"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.

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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.' "

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