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Dr. Mansour Saeed Al-Qarni, Extremism and Rehabilitation Researcher


    Projects of remedial ideology projects aim to rehabilitate those who are ideologically deviant, so that they become more aware of the ideas that they espoused or were tempted to embrace, while being adopted by the leaders of extremist groups, theorists and supporters in such a manner as to make the right choice and reject all perverted ideologies. These projects consist of many programs that together constitute an integrated system of rehabilitation capabilities for violent extremism.


    It stands to reason that one of the axioms of ideological remedies is to get to know a lot about the extremist system of ideology, whether at the level of the targeted groups and individuals, or at the level of the environment surrounding them through which access to extremist and takfiri minds is provided, with the aim of identifying many of the ways and habits of their thinking, especially that the ideologies of many of such extremists are fragile, worn-out, vulnerable and permeable. Therefore, the possibility of accessing their black box or their closed circle of thinking is not difficult, if there is intelligence in the identification and knowledge of the weaknesses and intellectual strengths they have. Through such channels, it is possible to gain access to their thought as it can be even more powerful and successful given the poor scientific and religious attainment among most of them.


    The telling reality better ensures that the ideology of most of these extremists is vulnerable and fragile; the vast majority suffer from an intellectual vacuum, have poor academic qualifications, or at least they have a blurred method, cognitive anxiety and intellectual confusion. However, the ideological guardianship1  exercised with them by the leaders of the extremist and takfiri ideology, through which they are overshadowed, and the limitation of their intellectual abilities, and even seek to dilute the features of their personalities before the guardian, who may be a person, group, organization, or group of people, who are gathered or were gathered by an organizational ideological and extremist relationship, or they are gathered in a prison cell or a rehabilitation center. This guardianship is successful in making a large segment of such type of target people more critically tethered to what the guardianship dictates for them, and pushing them towards the direction set for them and even revolving around such direction; and then the thinking and behavior of the guardian become sacred postulates for them.

    Therefore, we find that the impact of the guardianship or guardian on such ideologically extremist youth is represented in full belief in the information, ideas and directions dictated to them. As such, this is what makes the mere attempt to refute, modify, drop out or challenge any of such considerations as disbelief and atheism! This is true in this context because such guardianship overrides the right of anyone of them to choose, and freeze and paralyze their minds, rendering them programmable machines that operate and implement what they are intended and designed for. This is more glaringly evident in the case of mixing between prisoners of the same ideological direction, as they develop a strong emotional attachment, which compensates for what may be lost among them, because emotional deprivation is often felt among prisoners, and its psychological danger in freezing the feelings of the prisoner becomes downright clear and hypnosis is a case in point.


    If the catastrophe of guardianship is recognized and its negative impact on disrupting every reform program does not go unnoticed, then the first step is to provide remedial solution to the root cause(s) of the problem. This requires identifying these guardians, in order to reach the center of control in the world of youth. Hence, the path leading to the delusion, deviation and evil of such guardians will be blocked; such guardians are cloaked in suavity, goodness and righteousness, luring the guardianship beguiled victims politically and emotionally, hence to be under the guardian's spell. Likewise, this also includes the ability to inculcate the spirit of liberation or permanent emancipation in the hearts of youth, and push them towards rejecting all such readily tailored ideas, which are dictated to them without any healthy discussion, and passively accept them under the influence of blind and unquestioning obedience.


    It should be noted that the treatment of the guardianship problem is not necessarily interrupted by the presence of guardians through the rehabilitation capabilities or institutions; some of which may be so, while others are not, such as external extremist groups and organizations, or those in conflict areas, or those that exercise their guardianship remotely. Rather, the most critically important point is to fully be aware of such guardians, and be knowledgeable of their attitudes, tendencies and goals, through which the plans for scientific separation between the guardians and followers of these extremist youth are drawn up. This can be realized by practicing many different methodological approaches adopted by religious scholars and specialists in the various humanities related to rehabilitation programs.


    By the same token, it is also necessary to draw attention to the fact that the mind is always in a state of flux; it changes, mutates and morphs. Therefore, one of the grave mistakes that some extremist and takfiri ideology researchers make is that they look into such an ideology in a stereotypical manner that is not subject to transformation, development and change, and they consider these extremists as incapable of transformation and change. This is one of the major fallacies, because change is a divine and innate nature, at the level of the individuals and groups, and even at levels of life and the universe that is divinely ruled to be in a state of continuous flux. Accordingly, passive and negative change is a human trait and a manifestation of life. Therefore, changing what is wrong to be right, corruption to rectitude, and evil to good, all of this can be realized, as it is required and socially commendable.

