(Ma'ruf) What is your assessment of the work of the religious committee, which is conducting dialogue with extremist fundamentalists in Yemen? How was this committee formed, and what have you done after all these long months since its formation?
(Al-Hattar) On 30 August 2002, President Ali Abdallah Salih summoned a group of senior Yemeni ulema--I was the youngest and least known among them--for a private meeting. In this meeting, which was attended by senior state officials, there was a discussion of the idea of dialogue with the young people who returned from Afghanistan and others, who have ideological convictions that are contrary to the notions held by Muslim ulema in general. In this meeting, the president raised this problem and said: We have a group of young people who hold dangerous beliefs. Those people have not committed any crime, but if we leave them on their own, they could cause great harm to themselves and to the country. We need to talk to them.
It was agreed during that meeting to form a committee for dialogue with those people. The task of the committee was defined as listening to their views and evidence, holding a discussion with them and responding to their views, and referring disputed issues to the Koran and the Prophet's Sunna. The president did not wish to interfere in the formation of the committee, so he left the selection of the committee members to the ulema. The ulema held two meetings to discuss the selection of members. The two meetings failed to select members of the committee due to the fears that were expressed by some of the ulema; namely, that the people who will undertake the dialogue could be assassinated by the other party to the dialogue or that they could be accused of infidelity for showing loyalty to the West or the United States. Therefore, the two meetings ended without achieving any significant results.
In the last meeting, I noted my objection to the decision not to hold the dialogue or not to form the committee. I said: I will conduct the dialogue, even if I have to do that on my own out of obedience to God and the instructions of the leader of the country and to achieve the supreme interests of Yemen. One hour or less after the end of that meeting, the president called me and asked me: What happened? I said: What you heard. He said: What did you say? I answered: I expressed my objection to the decision and said that I will undertake the dialogue, even if I have to do it on my own. He said: Well done. Do you have a team to work with you on the dialogue? I said yes. I nominated three colleagues to him, including Shaykh Hasan al-Shaykh, Shaykh Muqbil al-Kadhi, and Shaykh Al-Mihrabi. So he agreed to this dialogue in principle. We launched the dialogue on 5 September 2002 and we did what we could.
We conducted four rounds of dialogue, and we believe that we have eliminated 90 percent of the ideology that had formed the basis for terrorist operations in Yemen. As for assessing the work of the committee, we cannot assess ourselves, but we will give others a chance to speak about the work of this committee and what it has achieved. Many political analysts and others who follow Yemeni affairs and the issues of security and terrorism worldwide say that the committee succeeded in taking more steps toward the achievement of security and stability. Since late December 2002 and until now, there has been no significant terrorist incident in Yemen. Specifically, this has been the case since the end of the first round of the dialogue and the release of the first group. Indeed, Yemen has not witnessed any terrorist incident.
(Ma'ruf) How many of those have been released since the start of the dialogue and until now?
(Al-Hattar) The people who have been released so far, of those who were included in the dialogue and who are not charged with criminal cases, have totaled 364 during the four rounds.
(Ma'ruf) I heard that there is a suggestion or recommendation to release all those who are still in prison.
(Al-Hattar) The committee made recommendations to his excellency the president to refer them to the authorized agencies. The committee recommended that persons charged with criminal cases be referred to the judiciary so as to decide on their cases based on the constitution and the laws in force, while stressing commitment to a fair trial, as stipulated by the constitution, the laws in force, and international conventions endorsed by the Yemeni Republic. These conventions include the Universal Declaration of Human rights and the two international conventions on civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights. These rights state that the accused is innocent until proven guilty in a fair trial in which he has a defense attorney.
(Ma'ruf) What about those who have not been charged as such?
(Al-Hattar) As I mentioned, the committee recommended releasing the accused who have been included in the dialogue and who are not charged with criminal cases, in line with the constitution, the laws in force, and international charters, which stipulate their release and prevent their continued detention in violation of the constitution and the laws.
(Ma'ruf) Will those people be under monitoring?
(Al-Hattar) As you know, since the 11 September incidents, the whole world has been experiencing a state of emergency. Yemen is a part of this world. Yemen takes pride in the fact that it adopted dialogue with those people to change their convictions and conduct. Until 30 August 2002, the world had only had one way of fighting terrorism, which is the use of force. Yemen added another method for fighting terrorism, which is more important than force; namely, dialogue. The word is the key to power, as Socrates said. The pen and the tongue may do what the latest weapons in this world cannot do to change people's convictions and behavior and consolidate security and stability. The pen and the tongue are mightier than the smart weapons that are used for fighting terrorism.
