Can Muslim radicals be rehabilitated?

RICE (US) — The U.S. government needs to adopt a policy of strict separation of incarcerated Muslim radicals from non-Muslim prisoners to avoid the spread of militant ideology.

Such action is necessary to prepare the prisoners upon their release so they don’t simply return to the radical environment from which they came, according to a new policy paper.

Thousands of Muslim radicals have been captured and imprisoned in the last 20 years, according to the paper, which evaluates various “carrot-and-stick” approaches adopted by countries around the world.

David Cook, assistant professor of religious studies at Rice University, says after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the United States began rounding up large numbers of Muslim radicals with the aim of extracting useful information, but because little thought was given to rehabilitating the prisoners, many of them returned to a life of violence when they were released.

While U.S. policymakers may hope that freed radicals would abandon their beliefs and participate in peaceful debate, Cook writes, the best realistic outcome is a rehabilitation that simply means “a return to society without engaging in violent action.”

Incarcerating radicals in prisons like the ones in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram, Afghanistan, only serves to consolidate them and allows them to teach each other new tactics while conferring prestige and “street cred” on those who are released.

Governments have used different methods to de-radicalize imprisoned militants.

“In general, the non-Muslim governments have tried education of a secular or a semisecular nature, relying to various degrees upon official Muslim elites to help them out. Muslim governments have taken much more directly religious methods,” Cook writes. “Both types of rehabilitation can claim successes and failures.”

The policy report examines the rehabilitation efforts of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia and Singapore, Central Asia, the United Kingdom, and other European Union countries.

The Egyptian government, for instance, has faced a serious threat from Muslim radicals for decades, which was highlighted by the 1982 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

Cook notes the successful use by Egyptian authorities of major religious leaders—including repentant prisoners and former prisoners—who argued that the use of violence was illegitimate.

The Saudis, for their part, have ruthlessly pursued militants who staged several high-profile attacks in 2003, but also offered amnesty and pardons to radicals, with mixed results.

The Indonesians, reacting to the 2003 Bali nightclub bombings, chose a military approach to pursue the militants. But like the Saudis and Egyptians, they also relied on religious figures to repudiate the militants’ violent ideology.

This appears to have been relatively effective in breaking the morale of radical groups, Cook writes, but added that militants continue to “have extensive control within the prison system, so there is room for improvement.”

Non-Muslim Europe has also faced difficulties in rehabilitating Muslim radicals it holds, Cook says.

Britain, which did not begin to take the threat of radical Islamists seriously until after the 2005 London suicide attacks, initiated deportation procedures against foreign militants.

The large British-born Muslim community, however, poses a more difficult problem for British authorities. And the effort to rehabilitate jailed radicals “is clearly a failure in the United Kingdom,” Cook writes. France, despite its hard-line policy, hasn’t fared much better, he adds.

Compared with the Muslim countries’ attempts to rehabilitate imprisoned radicals, the Europeans seem doomed to failure, lacking both the carrot and the stick components of the Muslim countries’ policies, Cook writes.

“While the Muslim countries can at least offer the prisoners a Muslim society into which they can be rehabilitated after their release, non-Muslim countries can offer only the smaller Muslim enclaves of their countries, which are all too often controlled or dominated by radicals anyway.

“The danger that the released prisoners will slip back into radicalism when a warm and receptive environment is waiting for them outside of the prison is huge.

“There is also no ‘stick’ to be offered either, as in many cases the prison that could be seen as a punishment is controlled or dominated by the radical inmates, and the Muslim religious personnel who are supposed to debate the radicals sometimes either actually sympathize with them or can be intimidated into ceasing all meaningful dialogue.”

For the United States, “It is desirable, although not absolutely necessary, that there be some attempt at rehabilitation of radicals who are American citizens,” Cook says. Without any such effort, the number of radicals will grow and along with it, the threat.

The United States should borrow from the lessons of both Muslim and non-Muslim governments, Cook urges.

Adoption of Muslim educational curricula like those used in Turkey and Egypt that offer alternative frameworks and steer away from radical interpretations of Islam would be effective as would a “careful selection of Muslim religious personnel to debate and engage in dialogue with the radicals as has been done in some Muslim countries.

“Rehabilitation of radicals must have a component outside of prison that is equally vigilant,” he concludes.

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