Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Retooling the mind

During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, a popular army created on March 29, 1942 by the local Communist Party, fought arm-in-arm with other Filipino soldiers, guerrillas and American forces in overthrowing the mighty Japanese army. The army was called Hukbalahap, an acronym in Tagalog for “Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon” (People’s Army Against the Japanese).

After the Japanese surrendered in September 1945, the Hukbalahap was prevailed upon by the U.S.-backed Philippine government to disband and surrender its arms in exchange for promised democratic agrarian reforms. Later, during the elections for Congress, Luis Taruc, the leader of the Hukbalahap, and seven of his colleagues were elected but were prevented from taking their office and driven back to the hills to continue their armed struggle. Taruc and his group opposed the parity rights amendment that the United States wanted to insert in the Constitution, an amendment that would grant United States citizens the right to dispose and utilize of Philippine natural resources after the liberation of the Philippines.
The end of hostilities during the Japanese war. Photo courtesy of m46 pershing pro,
The promise of democratic reforms was obviously integral to the systematic design of disengaging the Filipino rebels during that period from the idea of violence, or any aspiration of an armed revolution to pursue their political and economic goals. This process of disengagement goes on to the present time as the New People’s Army, the successor to the Hukbalahap, and Muslim secessionist groups in Southern Philippines continue their struggle for self-autonomy and meaningful democratic reforms.
In other wars, we see a transformation to a battle for the minds and hearts of the local people after the armed hostilities are over, as what happened in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Canadian military is in Afghanistan as part of its commitment to its NATO allies in reconstruction and peace-building initiatives. While the United States has detained many suspected members of al-Qaeda and known Jihadists in Guantanamo, U.S. prison officials constantly provide their inmates with educational materials that would help the prisoners wean their minds away from violence and acts of terrorism. Indeed, this has become the secular counterpart of religious instruction emphasizing peaceful means as opposed to violence in achieving society’s goals; it is now more popularly called deradicalization.

Deradicalization is the effort to free Jihadists or those detained for violent acts from their radical ideas, goals or elements. Followers of the U.S. Tea Party and more conservative politicians, however, could be also perceived as trying to deradicalize the liberal forces, especially supporters of the Democratic Party, in American society.

The Saudi deradicalization experiment is one of the most advanced international efforts to deradicalize terror suspects with the main purpose of educating and monitoring them until they have reintegrated into civil society. Begun in 2004, the Saudi deradicalization program was adopted by the government’s Interior Ministry in response to a series of domestic terroristic incidents. Saudi Arabia transformed its counterterrorism strategy by balancing traditional security efforts with techniques addressing ideological sources of violent extremism. One of the critical components of the Saudi approach was the rehabilitation of extremists through religious re-education and psychological counselling.
Cuba Guantanamo Prison. Photo courtesy of Guantanamo_Justice_Centre.
In Guantanamo, Omar Khadr, a Canadian prisoner who pleaded guilty to killing an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002, was provided with text materials which included Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in preparing him for eventual repatriation and release to Canada. American law enforcement personnel also recommended as a required reading for Khadr, Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which drew sarcastic criticism from Thomas Frank in his Easy Chair column in Harper’s Magazine June 2011 issue.

Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen detained at the Guantanamo prison for
killing an American soldier in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of gnotalex.
In his article, Frank wondered what a Guantanamo prisoner like Khadr would learn from reading one of the best-known titles in American management literature. Why would the U.S. government encourage a terrorist to read a book that promises him to become more “effective,” he asked? Would known terrorists locked up in one of America’s harshest prisons learn something valuable for their reintegration to civil society by teaching them to set goals, be proactive and care about others?

According to Frank, Covey’s The 7 Habits as an ideal 12-step program to a Jihadist-free life was not the first time the United States used books for purposes of deradicalization, of neutralizing the nation’s enemies by teaching them the folly of their ways. Literature was constantly foisted by the U.S. during the Cold war to portray Americans as people of taste and freedom. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People might be America’s present version of The God That Failed, a famous anti-communist anthology in the 1950s which was largely distributed world-wide, including in the Philippines.

