Standing up to the culture of violence [Archives:2004/747/Opinion]

June 17 2004

The recent attacks on the innocent worshippers in the two Dhamar mosques are a clear indication that a serious handicap has found a niche in the mind set of a sizable segment of the general public. The mentality of the gun has become so prevalent that we see children who have not even reached puberty brandishing pistols and other deadly weapons, as if they were part and parcel of the customary dress that is expected of young boys at that age.
It is true that bearing weapons is an ancient engrained national custom, and Yemenis regard the weapons as essential for self-defense or because of the long history of tribal or political conflicts. However, it must be borne in mind that until recently, Yemenis have managed to develop a strong moral code of chivalry that pretty much regulated the use of weapons and kept their use to a minimum and then under the guidelines of a set of dos and don'ts, even when engaged in combat (tribal or otherwise). Even the customary dagger we see worn by almost all Yemeni males had its rules of conduct. Penalties were imposed on violators, in addition to the shame that the perpetrator is subjected to in the community for getting out of hand.
However, due to a general laxity that evolved, encouraged by a laissez faire attitude on the part of government on the application of law and the establishment of law and order, especially on those with strong political clout or those who enjoyed elevated social status, people tended to start applying their own rules and seeking their own means against possible attack or threat of attack. Moreover, with a rise in the blood feuds that the country saw over the last quarter of century, with the gradual breakdown of some of the traditional codes and customs even in this sphere, the victims of blood revenge extended to any relative of the initiator of a violent attack. Then later the same was applied to the relatives of the deceased victim of an assault for revenge of the death of a relative, and a vicious circle was in place. This aura of fear of eminent attack can also be attributed to the inability of the government to bring cases of murder or violent attack to a legal resolution, and the reliance on traditional “out of court” arbitrations by tribal leaders, etc, who took their time to reach a settlement and exacted a heavy price.
On the other hand, the entry of foreign religious dogma, with its extreme interpretation of religious dictates and rejection of all other religious orientations that did not conform to the “beliefs” of this or these new renditions of Islam introduced another element of violence that was not subject to any code or limitations. Again, the government should have tackled this problem at the early stages of development. But, the government allowed the establishment of institutes that fomented these new unheard of renditions of “Islamic” dogma and ideology, which in fact Islam is completely innocent of. Even some of the isolated paramilitary camps set up by the followers of these imported sects did not awaken the government of an eminent danger to religious dogma itself, and to the peace and stability of the country.
But, now even with the government committed to a war against terror, it seems that terror has made itself a permanent element in our social fabric, although the government has admittedly succeeded in scaling down the severity of attacks, especially against foreigners, which is a significant achievement, if Yemen hopes to advance tourism as an economic booster to our wounded economy. The terrorists may have decided to redirect their propensity to wreak havoc and disorder on the poor innocent Yemenis, for surely these ugly attacks are not simply the works of individuals with an erratic desire to let out all their frustrations. The fact that the attacks have occurred in Dhamar or elsewhere, where there was strong resistance to the infiltration of these new venomous renditions of Islam, clearly indicates a sectoral implication and a desire by terrorists to remind us that they are here to stay. Most people are at a loss at finding justifications for such wanton outbursts of murder and because of the strong historical religious inclinations of most Yemenis, these new religious murders are instilling a sense of fear, even in the houses of God.
These acts of violence must find their end soon and the perpetrators of these crimes must be dealt with not just as a security issue, but a social and cultural issue that requires partnership action by both, government and civil society as well as the religious scholars, who are known for their much broader conceptualization of Islam. On the other hand, if the government is unable to secure people even while they are praying, then it should educate the public how to deter such attacks, by say having a few of the worshippers, who are known in their respective communities stand watch, while the rites of worship are carried out by the rest of the worshippers. This is a practice that is even taught in the Koran, when Moslems fear a surprise attack from their enemies, when they are at war. With the enemy of terror still able to unleash its sadistic cravings, we can safely assume that we are indeed in a state of war and there are sensible ways of safeguarding human life and deterring such wanton disregard for the sanctity of human life, especially that of innocent believers who are carrying out their religious duties.
On the other hand, we need to reinstate the moral codes that once kept most innocent people free from the fear of barbaric attacks. This means that schools need to play an important part in beginning to eradicate the culture of the gun that has found a dangerous niche in our mind-set. Of course the public media has not played a significant role in confronting the upsurge of violence, especially emanating from extremist beliefs that are not a part of our spiritual and social fabric, and it is time to invigorate that role.
Furthermore, it is time for important political dignitaries and social elites to cut down on the display of power through the accompaniment of scores of armed men wherever they go, before the regular citizens find it essential to organize their own paramilitary “citizens' defense units” to enjoy the same type of protection. The arms are already with them; it is just a matter of organization.