Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Can Jihadis Be Rehabilitated?

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Can Jihadis Be Rehabilitated?

Article excerpt

As U.S. policymakers become increasingly uneasy about the fate of the remaining detainees currently held at Guantánamo Bay, greater attention is being paid to so-called jihadist rehabilitation programs that have been established abroad. Numerous governments, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Singapore, Canada, and Britain, have established programs that seek either to rehabilitate Islamist terrorists or to prevent further radicalization of jihadist sympathizers. Different states tailor their programs to the mores, laws, and needs of their societies. Muslim-majority countries concentrate on radicals who have either crossed the line into actual terrorist activities or who are active members in Islamist organizations deemed to be a threat to the state. Western initiatives focus instead on individuals who may seek camaraderie with extremist groups online or at local mosques; their programs seek to forestall further radicalization. While there is a clear divergence in approach, both must answer the same question: Have their efforts been successful or have they merely released detainees into their respective societies who feign detoxification but whose commitment to jihad has merely gone underground? The wrong answer to this question poses a serious threat to global, as well as local security.

EGYPT'S "SOFT APPROACH

In 1997, Egypt became the birthplace for a new approach to counterterrorism when it allowed imprisoned members of the Islamic Group (Al-Gama'a al-Islamiya or GI), a violent offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood to meet and reevaluate their core ideology, hoping they might renounce violence as the parent organization did in the 1970s. That year, imprisoned leaders issued a cease-fire, and a few years later, after consulting with Islamic scholars from Al-Azhar University, high-ranking members of the organization released twenty -five volumes of revisions to their philosophy, entitled Tashih al-Mafahim (Corrections of concepts).1 The revisions, for example, argue that Islam does not permit killing or terrorizing non-Muslim civilians and discusses the dangers that Al-Qaeda poses to Muslims worldwide.2 The group was also permitted to keep its leadership within the prison in the hope that once senior members renounced violence, they would help convince others to follow a more moderate path. In 2007, imprisoned leaders of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (Al-Gihad al-Islami al-Masri or GIM), another violent Islamist group founded in the late 1 970s, folio wed in the footsteps of GI by instituting what they called their own "collective reform." With the support of Egyptian security authorities, incarcerated GEM leaders, including founder Sayyed Imam al-Sharif (aka Dr. Fadl), were allowed to hold meetings with other imprisoned members. In May 2007, Sharif publicly condemned violence using the pages of the influential London-based daily, Asharq al-Awsat to make his announcement.3 In response, prison security authorities began to separate those prisoners who objected to this new initiative from those willing to follow Sharif's path and renounce violence.4

By encouraging extremists to reevaluate their groups' ideologies, Egyptian authorities were able to get leaders of GI and GIM ostensibly to revise their strategies and steer members away from violence. At the same time, allowing the leadership to stay intact may have helped legitimize these groups and their messages. Over the years, however, these groups have splintered into factions, some of which refuse to acknowledge these nonviolent reforms. For example, prominent Muslim Brotherhood member Essam el-Erian, who had apparently wearied of reform initiatives for not providing solutions to members waiting on real-world reform, complained: "We welcome these revisions because we have called for many years to stop violence . . . But these revisions are incomplete. They reject violence, but they don't offer a new strategy for reform and change."5

Although Egypt's counter-radical - ization program has been called "the most extensive of any Arab country,"6 accurate recidivism rates for formerly imprisoned members of these terrorist organizations are hard to come by. …

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