imprisonment – they are first intellectually "disarmed."
Development work in reverse?
But how do the scholars know if the Islamists have really had a change of faith? "Many just act that way in order to be released," suspects human rights lawyer Allaw.
Al-Hitar, however, is certain that the prisoners recant their views out of conviction and not just to get out of prison. After all, as devout Muslims they feel responsible before God – and He cannot be fooled.
German chancellor Schröder has shown interest in the dialogue program for imprisoned Islamists | The judge reports that 364 prisoners have already been released on parole. They must swear an oath to their new beliefs and sign an agreement.
Afterward, every freed prisoner is kept under double surveillance: by the secret service and the scholars. "Our people meet with him regularly to check on his views and, if necessary, to correct them," explains Al-Hitar. "The secret service makes sure he is obeying the law." As of today, none of those released has violated the agreement.
The success is showing an impact. After initial skepticism, the Yemeni experiment is now arousing interest in Europe. During his visit to Sanaa in early March 2005, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder met with Al-Hitar to hear detailed reports of the program.
When it comes to dealing with Islamists, the decades-long intensive German-Yemeni development work might now be reversed: with the Germans learning from the Yemenis.
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German: J ennifer Taylor-Gaida
Judge Hamoud al-Hitar praised:
The Dialogue Committee is known internationally
|By Peter Willems Yemen Times Staff|
It was announced this week that the head of Yemen’s Dialogue Committee Judge Hamoud Al-Hitar has been invited to travel to Paris.
Hitar, who has been the chairman of the Dialogue Committee since it was established in the fall of 2002, said that the French government has asked him to share information on the committee’s method of working with detained militants.
“France has shown interest in fighting terrorism through dialogue,” Al-Hitar told the Yemen Times. “Their interest in our method asserts the importance of using dialogue, which shows that using dialogue is one of the strongest ways to fight terrorism.”
A number of countries are showing interest in the approach being used by the Dialogue Committee in Yemen. Al-Hitar said that he is being contacted by governments from different parts of the world to inquire about the committee’s practices. Al-Hitar traveled to Great Britain last February and May to share his experience holding dialogue with suspects of radical Islamic groups. He was also invited last spring to attend the conference of Higher Council for Islamic Affairs in Cairo.
“It is our objective while visiting France or other countries to share our methods, results and benefits of using dialogue,” Al-Hitar said.
The Dialogue Committee aims at steering extremists away from violence and accepting tolerance and people living together in peace. A militant is released if persuaded after going through a number of sessions of dialogue.
Last month, the Yemeni government released 113 detainees allegedly being a part of the Al-Qaeda international terrorist network, including at least five who were accused of being involved in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.
Fifteen suspects convicted last August of being involved in the attack on the USS Cole at the port of Aden, which killed 17 US sailors, were not released. In the same month, five militants were found guilty of participating in the bombing of the French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen in 2002 that killed one crew member and unloaded 90,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden.
Since the Dialogue Committee was established two years ago, 346 suspects have been released.
Around 175 followers of the Believing Youth, a renegade organization once founded by radical cleric Hussein Al-Houthi who was killed last September after three months of fighting between his followers and government forces in north Yemen, are expected to be released in the near future. Al-Hitar said that the members of the organization have been persuaded to reject violence, but the Yemeni government is still following up on investigations to guarantee no criminal acts have been committed. It has been reported that up to 350 members of the Believing Youth are being detained.
“Al-Hitar is a brave man to carry out dialogue with suspects, someone we definitely respect,” said a foreign diplomat based in Yemen. “It seems that the process has some success.”
Government security monitors those that have been released, and the Dialogue Committee carries out follow-up sessions once detainees have been freed. The committee is also putting together a program that will help those released reintegrate into society. The assistance program will offer help in finding jobs and adjusting to be reintegrated into society.
The Dialogue Committee’s unique method of working with suspects believed to be sympathetic to Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups has been operating at the same time the government has been increasing security nationwide. Since the government joined the United States to fight terror soon after the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, security forces have rounded up hundreds of terrorist suspects, including key members of Al-Qaeda.
Fighting through listening
On Sunday Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul-Qader Bajammal declared that 90 per cent of Al-Qa'eda cells have been dismantled in Yemen. Although Bajammal's claim has not been confirmed, it is known that Yemeni security forces, in cooperation with the United States, have captured top Al-Qa'eda members and have rounded up hundreds of suspects, including those believed to have been involved in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the French tanker Limburg two years later.
But the Yemeni government also has an alternative, controversial approach to fighting terrorism. The Dialogue Committee, headed by Judge Hamoud Al-Hitar, tries to steer alleged Al-Qa'eda supporters away from violence towards a focus on peace and tolerance using the Holy Qur'an as a tool and guide.
According to Al-Hitar, the committee is now reaching out. "We are ready to have dialogue with any Al-Qa'eda leader," Al-Hitar told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We can have dialogue to talk about the foundations of Islam, even with Osama Bin Laden if he is willing."
