Islamic Extremists Explore Sensitive Side Via Art Therapy in Saudi Arabia

Can art therapy prevent terrorism?

Art therapy at the Mohammed Bin Nayef Center for Advice, Counseling and Care. Photo courtesy of the Mohammed Bin Nayef Center for Advice, Counseling and Care.
Art therapy at the Mohammed Bin Nayef Center for Advice, Counseling and Care. Photo courtesy of the Mohammed Bin Nayef Center for Advice, Counseling and Care.

In Saudi Arabia, art therapy has become a powerful tool in helping to reform radical extremists on the verge of joining militant groups like ISIS and al Qaeda. At the Mohammed Bin Nayef Center for Advice, Counseling and Care outside Riyadh, painting classes are among the treatments used for the care and rehabilitation of the would-be jihadist patients.

Artistic responses to terrorism are common, but this is the first we’ve heard of art being used to help try and prevent extremist violence.

Patients at the luxury rehab center, who are are referred to as beneficiaries, undergo a comprehensive de-radicalization program aimed at their reintegration into mainstream society. Along with art therapy, the patients work with clerics, psychologists, sociologists, and sports instructors, as well as their families and former employers, creating a holistic approach that has proved remarkably effective.

An 87 Percent Success Rate

Though none of the beneficiaries, of whom there are currently 50, have been convicted of violent crimes, center sociologist Ahmed al-Shehri assured NBC News that “this is a dangerous place… but we invest in them.” Almost 2,800 extremists have undergone the facility’s treatment process since 2005, 120 former Guantanamo Bay detainees among them. Officials claim 87 percent success rate.

Art therapy is a sensitive part of the process, as art can be a rather fraught concept for Muslims, with many radicals believing it to be un-Islamic. Depicting people, especially the prophet Muhammad, is often considered blasphemous.

As a result, many patients have never used a brush before, Awad al-Yami, the center’s art therapist, told NBC News. When they begin to paint, their work often reflects harrowing experiences, such as being held captive at Guantanamo, or hiding in the hills of Tora Bora. “They are still projecting their past, and that’s our job to take them out of their past little by little,” said Al-Yami of these works. “It is their suffering that they are bringing out, and the art is giving them a chance to express their suffering and feelings.”

By giving radicals a chance to express their thoughts and emotions through art, working through dangerous and fearful situations that pushed them toward extremism, the center brings its beneficiaries one step closer to rejoining society.


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