(Ma'ruf) If those people present their case to Judge Humud al-Hattar, will he acknowledge that they were wronged?
(Al-Hattar) I am handling their case as chairman of the dialogue committee, and not as a judge. This is because the nature of my job with the judiciary requires that I abide by the stipulations of the constitution and the effective laws that prevent the arrest of any person without a legal cause.
(Ma'ruf) Can they claim compensation through the judiciary for the harm that was done to them?
(Al-Hattar) This issue has been settled. However, it has not occurred to them to make such claims because they know the circumstances, which they have been through, and know the situation experienced by their brothers in many Arab and Islamic countries, and even in Western countries, which used to take pride in their human rights records. We used to cite the example of these countries when speaking about the issue of respecting human rights and freedoms. However, human rights are now violated in these countries more than any other time in the past.
(Ma'ruf) When the committee started dialogue with those people, was there a response from the other side? Was there interaction from them? Or was there only a kind of desire to get out of prison?
(Al-Hattar) Many ulema, the security agencies of the state, and many journalists had feared that those people might not respond. In fact, as I have just told you, some people raised the possibility of the assassination of the person conducting the dialogue by those young men, as happened to Shaykh al-Dhahabi, the awqaf minister of Egypt, when he went to talk to the Shukri group (Al-Takfir wa al-Hijrah). He was assassinated inside prison. There is also the fear that the person who engages in dialogue would be declared an infidel and his killing would be sanctioned. Any person might attack him. Many people had expected them not to respond, but as psychologists say, if you send an invitation or a message to someone and this person does not respond to that invitation or message this does not mean that the other party did not respond. It could be that you have failed to convey your message to him in a proper way. It may be that some conditions came between you and him or between him and understanding that message or between him and responding to that invitation. A person responds by nature. That is why there were great fears.
When we started the first session of dialogue, we chose a group that comprises five persons, who were the most extremist and educated among them. We started to speak to them, and we told them about our task. We told them: We are your brothers and we represent the ulema of Yemen. We came to hold a conversation with you. They said: Are there ulema in Yemen? Had there been ulema, we would not have been thrown in prison for this long period? They then voiced their anger with the ulema and accused them of failing to carry out their duty, such as giving advice to the authority. They then said: Why did you come? We said: We came to talk to you, and if right is on your side, we will follow you, but if right is on our side, you will follow us, and the terms of reference shall be the Koran and the Prophet's Sunna. They said: What guarantee do we have? We said: We will make a pledge to God, and we did. They said: We want you to be honest. We said: This is a condition we set for you. They said: We agree to it. We said: This means that you agree to the principle of dialogue? They said: Yes. I had prepared a plan for the agenda of the dialogue, which includes the most important ideas they hold. After hearing their views and seeing their ideological terms of reference, I proposed the agenda to them and said: This is a plan for the agenda of the dialogue. You have the right to examine it and add to it or remove any item from it, and what is agreed upon will be followed. They examined it and made some changes. We then started and said to them: Do you want a direct dialogue through which you will speak, we will speak, and you will discuss things with us directly? Or do you want an indirect dialogue through which you will write your views and we will respond to them, and what is agreed upon in the end will prevail? They chose the first method, which is direct dialogue.
(Ma'ruf) Who started the questions, you or them?
(Al-Hattar) We started. It may be important to note these questions here as a model for the questions of this dialogue. Is this state an Islamic or non-Islamic state? Some of them said it was a non-Islamic state. We asked why. They said because it does not rule according to the stipulations that were decided by God and because it is loyal to the West. We said: Is there any other reason than these two? They said no. We said: Let us start with the first reason. I had with me a copy of the constitution and of the political laws. I told them: Here is the constitution and the political laws. You may read them. If you find in them a statement that contradicts a categorical statement from the Koran, the Sunna, or the consensus of scholars, then we are committed to this. However, if you do not find, you will see that we followed an uncertain opinion in disputed matters, so we will be absolved. They examined the constitution and the laws in force and they could not find a statement that contradicts a categorical statement from the Koran, the Sunna, or the consensus of the scholars. So they acknowledged that this state rules by the law of God. We now had the second reason. You say that the state is loyal to the West. They said yes. Well, give us a treaty that includes a violation of a categorical stipulation included in the Koran, the Sunna, or the consensus of the scholars and we will be committed to amending that treaty or agreement. This is because international relations are based on mutual respect and cooperation. They could not find a treaty that is based on a stipulation, which contradicts a categorical statement in the Koran, Sunna, or consensus of the scholars. Their viewpoint of these treaties was: why do we sign treaties with these non-Islamic countries? We provided them with many examples of treaties concluded by the Prophet with non-Muslims, and how the Muslims abided by them.
