Catching-up: the South, Fang and Afghanistan

Well, in my recent monastic-like silence I've ignored commenting on a number of things going on in Yemen over the past few days. But it is raining outside and a guy can only read so much Persian on a Sunday, so let's see if we can do a little catching up.

First, the protests and violence in the south has continued. I have yet to read a good overview of the situation either in English or Arabic (just because I'm not blogging doesn't mean I'm not reading). But the situation has deteriorated to the point that the US Embassy in San'a has put out a statement available here, stressing US support for Yemen's unity.

My favorite part is:

The United States was one of the first countries to recognize the newly unified Yemen in 1990.

During the 1994 Civil War, the United States was a strong supporter of Yemen’s unity and called for a cease-fire and negotiations between the opposing sides.

Which diplomatically glosses over the impact of the US cutting off aid after Yemen's unsatisfactory performance on the UN Security Council in 1990.

President Salih has also formed a new committee to investigate what has been going on down in the South, which will be headed by former minister 'Abd al-Qadir Hallal. This is an interesting choice. Hallal was the guy forced out of his position as head of the negotiation/mediation team with 'Abd al-Malik al-Huthi by Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar for being "too lenient" with the Zaydi group. He subsequently resigned as the minister of local administration.

As is typically the case, the crisis has spawned numerous rumors and theories, all of which continue to fill my in-box at an alarming rate.

Khaled al-Hammadi of al-Quds al-Arabi reported on preachers calling for jihad against the secessionists during Friday sermons. Unfortunately one of the individuals he quotes - Muhammad al-Hazami, a preacher and an opposition member of parliament - as saying Jihad is necessary to prevent the division of Yemen again, has denied this quote to Mareb Press.

Also, denying quotes is Shaykh 'Abd al-Majid al-Zindani's office, which I had already predicted. Al-Zindani's office claims that he did not say what Bay Fang quotes him as saying, and goes even further claiming that he never even gave Fang an interview. Instead, what seems to have happened, at least according to al-Zindani's office, is that Fang accompanied a delegation of German academics to meet with al-Zindani to talk about the Shaykh's pet project of Islam and modern science. Following al-Zindani's lecture, Fang apparently asked him a question about his opinion on attacks targeting westerners in Yemen in the name of Islam, and al-Zindani replied that it is not permissible to kill innocent people and that it is forbidden in Islam.

This is turning into a classic case (literally) of "he said" "she said," and I don't want to take sides - for a number of reasons, but mostly because I wasn't there. But I think it was clear to most who know Yemen and Shaykh al-Zindani that his comments were misinterpreted/misunderstood by Fang, who gives the impression in her story that she conducted an interview with al-Zindani, not that she asked him a question after one of his lectures. Al-Zindani as the statement put out by his office was clearly referring to the Yemeni state with his talk of an army.

I guess this is one of the problems of contemporary journalism and issues of trust and/or appropriate language skills - it may not seem like a big deal to some (and I am by no means a fan of al-Zindani) but for a man who is on the US and UN lists of "specially designated global terrorists" I think The New Republic and Bay Fang owe him an apology. Certainly, al-Zindani says and does things that most in the US (and many in Yemen, for that matter) find repugnant but we should prosecute him (both literally as well as in the court of public opinion) on what he says and does not on how his words can be twisted. I think this is why Fang ran into so much surprise with the Yemenis she spoke with. This seems to me to be much more of a case of language competency than it does one of malicious intent, but the result and potential precedent are both dangerous.

One of the things that Fang's story did discuss was whether or not Yemen is the new Afghanistan - I'm not a fan of this line of thinking as it tends to suggest that whatever approach has been applied in Afghanistan can be implemented in Yemen with a minimum of adjustments. (This same theory seems to be behind the idea that an Iraq-style "surge" can work in Afghanistan, but I have no expertise in either country, so I'll refrain from commenting.) However, I do have some expertise in Yemen, and this idea strikes me as dangerous in journalism because it is picked up by military leaders and policy makers (I'm not actually sure which way the influence runs).

I'm constrained by confidentiality agreements from divulging details, but I can say that my advice has always been to stay away from this kind of thinking, which in my view fails to take into account the particulars of Yemen that can make or break any policy.

This AP article follows this trend.

Also of note is the apparent death of an Islamist (I'm wary to say al-Qaeda member given where he was killed, al-Masri's continued obstruction to requests to get the wanted booklet, and Yemen's history of deliberately confusing multiple lists of suspects as "terrorist" or "al-Qaeda" lists).

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