Tuesday, February 08, 2005

There is no way to peace...

...peace is the way, said A. J. Muste.

It's so easy, so very easy, to forget that the "terrorists," the "evil" people we condemn, are still human beings. Occasionally, in a case such as Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, we are forcibly reminded of their humanity, but even then we tend to think of them as victims, not as perpetrators. We think of them as having been swept up somehow, as entrapped innocents.

And in fact, many were just more or less swept up off the streets, especially at Abu Ghraib. But try a little experiment: Imagine that all the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, all those in the infamous photos, were known for an uncontested fact to be terrorists, people who had participated in beheadings or attempted suicide bombings or bombings of civilian targets. No doubt, everyone knows it, they themselves freely admit it.

Then think about this and be honest with yourself: Would that in any way, to any degree, change your reaction to their mistreatment? Would it in any way, to any degree, soften your outrage? I suspect that for most of us the answer would be yes: It would make a difference. Which is why it's good to see things like the following, to remind us that even the "evil" can change. It's from the Christian Science Monitor for February 4.
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.

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.
As the article notes, there is more to the quiet than this; Sanaa has undertaken numerous steps, some more democratic than others, in the name of security. And tension still pervades the atmosphere. But the degree of quiet - there have been no attacks in over two years - is significant.

Hitar says his method - at first thought dangerously naive and still regarded as such by some - is simple: He invites the prisoners to use the Koran to justify attacks on civilians. He listens to them and he respects them. But when they fail,
he shows them numerous passages commanding Muslims not to attack civilians, to respect other religions, and fight only in self-defense. ...

If, after weeks of debate, the prisoners renounce violence they are released and offered vocational training courses and help to find jobs.
Hitar says that US diplomats have approached him about seeing if his methods can be applied to Iraq.
"Before the dialogues began, there was only one way to fight terrorism, and that was through force," he says. "Now there is another way: dialogue."
Ultimately, peace, even in age of terror, is the way.

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