Yemen is often portrayed by the news media as a failed state and terrorist haven. Alice Hackmann, who recently returned from two years in Yemen as a reporter for the Yemen Times, tells the other side of the story.
As the media concentrates on al-Awlaki’s online sermons, his role in the launch of Al Qaeda’s new magazine, and the Yemeni government’s ongoing battle against Al Qaeda, the real Yemen has been drowned out. Yet it is this narrative – that of the vast majority of the population, not of a few hundred militants – that holds the key to better understanding, breaking stereotypes and perhaps ultimately less extremism.
In the north of the country, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have been displaced by six rounds of war between the government and the Houthi rebels. In the south, a growing secessionist movement threatens the unity of the country, while each month thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants arrive on the coast from the Horn of Africa. Nationwide, the next generation will struggle for water to drink as the country’s population continues to increase and its already depleted aquifers rapidly run dry.
Instead of focusing always on Al Qaeda, the international media should highlight the efforts of youth-led initiatives such as Resonate! Yemen, Me for My country, Ayoon Shabah (Arabic for “youth’s eyes”) and the Yemeni Children’s Parliament to tackle some of the country’s other issues. They should profile social entrepreneurs like Hayat al-Hibshi who set up the Assada Women’s Association to help girls from marginalised poor communities go to school.
The media should also highlight positive exchanges between the Muslim communities of Britain and Yemen, such as the British-Somali charity that helped to set up a day care centre for young refugee mothers in Sana’a earlier this year.
More media focus on positive community-led change in Yemen, instead of terrorism, would counter negative stereotypes of both Yemenis and Muslims in the West. The effect would be more respect for Muslims in the West, less feelings of alienation or anger among their children and, perhaps, less reason to listen to a radical preacher in the first place.