Posted on Thu, Sep. 10, 2009
Through games, aims
Islamic camp targets extremist ideology.
By Donna Abu-Nasr
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Young men spray hoses in a car-washing contest and play pool. Children make paper crowns in an art class, while their parents have a picnic. Alongside the fun and games, Muslim clerics answer questions about jihador give lectures about the proper dress for women.
This is Islamic summer camp, and it’s part of Saudi Arabia’s campaign to eliminate al-Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia says it’s waging a “war of minds” against extremist ideology, alongside the fierce security crackdown that has killed or arrested many al-Qaeda leaders over the last six years. To do so, the kingdom plans to expand a broad public campaign aimed at preventing young people from being drawn to radicalism.
“We are working on the men of the future,” said Abdulrahman Alhadlaq, general director of the Interior Ministry’s Ideological Security Directorate.
Islamic summer camps are a key part of the program, attended by thousands of families who consult with government-backed clerics instilling what Saudi authorities call a moderate message.
The teachings at the camps are still ultraconservative, in line with the kingdom’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam – but the clerics drill the message that youth should turn to approved religious authorities, not radical preachers, for guidance.
For example, on jihad, or holy war, they teach that it can be waged only on the orders of the head of state.
“It is … essentially about obedience, loyalty, and recognition of authority,” said Christopher Boucek, an associate at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has studied the camp programs. “That is what is stressed over and over again in these programs: loyalty to the state, and recognition that there are certain correct and qualified sources to follow.”
Evaluating the programs’ effectiveness will take a long time, Boucek said. “In many ways, these are generational projects,” he said.
The kingdom’s emphasis on ideological campaigns is a stark change from the defensive stance it took immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, prompting a storm of criticism in the United States that Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi thought fueled radicalism. Saudi Arabia denied the existence of any radical trend on its soil, dismissing warnings of al-Qaeda’s influence.
Not until 2003, when al-Qaeda began a campaign of attacks in Saudi Arabia targeting foreigners and oil infrastructure in a bid to bring down the ruling family, did the kingdom seriously unleash its security crackdown.
The government followed with a “rehabilitation” program seeking to reform detained militants, in which clerics teach that al-Qaeda’s calls for violence are un-Islamic.
Saudi Arabia has come under heavy criticism for its crackdown. Amnesty International condemned the use of torture against suspected militants. In August, New York-based Human Rights Watch said the kingdom was still holding 3,000 suspects without trial and was forcing them to undergo rehabilitation.
Saudi officials say their approach has succeeded in breaking al-Qaeda’s leadership and wrecking its ability to reorganize. Al-Qaeda has regrouped in neighboring Yemen, but Saudi officials say it is having difficulty gaining new Saudi recruits.
The government is soon expected to endorse a National Strategy to Counter Radicalization, which broadens the ideological campaign to the entire public. Besides the summer camps, which began several years ago, the plan calls for increasing employment and addressing grievances that extremists exploit to recruit Saudis.
The government has doubled the number of universities to take in more students and increased the number of students who study abroad so they get exposed to other cultures.
Preventing the adoption of extremist mind-sets is a challenge, Alhadlaq said. “You can’t open up everybody’s mind to determine if he’s OK or not,” he said.
“Sometimes you sit with a radical guy, and you say, ‘He’s a good guy,’ ” he said. “But inside his mind, he’s got a different story. Change needs time.”
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