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Sheema Khan

Why we need a rehab plan for the likes of Omar Khadr Add to ...

Nascent relations between the Harper government and the Obama administration have been marked by the absence of public discourse about the fate of child soldier Omar Khadr.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper steadfastly refuses to consider his repatriation, and his government has given full support to the travesty known as Guantanamo Bay. Nonetheless, with the prison set to close within a year, a solution will have to be found for Mr. Khadr.

Assuming that he is returned to Canada, as opposed to incarceration in the United States, serious thought must be given to his rehabilitation and eventual reintegration into society. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace touts Saudi Arabia's comprehensive counterterrorism program aimed at prevention, rehabilitation and post-release care.

Established in 2004, the program has been adopted by the U.S. military in Iraq, along with several countries in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. It is not offered to those convicted of terrorism-related murder charges. Thus far, the recidivism rate is about 10 per cent. Since January, however, nine graduates have been rearrested for joining terrorist groups, while one is now an al-Qaeda chief in Yemen. These graduates underwent truncated rehabilitation for only a few months.

A central feature of the program is the recognition that traditional security measures cannot be used alone to fight extremism. The state must also engage in a "war of ideas" to combat the ideological justifications of violence. The Saudi government asserts its interpretation of Islam in which loyalty and obedience to the state are paramount. In the propaganda war, extremists are delegitimized for lacking both religious authority and religious understanding. The prison rehabilitation program includes art therapy and theological debates between scholars and prisoners. Ironically, there is more intellectual freedom inside prison; outside, art is frowned on and theological debate is forbidden.

The Saudi model also adopts the view that prisoners are primarily "victims," "well-intentioned individuals" seeking to do "good works," who have been misled by a deviant ideology due to a lack of religious understanding. Those who graduate from the prison rehabilitation program are helped by the state to obtain an education, employment and even a spouse - as a means to pre-empt extremist recruiters from filling the void. Families of graduates also work with the state to help the individual reintegrate into society.

Given that a number of Canadian Muslims are incarcerated on terrorism-related charges, a Canadian-based model of rehabilitation and reintegration will be required. As with the Saudi model, individuals with sound religious understanding, the ability to deconstruct al-Qaeda ideology, and a semblance of religious authority will be needed to counsel these prisoners away from extremist ideologies.

But what type of Islam should be an alternative? The strict Saudi interpretation cannot, and must not, be presented as the only alternative to extremism in Canada. Prisoners should be engaged in a framework that finds common ground between Islamic and liberal-democratic principles.

The Saudi presumption of prisoners as "victims" is dubious, for this implies a lack of responsibility for one's actions. What is to prevent recidivism if the fault lies with the ideology and not the individual? But one can build on the idea that these are young men who seek change in a misguided way.

While Saudi Arabia offers no political alternative to dissent, liberal democracies offer empowering means to disagree with, and change, government policies. A Canadian rehabilitation program should include education about civics, the justice system, and the Charter of Rights. Individuals, such as Maher Arar, can be called on to share their experiences in striving for change through principled, non-violent means.

The Saudi example has shown that rehabilitation must be comprehensive, while successful reintegration hinges on a change of the prisoner's social network before arrest. What remains is the development of a standard procedure to assess the risk posed by a detainee in order to determine an appropriate time of release. Given this uncertainty, Canada should take great care in developing its own rehabilitation and reintegration program, so public security is not jeopardized.

The Saudi program is not a panacea. But it does provide a starting point for other countries to build on, in accordance with their own norms of justice, rehabilitation and reintegration.

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