July 24, 2011 8:13 pm

Yemen is about more than al-Qaeda

Undercover Muslim: A Journey into Yemen, by Theo Padnos, Bodley Head, £11.69

We see few countries through as narrow a prism as we do Yemen. Until the Arab spring swept across it, this obscure, impoverished state had only one claim on the world’s attention: an unknown number of men hiding in its lawless badlands branding themselves with the al-Qaeda franchise, hunted down by American weapons.

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Such distortion leads to clichéd portraits of the country and its diverse, wry people, who are often characterised as medieval, clinging to an ideology as unchanging as the jagged outlines of its mountains. This blinkered vision has not helped US policymakers get to grips with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who appear no weaker after years of counterterrorism engagement with Yemen. It will certainly not help them tackle the chaos unleashed by the death throes of a dysfunctional regime, which the US has reluctantly supported as an ally against AQAP.

Theo Padnos, a former teacher in the US penal system, is one of the few westerners to have spent time inside the Yemeni religious networks that many fear could produce the next 9/11. His undercover account of studying Islam there both challenges and perpetuates the one-note discourse.

Padnos joins the flow of alienated young men who come to Yemen each year in search of meaning, spiritual solace and, he dryly notes, compliant wives. They are drawn by the same reductive clichés that inform policy debates: “ ‘Where is Islam resurgent?’ asked the young men in the exurban mosques of Europe. ‘Where is it powerful and pure and ancient?’ The answer filtered back to them ‘in the mountains of Yemen’.”

The reality they discover is different. Sometimes the foreigners’ Islam is less flexible than that of the Yemenis they came to emulate. In one comic scene, Padnos and two fellow students trudge in vain through the fast food district of Sana’a in search of chicken that meets an absurdly stringent definition of halal.

Unsatisfied by the worldly capital, Padnos and his friends decide to seek admittance to a remote religious community in Dammaj in the north where thousands of foreigners come to study and pray under the guidance of a Salafi (Sunni fundamentalist) imam.

But even here the purity they seek is not unsullied. According to one young man from north London living there, it is also home to a flourishing black market in weapons and sex with boys. And there is an uneasy awareness that the showy austerity is supported by “a certain family of petrocrat neighbours to the north ... now pouring layers of gold and marble over the holy sites of Islam”.

It is not clear where al-Qaeda fits in all this. Padnos concludes only that, if there was an organised jihadi recruitment programme in Dammaj, “it was a well-hidden one”.

Though in some ways the book provides a corrective dose of complicated reality to popular perceptions, Padnos himself is apt to mythologise. At one point he claims to share a Yemeni’s “dream of Yemen as confederation of God-seeking mountain brothers all loving, warm and prepared at a moment’s notice to clash their sabres together in acknowledgement of God’s supreme power”. The revolutionary committees that have sprung up since February discussing non-sectarian, non-violent strategies for democratic change show that many Yemenis dream of something quite different.

The book’s focus on Islam also ensures that, as usual, much of the country’s life remains out of the picture. Yemen is facing a chronic water crisis, and a throwaway description of a desertified village makes one wish Padnos had written on that instead: “The desert swept through these villages like a slow motion flood. It poured down the main streets, and filtered in to the dooryard gardens. Nowadays, sand waves lap at the ground floor windows of houses.”

It is economic marginalisation and the distribution of scarce resources that have caused people to gather in squares round the country, seeking not only to remove President Ali Abdullah Saleh but to reclaim what being a Yemeni is. “We are fed up of being terrorists and beggars to the world,” one woman at a Sana’a protest told me. “We are Yemenis.”

Yet even after 52 protesters were shot dead after Friday prayers at Sana’a University in March, the then US defence secretary Robert Gates insisted that “instability and the diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP” was his primary concern.

With the country on the brink of disintegration, the west needs more than ever to attend to the full picture, out of self-interest as well as morality. If Yemen becomes a failed state, the danger it poses to the west will reach a whole new level – an outcome US drones will be helpless to prevent.

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