    From this standpoint, it is stressed that the lives of such extremists, ideologically, whether they are in prisons or outside, are the product of various transformations and interactions; therefore, most of them will experience in their thoughts as a stage of ideological struggle, for many concepts and ideas that may go on the right or left track. Based on this perception and when rehabilitation institutions and programs realize this, they can establish a pattern of relationships based on influence and interaction, which contributes greatly to renewing and interacting with ideological convictions, and to playing an influential role in shaping them in the right direction, which rehabilitation capabilities aim to reach.


    This line of thinking confirms what has been observed on the shifts in the trends of violent extremist prisoners from 2003 and beyond 2010 towards many convictions that were monitored with the passage of time, under the influence of educational awareness, whether it comes from rehabilitation capabilities, or the internal media of prisons, including libraries, or was it through external media, regardless of the scientific or intellectual weaknesses or strengths of these sources, as well as the extent of acceptance of these sources by prisoners as a whole or by some prisoners. Still, the reality proves that there has been a change in the direction and trend of many prisoners, regardless of the percentage and direction of that change.


    When extremists were first sent to prison in 2003, it was observed that the majority of them adopted ideological rigidity, and they even refused to enter into dialogue or have discussion on certain issues, because they believed that such issues for them were forbidden and prohibited. Their ideology was couched in the language of prohibition and proscription, which was heavily circulated among them, including but not limited to the prohibition of watching the television, the prohibition of images and photography, the categorical rejection of the various media, and the reluctance to the daily newspapers based on many justifications, as they contain images.


    While it has been observed almost since 2007 that there is an indication of a shift in multiple segments of prisoners, such forbidden and prohibited issues, that were taken for granted and were considered postulates, were reviewed and reconsidered after fatwas were provided to look into these issues in more tolerant and moderate manner than before. Therefore, it has been found that some prisoners no longer consider such issues as prohibited and forbidden; they can now have access to daily newspapers and enjoy reading them and other prisoners have followed suit for watching some TV channels. Sometime into the beginning of 2008, as the signs of change came to surface in a number of ideological concepts and became more revealing, it seemed that there were prisoners who made a step forward in discussing many ideological concepts in the entire system; however, it was not a kind of complete change; rather, it was considered a real change because even holding a discussion about it was not previously tolerable and used to be considered a real taboo.


    However, the transformation that has surfaced on the surface is different, in terms of degree and type, and in terms of passivity and positivity of these categories of prisoners. What was certain was that there was a very important stage of change because it reflected ideologies and trends, and this was considered an indication of their growing awareness. Simply put, some of them have started using their minds to think wisely, and no longer remained marionettes and puppets, relying on what other people's minds tailor or design and hence produce for them what to do or say.


    Around the beginning of 2009, the voices of people with relatively moderate ideas who were more into moderation and tolerance emerged from the prisoners’ point of view, and they seemed to be heading towards imposing themselves, offering their views more boldly and more courageously, and were able to pull the rug from under the feet of the most extremist and radical group who dominated the ideological arena in prisons throughout the previous years, and nobody ever dared to put forth what contradicted their extremist ideology.


    Whereas, in recent years after 2010, the ideological transformation has crystallized in behaviors that were previously unacceptable, such as watching sports programs including local and international matches, without regard to the clothing of the players that do not cover all of their nakedness according to their convictions. In the same vein, there has been another shift represented in reading some translated foreign books, stories and novels, and books on psychological skills that were not allowed to be read in the past. They also displayed a sense of tolerance on their part towards the advocacy activity of a number of scholars and preachers, by following them in the media platforms and networks, especially on television channels; the very same people were looked down at and were previously considered as authority scholars and advocates of hypocrisy and evil.


    These are some of the manifestations of transformation and change that occurred in less than ten years for many prisoners of extremist and violent ideology, which was a natural corollary of the influencing conditions surrounding the media awareness efforts, as well as the result of the efforts undertaken by rehabilitation capabilities. Regardless of the percentage of change, this is an indication of the acceptance of the ideological modification of such extremists, if there is a strategy, as it has already been mentioned that is based on scientific foundations, taking into consideration all the data leading to extremism, and also leading to refuting and exposing such extremist theorists and leaders.