Not to be mistaken with the 1991 Metallica song of the same title, The God That Failed was published in 1949 and is a collection of essays with testimonies of a number of former communist writers and journalists. The essays’ common theme is the authors’ disillusionment with communism and how they changed their minds to abandon the communist cause.

The most successful deradicalization of a nation in recent history has been the systematic miseducation of the Filipino people toward an American way of life as argued by Renato Constantino in his book of critical essays on nationalism. In his essays, Constantino described how the U.S. colonial government established a public education system that would make Filipinos forsake their nationalism and discourage separatist tendencies. The use of English as a medium of instruction in schools encouraged the separation of educated Filipinos from the masses. While the American public educational system was also beneficial to the country as a whole, its primary purpose was to strengthen colonial rule and influence the minds of Filipinos into accepting the vaunted superior American way of life over traditional and native Filipino values, ideas and aspirations for self-autonomy.

The orientation toward Western values, primarily American, only benefited the colonial government and was destructive to Filipinos. For example, Constantino cited the Filipino national virtue of hospitality and how it was turned into a “stupid vice which hurts and makes Filipinos willing dupes of predatory foreigners.”

Even until now, the colonial mentality developed through the American educational system endures in the minds of Filipinos in believing that all things local are inferior and worthless, and that all things American or imported are good. According to Constantino, this kind of mentality among colonial subjects also deprives Filipinos of the opportunity to evolve and strengthen their own indigenous democratic ideas and political institutions.

Going back to the Harper’s article by Thomas Frank, he asked what if Covey’s The 7 Habits make al-Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo more attentive to managing their time better instead of embracing the American way of peaceful change? Then, as Frank said, the United States would have achieved the exact opposite of deradicalization—a cohort of highly effective Jihadists capable of more mischief.

Frank wrote of one Jihadist who was a self-described fan of The 7 Habits. He was referring to Osama Bin laden’s brother in law, the deceased businessman Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, who was credited for establishing the al-Qaeda branch in the Philippines.

Instead of enabling Guantanamo inmates to learn effectiveness, Frank suggested that perhaps, the better approach is to make them lazy and indulgent, by making them realize the uselessness of getting things done. Better to turn them into American-style consumers, not American-style executives, Frank added.

But can one really deprogram a Jihadist?

In 2007, the U.S. released Said Ali al-Shihri from Guantanamo for deradicalization in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities have consistently claimed that none of their program’s graduates have returned to terrorism in the five years since it was established.

But al-Shihri emerged in 2009 as al-Qaeda’s deputy leader in Yemen, which raised serious questions on how the United States should deal with prisoners in Guantanamo and even of the much-trumpeted Saudi religious deradicalization.

Both the Saudi and American experience only illustrate the imperfect nature of the complex effort of deradicalization. Recidivism remains a concern and will continue to be a problem as more committed extremists participate in deradicalization. Without significant and genuine existential transformation in the fundamental roots of terrorism and similar violent acts—of how developed countries continue to keep countries of the Third World poor, oppressed and marginalized—threats of terrorism will continue to prosper and even those sent for deprogramming will always be attracted to go back to their old ways.

Muslim cleric promotes Jihad on Saudi television. Photo courtesy of Templar1307.
As long as the United States continues its military presence in the struggles for self-determination of other countries, national liberation movements will continue to resort to terrorism and violence to drive away foreign elements and corrupt governments. The absence of opportunities for people to participate in the process of governance—not just through free elections—in repressive authoritarian governments in the Middle East and in the rest of the world will also keep on spawning acts of terrorism.

Not even material inducements, such as those included in the Saudi rehabilitation process like giving thousands of dollars to pamper its graduates, or paying for weddings, furniture or a new Toyota will dramatically alter the mindset of committed extremists. This only shows how much easier it is to deprogram a bomb or a missile, but probably not enough to rewire the tortured mind of a terrorist.

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