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Koranic duels ease terror

By James BrandonContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 2005



SANAA, YEMEN

When Judge Hamoud al-Hitar announced that he and four other Islamic scholars would challenge Yemen's Al Qaeda prisoners to a theological contest, Western antiterrorism experts warned that this high-stakes gamble would end in disaster.

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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."

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