Yemen has just announced plans to close 4,000 privately operated religious schools (madrassahs). In addition, eighteen Muslim clerics have been banned from giving sermons in Yemeni mosques. Both initiatives are intended to clamp down on religious sources of violence.
Perhaps the most unusual means of dealing with terrorism in Yemen is the religious debate. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported the story of a Yemeni judge, Hamoud al-Hitar, who is working to address the roots of Islamist terrorism by debating the Koran with convicted terrorists. Hitar went into a prison a couple of years ago to begin the exercise.
"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.
"Since December 2002, when the first round of the dialogues ended, there have been no terrorist attacks here, even though many people thought that Yemen would become terror's capital," says Hitar, eyes glinting shrewdly from beneath his emerald-green turban. "Three hundred and sixty-four young men have been released after going through the dialogues and none of these have left Yemen to fight anywhere else."
"Yemen's strategy has been unconventional certainly, but it has achieved results that we could never have hoped for," says one European diplomat, who did not want to be named. "Yemen has gone from being a potential enemy to becoming an indispensable ally in the war on terror."
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