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Using Art Therapy to Open the Minds of Jihadists

A Saudi Arabian art therapist describes the techniques he and his colleagues use as part of a deradicalization program.
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(Photo: val lawless/Shutterstock)

(Photo: val lawless/Shutterstock)

Of all the problems therapists have been tasked with solving, altering the mindsets of committed jihadists is one of the toughest and most important. In Saudi Arabia, which has more experience with this problem than any other nation, they have found a simple tool provides invaluable assistance in this challenging process: Paint brushes.

In the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy, Awad Alyami of King Saud University, who serves as senior art therapist at the Mohammed Bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care in Riyadh, provides a fascinating first-person report on his and his colleagues' work with former radical fighters, including men who had been held for many years at Guantanamo Bay.

He offers evidence that art therapy is "an efficacious approach in counterterrorism," and a vital part of the larger effort to integrating former radicals back into Saudi society. He describes the trial-and-error process that led to the current approach, and the ways he and his colleagues adapted Western concepts to serve a Saudi population.

"Art therapists must be aware, and respectful, of the local cultures from which their clients emerge," he writes.

"The session helped some of our clients to shift their thinking from an approach to dying to an approach to living."

In broad strokes, the program Alyami describes will sound familiar to art therapists in the United States and Europe. "The clients were taught through examples of how to express their feelings and release their aggressive tendencies through drawings and paintings," he writes. "'Get that negative energy out on the paper.... 'It is safe here' was the theme of one art therapy session."

But many specifics had to be modified. They found using the well-known Diagnostic Drawing Series, in which participants are instructed to draw three pictures to reveal their state of mind, proved problematic for a variety of reasons, including "the subjects' concept of drawing as prohibited" and their feeling that drawing is "child's play" that is beneath their dignity.

So Alyami and his colleagues decided to ask them to make only one "free picture." Fortunately, this proved "sufficient to start them on the expressive path towards revealing their concerns, ideas, and fears."

For one session, he writes, "I began by making a blue mark on the canvas and asked one of the group members to mimic my mark. He made a similar mark." Other members joined in until an abstract painting was created.

Alyami then started asking the participants to discuss the imagery. "I looked up at the big circle on the upper part of the painting and asked: Could anyone tell me what a large circle might represent in your life? One said: It represents a mother, with the small circle inside holding her child."

He asked the man to describe his relationship with his mother, and he responded by revealing how estranged they had been since he considered her and his sisters insufficiently religious. In this way, a difficult and painful subject came to light, opening it up to discussion and possible resolution.

The art therapists also utilized the participants' extreme brand of religiosity by having them write Allah's 99 names, "as mentioned in the Qur'an. Each one is on a separate sheet of design paper embedded in a line design to make a drawing that utilizes the principles of design: unity, harmony, balance, rhythm, contrast, dominance, and gradation."

This exercise was not only calming—it opened them to an essential discussion about achieving balance and maintaining healthy rhythms in their lives, as well as on paper.

"Such questions are powerful in forcing ideas into the open, and laying the groundwork for the more traditional rehabilitation team to build on," Alyami writes. "Even more importantly, the session helped some of our clients to shift their thinking from an approach to dying to an approach to living."

The rehabilitation program (of which art therapy is one component) has "graduated" 2,918 former radicals since its inception in 2009 (including 209 former Guantanamo detainees), according to Alyami. It also has a relatively small recidivism rate, with 13.4 percent returning to "their old quest of fighting the infidels," usually by joining al-Qaeda cells in Yemen.

His report makes a strong case that art therapy—tailored to the needs of this particular population—has played a significant role in that success.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.