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Guest Thinkers

On Saying Silly Things

Veteran Waq al-Waq readers can probably skip this post, as it reiterates things we’ve been saying on the blog for about a year now (and to our incredibly lucky family and friends for much longer). But as Yemen has had an incredibly quick rise to the top of the news in the last couple of weeks, we’ll have to keep combating some of the silly and wrong-headed things that people say about the country. This is even true of smart people who are in essence playing catch-up with their knowledge.

Gregg Carlstrom at The Majlis– who does excellent work on Yemen, among other things- points us to this Daily Beast article by Bruce Riedel, who I admire, and who knows more about Afghanistan and Pakistan than I do on just about anything. There are some decent parts to the essay, especially about how there is no “made in America” solution. But there are also a couple parts that took my breath away, to the point where I nearly jammed my fingers in a rushed attempt to talk about them here. They seem nit-picky, but the first at least is indicative of some of the problems that people have when they write about Yemen with only a passing knowledge. Here is the first.

Yemenis are desperately poor, half illiterate, and very young, but armed to the teeth. Every male always carries a large dagger with him and usually an automatic weapon. Many are addicted to the local narcotic, the qat leaves, that are grown in the country. Growing qat is so lucrative that about 40 percent of the nation’s dwindling water supply is devoted to its cultivation.

The armed to the teeth thing is particularly aggravating. The large dagger that “every male always carries with him”- a statement that isn’t true, by the way- is a curved ceremonial and decorative blade. This has nothing to do with being armed. Hell, I have one, and I am the least dangerous person you’d ever meet. As for the automatic weapons, there are obviously a lot of guns in Yemen, and that is a threat, but the numbers are greatly exaggerated. Derek Miller of the Small Arms Survey argued in 2003 that the number of weapons in Yemen is less than 10 million- a large and worrisome number, sure, but one that doesn’t give credence to the admittedly more dramatic “armed to the teeth” phraseology. This does far more to confuse than it does to help. We don’t want to underestimate the problem of arms, but we also don’t want to overestimate it. Erring on the side of caution is still erring.

And, briefly, qat- it isn’t really an addiction, and it is hardly a drug in the sense that we think of drugs. It isn’t dangerous, doesn’t make you more violent, is only a mild stimulant, and if anything helps to calm a population down. It is intrinsic to Yemen, and using “war on drugs” scare tactics to describe it inhibits understanding. The amount of water used is a problem, but it is neither here nor there when talking about terrorism.

Then there is this throwaway: “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula strongholds are mostly in Yemen’s south, in the remote Sunni tribal provinces that the British, communists, and Saleh have never really governed, and where Osama bin Laden’s family comes from.”

You should know by now that steam is literally pouring out of my ears. Riedel here has committed the cardinal sin of Yemen-writing: mentioning Osama bin Laden’s familial ties as if they mean something (though he avoided the traditional cliche of “the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden”). If you are reading an article where the writer mentions this, immediately treat everything else as suspect. This is the best advice we can give you here.

There is one more thing in the article with which I disagree, but that is a broader matter that will be dealt with in a later post, and is a legitimate discussion point rather than a “why did you say that” type of fisking.

We’re not going to do this with every article about Yemen, but I think it illustrates a danger: how having a little knowledge can cause you to fall back into misleading and meaningless cliches. And if these affect the way policy is formulated, we would do far better to not have a policy at all.


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