8 Jan 2010

Terror threat puts Yemen's Muslims under pressure

It is at least encouraging that the latest attempted act of terrorism has sparked debate here in Yemen about what true Islam means, and what is right and what is wrong.

It is the weekend, the traffic has eased and the capital’s hum has dimmed a little. Time for Friday prayers, and a drive through hot and dusty streets to talk to devout Salafist Islamists about the Christmas day plane bombing attempt in far off Detroit. And my, are they angry.

We stopped at a café where the would-be bomber, 23-year-old Nigerian Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, would come for a drink – fruit juice, of course.

And outside, relaxing after prayer time, we encountered American and French Muslims studying here, as the Nigerian did last year.

Their message, in no uncertain terms, was that Abdulmutallab’s actions have sparked a media witch-hunt against Muslims visiting here from all over the world, Muslims who have come to Yemen to learn how to become better Muslims, and nothing more.

“We have nothing to do with violence,” said one man from the French city of Lyon, sporting a bush black beard, with his head covered with a clean white cloth. “Everything you say about Salafism is fantasy, pure cinema. “

“We are not mad, we are not crazy” said an African-American from New Jersey. “What are you doing here and what are you going to say about us? This Nigerian guy was not a true Muslim, not a Salafist, what he did has become the pretext for an attack on Islam.”

Mr Abdulmutallab has – according to the FBI – admitted that his explosives and training came from Al-Qaida here in Yemen, where the Nigerian was studying Arabic last year.

And because many al-Qaida operatives, including Abdulmutallab’s alleged spiritual mentor, claim Salafist religious backgrounds, ordinary peaceful Salafists here in Yemen (and there are various schools of Salafist thought) tend to become very irate any time an act of terrorism is laid at their door.

I went to talk to one Salafist imam in what looked like an ordinary block of flats, but inside housed a mosque reportedly causing western intelligence agencies headaches because al-Qaida may be recruiting young impressionable westerners within.

The imam had a beautiful curved dagger thrust into the front of his belt and a gaggle of children and religious students around him.

At first he suggested he might talk if I promised not to edit the interview in any way. Then I counter-suggested that if we only asked him one question, I couldn’t distort his answer.

After about 10 minutes of discussion, he told me that the television interview and filming inside the mosque were impossible, because “it is illicit to take photographs of human bodies which have souls”.

Every foreign Salafist on the street told me he couldn’t be filmed for religious reasons either, though some made it clear it was also because they didn’t want to get into trouble, either with the Yemeni government, or their own back in Paris or Washington.

I went back to the car and to my confined producer, a woman who had not been able to leave our vehicle for three hours for fear of being driven away by scandalised men; my producer’s head was covered, but judging from the filthy looks of passers by, this was not enough, and only a full covering up of the female mouth and body would do.

It is at least encouraging that the latest attempted act of terrorism has sparked debate here in Yemen about what true Islam means, and what is right and what is wrong.

But what some find it harder to admit is that there are rogue elements capable of exploiting lonely young men far from home, whose religious devotion is apparently the unfortunate prerequisite for an attempt at mass murder.