Two weeks ago, Abu Hamza Al-Masri, head of the London-based Ansar Al-Shari'a organisation and wanted by the Yemeni government for allegedly having links with terrorist operatives in Yemen, contacted Al-Hitar through a journalist as an intermediary. He showed an interest in opening a channel of dialogue with Al-Hitar.
"Al-Masri sent a message that told me that if he is convinced [of his error] through dialogue traced to the foundations of Islamic law, he will surrender to the Yemeni government," said Al-Hitar.
The Dialogue Committee, which was established in the fall of 2002, has dealt with over 200 alleged supporters of terrorist activities, many of whom have been released from prison on bail.
"Dialogue is a good way to get rid of terrorist thoughts that lead to terrorist actions, so it is important to get rid of extreme thoughts," said Al- Hitar. "We have dialogue with the young people to help them arrive at a good understanding of Islam on a solid foundation."
Al-Hitar gave an example of using dialogue to discuss jihad. He said he uses verses of the Holy Qur'an to prove that jihad is for protecting one's land if occupied, but not to attack others elsewhere.
The committee's successes have drawn some interest. The British Foreign Office invited Al-Hitar to discuss his methods in London. Meanwhile, he will be attending a four-day conference of the Higher Council for Islamic Affairs that begins in Cairo on 28 April.
But some are wary of using dialogue to change extremists into moderates. "This might be an effective way of changing their belief that violence is the answer," said a foreign diplomat in Yemen, "but it might be risky. They may claim that they are convinced just to be freed and follow their previous path."
Al-Hitar should also be concerned about his safety. He said that he has received numerous death threats since he started the dialogue project. But he also said that such threats will not stop him.
"I am not afraid of conducting dialogue," said Al- Hitar. "No one should be afraid if he believes in Islam, because Islam is a religion based on peace and tolerance."
Mind over militants
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.
Koranic duels ease terror
Nervous as he faced five captured, yet defiant, Al Qaeda members in a Sanaa prison, Judge Hitar was inclined to agree. But banishing his doubts, the youthful cleric threw down the gauntlet, in the hope of bringing peace to his troubled homeland."If you can convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in your struggle," Hitar told the militants. "But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence."
The prisoners eagerly agreed.
Now, two years later, not only have those prisoners been released, but a relative peace reigns in Yemen. And the same Western experts who doubted this experiment are courting Hitar, eager to hear how his "theological dialogues" with captured Islamic militants have helped pacify this wild and mountainous country, previously seen by the US as a failed state, like Iraq and Afghanistan.
"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," says Hitar, eyes glinting shrewdly from beneath his emerald-green turban. "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."
"Yemen's strategy has been unconventional certainly, but it has achieved results that we could never have hoped for," says one European diplomat, who did not want to be named. "Yemen has gone from being a potential enemy to becoming an indispensable ally in the war on terror."
To be sure, the prisoner-release program is not solely responsible for the absence of attacks in Yemen. The government has undertaken a range of measures to combat terrorism from closing down extreme madrassahs, the Islamic schools sometimes accused of breeding hate, to deporting foreign militants.
Eager to spread the news of his success, Hitar welcomes foreigners into his home, fussing over them and pouring endless cups of tea. But beyond the otherwise nondescript house, a sense of menace lurks. Two military jeeps are parked outside, and soldiers peer through the gathering dark at passing cars. The evening wind sweeps through the unpaved streets, lifting clouds of dust and whipping up men's jackets to expose belts hung with daggers, pistols, and mobile telephones.
Seated amid stacks of Korans and religious texts, Hitar explains that his system is simple. He 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.
For example, he quotes: "Whoever kills a soul, unless for a soul, or for corruption done in the land - it is as if he had slain all mankind entirely. And, whoever saves one, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely." He uses the passage to bolster his argument against bombing Western targets in Yemen - attacks he says defy the Koran. And, he says, the Koran says under no circumstances should women and children be killed.
If, after weeks of debate, the prisoners renounce violence they are released and offered vocational training courses and help to find jobs.
Hitar's belief that hardened militants trained by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan could change their stripes was initially dismissed by US diplomats in Sanaa as dangerously naive, but the methods of the scholarly cleric have little in common with the other methods of fighting extremism. Instead of lecturing or threatening the battle-hardened militants, he listens to them.
"An important part of the dialogue is mutual respect," says Hitar. "Along with acknowledging freedom of expression, intellect and opinion, you must listen and show interest in what the other party is saying."
Only after winning the militants' trust does Hitar gradually begin to correct their beliefs. He says that most militants are ordinary people who have been led astray. Just as they were taught Al Qaeda's doctrines, he says, so too can they be taught more- moderate ideas. "If you study terrorism in the world, you will see that it has an intellectual theory behind it," says Hitar. "And any kind of intellectual idea can be defeated by intellect."
