Yemen – a nation of terrorists? Yeah, right

17 Nov

Two weeks ago, two planes from the same origin, Yemen, were found to be carrying bombs targeting Jewish synagogues.  A discomforting fact it is – but a reason to vilify a nation, it is not.  The newspapers were immediately deluged with talks of the ‘deadly threat’ from Yemen; the instant reaction of the airports was to halt all cargo planes from Yemen.  Magnus Ranstorp, so-called ‘terrorism expert’, called Yemen ‘the new Afghanistan’.  What a helpful comment.  It really ensures that international treatment of Yemen remains balanced, understanding and fruitful.

Looking at the country the bombs came from is hardly examining the root of the problem.  Yemen has been used as one in many means to attacking the West; what therefore needs attention are the ways in which the West could prevent fuelling Arab hatred and could stop the spread of an Al Qaeda mindset in Arab regions.  Criminalising Yemen, however, enacts the opposite.  It doesn’t prevent our being attacked (another country – any country that feels the West is an interfering bully, or a threat to faith – will step up, just as Yemen did), but it does increase anti-Western feeling within the Yemenis.  It increases Al Qaeda’s chance of gaining influence.

It is not Yemen that we need to be fearful of.  Treating it like ‘the new Afghanistan’ risks making all the same mistakes we’ve already made in Afghanistan.  Treating a country like a criminal has the same terrible implications as treating a young child who hits his brother like a psychopath: it makes bad behaviour inevitable.  It breeds it.  Only in this case, because it is a country and not an individual that we are branding, the consequences are hundreds, thousands of times bigger.  Not only do we offend an entire population, we risk pushing every member of that population towards precisely the course of action we have already condemned them for.

The consequences of generalising are already clear.  Was the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan ten years ago as devastating as it is now? In defining Afghanistan as a ‘state of terror,’ haven’t we polarised it? Haven’t we distanced ourselves from it and condemned it? The most obvious effect of that is that ‘terrorist’ groups like Al-Qaeda are able to flourish.  In the absence of support from elsewhere, and amidst terrible living conditions and a fraught political situation, the Afghans increasingly look to Al Qaeda for their greatest chance at a better future.

Al-Qaeda’s outreach in the Middle East is already wide, its influence potent.  Any country that feels wronged by the West is susceptible to the prowess of its propaganda.  Thus a country that is targeted by the West also becomes fertile ground for hatred towards it; hatred, and a resentment that, because unexpresseable – the West holds the power, after all – festers and builds up with no option of release.  Once that has happened, an act like suicide bombing begins to resemble the only viable mode of defence.  The words of Al-Qaeda begin to seem sensible.

It is a frightening circle.  To a downtrodden population who feel that they have been mistreated and are suffering unheard, the resolution offered by groups like Al-Qaeda can seem like the best option.  And when a tiny percentage of nationals from one country commit an act that the West classifies as terrorism, the entire country is maligned by the West, harshly condemned.  The people who would not have considered terrorist action feel oppressed and slandered; resentment is fuelled; support for Al-Qaeda grows.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world.  It is extremely vulnerable to a group that promises a better way of life; that promises support and trust; that seems to promote values the country itself holds strong – values like religious faith, which most Middle Eastern countries, and indeed many practising British nationals, regard as dangerously lacking in the West.  Like much of the Middle East, Yemen feels that the West has become arrogant, invading where it is not wanted.  (Case in point: the Yemeni government stated a fortnight ago that the issue of cargo security within Yemen is a Yemeni affair and that they will deal with it without Western involvement.)

Instead of focusing our anti-terrorist fears and legislation on Yemen, we should be looking at other places where Al-Qaeda have influence and where support for the group is in danger of taking hold.  We should decide what we can do in those areas to make the lives of others easier and ourselves more popular, so that the ethics of Al-Qaeda do not become, in the manner of the last resort, viable.

Stopping calling terrorism ‘terrorism’ would be a good starting point.  We are just dehumanising enemies who are – however much Bush and Blair didn’t want to admit it – human.  In lumping together anybody who decides that their most intelligent, bravest and noblest act is to tie themselves to a bomb, and under an umbrella term that is deliberately hostile no less, we fail to understand them.  We fail to offer the loved ones that they left behind any hope.  We fail to pass onto their children any idea that there might be a better way.  We fail to show to the country as a whole that, really, the West is not all that bad.

When we describe Yemen as the new Afghanistan, we tell Afghanistan that we still believe that they are a state of terrorists – and we tell Yemen that we will treat them in exactly that way; we tell Yemen that we will do to them what we did to the Afghans.   We make the Yemenis who would never have dreamt of spreading animosity against the West begin to consider that Al-Qaeda might have the right idea.  Ultimately, seeing the issue as a Yemeni one is – to use a very Western phrase – only going to bite us in the ass.  I very much doubt that serious threats to Western security will come from Yemen now; Al-Qaeda will know that it is time to move on.  But if we keep blaming Yemen, then what we will see are the petty, pointless and desperate acts that are now rife in Iraq and Afghanistan, where despairing men weekly blow themselves up in the towns that were their homes, amongst the people that were their community, because they can see no future and no hope.  And if that happens in Yemen now, we will have only ourselves to blame.

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