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The War Within Islam ( 1 Oct 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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How Saudis are fighting extremism and terrorism

By Khalid Qasmi

While the world is engaged in dealing with terrorism in various ways, suitable to each country and region as per its circumstances and interests, Saudi Arabia has been quietly and successfully tackling the menace of extremism and terrorism in its own way, defending at the same time against all those who never miss an opportunity to raise finger against Saudis for terror related events. The success of Saudi strategy has proved their detractors wrong and is beginning to win appreciation and recognition worldwide and even among the opponents.

Historically, the Saudi fight against terror and extremism began much before 9/11 and goes back to 1979, when a group of extremists occupied the Holy Mosque in Makka. Then in 1995 and 1996, two terror attacks took place in Riyadh and Al-Khobar. Saudi Arabia has until now faced 30 terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 90 civilians and inured 439 of them. The country has lost 70 of its security personals in its fight against terrorism while around 667 of them were injured. Saudi authorities have released four lists of 166 most wanted terrorists and put on trial around 991 extremists for having links with Al-Qaida. Saudi Arabia was the first country to freeze the assets of Osama bin Laden. The Kingdom was also the first member state of OIC to sign the treaty on combating International Terrorism in 2000. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz said in his speech at the OIC summit in Malaysia in 2003. “Islam is innocent of violence, hatred and terrorism. It is a religion of kindness, mercy and tolerance. We should not allow a minority of deviant terrorists to tarnish its image. The bullets that kill women and children, terrorize those secure in their safety and destroy innocent communities, do not come from rifles, but from deviant thoughts and misguided interpretations of our great religion and its noble message.”

The details of this multidimensional Saudi strategy to fight extremism and terrorism and its effects on the ground have not been conveyed to the world in order to remove the misconceptions about Saudis on terror. Hence, the biases against them or misconceptions continue even today though in a relatively lesser extent. Details of this strategy have been appearing in Arabic newspapers, magazines and books time and again, but not much of information is available in other languages especially in the English language. Recently I came across a detailed article by Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Carnegie Middle East Program of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The paper “Saudi Arabia’s Counter Terrorism Strategy” throws light on the details of Saudi Strategy to fight terrorism and extremism in a comprehensive way.

 This strategy aims to combat extremism and terrorism through prevention, rehabilitation and care. The entire State machinery, from schools to mosques, to local and provincial administrations, the mass media and social service providers and organizations, play their entrusted responsibilities in this fight against terrorism and extremism. With active participation from vital ministries and government establishments, namely the Ministries of Interior, Islamic Affairs, Endowment, Dawa and Guidance, Education, Higher Education, Culture and Information, Labor and Social Affairs,  the Saudi strategy that has been active only for the past six years, has achieved very positive and encouraging results.

 The Kingdom’s efforts to confront terrorism and extremism on the levels of both  the ideology and security has won appreciation of international community and a number of countries like Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia have adopted similar programs of prevention, rehabilitation and engagement in order to fight terrorism and extremism. The U.S, U.K and some other western countries have also launched programs that are directly or indirectly influenced by Saudi experience in tackling extremism and terrorism. The fact is that military action might be successful in eliminating some terrorists here and there but it is not comprehensive solution and cannot hit the terrorism and extremism on its roots. According to Dr Saleh Al-Tayyar, a Paris based Saudi lawyer and expert on terrorism, after 9/11, the military of the most powerful country on the earth could only kill 3000 and arrest 1200 out of 18000 hardcore terrorists based in Afghanistan, and the rest were able to escape outside Afghanistan through Al-Qaida’s cells spread throughout the world. Here lies the importance of Saudi Strategy to tackle the menace of terrorism and extremism ideologically.

According to Saudi officials, this strategy has been successful in thwarting 95% of terror planning in the country, estimated to be around 200 attacks. According to Dr Abdullah Fakhri from the interior ministry of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the ministry until now has spent more than 400 million Saudi riyals on the prisoners of terror related events, especially on their rehabilitation. Five special prisons are built in the Saudi capital of Riyadh to provide counselling and rehabilitation facilities to the extremists and terrorists with a cost of 1,7 billion riyals. The experts believe that the program has been successful in changing and correcting the deviated thinking of 90% of the terrorists and extremists. The ratio of those who got back to terror activities is around 10% among Guantanamo returnees and 1% among others. This ratio is far less than the expected one, considering the severe nature of the hardcore brainwashed prisoners. Around 4200 prisoners have participated in the counseling program and some 302 prisoners were released after successfully completing it. 

In fact, no country is better equipped, capable and in a stronger position to fight terrorism, especially the one resulting out of deviated Islamic perception of Jihad, than Saudi Arabia. With a constitution based on Quran and Sunna, a conservative society strongly attached to Islamic traditions and principles and with the country being the birth place of Islam and abode of the two holy mosques and other holy places of Islam, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is certainly a right country to fight terrorism and extremism in the most effective way. The ministry of Islamic Affairs of the Kingdom has recently announced that it would prepare some twenty thousand religious scholars to fight elements of extremism. The Kingdom has around 70 thousand mosques, out of which in 15 thousand mosques Friday prayers are offered. Religious education in Saudi curriculum is around 37%. The Committee to promote Virtue and Prevent Vice has around 5000 employees and 400 branches in various areas of the Kingdom. Tens of other religious centers and establishments, Islamic charity and educational organizations guide the nation on religious matters. All these factors only prove that the Kingdom is in a very strong position to fight terrorism and extremism not only internally but also on the international level.

Realizing its historical and religious responsibilities, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia decided to take on the bull. Since the Kingdom considers the problem of terrorism and extremism a product of deviated ideology, the focus was on war on these deviated ideas.

This war of Ideas by Saudi authorities stems from their convictions that violent radical extremism cannot be defeated by traditional security alone. To ensure the defeat of deviated extremist beliefs is essential to win the war on terror and extremism. Therefore, the Saudi authorities chalked out a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorism and extremism through destroying the ideological infrastructure that supports and breeds terror.

The main components of this strategy are prevention, rehabilitation and aftercare. As for prevention, there are hundreds of government-run programs to achieve this goal. There are activities to educate people about danger of extremism. The Ministry of Interior works hard to promote and propagate moderate doctrine, through recognized scholars and authorities in order to convince the public not to sympathize with extremist beliefs and elements. To stop young men from being recruited by the extremists, programs and activities have been designed by various government agencies and ministries to keep them busy and away from deviated elements, especially during their free time. The Ministry of Culture and Information runs activities through television, newspapers and other forms of communication. Experts are sent to schools and mosques to speak about dangers of extremism and terrorism. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs also sponsors lectures and classes in mosques throughout the country to awaken people about extremism. The Ministry of Education also runs lectures and programs in schools to educate students about the danger of extremism from very early stage. Books, Pamphlets and materials, especially prepared on extremism, are distributed among the students to enlighten them and their families about the subject. A Teacher Monitoring Program is also run in the schools and colleges to identify and tackle the deviated teachers who are often the source for brainwashing the young students. Public information and communication campaign is also an important part of prevention program. Signs and billboards are put up across the roads in major cities highlighting the danger of extremism and terrorism. Photos depicting the damages done by the extremists are also displayed for the awareness of the public. The goal of this Public Information and Communication Campaign are to end public support and tolerance for extremists and terrorists and strengthen cooperation between state and the public.

The rehabilitation is mainly focused on counselling program, which is an effort to rehabilitate and re-educate violent extremists through intensive religious debates and psychological counselling. The objective is to re-radicalize the extremists, convince, and encourage them to renounce extremist ideologies. A group called the advisory committee under the Ministry of Interior administers the counseling program. The members of this committee travel to prison to meet the terror related detainees. The advisory committee has four subcommittees, the Religious Subcommittee, the Psychological and Social Subcommittee, the Security Subcommittee and the Media Subcommittee. Of these Subcommittees, the Religious Subcommittee is the largest and comprises around 150 clerics, scholars and university professors. The members of this committee engage in religious dialogue and debate with the detainees in order to correct their corrupted understanding and misinterpretation of some Islamic concepts. The Subcommittee includes psychologists, psychiatrists, social scientists, and researchers. Their job is to evaluate and asses detainee’s behavior and diagnose any psychological problems. Members of this subcommittee participate in some counseling meetings and regularly apply psychological, sociological and evaluation methods to assess the behavioral status of detainees. This subcommittee also determines the kind of support a prisoner and family may need during and after release. Through this attitude, the government coveys the message that it is not interested in punishing the detainees and their families as much as it is interested in their welfare. According to Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the  assistant to the Minister of Interior and under whose supervision the advisory committee works, the family of detainee needs to feel that everything is being done for them and their loved one, and the more a family is involved in the counseling process, the more effective it is.  