    The transformation of prisoners has been demonstrated through what was directly observed or heard by many members of the faculty staff who provided rehabilitation to many target prisoners and to target groups inside the rehabilitation centers. The change observed was also revealed by some of the prisoners, who have benefited from the rehabilitation services, or who have followed-up the ideological changes of their fellow prisoners, and those who have followed or tracked and interpreted these changes, and voluntarily reported such changes.


    Hence, it is unfair to stereotype extremist ideology characterized by obstinacy and priggishness and is intolerant to transformation, change and development, and the belief that extremists are reluctant and obstinate to ideological change, or difficult to penetrate ideologically (admittedly, some are immune to ideological change no matter what), because change is a divine and innate nature that Allah breathed into all human beings and made it widely felt across the entire universe in a state of constant flux, including the human mind; it is the human mind that guides such change in tandem with the divine will.


    Given the reality of prisoners of violent extremism, and investigating and looking closely into their behaviors before, during and after extremism, and before, during and after prison, we notice many changes and ideological and behavioral shifts, and various interactions, including the loss of the prisoner's ideological, psychological, social and national identity. The period of stay in prison may be one of the most important stages of the emergence of these transformations, as it was often the stage of ideological struggle for many of the conflict of concepts and ideas that swing and oscillate right and left.


    Accordingly, rehabilitation programs are the qualification and the most appropriate option to generate a state of positive catalyst and change in violent extremist line of thinking and ideology among the youth, whether they live in a natural social milieu, and are targeted by preventive and educational rehabilitation programs, or they live in prisons or rehabilitation centers, and are targeted by remedial programs. This is exactly when they are encouraged towards restorative (rehabilitative) activities, where they will be assisted in order to continually aspire to lead and enjoy better life, and enhance their critical thinking skills, making them practice reasoning more deeply, through which ideas, concepts and ideologies are assessed, while reconsidering their validity and legitimacy, because then they will be left high and dry, up and down, swinging between one promise and another, expressing pangs of regret while cherishing a glimmer of hope, trying to get rid of feelings of frustration, marginalization and nihilism, which may have catastrophic repercussions. These are signs that the perpetrators or implementers should better understand and realize the capabilities of rehabilitation, so that utter despair does not stubbornly remain in persistent control, which leads to extremist reactions both in ideology and behavior.


    There is no doubt that rehabilitation and social inclusion programs can generate a change in the extremist’s mindset and ideology, if influential methodological steps and methods are followed that touch emotions, rely on rationality in discourse, and avoid provocation and alienation. This makes us emphasize the possibility of changing the extremist ideology and even changing the extremist individual to a less hardened, less intolerant and less narrow-minded individual, in his or her hardline ideology, to become more moderate and tolerant. Such emphasis provides compelling answers for queries regarding the possibility of making a positive change or progress in extremist ideology.


    This reinforces the approach of gradualism in addressing the topics considered to be an area for discussion with the target people, while providing advice, counseling and rehabilitation to them, so that these general topics that do not provoke the target people and which are mostly concerned with human and social aspects are raised, if they are religious topics in the field that is agreed upon by scholars, including, for example, saying prayers and worshipping. In this stage, it would be advisable to move away from the topics that the target group does not like to discuss, as it is their beliefs and convictions, which they cannot give up and cannot go soft with, such as those that address the concepts of jihad, disbelief, imam principles, loyalty and innocence. However, it is important for ideas to be presented in a comfortable and transparent language, and in an amicable atmosphere between the two sides of the debate, and away from artificiality, affectedness and superiority in style and presentation.


    This graduation will give the target people an opportunity to create a positive initial impression, and to look at the rehabilitation programs through a pair of calmly assured eyes, while encouraging them to accept the discussion of issues based on misconceptions, and this method, when practiced well, will be the bridge that leads to building confidence with the target people, and when trust is placed, then it is advisable to make a gradual transition to the discussion of the most important and sensitive topics. Therefore, the initial impression is the one that decides the outcomes and goals to be achieved by the rehabilitation programs. If the impression is positive and the confidence-building is achieved between the two sides of the rehabilitation equation, this will be the magic key to the desired results, and if not, the other one that is based on the establishment of ideological barriers, and the spirit of challenge, stubbornness and resistance.

1. A target prisoner's point of view, describing the real environment of the prison where he once lived.