"Good Muslim, good citizen" and other lesson plans from Iraqi prisons.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Jan. 23 2009 6:41 PM

"Good Muslim, Good Citizen"

And other lesson plans from U.S. prisons in Iraq.

The coalition's detention centers in Iraq have received a lot of attention lately, largely because Commanding Gen. Douglas Stone's tour ended last month after a year in which he cleaned up the facilities, improved due process, and oversaw a vast reduction in recidivism rates. Stone—with his Stanford MBA and Silicon Valley fortune—is a compelling character. But few of the recent stories focus on the most controversial legacy of Stone's tenure: his attempt to engage with the detainees' faith.

In addition to improving the prison conditions, Stone instituted a series of programs designed to "isolate extremists and empower moderates." The programs—partly run by Russian and East European Partnerships Inc., a contractor specializing in "intercultural communications"—feature Islamic civics courses, a directory of radical refrains with responses from moderate passages of text, and religious discussion groups, run by imams who teach from what Stone calls a "moderate Hadith." It's all part of a viral marketing campaign, designed to get the detainees and their ilk to spread Islamic moderation by word-of-mouth.


Only a small percentage of the detainees have taken part in the religious discussion courses, but they are oversubscribed. Many, if not all, of the detainees will eventually take the separate "civics course," which features Quran-based lesson plans such as "good Muslim, good citizen," "loving humanity and avoiding hatred," and "making a good impression."

What is striking here is not that the United States is waging an ideological battle with Islamic extremists. As Robert Wright elegantly argued in 2002, the war on terror is a semiotic war, and religion provides many symbolic and narrative weapons. Rather, it is remarkable that the Pentagon would have the chutzpah to locate what Stone calls the "battlefield of the mind" in its own detention centers.

Prisons are where so many Islamist identities are born, nurtured, and plugged into violent networks. It was in Cairo's prisons that Sayyid Qutb crafted an intellectual framework for modern Islamist terrorism, and Ayman al-Zawahiri underwent the transformation that would lead him to launch al-Qaida. Or think of our own little "jihad university" on Guantanamo Bay. Detention centers present a second-order problem, too, in how the global public receives them. The torture at Abu Ghraib may have been the best thing the United States ever did for al-Qaida. And now, along comes a Marine reservist from California, hard as hell, McKinsey-savvy, who claims he can turn detention facilities into a strategic asset. Can it possibly work?

Looking at similar programs in other countries, the answer seems to be "maybe," but only if the focus is on fulfilling basic human needs rather than interpreting Islamic texts. Any mention of religious doctrine will make the project look more like a war on Islam than a war on terror. And after our Christian president invaded and destroyed Baghdad, our legitimacy on that front isn't great.

Deradicalization programs aren't new. They have been tried in several countries, including Yemen, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Egypt, with mixed success. Saudi Arabia runs its program in a facility called the Care Rehabilitation Center, where men are reported to live like princes: good food, new clothes, and plush quarters, all while they engage in discussions about faith and nonviolence. Some of them get job placements, money, and even a new car. The Saudi Advisory Committee, the state agency that runs the program, even offers the families of detainees remuneration while their breadwinner is in "rehab." The program is said to have convinced 700 of 2,000 detainees to renounce their violent ways.

The coalition's Iraq program is much larger, so it cannot provide such posh digs. But Stone oversaw a vast improvement in detainee conditions, almost solely for the purpose of reducing the risk that they would radicalize. During my visit earlier this year, I saw detainees playing soccer, studying math, and taking an art class, elements found in the Saudi program. I also sat with a few detainees in their religious discussion group. Sheikh Sattar, on leave from his Baghdad mosque, kneeled with the detainees for about an hour fielding their questions, including one about whether lying was prohibited by the Quran. "I told him—'No, you can't lie, because the prophet says "people mustn't lie." ' He said, 'Even about the Americans?' and I said, 'About all people! The prophet says you must not lie about anyone, even if they are the Americans. You must show them the real ethics of a Muslim.' "



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Dear Prudence
Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:25 AM The Brilliant Fake Novels of Listen Up Philip
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 9:39 AM The International-Student Revolving Door Foreign students shouldn’t have to prove they’ll go home after graduating to get a visa.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.