By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, August 9: Islamic radicalism is generally thought to be a problem faced by countries which have a significantly large Muslim minority complaining of discrimination or oppression by the majority community. But the fact is that destructive Islamic radicalism has plagued even Muslim-majority countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
These Muslim-majority countries, have, like other countries, adopted both hard and soft methods to control the spread of destructive religious fanaticism. The overall experience has been that a combination of the two works better than a single-track approach.
The subject of de-radicalization is relevant for Sri Lanka now, because on March 12, the government issued the Prevention of Terrorism (De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations No. 01 of 2021. These regulations have been challenged in the Supreme Court, and the court has suspended their operation till the next hearing on August 24.
The petitioners, including the Center of Policy Alternatives, argued that the regulations manifestly lacked safeguards against misuse, safeguards such as judicial oversight of actions which are to be taken, primarily, by the Ministry of Defense and not the Ministry of Justice.
Be that as it may, studies have shown that well-designed and well-thought out de-radicalization programs conducted by leading Islamic countries have proved to be successful. The International Peace Institute in its publication entitled: A New Approach? De-radicalization Programs and Counterterrorism(June 2010)says that in contrast to the hard approach, softer but well-thought out measures, have been more successful than military approaches and less likely to foment a new generation of violent extremists.
Studies found that in the radicalization process, a “trusted” person played a key role. Persons involved with a radical group were “spiritually hungry” and yearning for more knowledge about their religion. They were desperate and naïve. Or they might simply be in need of money. During the recruitment process, radical groups would often isolate the targeted individual and “educate” him about the cause. If they refused to participate in violence, they might be asked to do something seemingly innocuous, like renting a car or an apartment to help out the group. They might be told that “the security forces now know about you, and they may torture you,” to blackmail them into being with the radicals.
The de-radicalization process has to work around the traits listed above. During de-radicalization, the subjects have to be deeply studied. They should be engaged in dialogue, befriended, and their social, financial, or psychological needs should be addressed to gain trust.
The Bangladeshi de-radicalization program began in 2005, targeting primarily the Harajatul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) and Jama’atul Mujahideen of Bangladesh (JMB). A grassroots program, rather than prison-based, the de-radicalization process emphasized prevention, achieved through religious and community figures’ propagating the true spirit of Islam and the promotion of modern education, including the teaching of English and training in information technology. The main targets were students of Madrassas or religious schools.
The program leaned heavily on seminars and workshops on subjects like “Islam and peace” or “Islam and pluralism,” but which actually focused on Islamic terrorism. There was a strong participatory element. It was not a one-way traffic of ideas. These events were supported by the provision of financial assistance to the unemployed, assistance to participants in getting further education, and help to some prisoners’ families (education of children, for example).
However, it can be argued that the de-radicalization program outlined above might not have been the only reason for the decline of Islamic terrorism in Bangladesh. The Sheikh Hasina government had taken some very harsh measures to stamp out radicalism often criticized by human rights groups. However, it is a fact that a combination of the two has worked. While the hardcore was stamped out, the rest were de-radicalized peacefully.
In Indonesia, a counterterrorism or de-radicalization program came about in only 2000. It was based on the theory that filling the void that withdrawal from a terrorist group leaves in a person’s life will successfully remove that person from the path of violent extremism. As such, the main facets of the program were dialogue, including conversations between the radicals and professors and clerics. Families were also involved to ensure that the beneficiary had a sound support structure beyond terrorism. There were prayer sessions; support in starting businesses and other ventures; and even weddings were facilitated. The program took advantage of the participants’ respect for authority (derived from military experience and Islamic teachings), and the important role of social bonding in terrorist groups.
Many would not believe that Saudi Arabia, which is the mother of Wahabbist Islam tormenting the world, also has a problem of Islamic terrorism, and that the Saudi State employs hard as well as soft methods to keep radicalism in check.
Saudi Arabia developed its comprehensive counterterrorism program at a time when there was a significant amount of sympathy for extremism in the Saudi population. Therefore, a “society-wide approach” to removing such sympathy was needed. The Saudi initiative began with the suspected terrorist’s arrest. But the arrested individual was immediately engaged in a dialogue on his reasons for becoming involved in radical causes. The remedies were worked out accordingly.
The Saudi program encompassed “religious, psychological, and cultural” efforts. Beneficiaries were allowed to attend social events, including family gatherings and sports but were engaged all the while in a program consolidating the “correct notions and concepts” of Islam. The program also encouraged participants to marry (with governmental financial support), and to pursue further education. By returning some of the beneficiaries to jobs they held prior to radicalizing, the program sought to ground repentant extremists in a stable environment.
Similarly, allowances, including healthcare and medical treatment, were provided to both the beneficiaries and their families, to help lessen the appeal of extremist groups, some of which also provided these services. The program also looked into families and found that brothers radicalized brothers and recruited cousins. Therefore, families were made part of the integrated program.
The program’s extensive application of incentives attracted criticism for being “too soft” on terrorism. But the Saudis had to contend with the fact that Islamic extremism had an underlying social sanction, especially because the Western powers, in alliance with Israel, were smashing the Middle East with bombs, infuriating the Arabs as a whole.
To be sure, the Saudi government had taken hard measures against radicals. Radical Imams (clerics) had been dealt with. By 2010, the government had transferred approximately 200 radical teachers to administrative positions. In another measure that set the Saudi approach apart from that of other countries tackling extremism, two separate prison systems were set up: one for non-extremist criminals and another for extremists and convicted terrorists, to ensure that the radical prisoners did not radicalize the common criminal.
The Saudi government formed an Advisory Committee to look into various facets of the de-radicalization program. The Advisory Committee had separate Sub-Committees on religious aspects, psychological and social aspects and security aspects. The work of these different Sub-Committees helped the government evaluate a person’s prospects for release and his safe transition back into society.
The Saudi authorities found that most of the radicalization was taking place through the internet. So, in 2003-2004, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs launched an on-line de-radicalization program called “Sakina”. A carefully appointed group of intellectuals visited websites where radicals congregated. The intellectuals then challenged extreme interpretations of Islam and carried dialogues. The Sakina program disseminated ideas of peace. Videos were posted to graphically show the abhorrent violence of terrorist attacks, and conveyed the message “that terrorist violence will never achieve justice and peace.”