Islam at crossroads in Yemen

October 16, 2004

SANA’A, YEMEN   Four years ago this week, Muslim extremists bombed the American warship USS Cole, in Yemen’s port, Aden, killing 17 sailors and sending a message to the world.

It’s a mark in time for myself and Jean, who I was then dating. She was moving to Yemen for her first work stint. On Oct. 12, 2000, Jean was also at the U.S. National Press Club in Washington, invited to talk about safe motherhood, or lack of, in the developing world. Then, boom. On the day of her talk, the Cole was hit.

So, four years on — after the Cole’s $250 million repair, and two Cole ringleaders recently sentenced to execution — what about this rugged country? Can anything good come from Yemen? I mean, don’t most folks run screaming in the opposite direction from this kind of place? Maybe. But consider these things.

Yemen is the cradle of Islam. But it’s not Iraq. Bullets aren’t falling like rain. Nobody is getting beheaded. It’s not Disneyland but, besides the whiteknuckle driving, most days pass without terror. On the street, many Yemenis cheerfully greet foreigners with a “welcome,” often their only English. Jean says at night she feels safer in Sana’a than Toronto.

Outside the capital, tribal mentality breeds moremilitant thinking. Still, thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from Washington, Yemen (albeit imperfectly) is getting rid of its rotten, terror apples. Recently, the government took on militants in mountains near the well-known, arms-selling town of Sadah. Hundreds were killed.

Despite having only half-baked civil liberties, this quasi-democracy is also pushing hard for regional change. This year, 800 Arab delegates chose Sana’a as the venue to discuss Middle East affairs. (This, after two UN Arab Human Development reports, written by Arabs, lambasted regional leaders for deplorable conditions in political freedoms, education, gender equity, and science capacities.)

The message seems clear: The Arab world stands at a crossroads. Whether it comes by conviction or infliction, change is inevitable.

What’s most interesting is how Yemen’s officials are also fighting extremism by systematically reeducating militants who interpret Islam with violence. This reverse-brainwashing strives to uproot terrorism’s root causes, because, in the words of the Yemeni judge who leads this program, “terrorism has faulty intellectual foundations.”

As a result, some prisoners are renouncing violence. In two years, at least 125 have been released, apparently changed. It’s very worthwhile, because we know Islam and its interpretation is among the biggest political and social forces on the planet. Muslims need to promote alternative views to those of demagogues like Osama bin Laden.

(A US Congress report on 9/11 says, worldwide, 70,000 to 120,000 jihadists have attended al-Qaeda- type training camps. If true, even with some in Iraq, a healthy reserve still exists to sustain some type of global jihad for some time.)

Now consider a 2004 cultural highlight. The 70- member Europa Philharmonie Orchestra played in Sana’a. With great reception, it was Yemen’s first ever open-air concert. Under the stars, against a stunning backdrop of ancient, mud-brick buildings, it was, I think, also a striking symbol of the kind of surprises that are possible here.

So, in a word, I see hope. And I don’t say so lightly. Two years ago a Muslim extremist killed three American friends of ours, hospital workers in the town of Jibla. He said he shot them “to get closer to God.” (He was also sentenced to execution, but the case remains in appeal.) Imagine the tears and soul-searching that we and many of our western colleagues experienced.

Yet, of dozens of us, not a single person left our work, because, for one, we believe that love is stronger than death. And now Jean and I are here in our third term, with our toddler Elizabeth, hoping to make at least some difference in Third World medicine and journalism.

The UN ranks Yemen as the world’s 162nd best country to live — 162nd. It’s hardly home. But there is something very comforting in knowing, for now, we’re meant to be in this bellwether. After all, without development, there is no security.

Now if we could only get more good music in these places. Interested?

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October 16, 2004 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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