We then moved to another point. Is the system of government or authority in Yemen legitimate or illegitimate? They said illegitimate. We asked why. They said because the head of state is not called a caliph. We said: This is the first reason. Is there another reason? They said yes. He was not selected by Ahl al-Hall wa al-Aqd (preeminent, knowledgeable people in society). Is there a third reason? They said no. We said: Let us start with the first reason. Give us a statement from the Koran or Sunna that obliges us to call the head of state a caliph and we shall be committed to amending the name according to that text. They did not find a statement in the Koran or the Sunna to help them in this point. We said: Then, we are free to call him president of the state, sultan, king, or prince. The important thing here is that the issue is subject to various views. Besides, you say that the head of state was not selected by Ahl al-Hall wa a-Aqd. They said yes. We asked them: Who are those people? They said: They are the preeminent people in society, by virtue of their scholarly, political, or economic status or sound judgment. We said: This definition is beautiful. Give us a statement from the Koran or the Sunna that gives this category in particular the right to select the ruler and we shall abide by this. They could not find a statement that would help them in this point. This is especially since Islam came to consolidate the principles of freedom, justice, and equality and it cannot discriminate between people in a matter that is considered very important, which is the right to select a ruler. We also said: What is the quality of Ahl al-Hall wa Al-Aqd? They said: Those people act on behalf of society as representatives. We said: If the original person is present, will there be a need for his representative? They said no. We said that the people came, represented by those who are eligible to vote in presidential elections and the head of state was elected in direct elections, and those whom you called Ahl al-Hall wa al-Aqd, along with others who enjoy this right, took part in these elections. They acknowledged this.
We then discussed another point. Is it permissible to shed the blood of non-Muslims? Some of them said yes. We said why? They said because those people are nonbelievers. We asked: Is there another reason? They said: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said: I was ordered to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah. We said that this understanding is incorrect. They said why? We said because the original rule is that the blood of any person shall not be shed, without any discrimination on account of race, color, religion, or country. God says: "Take not life, which God hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law." (Koranic verse) So this prohibition is based on the creation of man, irrespective of religion, color, race, or country. Also, the Prophet and the caliphs after him used to equip armies and advise them to fear God and forbid them from killing women, children, old people, and hermits, although those people lived in a war country. The reason for this is that those people do not fight. Therefore, unbelief alone does not sanction killing unless it is associated with engaging in combat. In fact, God has ordered us to treat non-Muslims well if they do not fight us on account of our religion and if they do not expel us from our homes. God says: "God forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them." (Koranic verse) Islam does not force anyone to convert to Islam. Therefore, if a person does something due to coercion, this is considered invalid in Islam. This is led by coercion to change one's belief. Islam is based on freedom of belief. Any person who enters Yemen does that through permission from the competent authority. Since he was given permission, this means he was granted safety and that no person shall attack him. This situation shall remain valid until it is revoked by a decision from the competent authority in the state, even if this person has come to us from a country, which is at war with us. As long as we have given him safety, we should not betray this. Islam gave this right to members of society, so any person in society can grant such a pledge of safety to non-Muslims. In fact, this is not confined to men. The Prophet approved the pledge of safety granted by Umm Hani and he told her: You gave a pledge of safety, Umm Hani. So it was acknowledged afterward that non-Muslims, who are not combatants, shall not be harmed.
(Ma'ruf) You told them at the outset of the dialogue that if they find that the state or constitution is against Islamic shari'ah or if the state has an un-Islamic system, then you would change or amend this. Do you have the authority to promise this?
