Reflections on Yemen, Islam and violence


The author is a Committee member of the Society. Until recently he was Director of the Mu’adh Welfare Trust in Birmingham, a charity catering for the educational and social needs of the local Yemeni community.

I was shocked by the events which occurred in Yemen last December and even more saddened when I learned of the links between the alleged perpetrators and Birmingham, where I live, and London.

Yemen is my homeland and its welfare matters greatly to me; I breathed its air, drank its water, grew up in its hills and valleys, and climbed its mountains. I take pride in Yemen’s long history of civilisation; in the technology which built the great Marib dam; in the story of Sulaiman and Sheba recounted in the Holy Qur’an. Yemen became known as Arabia Felix, ‘Happy Arabia’, a metaphor for its striking natural beauty, the temperate climate of its highiands and its fertile valleys. Yemenis have been more than just courageous fighters; they have been great travellers and seamen: their caravans plied between Hadhramaut and Damascus, and their ships sailed to India and South East Asia. Yemenis practised Judaism and Christianity before embracing Islam. The Prophet described them as ‘the mildest and most open-hearted’ of people, adding that ‘Faith is deeply rooted in Yemen, and wisdom originates from Yemen’.

Muslims and non-Muslims have generally lived in mutual harmony throughout the Arab and Islamic world, and in Yemen today the existence of a small Jewish community reflects Islam’s continuing tradition of religious tolerance. Yemenis are well known for their spontaneous warmth and hospitality. The violence which took place at the end of last year should be seen in its socio-economic and political context, as well as from an Islamic perspective.

In the latter half of this century Yemen has suffered enormous political and economic disability: civil wars, political unrest, military coups etc. It is only since the 1980s that the country has taken its first steps towards economic prosperity and democratisation. The expectations raised by the unification of the country in 1990, however, were sadly compromised by the bitter political in-fighting which ended in the military conflict of 1994.

This conflict inflicted severe damage on the country’s economy, and Yemen was compelled to accept the Structural Adjustment Programme drawn up by the World Bank. The economic consequences of this programme — the rapid rise in the cost of fuel and food — had a strongly negative effect on the majority of the population; people took to the streets to express their anger and frustration.

Another strand to popular discontent was the widespread corruption perceived at all levels of government.

It is easy to see how those at the bottom end of society, who lack basic medical and educational amenities and whose lives have been made a misery by rampant inflation, are tempted to see violence and sabotage as a legitimate means of redressing their grievances. At the same time, Yemeni officials may well be right to attribute incidents such as the explosions which have occurred from time to time in Aden, to ‘unfriendly forces’ outside the country.

What we have seen inYemen is the emergence of a small number of unemployed, economically deprived and reckless young men making Islam a vehicle for destruction and sabotage. Starting from the premise that foreign oil companies were enjoying the wealth of the country at the expense of the Yemeni people, they argued that with the daily bombing of Iraq and the continued occupation of Palestine by the Jewish state, the Muslim ummah was still at war with the West. They were therefore justified in inflicting as much harm as possible on ‘infidel forces’ and citizens of the same origin, in order to pressurise the governments concerned to halt their aggression against the ummah.

Islam abhors violence in general, and the mistreatment of prisoners of war, let alone civilian hostages, is prohibited in Islamic jurisprudence and regarded as a major sin; in Islam no one has the authority to be judge and executioner. The Prophet, as the treaty of Hodaibiya attested, preferred peaceful means of resolving his conflict with the Quraish, even though his followers were keen to fight the idolators of Makkah, and to avenge the oppression suffered at their hands.

Those who were taken hostage entered Yemen legally and were automatically entitled to the protection, hospitality and respect traditionally accorded to visitors and guests. The Qur’an clearly spells out the criteria in the following two verses:

Allah does not forbid you to deal justly and kindly with those who did not fight against you on account of religion, and did not drive you from your homes; for Allah loves those who are just. (The Qur’an, 60:8)

0 ye who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others cause you to do wrong. Be just: that is next to piety; and fear Allah, for Allah is well-acquainted with all you do. (The Qur’an, 5:8)

This sacred teaching speaks for itself. Thus the issues raised by the events of last December have less to do with Islam than with the underlying situation inYemen.

We may conclude from this that only economic development and political stability — drawing strength in all spheres from the democratic process — will cut the ground from under the feet of those who preach violence in the name of religion, and enable Yemen to become once again the ‘Arabia Felix’ of long ago. That is my vision and fervent hope.

December 1999