U.S. tries rehab for religious extremists
Singapore has reduced its detainee ranks with Islamic reeducation.
A counseling program that employs Muslim clerics to rebut extremist views of detainees has steadily reduced their numbers over the past four years in Singapore, suggesting that religious-based rehabilitation may offer an alternative to indefinite detention without trial in the US-led war on terrorism.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Faced with swelling detention centers, US military commanders in Iraq have begun to take note. In recent months, they have introduced religious-education programs for adults and juveniles that are modeled, in part, on Singapore's and on a much larger program in Saudi Arabia.
Setbacks in a similar program in Yemen, shelved in 2005 because of high rates of recidivism, had raised doubts about the approach. Experts also distinguish between rehabilitating low-level sympathizers and hardened leaders of terrorist groups, groups, who may see little to gain from cooperating with authorities.
But proponents say that an effective counterterrorism strategy must include efforts to combat religious indoctrination, especially for suspects held behind bars. Injustice is a recruiting tool, and open-ended detention of suspects is an affront to many Muslims. Releasing them into the community armed with Islamic teachings that debunk Al Qaeda's do-or-die rhetoric can help to win a "war of ideas," the proponents argue.
"Deprogramming is not 100-percent successful. Among suspects that you rehabilitate, some will go back (to militancy). But it's the only intelligent thing to do," says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at Nanyang Technological University and a consultant on the Singaporean program. "We've planted a seed.… Iraq was the beginning. I believe America can take this idea to Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and other areas."
Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas Stone, who oversees US detention facilities in Iraq, told defense bloggers this month that religious courses at Camp Cropper had helped to "bring some of the edge off" detainees who often had only a limited grasp of Islamic jurisprudence.
General Stone, who speaks Arabic and reads the Koran daily, said that "a few hundred" had undergone the program, part of a broader new effort to offer training and education to detainees. More than 25,000 Iraqis are currently in US custody.
By comparison, Singapore, a rich, security-conscious city-state located on Asia's busiest sea lane, is a dot on the jihadist map.
Since 2001, when authorities disrupted a plot by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a regional Al Qaeda affiliate, to attack Western and Singaporean targets here, around 70 people have been detained under internal security laws that allow detention without trial. More than one third of them have since been released from jail or house arrest after cooperating with authorities. One has been rearrested for allegedly contacting foreign militants.
Launched in 2003, the Religious Rehabilitation Group has 21 volunteer clerics who lead weekly one-on-one counseling sessions with detainees to "correct their misinterpretations" of Islam, says Mohammed bin Ali, one of the clerics who works in the group secretariat. By systematically exposing the distortions of JI doctrine, the counselors show how Muslims can live devoutly in multifaith Singapore, where they make up around 15 percent of its 4.2 million population. The government-funded group also hosts public forums and runs a website (www.rrg.sg).
'No one is born a terrorist'