Fighting terror through dialogue gains momentum [Archives:2004/731/Front Page]

April 22 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

Since Yemen joined the international community to fight terrorism soon after the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, the Yemeni government has had an impressive record. Security forces have captured key Al-Qaeda members, have rounded up hundreds of suspects and have arrested those allegedly involved in the bombings of the USS Cole in 2000 and the French tanker Limburg two years later. Early this month, Yemen celebrated receiving seven gunboats from the United States to enhance the security of Yemeni ports and its coastline.
But the Yemeni government also has an alternative approach to fighting terrorism. The Dialogue Committee, headed by Judge Hamoud Al-Hitar, tries to steer alleged Al-Qaeda supporters away from violence and focus on peace and tolerance using the Holy Quran as the tool and guide.
“Dialogue is a good way to get rid of terrorist thoughts that lead to terrorist actions, so it is important to get rid of extreme thoughts,” said Al-Hitar. “We have dialogue with the young people to help them arrive at a good understanding of Islam on a solid foundation.”
The Dialogue Committee, which was established in the fall of 2002, has dealt with over 200 alleged supporters of terrorist activities, and many have been released from jail on bail.
Al-Hitar gave an example of using dialogue to discuss jihad. He said he uses verses of the Holy Quran to prove that jihad is for protecting one's land if occupied but not to attack others elsewhere.
“We are trying to convince the young men that it is a person's choice to accept Islam, not to be forced to become Muslims,” said Al-Hitar. “And jihad is to protect yourself if you are attacked by others, not to attack and harm others outside your country.”
According to Abdul Karim Al-Ariani, former Yemeni Prime Minister and advisor to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Dialogue Committee has been very successful and is confident that its method of dialogue will continue to be effective.
“Al-Hitar is one of the most successful experiments in the region,” said Al-Ariani. “What he has done has been very useful, and I am confident in this method, especially with someone like Al-Hitar.”
The Dialogue Committee is also reaching out to fight terrorism through communication.
According to Al-Hitar, the committee has offered dialogue to any of the Al-Qaeda leading figures.
“We are ready to have dialogue with any Al-Qaeda leader,” said Al-Hitar told. “We can have dialogue to talk about the foundations of Islam, even with Osama bin Laden if he is willing.”
Several weeks ago, Abu Hamza Al-Masri, head of the London-based Ansar Al-Shari'a organization and wanted by the Yemeni government as allegedly having links with terrorist operatives in Yemen, contacted Al-Hitar through a journalist as an intermediary.
He showed an interest in opening a dialogue with Al-Hitar.
“Al-Masri sent a message that told me that if he is convinced through dialogue traced to the foundations of Islamic law, he will surrender to the Yemeni government,” said Al-Hitar.
The Dialogue Committee, which consists of five other religious experts, has drawn interest in the international community regarding its approach to try and persuade extremists to renounce violence. Recently, Al-Hitar traveled to Britain to share his methods of dialogue after receiving an invitation from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Al-Hitar received a second invitation from the UK this month to attend a conference in mid-May organized by the British Criminal Police. Al-Hitar will also be attending the four-day conference of the Higher Council for Islamic Affairs that begins in Cairo on April 28.
“Al-Hitar's success has shown that he is now under great demand in many countries,” said Al-Ariani.
Although Al-Hitar heads a successful alternative to fighting terrorism, he has received death threats since he started using dialogue. But he said that the threats will not stop him.
“I am not afraid of conducting dialogue,” said Al-Hitar. “No one should be afraid if he believes in Islam because Islam is a religion based on peace and tolerance.”