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Koranic duels ease terror

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Eager to spread the news of his success, Hitar welcomes foreigners into his home, fussing over them and pouring endless cups of tea. But beyond the otherwise nondescript house, a sense of menace lurks. Two military jeeps are parked outside, and soldiers peer through the gathering dark at passing cars. The evening wind sweeps through the unpaved streets, lifting clouds of dust and whipping up men's jackets to expose belts hung with daggers, pistols, and mobile telephones.

Seated amid stacks of Korans and religious texts, Hitar explains that his system is simple. He invites militants to use the Koran to justify attacks on innocent civilians and when they cannot, he shows them numerous passages commanding Muslims not to attack civilians, to respect other religions, and fight only in self-defense.

For example, he quotes: "Whoever kills a soul, unless for a soul, or for corruption done in the land - it is as if he had slain all mankind entirely. And, whoever saves one, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely." He uses the passage to bolster his argument against bombing Western targets in Yemen - attacks he says defy the Koran. And, he says, the Koran says under no circumstances should women and children be killed.

If, after weeks of debate, the prisoners renounce violence they are released and offered vocational training courses and help to find jobs.

Hitar's belief that hardened militants trained by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan could change their stripes was initially dismissed by US diplomats in Sanaa as dangerously naive, but the methods of the scholarly cleric have little in common with the other methods of fighting extremism. Instead of lecturing or threatening the battle-hardened militants, he listens to them.

"An important part of the dialogue is mutual respect," says Hitar. "Along with acknowledging freedom of expression, intellect and opinion, you must listen and show interest in what the other party is saying."

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