Thursday, May 27, 2004

Two steps forward...

One step forward, or Brother's Keeper, Part III.v

Elizabeth Evans, "The Judge Who Converts Terrorists," Slate, 18 May 2004.
Over the last year or so, the government of Yemen has released 182 captured Islamist militants. Thus far, their rate of recidivism is zero.
Violent fundamentalism in Yemen was first sparked by the so-called Afghan Arabs. Like so many young men from Arab countries, thousands of Yemenis went to Afghanistan in the '80s to fight the Soviet Union. The Soviet empire collapsed as they nipped at its underbelly, and they returned to Yemen fired up by their victory and eager to recruit. By 2002, the government had arrested hundreds of militants, and in August of that year President Saleh invited a group of Islamic and legal scholars to talk about what to do with them. [Judge Hamood Al-Hitar, the man responsible for letting the prisoners go] was the youngest of the scholars, and, he says, the least learned. He had stirred controversy once before: In 1985, when he was a criminal court judge in Sanaa, he passed a death sentence on two Muslims who had killed a Jew. Yemen's tiny Jewish minority were second-class citizens, and meting out such harsh punishment for murdering a Jew was until then unheard of. Even earlier in his career, Al-Hitar was something of a campus firebrand. "He was one of the brightest students in the faculty of Sharia [religious law]," said Abdo Ali Othman, who has been a sociology professor at Sanaa University for the last 28 years and was for several years the dean of students. In the late '70s, Al-Hitar preached in mosques on and off campus, and after he graduated, he would return to speak at the faculty club on Fridays. "He talked about inflation, social problems, youth, unemployment," said Othman. "He's open-minded."

The president asked the scholars to talk to the prisoners about the latter's wayward interpretation of Islam. The scholars tried to figure out what to do but were afraid that the militants still on the loose would claim they were agents of the United States. "But the biggest problem," Al-Hitar said, "was the fear that we might be assassinated, as happened to Sheik Zahabi in Egypt." His reference to an incident that occurred in 1977 shows the long shadow cast by a single act of violence. Sheik Mohammed Hussein Zahabi was a prominent scholar from the venerable Islamic University of Al Azhar who served as Egypt's minister of religious endowments. An extremist put a bullet through his eye for being a part of Anwar Sadat's liberalizing government.

After fruitless meetings among the scholars, Al-Hitar decided to take on the task of talking to the prisoners himself. He picked four fellow judges, and at their first session they met with 104 prisoners in a Sanaa jail. "I was apprehensive," Al-Hitar said. Guards urged the scholars, for their own safety, to remove their jambiyas before entering the room, but Al-Hitar refused.

He presented the prisoners with a series of questions and proposed to debate them based only on the Quran and the hadith, or ways of the prophet. The first question was, "Is Yemen an Islamic nation?" The prisoners said no; Al-Hitar said yes. He gave them copies of Yemen's constitution and legal code and volunteered to change anything they could find that was un-Islamic. They came up with nothing. Al-Hitar next brought up Yemen's alliances with the United States and other non-Islamic countries. "Nations have treaties with other nations," he told them. "Even the prophet did, in his time." When the prisoners objected to the existence of vice, he told them that vice existed even in early Islamic times—otherwise, the Muslim caliphates would never have developed criminal law.

The scholars and the prisoners discussed whether President Saleh had the right to lead the country, whether war was justified, and whether killing non-Muslims was allowed. (The judge's answers: Yes; only if you are attacked first; and no.) Al-Hitar has told captives that as a member of the United Nations, Yemen is honor-bound not to attack other countries, and even if another nation has harmed Yemen, only the government has the right to retaliate.

What becomes clear from talking to Al-Hitar is that a crucial component of his success with the prisoners is convincing them of the legitimacy of the state. There is an appeal to Yemeni tribalism in all this: As part of the tribe, you must honor its promises. But this reliance on the notion of rightful leadership suggests the Yemeni model cannot spread across the Middle East. In a part of the world where legitimacy is highly relative, Yemen's government looks pretty good. President Saleh ran virtually unopposed in the 1999 election and is grooming his son to be his successor. But he is also a genius at balancing competing interests, not least by letting the leaders of the religious Islah Party play a role in government. His cult of personality is small, and the press in Yemen is fairly free. In other words, you can make a case here that the government is the right one, and a disaffected young zealot might take you seriously. This would be much harder to achieve in Egypt, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia.

As to whether Islamic dialogue can cure fanaticism locally, many Yemenis I've talked to think Al-Hitar's methods work, but mostly on the margins. That is, the men he is winning over are not the die-hards. He has probably stopped some low-level attacks, but he wouldn't be able to convert Osama Bin Laden. (Although the judge has stated publicly that he would talk to Bin Laden if Bin Laden were willing.)

But even small successes are victories when it comes to fighting fanaticism. Al-Hitar will soon meet with a new group of prisoners for more of what he calls "intellectual surgery." His faith in his methods is secure: "The pen and the tongue that God has granted you can achieve more than all the weapons in the world."
Another step forward
Holly Lebowitz Rossi, "Muslim Group Launches `Not in the Name of Islam' Petition Drive," Religion News Service via Beliefnet, 14 May 2004.
A national Muslim civil rights and advocacy group has launched an online petition drive that aims to distinguish between the violent deeds of terrorists who act in the name of Islam and the tenets of the faith itself.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations announced "Not in the Name of Islam" Thursday (May 13) as its latest effort to combat what it calls "misperceptions of Islam and that faith's stance on religiously motivated terror."

"Those who commit acts of terror, murder and cruelty in the name of Islam are not only destroying innocent lives, but are also betraying the values of the faith they claim to represent," the petition says.

It continues, "We repudiate and dissociate ourselves from any Muslim group or individual who commits such brutal and un-Islamic acts."

Particularly in the wake of the videotaped beheading of American contractor Nick Berg by militants linked to al-Qaida, CAIR believes current events demand that Muslims communicate to the world that they do not condone violence.

"We hope this effort will demonstrate once and for all that Muslims in America and throughout the Islamic world reject violence committed in the name of Islam," said Omar Ahmad, CAIR's board chairman.

In addition to the petition drive, CAIR published a commentary in a number of newspapers across the country, titled "Judge Us Not by Un-Islamic Acts of Few."
(Jeet's note - the first comment reads, "They (sic) knife cuts both ways.")

Not quite one more
Eugene Volokh, "So is Anti-Zionism = Anti-Semitism or not?" The Volokh Conspiracy, 24 May 2004.
[N]ote the logic of the CAIR release: Hostility to political arguments that benefit Palestinians, and that defend Palestinian claims, is, in CAIR's view, racial and religious bigotry. When such hostility leads to physical attacks, that makes it a hate crime. Presumably when the hostility leads to verbal criticism, that would still (even in CAIR's view) be constitutionally protected speech, but it would still be racial and religious bigotry.

If that's so, then under CAIR's own reasoning, anti-Zionism would indeed be anti-Semitism. After all, one would say, "Because of the ethnic and religious nature of [pro-Zionist speech] and its sponsors," strident criticisms of such speech should be treated as bigoted speech (or, if they lead to physical attacks, as hate crimes). "[Religiously Jewish] and [ethnically Jewish] students should feel safe in exercising their First Amendment rights, free of intimidation or harassment."
CAIR...thinks that enmity towards one side in the Israeli-Palestinian debate is indeed religiously and ethnically bigoted. It seems that under their logic, enmity towards the other side is bigoted as well.