The Mirage: Tackling terrorism with education and security

  • 24 October 2016

With religious extremism claiming the lives of hundreds of people in Europe in the last year, after terrorist attacks have plagued major European cities, questions are being raised about how to tackle this problem without allowing populism and racism to take hold of society.

Dr. Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, the award winning author of “The Mirage” and the Director General of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, sat down with Alexandros Koronakis to talk about his hopes of putting an end to terrorism by fighting it with education and security.

Part of his 800-page book, which tackles the phenomenon of terrorism and the misuse of Islam by extremist groups, comes from Al-Suwaidi’s 1989 doctoral dissertation, but the author says it is not dated. “The situation didn’t change since then. It’s the same ideas. The groups we are talking about, their ideas haven’t changed,” he said.

The book has been banned in certain countries, including Saudi Arabia, but there has been a lot of social media targeting the book. According to Al-Suwaidi, the comments do not target the content, as they cannot. For the first year after the book came out in February 2015, he was under constant security surveillance as there were direct threats against his life.

The book, explained Al-Suwaidi, was one of the five finalists for the Nobel Prize in literature, beaten by Bob Dylan who received the prize under much controversy. Al-Suwaidi did not comment about Dylan, except to say that “Bob Dylan beat us”. He did, however, describe the prizes as too “traditional”, and to say that the Nobel Prizes need to start to recognise the importance of Information Technology. “It’s not my field, but they have to recognise it,” the author said.

Terrorism, education and the Muslim Brotherhood

Al-Suwaidi was adamant about the role of education in the eradication of terrorism. “It’s a process that will yield results after 15 or 20 years,” he said, adding that it is still necessary. In his view, teaching tolerance is the key to achieving long-term change.

In the 1980s in the UAE, the minister of education and head of the university was from the Muslim Brotherhood. By freeing education from this leadership, it allows you to “teach tolerance”.

Speaking about the terrorist attacks in Europe, Al-Suwaidi was quite critical regarding the response of the EU to the Muslim Brotherhood. “Europeans are responsible for the terrorism happening to them. They think [the Muslim Brotherhood] are moderate.”

Reflecting on how the United States and many EU countries were supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, he said: “After coming to the EU, now I know why… they don’t understand the phenomenon.”

Quite strongly, Al-Suwaidi stressed that “Europeans shouldn’t cry, they made this terrorism; when you buy Daesh [Islamic State] oil, you are helping”.

Al-Suwaidi has long advocated separating religion from power.

The mosques

In a speech the previous day, Al-Suwaidi sent a strong message: The mosques need to stop being places for recruitment of extremist ideologies.

Referring to some of the terrorist attacks in Europe, and how something like this could come about, Al-Suwaidi said: “The Imam will tell them, do it and you will go to heaven”.

Asked how a country should go about tackling this problem, Al-Suwaidi responded:

“There is a model in Egypt and the UAE where they monitor mosques. We have the technology today to hear everything… We used to have many Imams coming from different walks of life. Somebody upset; he would say ‘Why don’t you kill the Christians, and Jews, and Hindus’. The message of hate should stop. Religion didn’t come from hate. Religion, whether Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism came from moral values, not hate.”

While Al-Suwaidi described his approach as scholarly and academic, he primarily relies on logic: “If the Imams tell you how to kill, then we have to stop [the Imams from doing so].”

Security vs. Freedom

Europe needs to discuss the issue of security versus freedom, Al-Suwaidi maintained. It is “a difficult discussion” that needs to be held.

Throughout the interview, Al-Suwaidi frequently repeated his mantra, saying: “Don’t tell me about [the] human rights of the criminal, you have to tell me [about the] human rights of the victim… You can’t forget about the victims.”

In his mind, there is a right balance to strike between security and freedom. Asked about the potential for abuse of power, and the banning of headscarves in some parts of Europe, Al-Suwaidi sounded clear: “You can’t target a certain race, or any group of people” but “you can search for security.”

With the influx of migrants and refugees from Syria and other countries, Europe has had to face growing social tension in local communities.  “Anybody who comes from, let’s say Tunisia to Belgium, enjoying the free constitution should respect the values of the regime.” Al-Suwaidi believes that most migrants will exploit the rules and values, but if someone coming to a country doesn’t have respect for these rules and values, they should be “thrown out”.

Security and justice

Reflecting on the Belgian attacks that left 32 dead, Al-Suwaidi expressed disbelief: “The guy who planned the attack on the airport in Belgium is in a 5-star jail in France. That is not supposed to happen.”

The interview took place the day after 15 hostages were held (and eventually released) in a Belgian supermarket by a man wielding a knife. “That’s just wrong,” Al-Suwaidi said, shaking his head.

Al-Suwaidi also made special mention of Belgium and the large number of returned fighters from Syria.  Walking the streets, he says, is dangerous. “People are there trying to kill you.”

There is a need for more security for the common good, in Al-Suwaidi’s opinion. “I’m very happy to see airport-like security in buildings, because I have no criminal intent. There is no problem if I am searched.”

But Al-Suwaidi insisted there is a middle ground. Recounting the time when he was detained at an airport in Houston for seven hours just because he has an ‘Al-’ in his name, he said that “we have to be very careful with profiling.” Increasing security, he continued, also requires greater cooperation with Middle Eastern countries to better understand the problem at hand. What is needed is “scholarly and intellectual debates,” he believes.

For countries that went through Featured-4, “they can find a middle ground,” he concluded.

The interview lasted over an hour and the discussion took tangents into American politics, the refugee crisis, and history. A message from Al-Suwaidi that resonated was that there is no justification for taking the lives of innocents, and that “freedom” as Al-Suwaidi said, “should stop with mass murderers.”