The Security Subcommittee performs several functions, some of which are not made public for security reasons and with input from the Religious Subcommittee and Psychological and Social Subcommittee, makes recommendation about prisoner’s release. The Security Subcommittee advises detainees about do’s and don’ts after release and monitors their activities. Members of all Subcommittees especially the Religious Subcommittee and Psychological and Social Subcommittee keep in touch with the participants of the program and visit them periodically after release. This is to ensure that everything is on track.

The Media Subcommittee is responsible for production of materials for the program and other educational materials of use in schools and mosques. The Media Subcommittee also produces books, pamphlets and other materials for counseling. In coordination with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Ministry of Education, The Media Subcommittee helps coordinate lectures and speakers for mosques and schools.

Aftercare programs include halfway house program for detainees to ease their release into the society. The objective of this program is to reintegrate returnees from Guantanamo bay and make policies to keep released detainees away from committing new offences. After a prisoner completes the counselling process successfully, he is transferred to the care rehabilitation centre, which is established to facilitate his transition back to the society.

Other steps taken by Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism and extremism include the interfaith dialogue initiated by king Abdullah in March 2008. Several international conferences for interfaith dialogue were organized in Makkah, Madrid and other cities. The kingdom has also taken steps to end Fatwa issuing trend all across the Muslim world. In the first week of Ramazan, the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques King Abdullah issued a royal order that only members of the Council of Senior Ulema (scholars) are permitted to issue fatwa on matters of public concern. “All those who violate this order subject themselves to accountability and punishment, whoever they are, because the interest of religion and the nation are above everything”. The royal decree warned. There are also initiatives to spread moderation in the society. Imams and scholars are asked to speak on the subject in their Friday sermons and discourses. Conferences and seminars are organized by universities to highlight the importance of moderation and danger of extremism.

Another important step in the fight against terror is to stop funding of terrorists. The Council of Supreme Ulema passed a religious decree criminalizing funding of terrorism. During 2004-2008, around 218 persons were indicted for providing financial assistance to terrorists. Some of them were sentenced for ten years imprisonment and their properties and funds were fortified. In 2003, Saudi government passed an effective law to stop all kinds of financial support to terrorism. A special unit was formed in the Ministry of Interior to monitor all dubious financial transactions whether by individuals or institutions. Before 9/11, charity work in Saudi Arabia was not properly monitored and managed and there was possibility of misuse of charity funds by extremists. People remember how collection boxes were available in every place to collect funds for charity work. Now the Saudi authorities have taken necessary steps to make charity work more systematic, transparent and effective. Collection boxes have been removed from the markets, mosques, schools and all other places. The authorities have banned collection of funds without permission. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs took firm actions to stop collection of funds in the holy month of Ramazan and in the Quran Centres, the two that are known as the most suitable place and occasion for collection of donations for charity work in the Kingdom.

Because of these efforts to confront extremism and terrorism ideologically and through counselling and religious debates and discourses, the extremists and terrorists seem to be losing their ground. The experts now acknowledge this fact. In an article published in the Newsweek (February 2010) Fareed Zakraiya applauded these efforts to defeat extremism and terrorism ideologically and keep it away from mainstream moderate Islam. In another report on US counterterrorism strategy, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has suggested that the US counterterrorism strategy will only be successful if local religious leaders and authorities are on its side. Because this is a battle within Islam and no amount of US financial and military aid will be able to win this war on extremism.  It is religious leaders who hold sway over Muslim population and only by improving religious education and working alongside religious authorities; American can prevent Muslim nations from churning out terrorists eager to launch attacks in the US and elsewhere.

On March 30, 2010, an international conference was held in Madinah, Saudi Arabia under the title of “Terrorism: Between Extremist Ideology and the Ideology of Extremism”. The conference was inaugurated by the Second Deputy Prime Minister and the Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, who stressed the need to fight terrorism and extremism intellectually and ideologically saying that “intellectual security is not less important than the public security, but it might be more important as it is the engine that moves human beings and we cannot ignore latest developments in the locality.” He urged the Islamic world to reject ideas that are alien to Islam. The conference stressed the need to have an international definition of terrorism to prevent countries from setting their own definitions that only serve their vested interests. It also urged the Imams, Scholars and Muslim youth to adhere to the moderate teachings of Islam and create websites that defend Islam, shed light on its lofty values of tolerance and invite others to divine Islam. And before doing so, they must acquire correct knowledge and engage others in a meaningful dialogue.