(Al-Hattar) The constitution stipulates that Islam is the religion of the state and that the Islamic shari'ah is the source of legislation. Therefore, there is a constitutional article, which helps us in this point. Besides, when the head of state asked the committee to undertake this mission, he gave it powers. I do not mean that we shall do the change, but we present proposals to the competent authorities and they will introduce these changes, based on the constitution and the laws in force. Praise be to God, they could not find anything that contradicts a categorical statement from the Koran, the Sunna, or the consensus of the scholars. We knew that our position was sound. However, the nature of the dialogue requires that we follow the method of successful dialogue because dialogue is an art that has rules and a code of behavior. If the interlocutor abides by these rules, he will achieve the desired results easily, but if he violates them, there will be dire consequences.
(Ma'ruf) How was the level of those people in the ideological discussion?
(Al-Hattar) Those young men memorize Koranic verses and Sunna traditions, but they have a wrong understanding of some Islamic issues. This is due to several reasons, including the following: First, they know some, and not all, Koranic verses and Sunna traditions. Second, not knowing the rules for reaching religious conclusions based on detailed evidence leading to a correct understanding of the rules of Islam. This is what scholars call the fundamentals of jurisprudence. Third, not understanding the reality they are living in or to which they want to apply the rules. Fourth, the impact of the mobilization or awareness that happened during the Cold War, specifically in the face of the Soviet Union when it occupied Afghanistan. Fifth, the wrong mobilization that happened by some persons as a result of their misunderstanding or in order to achieve some personal gains at the expense of Islam and the Muslims. Sixth, the fact that Arab and Islamic governments have not had programs for absorbing the returnees from Afghanistan in the early 1980s and until now. Seventh, the weakness of the religious curricula in the official education and the fact that they are insufficient to teach students and give them a good image of Islam to make them distinguish right from wrong. Eighth, restricting the margin of freedom for Islamic groups in some Arab and Islamic countries. Ninth, the positions of Western governments toward Arab and Islamic issues, led by the issue of Palestine. Tenth, the economic gap between the east and west, although we believe that the role of the economic factor in these issues, especially cases of suicide (attacks), is very weak. What can a person gain financially after sacrificing his life? These, I think, are the most important reasons for the wrong understanding.
(Ma'ruf) Is the release of those people from prison due to the fact that they have become convinced that their previous convictions were wrong?
(Al-Hattar) What matters is to explain to them the right path, and not to convict them. The dialogue with them reached very important results. They announced their commitment to these results. These results include renouncing violence, extremism, and terrorism; obeying the leaders of the country; and abiding by the constitution and the laws in force. They also stressed their commitment to maintaining security and stability and respecting the rights of non-Muslims, including the impermissibility of shedding their blood or infringing upon their property and honor. They further stressed their commitment to not harming the embassies and interests of countries with which Yemen has treaties, as long as these treaties are effective.
(Ma'ruf) Do those people follow a certain religious school of thought?
(Al-Hattar) I cannot blame a certain religious school of thought. What I can say is that those young men had some misconceptions and wrong ideas about Islam.
(Ma'ruf) Have you begun dialogue with the group of Al-Huthi?
(Al-Hattar) Yes, the fourth round of the dialogue includes two types of interlocutors. The first type includes those who are suspected of belonging to Al-Qa'ida. The second type includes those who have been influenced by the ideas of Husayn Badr-al-Din al-Huthi. The call of Husayn Badr-al-Din al-Huthi is based on two major pillars. These are the divine right to knowledge and the divine right to governance. He thinks that God chose some people in particular and imparted knowledge to them. Those people became scholars without learning anything from any person. They are the inheritors of the Koran and those who can explain its verses and rules. He also believes that God selected some persons for governance, and those rulers are not chosen by human beings. He thinks that the selection of ruler is the right of God, and not humans. To achieve these two pillars, Al-Huthi had a certain ideological trend. In his 43 lectures, which we examined, we found that there are sentences that contradict the requirements for faith in God. They also included explanation of some verses of the Koran in a way that contradicts the rules for interpreting the Koran. The lectures offended the Sunna and included some statements that contradict the constitutional and legal developments, which are related to public governance. The lectures offended the companions of the Prophet. There are other faults, which we cannot enumerate here. However, he followed this path to communicate his call and to convince others of the soundness of his views.
(Description of Source: London Al-Quds al-Arabi in Arabic -- London-based independent Arab nationalist daily with an anti-US and anti-Saudi editorial line; generally pro-Palestinian, tends to be sympathetic to Bin Ladin)
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