05 February 2014

The Arab world needs bridge building, not terrorist listing

The Arab world is in need of people who build bridges between communities and promote non-violent political action: learning to negotiate, disagree peacefully and compromise. Such people help build stable democracies, ensure respect for human rights and keep extremism at bay. Today, these individuals, and civil society in general, are under attack by authoritarian forces throughout the region. If the United States wants to promote stability and fight terrorism, it should avoid breaking these bridges and taking sides with those attacking such people. Designating them as terrorists is doing the opposite.
On 18 December 2013, the U.S. Department of Treasury announced it had listed as "Specially Designated Global Terrorists" Dr Abdul Rahman Al Naimi, a well known Islamist political figure from Qatar, and Mr Abulwahab Al Humaikani, a renowned Yemeni mediator and political activist, founding member of the Salafi Rashad Union Party and active participant in the Yemeni National Dialogue.

Both of these men have taken daring steps, often against the prevailing views in their communities, towards bringing Islamist movements into the political sphere and away from extremism. They have encouraged these communities to take ownership of such concepts as human rights, non-violent action and participation in the political process. Authoritarian governments in the region, intent on stifling democratic fervor, have repeatedly attacked these men. Now, politically motivated accusations by these regimes appear to have been picked up uncritically by the U.S. Treasury as the basis for these designations.

Mr Al Humaikani recently explained: "We support the building of relationships based on compassion, justice, equality and mutual and common interests, away from aggravation and unsubstantiated accusations. We want the world to live in peace with the co-existence of all religions and all people, including the United States and the Arab and Islamic world".

Imprisoned for three years without trial for having expressed his political opinion, Dr Al Naimi was impressed to see the campaign for his release by human rights defenders and organizations who clearly did not share his political views, but who believed he had a right to express them. This motivated him to work with others to create an organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, but which would have its roots strongly embedded in the Arab world and defend all victims in the region. The organization was named Alkarama, 'dignity' in Arabic. Three years later, I joined the team as Executive Director.

For a decade now, the Alkarama Foundation has defended individuals from all sectors of society whose rights are abused, in particular when they are killed illegally, disappeared, tortured or imprisoned unfairly. We believe that protected from the risk of such abuses, these societies will be able to demand the full respect of all their rights.

The Foundation defends victims of human rights violations by ensuring action is taken on their cases by United Nations experts responsible for monitoring human rights globally, by other NGOs and by the media. It also lobbies for legislation and state practices to be in conformity with international law, encouraging governments and lawmakers in the region to strengthen the rule of law in their countries. The impact of these efforts has steadily increased – individuals disappeared for decades in Gaddafi's Libya reappeared; people detained without trial for years in Saudi Arabia were tried or released; laws were changed or adopted in Qatar, Egypt or Lebanon.

However, Alkarama has done more than this: it has built bridges. It has created links between people from different communities in the region but also between these communities and the west. It is recognized by its partners for its ability to gather information, document cases and work with sectors of society that once perceived human rights as being part of a Western imposed agenda. Alkarama's work also aims to bring individuals (Islamists, seculars and Westerners alike!) who have reservations about human rights towards a common understanding of their universality and their relevance to every human being.

Over these past ten years, our team has found that there is nothing quite like direct interaction and working together to develop understanding, compassion and a healthy sense of humor about each other's differences. Americans working alongside Yemenis; Islamists working with liberals and seculars; New Zealanders visiting the wives of Salafis detained in the Gulf. All of this with one goal in mind: to one day see an Arab world where all individuals live in dignity and protected by the rule of law.

Its uniqueness, combined with the increasing impact of the organization's work, has long made Alkarama unpopular with repressive governments in the Arab region. It comes as no surprise that the decision by the U.S. Treasury to brand as "terrorists" individuals close to the organizations is now being used by these governments and media close to them to discredit the organization and its work.

Today, civil society in the Arab world is under attack on all fronts and the label of 'terrorism' is often the weapon of choice. In the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, political and human rights activists are being detained and accused of terrorism, mainly for having called for democratic reform in the country; in Egypt, not only the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, but increasingly all critics of the government put in place after the military coup are being jailed on terrorism accusations; in Syria, the regime of Bashar al Assad and his allies are labeling all their opponents as terrorists.

The United States has every right to fight terrorism and to ensure the safety of its citizens. But the more they abuse the 'terrorist' label to justify human rights violations or military action, the easier it is for repressive governments in the Arab region to do so on a much larger scale, ultimately fueling the anger which leads people to extremism and violence. The detention of hundreds of people for over a decade in Guantanamo, the large majority of which have been found innocent of any links to Al Qaeda or the thousands of civilians killed in Pakistan and Yemen in drone strikes, and labeled as terrorists retroactively, are two examples of such abuse that spring to mind. The unsubstantiated listing of individuals as terrorists by the U.S. administration seems to be another.

If the U.S. wants to address the root causes of terrorism, it should avoid destroying the bridges which have been built between communities or taking the side of those attacking the rare fora – such as this organization - where tolerance, mutual understanding and exchange are made possible.


Mourad Dhina, is Executive Director of the Alkarama Foundation a Swiss-based, independent human rights organisation established in 2004 to assist all those in the Arab World subjected to, or at risk of, extra-judicial executions, disappearances, torture and arbitrary detention. Acting as a bridge between individual victims in the Arab world and international human rights mechanisms, Alkarama works towards an Arab world where all individuals live free, in dignity and protected by the rule of law. www.alkarama.org