The program's success surprised even Hitar. For years Yemen was synonymous with violent Islamic extremism. The ancestral homeland of Mr. bin Laden, it provided two-thirds of recruits for his Afghan camps, and was notorious for kidnappings of foreigners and the bombing of the American warship USS Cole in 2000 that killed 17 sailors. Resisting US pressure, Yemen declined to meet violence with violence.
"It's only logical to tackle these people through their brains and heart," says Faris Sanabani, a former adviser to President Abdullah Saleh and editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer, a weekly English-language newspaper. "If you beat these people up they become more stubborn. If you hit them, they will enjoy the pain and find something good in it - it is a part of their ideology. Instead, what we must do is erase what they have been taught and explain to them that terrorism will only harm Yemenis' jobs and prospects. Once they understand this they become fighters for freedom and democracy, and fighters for the true Islam," he says.
Some freed militants were so transformed that they led the army to hidden weapons caches and offered the Yemeni security services advice on tackling Islamic militancy. A spectacular success came in 2002 when Abu Ali al Harithi, Al Qaeda's top commander in Yemen, was assassinated by a US air-strike following a tip-off from one of Hitar's reformed militants.
Yet despite the apparent success in Yemen, some US diplomats have criticized it for apparently letting Islamic militants off the hook with little guarantee that they won't revert to their old ways once released from prison.
Yemen, however, argues that holding and punishing all militants would create only further discontent, pointing out that the actual perpetrators of attacks have all been prosecuted, with the bombers of the USS Cole and the French oil tanker, the SS Limburg. All received death sentences.
"Yemeni goals are long-term political aims whereas the American agenda focuses on short-term prosecution of military or law enforcement objectives," wrote Charles Schmitz, a specialist in Yemeni affairs, in 2004 report for the Jamestown Foundation, an influential US think tank.
"These goals are not necessarily contradictory, with each government recognizing that compromises and accommodations must be made, but their ambiguities create tense moments."
Some members of the Yemeni government also hanker for a more iron-fisted approach, and Yemen remains on high alert for further attacks. Fighter planes regularly swoop low over the ancient mud-brick city of Sanaa to send a clear message to any would-be militants.
An additional cause of friction with the US is that while Yemen successfully discourages attacks within its borders on the grounds that tourism and trade will suffer, it has done little to tackle anti-Western sentiment or the corruption, poverty, and lack of opportunity that fuels Islamic militancy.
"Yemen still faces serious challenges, but despite the odd hiccup, we sometimes have to admit that Yemenis know Yemen best," says the European diplomat. "And if their system works, who are we to complain?"
As the relative success of Yemen's unusual approach becomes apparent, Hitar has been invited to speak to antiterrorism specialists at London's New Scotland Yard, as well as to French and German police, hoping to defuse growing militancy among Muslim immigrants.
US diplomats have also approached the cleric to see if his methods can be applied in Iraq, says Hitar.
"Before the dialogues began, there was only one way to fight terrorism, and that was through force," he says. "Now there is another way: dialogue."
Der Richter und der Fanatiker
Im Dialog gegen Terror
Ein Film von Dagmar Diebels und Tom Meffert
Redaktion: Barbara Schmitz
Es ist ein Dialog besonderer Art: Über Jahre treffen sich ein Richter und ein inhaftierter Afghanistankämpfer. Ihr Thema: Darf ein Moslem Nicht-Muslime töten? Rechtfertigt der Koran Terror-Anschläge? Die Begegnung der beiden steht im Zentrum der "story".
Richter Hamoud al Hitar ist ein mutiger Mann. Als der jemenitische Staatspräsident im August 2002 die Religionsgelehrten des Landes dazu auffordert, mit radikalen, inhaftierten Muslimen über den Islam zu diskutieren, ist er der Einzige, der zustimmt. Alle anderen haben Angst als Verräter zu gelten, fürchten um ihr Leben. Doch der Richter erkennt, welche Chance in der alten Tradition des Dialogs liegt. Er ist davon überzeugt, die Fanatiker mit ihren eigenen Argumenten schlagen zu können. "Sie verstehen den Islam nicht richtig. Ich bin der Meinung, dass sich fast alle terroristischen Aktionen auf ideologische Gründe zurückführen lassen. Ideologische Probleme kann man mit Gewalt nicht lösen. Gewalt macht solche Überzeugungen nur stärker und deren Anhänger härter."
Der ehemalige Al Qaida-Kämpfer Raschad hat das Angebot von Richter Hamoud al Hitar angenommen. Seine Bedingung war, dass man ihn und seine Argumente ernst nahm. Zwei Jahre lang hat er über seine Sicht des Islam diskutiert. Inzwischen hat er der Gewalt abgeschworen und wurde freigelassen, ist aber noch unter polizeilicher Beobachtung. Die Autoren Dagmar Diebels und Tom Meffert begleiten für "die story" den Richter und den Fanatiker und zeigen, dass eine Diskussion über den Islam und über Gewaltbereitschaft sowohl schwierig wie möglich ist.