The coalition’s detention centers in Iraq have received a lot of attention lately, largely because Commanding Gen. Douglas Stone’s tour ended last month after a year in which he cleaned up the facilities, improved due process, and oversaw a vast reduction in recidivism rates. Stone—with his Stanford MBA and Silicon Valley fortune—is a compelling character. But few of the recent stories focus on the most controversial legacy of Stone’s tenure: his attempt to engage with the detainees’ faith.
In addition to improving the prison conditions, Stone instituted a series of programs designed to “isolate extremists and empower moderates.” The programs—partly run by Russian and East European Partnerships Inc., a contractor specializing in “intercultural communications”—feature Islamic civics courses, a directory of radical refrains with responses from moderate passages of text, and religious discussion groups, run by imams who teach from what Stone calls a “moderate Hadith.” It’s all part of a viral marketing campaign, designed to get the detainees and their ilk to spread Islamic moderation by word-of-mouth.
Only a small percentage of the detainees have taken part in the religious discussion courses, but they are oversubscribed. Many, if not all, of the detainees will eventually take the separate “civics course,” which features Quran-based lesson plans such as “good Muslim, good citizen,” “loving humanity and avoiding hatred,” and “making a good impression.”
What is striking here is not that the United States is waging an ideological battle with Islamic extremists. As Robert Wright elegantly argued in 2002, the war on terror is a semiotic war, and religion provides many symbolic and narrative weapons. Rather, it is remarkable that the Pentagon would have the chutzpah to locate what Stone calls the “battlefield of the mind” in its own detention centers.
Prisons are where so many Islamist identities are born, nurtured, and plugged into violent networks. It was in Cairo’s prisons that Sayyid Qutb crafted an intellectual framework for modern Islamist terrorism, and Ayman al-Zawahiri underwent the transformation that would lead him to launch al-Qaida. Or think of our own little “jihad university” on Guantanamo Bay. Detention centers present a second-order problem, too, in how the global public receives them. The torture at Abu Ghraib may have been the best thing the United States ever did for al-Qaida. And now, along comes a Marine reservist from California, hard as hell, McKinsey-savvy, who claims he can turn detention facilities into a strategic asset. Can it possibly work?
Looking at similar programs in other countries, the answer seems to be “maybe,” but only if the focus is on fulfilling basic human needs rather than interpreting Islamic texts. Any mention of religious doctrine will make the project look more like a war on Islam than a war on terror. And after our Christian president invaded and destroyed Baghdad, our legitimacy on that front isn’t great.
Deradicalization programs aren’t new. They have been tried in several countries, including Yemen, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Egypt, with mixed success. Saudi Arabia runs its program in a facility called the Care Rehabilitation Center, where men are reported to live like princes: good food, new clothes, and plush quarters, all while they engage in discussions about faith and nonviolence. Some of them get job placements, money, and even a new car. The Saudi Advisory Committee, the state agency that runs the program, even offers the families of detainees remuneration while their breadwinner is in “rehab.” The program is said to have convinced 700 of 2,000 detainees to renounce their violent ways.
The coalition’s Iraq program is much larger, so it cannot provide such posh digs. But Stone oversaw a vast improvement in detainee conditions, almost solely for the purpose of reducing the risk that they would radicalize. During my visit earlier this year, I saw detainees playing soccer, studying math, and taking an art class, elements found in the Saudi program. I also sat with a few detainees in their religious discussion group. Sheikh Sattar, on leave from his Baghdad mosque, kneeled with the detainees for about an hour fielding their questions, including one about whether lying was prohibited by the Quran. “I told him—’No, you can’t lie, because the prophet says “people mustn’t lie.” ’ He said, ‘Even about the Americans?’ and I said, ‘About all people! The prophet says you must not lie about anyone, even if they are the Americans. You must show them the real ethics of a Muslim.’ ”
Doctrinally, this work isn’t very hard. Sheikh Sattar notes, “The Quran points in one direction only—moderate Islam.” Despite the common refrain that most of the Quran deals with jihad, it would be equally fair to say that most of the Quran deals with charity. As Ahmed Rashid wrote recently, the Quran clearly bans both suicide and the killing of civilians. (It is true that sharia calls for capital punishment for apostasy, if that can be proven unequivocally, but most Muslims leave this judgment, called takfir, up to God, rather than the local thug.)
One released detainee told me the programs were “a really good way to change [the detainees’] minds about the coalition and the government in terms of Islam.” Yet the Pentagon’s data show that most of the detainees were never religious to begin with, and most of Stone’s reforms—better conditions, shorter detentions—merely ensure that the detainees don’t turn to religion out of anger.
Indonesia’s program, perhaps the most aggressive and successful of its kind, raises doubts about whether changes in detainees’ beliefs are influenced more by questions of faith than of economics. The Jakarta government has used its prisons to try to change the attitudes of more than 100 captured members of the Jemaah Islamiyah, the violent Islamist group responsible for the Bali nightclub bombing in 2002. The program’s innovation was to hire released, reformed detainees to go back into their communities—whether or not in prison—to spread the moderate, or at least nonviolent, gospel. According to some reports, the Indonesian program has drastically reduced the radicalism of JI members, but as the International Crisis Group notes, there are no hard data to suggest that the detainees’ views have really changed. The program’s biggest success, converting more than 20 terrorists to work for the police, was the result of negotiations that included monetary settlements for the family of each detainee.
Then there’s the Egyptian program. Larry Wright wrote recently in The New Yorker about the former intellectual leader of al-Qaida, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, aka Dr. Fadl, and other members of the violent Egyptian Islamic Group, who seem to have been influenced by visits to their prison cells from clerics like Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt. But after Dr. Fadl issued a statement denouncing al-Qaida’s violence, Zawahiri shot back with a note reminding observers that Dr. Fadl’s statement was likely produced in an Egyptian torture chamber. If Dr. Fadl’s statement is not completely undermined by the fact that he is in an Egyptian prison, it is only a testament to his own stature in the Islamist community.
To say that the United States should play no role in religious deradicalization programs while its tanks roll through Baghdad is not to say they shouldn’t exist. It’s just that heavy hands don’t wield soft power. As the Crisis Group concludes in their review of Indonesia’s deradicalization programs, “economic aid … is ultimately more important than religious arguments in changing prisoner attitudes.” This won’t be the case for everyone—”bad men” from well-to-do families, like Zawahiri, will never be bought off. But even Zawahiri can be defeated if his audience has something better to believe in. They won’t condone his violence if it seems as unilateral as our invasion of Iraq; most of them already don’t.
One of the sharpest Cold War thinkers, George Kennan, argued that the way to win the hearts and minds of the unaligned countries was through social and economic development programs—not military action. In our better moments, we even funded art programs and literary journals that were explicitly anti-American, under the theory that free speech itself is more important than the contents of that speech. Kennan’s thinking has resonance today. Rather than make appeals directly to the detainees’ faith—which may or may not work, and are offensive regardless—we ought to seek to empower people with economic and social opportunity. Open societies, after all, become liberal societies, even when they begin in detention centers.
What does Sheikh Sattar cite as his most effective tool for fighting radical ideology? Teaching the detainees how to read.