Bruce Falconer examines the work of scholars who engage would-be terrorists in religious dialogue through online forums:
There’s a holy war online. On one side is a network of Al Qaeda propagandists eager to use the Web to spread their message and broaden their influence in the Muslim world. On the other is a group of Saudi religious scholars who are prowling the Internet for Islamic extremists who they can convert to moderation. Based in Riyadh, members of the so-called Sakinah (“Tranquility”) Campaign have been infiltrating extremist websites and chat rooms since 2004, seeking to engage Islamist sympathizers in religious dialogue. Their aim is to steer potential terrorists away from Al Qaeda, which has used the Web as its primary recruiting ground.[…]
In chat rooms, Sakinah volunteers raise controversial subjects and then invite those who respond to engage in a private discussion. This may take the form of a single exchange, or grow into a series of conversations stretching over several weeks or months. Sakinah volunteers “ask them why they’re thinking what they’re thinking, and try to steer them towards the right path,” says Christopher Boucek, a Middle East scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the few Western experts to have studied Sakinah. “The interesting thing about this program is that after the back-and-forth dialogue, [it’s] posted online for other people to read.”
One such exchange, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit group that monitors Arabic-language press, begins with a young man calling himself Zaman Al-Dajajila (a moniker that translates to “the time of the false prophets”) explaining to a Sakinah volunteer that the division of the world is clear. “There is a camp of belief versus a camp of unbelief.” By the end of the exchange, however, his views appear to have completely turned around. “By Allah, I feel like I’m in a volcano and an earthquake!” he writes. “I didn’t mean any harm. I thought that this was what the religion demanded. You are a blessing [that came to me] from the Lord.” Another purportedly successful interaction involved what the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan described as a “former high-ranking female member of one of Al Qaeda’s women’s organizations.” She described how her contact with Sakinah affected her thinking: “Those who choose the path [of jihad] are usually not afraid of being shot or jailed. Alongside the focus on this military conflict, there must also be a focus on the ideological conflict, [through] dialogue and the spreading of correct shari’a knowledge and views…These [people] raised in me, and in many other women I know, serious doubts and questions regarding the beliefs we held so deeply.”
Read the entire post at Mother Jones.