Ashraf Swelam is director general of the Cairo International Center for Conflict Resolution and Peacekeeping in Africa (CCCPA). Here, he speaks about the Centre’s Preventing Radicalisation and Extremism Leading to Terrorism (PRELT) project in Nigeria and Somalia
CCCPA uses Islamic Shariah to provide alternative narrative to the narratives of terrorists groups like Al- Shabab and Boko Haram. Why Islamic Shariah?
Our program on Preventing Radicalisation and Extremism Leading to Terrorism (PRELT) is an offshoot of a larger project on transnational threats in Africa, since conflict continue to be a major threat to peace and security in Africa. Terrorism is one of these threats of transnational nature and as a civilian centre we chose not to focus on the military and security aspects of terrorism rather on civilian interventions that we believe are equally important in ensuring security.
And that’s why our focus is number one on prevention and which means working with local communities, local leaders, local influencers in neighborhoods, villages, towns, small cities and large cities around providing an alternative narrative rather than a counter narrative and the distinction is important because we don’t think all these misrepresentations of Islam represent Islam.
Since Muslims in general around the world that are not extremists are the ones who understand the true and tolerant teachings of Islam, we think what we [should] produce is an alternative (narrative) rather than countering anything. In the program, we work with local leaders and influencers and here I have to clarify that what we mean by local leaders and influencers is not necessarily people who are in an official positions.
They can be teachers, or people working in humanitarian and non-governmental organizations or whatever. The major criteria is that they are people who are respected in the local communities, who can and are willing to engage in communications at local level in order to provide alternative narratives to that of terrorist ogranisations.
Our program focuses primarily on 2 countries, as a pilot phase: Somalia, where our focus is on the threat posed by Al Shabab and Nigeria where our focus is on the Boko Haram threat. Going back to the important question you asked on why using Islamic Shariah, I need to start by saying all of our training programs in the many areas we work are based on rules of war and peace in international law, what is commonly referred to as international humanitarian law.
But for the particular case of PRELT, our initial discussions within the Centre and with experts within and outside Egypt led us to the conclusion that it is not the best way to communicate our message and provide our trainees with the best experience, if we base our training on international humanitarian law, taking into consideration the fact that what terrorist organizations – whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish – do is implicate religion in conflict.
And so rather than basing our training program on international humanitarian law, what we did was worked with religious scholars in Egypt and outside it on developing our program based on the rules of war and peace in Islam hence the program deals with concepts of Jihad, protection of civilians as we find it in the scripture, the sayings of the prophet and as we see it in the day-to-day life of Prophet Muhammad.
How tolerant of other faiths are the teachings of the Sharia?
The early Muslims lived in four different situations, first as a minority in Mecca at the very beginning of the message; second, when a small group among them migrated to el Habasha (Ethiopia); third, when they migrated to Medina and fourth when they went back to Mecca and represented a majority there. Looking at these various experiences, whether as a minority people on the run from prosecution in Mecca or as majority in Mecca, the starting point of Islam as a message is about tolerance and coexistence, even with its enemies.
All terrorist organizations misrepresent or misquote Islamic concepts in their attempt to implicate religion, whether Shabab, Boko Haram or ISIS and have excelled in playing to the grievances of local communities. Therefore, we try as much as we can to make our trainings as close to the local context in which it is implemented as possible.
The situation in Somalia is different from that in Nigeria and that is why we try to adopt our training to specific local contexts and that is why we have adopted a highly interactive model of training; we tell our trainees from the very beginning – be it Somali or Nigerian context – that they are the experts; not us. And that is why also we start our training with conflict analysis, we analyze who are the major actors or stakeholders, what are the root causes of conflict; be they economic, social, cultural or political.
Because by understanding and engaging the group of trainees in that discussion they themselves learn from each other by hearing the views of one another until they reach an understanding of the situation in their own countries; from the point of view of their fellow countrymen and women, although they live in the same country they might have varied points of view.
From there we move on to discussion around theology, the mores of coexistence and tolerance as exemplified by the Prophet and the early Sahaba [companions of the prophet], we then go on to talk about the rules of war and peace in Islamic Sharia and after having a solid understanding of these rules, we go on to basically debunk all the narratives of terrorist organizations, focusing on, for example, the narratives of Boko Haram, based on what is learnt about what Islam actually say about war and peace.
And then we end with a module on communication skills around developing an alternative and inclusive narrative or message on peace and coexistence, also based on Islamic Sharia.
CCCPA is probably pioneering the use of Islamic Shariah to provide alternative narratives to the narratives of extremist groups. How has it been?
There are multiple challenges to be honest with you, number one is the difficulty with the situation on the ground in Nigeria and Somalia, and we would have definitely liked to implement these training in the local communities in Nigeria or Somalia. The security situation in Somalia is forbidden, the situation in some parts of Nigeria is quite difficult.
The second big challenge we are going to face once the pilot phase is over is how to scale up our activities and provide the resources (human and financial) needed to be able to take our training to a big number of people in diverse communities in Nigeria and Somalia. But I have to say that taking into consideration the very positive feedback we have been getting from our partners, trainees and trainers we feel resources will not be a challenge.
Our future plans is that we do an advanced version of the program that will be completely devoted to religious leaders and scholars in local communities across Nigeria, and Somalia where we will go deeper in terms of discussions around war and peace in Sharia, and radicalization. Secondly, we want to take our training to other contexts as well, so far we have been getting requests from Kenya and Mali.
This means we will have to adopt our training to these local contexts, Kenya despite its proximity to Somalia is a very different context, and Mali is entirely different. We would also like to work with peacekeeping missions that are working in Africa, as you might know, 8 out of the 16 peacekeeping missions in the world are in Africa and if you add the African Union mission in Somalia, that makes it 9. We would like to build a bridge between the world of peacekeeping and the world of PRELT.