Since March 2015, around 4,000 people have been killed in Yemen after a Saudi-led alliance began airstrikes on the country. Humanitarians describe the events as a catastrophe, as the invasion plunges the country further into disaster. Yemen is not getting the attention it deserves from the Western world, but our executive editor AZAD ESSA asks: Why aren’t Muslims raising hell over the ongoing disaster?
Little would be done, but if 1,000 children were killed in Gaza, you’d at least hear about it. But after 1,000 children were murdered in Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen, we have not even heard a whimper from the so-called Muslim world. Clearly, the Western world is not the only one ignoring the events in Yemen.
Indeed, where are the mass marches, the sit-ins outside Saudi embassies, or any of its allies involved in the horrific bombing of this country?
Where is the public debate among Muslim scholars, activists and students over the legitimacy of this war?
While pockets of protest have emerged, they have also failed to capture any collective movement. The issue is at best, not known, or at worst, simply ignored.
And even while resistance to Saudi-sponsored versions of Wahabi Islam mounts in South Africa, there is reluctance to confront Saudi abuses because Saudi Arabia is thought to be fighting the good war – warding off the Shi’a.
The sectarian fault lines that are exposed and manipulated in other places like Iraq and Pakistan on a daily basis are once again being glazed over; allowed to frame our understanding of the events in Yemen.
So what is going on in Yemen?
The obscurity of this war is in part due to Yemen’s history. The large country seated at the foot of the Arabian peninsula has long been an outcast of Arab nations. It is underdeveloped, poorly resourced, exploited and shunned by its richer neighbours. It is the poorest Arab nation – was barely a single nation at all until 1990 – and it endures as a playground for proxy wars.
Like every other conflict across the globe, it is access to power and resources that drives the crisis in Yemen. The sectarian divide veils issues of rampant inequality. Yemen hasn’t been in particularly good shape over the past decade. And the indiscriminate bombing, whatever side you take in the unfolding drama, will take the country further into the doldrums.
This conflict also resists being neatly packaged for a mass protest movement due to the lack of easily identifiable perpetrators. Many Muslims have become stuck in the vortex of blaming the US, UK and France (and understandably so) when Muslims are victims but then invariably turn morally obtuse when Muslims are perpetrators, especially to their own.
Yemen is but one horrid example of Muslim impotency in this regard.
But there are others
Take the example of the Rohingya. In May, boats filled with thousands of Muslim Rohingya refugees were stranded off the coast of Malaysia and Indonesia. These so-called Muslim countries refused to take them in.
Where were the so-called Ummah, the global Muslim community, when it came to the plight of these dark-skinned, stateless Muslims? The conditions aboard the fishing boats were so bad that some resorted to drinking their own urine to survive.
The internal racial and ethnic hierarchies within the Muslim world also play a big role in deciding the direction of Muslim political activism. There is still very little being said about the ethnic cleansing going on in the Central African Republic (CAR). Forced conversion, living in enclaves, over 400 destroyed mosques: an Amnesty report described Muslims as being “erased” from the country.
— UNICEF (@UNICEF) August 21, 2015
And yet it would be a rare mosque pulpit that would pray for the Muslims of the CAR.
There is also a deeper, more subconscious process that is shaping what matters, and what gets attention.
Who fixes the narrative
There is a deeper, more subconscious process that shapes what matters, and what gets attention. It would seem that many of the world’s priorities – be it development, climate change, gay rights, good wars and bad wars – are still shaped primarily by Western media.
Take the emergence of ISIL over the past two years into our collective imagination and the response of so many Muslims across the globe. If not enamoured with or denounced as a Western conspiracy theory, many took to the streets, even took to talking about slain journalists like James Foley and the countless of horrific crimes including beheadings, rapes and ethnic cleansing of Yazidis and Kurds.
Much of Muslim public outrage over ISIL, particularly those living in the Western world, only occurred as a knee-jerk response to the framings of Islam in the international, English-speaking media.
It is only when Muslims themselves felt embarrassed, their own image and position in their societies threatened by the image of ISIL, that they bothered to express their outrage.
In doing so, the hasty attempt to set the record straight and seek validation fell straight into the Western discourse of “good” and “bad” Islam. It was crass ego-centrism – Muslims taking the short way out, and thinking only about themselves.
Unfortunately, the deaths of unnamed women, men and children in the hinterlands of Yemen do little for Islam’s image; there is nothing to explain or defend.
It’s a complicated conflict with as many good guys as there are bad guys, and few see any tangible benefits of even trying to understand it all. Muslims have been unable to move beyond their sectarian sympathies and urge for some common sense to prevail. Here, silence is consent.
Are Muslims any better?
The so-called Muslim world is under attack on many fronts: instead of 21st century democracy ushering diversity, the Western world wants the rest of us all to look and act the same. They want scapegoats for their failures.
Western-styled democracy has just become another euphemism for economic oppression. Humanitarian assistance is purely based on priorities of strategic national interest, which for most is barely 60 or 70 years old. As it stands, there is little zeal for alternate social, political and economic models of being. We must conform. We must protect our borders and they must assimilate – or so we are told.
But as the crises faced by the Rohingya, the CAR and Yemen have shown, Muslims are unable to rally to the aid of other Muslim victims when there is no captive audience, or indeed, immediate payoff.
For a community that boasts of following the prophetic tradition – where “if one part hurts, the whole body hurts”, the so-called Muslim world is surely battling with its common humanity.
Azad Essa is an Executive Editor of The Daily Vox. Follow him on Twitter.