Wisdom in Yemen
Op-Ed, Agence Global
January 6, 2010
Author: Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Dubai Initiative
BEIRUT -- When British Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared a few days ago that the United Kingdom and the United States would soon convene a special summit on "stabilizing" Yemen in order to reduce the threat of terrorism emanating from there, I cried in my heart for Yemen. My fears were exacerbated when I read the following day that the US' top military commander in the region had visited Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to offer support, and pledged more financial and military assistance to defeat the growing presence of Al-Qaeda's operation in the Arabian Peninsula that is domiciled in Yemen.
The idea that Yemen has suddenly become a "terror problem" country and that the US and UK can lead it to greener pastures is symptomatic of the collective policy failures that have seen the world today suffer so widely from problems of political violence and terrorism. Conferences in London and shipments of American arms and money will not solve the problem. The Anglo-Americans clearly lack the ability or will to come to terms with the full dimensions of terrorism and its genesis. A starting point in that direction would be to grasp that terrorism traumatizes and harms four primary actors.
The first is the terrorist himself. Most terrorists are reasonably smart and educated young men who have become crazy due to the circumstances of their lives and their societies' political, economic and social conditions, including interactions with foreign armies.
The second is the society that breeds terrorists, including many in the Middle East. The disequilibria, disparities and distortions that plague those societies ultimately generate a handful of crazed men who become terrorists. Terrorists do not emerge from a vacuum. They emerge from terrorized societies.
The third target of terrorism comprises those innocent civilians who are attacked by terrorists, whether in Arab hotels, Pakistani markets, New York City skyscrapers, or London buses. The attacked societies are terrorized and traumatized by the criminality that assaults them, and they usually have no idea why they were attacked or what to do in response. They are truly the innocent victims who pay the highest price.
The fourth madness that often haunts the world of terrorism is the response of governments whose countries or citizens have been subjected to terror attacks. Terrorized, then crazed with anger and driven to seek revenge, governments in turn unleash their own immense military and police power to fight the terrorists and bring them to justice. This approach only rarely succeeds, and more often intensifies the first two problems above: local traditional societies around the developing world that are at the receiving end of Western powers' might eventually become crazed, distorted, ravaged lands full of tyranny, corruption, instability, abuse of power, and violence, and those traumatized societies in turn eventually breed more of their own criminal terrorists who attack at home and abroad. If we do not address these four dimensions of terrorism and its traumas, we will never resolve the problem.
Medieval Arabs used to say that "In Yemen, there is wisdom." There is also much wisdom to be gleaned from Yemen today -- in particular by Anglo-American and other leaders who should understand more honestly how and why a country like Yemen comes to play a role in the global terrorism world. This starts with an integrated, honest analysis of the above four victims of terrorism, rather than by isolating only one of them -- Yemeni society -- and using the wrong tools to address it.
The network of Al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen is structurally linked with and organically emerges from the experience of militants, resistance fighters, terrorists and others who trained and fought in Afghanistan and Iraq -- sometimes fighting with Anglo-American assistance against a common foe, but sometimes fighting against the Anglo-Americans who were seen as foreign occupiers. This network has been building up in Yemen since the mid-1990s, but in fact Yemen's instability and its emergence as a terrorists' base goes much further back.
The British with their colonial history in the southern part of Yemen, along with other parts of the Arabian Peninsula, bear some historical responsibility for how things have turned out in our region in the past century. The wrecks that often masquerade as Arab modern states are fragile in many cases because they emerged from colonial rule (mostly French and British) in wildly unsustainable conditions, due to the double constraints of European colonialism and post-colonial policies: The combination of national boundaries that were highly artificial and thus created structurally unstable states, and then the advent of local rulers who were put in place by the retreating colonial powers, often lacked any serious indigenous legitimacy, and ultimately developed into, or gave way to, today‘s security states.
For the British now to convene a global summit to fix Yemen is akin to Tiger Woods offering an executive course in marriage fidelity. It is not a serious proposition. Fighting the modern scourge of political terrorism with the kind of intellectual terrorism that Gordon Brown offers will not work. If this is a joke, it is not funny. If this is serious, we are all in much deeper trouble than any of us could ever have imagined.
For more information about this publication please contact the The Dubai Initiative at 617-496-3694.
For Academic Citation: