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Over the last year or so, the government of Yemen has released 182 captured Islamist militants. Thus far, their rate of recidivism is zero.
The Justice Ministry in Sanaa is on Justice Street. I went there to talk to High Court Judge Hamood Al-Hitar, the man responsible for letting the prisoners go, because I’d heard about his unique way of dealing with violent fundamentalists. Sitting at a long table in the ministry’s library, he looked distinguished beyond his 46 years, with metal-rimmed glasses that he removed as he spoke. His jambiya, the large curved dagger that in Yemen is as ubiquitous as the necktie, was sheathed neatly at his waist, and his tiny silver cell phone periodically emitted a synthesized tune. He related how he came to his work, which has earned him international attention—he has recently spoken to British diplomats and Egyptian clergy about his methods—but also elicited deep skepticism and death threats.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh knew that he had a growing problem with religious violence. In 1998, the practice of kidnapping tourists turned deadly for the first time when the Aden Abyan Army, an Islamist group, captured 12 Britons and Australians, and four were killed as the government attempted a rescue. A couple of years later, Islamist militants plowed a motorized dinghy into an American warship, the U.S.S. Cole, killing 17 American sailors. Other incidents included a 2002 attack on a French supertanker and attacks on individual Western foreigners.
Violent fundamentalism in Yemen was first sparked by the so-called Afghan Arabs. Like so many young men from Arab countries, thousands of Yemenis went to Afghanistan in the ‘80s to fight the Soviet Union. The Soviet empire collapsed as they nipped at its underbelly, and they returned to Yemen fired up by their victory and eager to recruit. By 2002, the government had arrested hundreds of militants, and in August of that year President Saleh invited a group of Islamic and legal scholars to talk about what to do with them. Judge Al-Hitar was the youngest of the scholars, and, he says, the least learned. He had stirred controversy once before: In 1985, when he was a criminal court judge in Sanaa, he passed a death sentence on two Muslims who had killed a Jew. Yemen’s tiny Jewish minority were second-class citizens, and meting out such harsh punishment for murdering a Jew was until then unheard of. Even earlier in his career, Al-Hitar was something of a campus firebrand. “He was one of the brightest students in the faculty of Sharia [religious law],” said Abdo Ali Othman, who has been a sociology professor at Sanaa University for the last 28 years and was for several years the dean of students. In the late ‘70s, Al-Hitar preached in mosques on and off campus, and after he graduated, he would return to speak at the faculty club on Fridays. “He talked about inflation, social problems, youth, unemployment,” said Othman. “He’s open-minded.”
The president asked the scholars to talk to the prisoners about the latter’s wayward interpretation of Islam. The scholars tried to figure out what to do but were afraid that the militants still on the loose would claim they were agents of the United States. “But the biggest problem,” Al-Hitar said, “was the fear that we might be assassinated, as happened to Sheik Zahabi in Egypt.” His reference to an incident that occurred in 1977 shows the long shadow cast by a single act of violence. Sheik Mohammed Hussein Zahabi was a prominent scholar from the venerable Islamic University of Al Azhar who served as Egypt’s minister of religious endowments. An extremist put a bullet through his eye for being a part of Anwar Sadat’s liberalizing government.
After fruitless meetings among the scholars, Al-Hitar decided to take on the task of talking to the prisoners himself. He picked four fellow judges, and at their first session they met with 104 prisoners in a Sanaa jail. “I was apprehensive,” Al-Hitar said. Guards urged the scholars, for their own safety, to remove their jambiyas before entering the room, but Al-Hitar refused.
He presented the prisoners with a series of questions and proposed to debate them based only on the Quran and the hadith, or ways of the prophet. The first question was, “Is Yemen an Islamic nation?” The prisoners said no; Al-Hitar said yes. He gave them copies of Yemen’s constitution and legal code and volunteered to change anything they could find that was un-Islamic. They came up with nothing. Al-Hitar next brought up Yemen’s alliances with the United States and other non-Islamic countries. “Nations have treaties with other nations,” he told them. “Even the prophet did, in his time.” When the prisoners objected to the existence of vice, he told them that vice existed even in early Islamic times—otherwise, the Muslim caliphates would never have developed criminal law.
The scholars and the prisoners discussed whether President Saleh had the right to lead the country, whether war was justified, and whether killing non-Muslims was allowed. (The judge’s answers: Yes; only if you are attacked first; and no.) Al-Hitar has told captives that as a member of the United Nations, Yemen is honor-bound not to attack other countries, and even if another nation has harmed Yemen, only the government has the right to retaliate.
What becomes clear from talking to Al-Hitar is that a crucial component of his success with the prisoners is convincing them of the legitimacy of the state. There is an appeal to Yemeni tribalism in all this: As part of the tribe, you must honor its promises. But this reliance on the notion of rightful leadership suggests the Yemeni model cannot spread across the Middle East. In a part of the world where legitimacy is highly relative, Yemen’s government looks pretty good. President Saleh ran virtually unopposed in the 1999 election and is grooming his son to be his successor. But he is also a genius at balancing competing interests, not least by letting the leaders of the religious Islah Party play a role in government. His cult of personality is small, and the press in Yemen is fairly free. In other words, you can make a case here that the government is the right one, and a disaffected young zealot might take you seriously. This would be much harder to achieve in Egypt, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia.
As to whether Islamic dialogue can cure fanaticism locally, many Yemenis I’ve talked to think Al-Hitar’s methods work, but mostly on the margins. That is, the men he is winning over are not the die-hards. He has probably stopped some low-level attacks, but he wouldn’t be able to convert Osama Bin Laden. (Although the judge has stated publicly that he would talk to Bin Laden if Bin Laden were willing.)
But even small successes are victories when it comes to fighting fanaticism. Al-Hitar will soon meet with a new group of prisoners for more of what he calls “intellectual surgery.” His faith in his methods is secure: “The pen and the tongue that God has granted you can achieve more than all the weapons in the world.”