Opinion

A Response to Ben Norton on silence over war in Yemen

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In Ben Norton’s “Why are American pro-Palestinian voices silent about the brutal war in Yemen” (January 8th 2016), Norton makes the case (a strong one I think) that the Palestinian solidarity movement has failed to mobilize against the US-backed Saudi war on Yemen. This strikes me as generally true. I wrote something similar at the outset of the Saudi bombing campaign. While the situation has grown more dire since then, the response of the American pro-Palestinian solidarity camp has become, if anything, more lackluster. During the 2014 Gaza massacre my twitter feed was inundated (and rightly so) with up to the minute news on the latest atrocities, political developments, and planned direct actions. Not so in the wake of the Saudi bombing campaign. There are a few exceptions: Medea Benjamin and Code Pink, some organizations in the “hard” left such as ANSWER, and the work of individual Yemeni-American human rights activists such as Rabyaah Althaibani and Farea Al-muslimi. Yet, the slaughter of Yemen has continued without sparking the dissent and agitation it deserves.  

The reasons for relegating the plight of Yemenis to virtual obliviousness is more nuanced and more troubling than Norton makes it out to be. Norton explains the reluctance to condemn the Saudi assault as result of not wanting to “divide the movement” and the perceived “complication” inherent in the conflict. The first should be expounded upon. The pro-Palestinian solidarity movement is slowly but surely expanding, becoming liberalized as it does so. At the University I attend, I have met many pro-Palestinian activists involved in the BDS movement who view US support for Israel as a deviation from standard US foreign policy. These activists believe the US is committed to democracy, racial equality, human rights etc. but simply fails in the case of the Palestinians. This is an unfortunate development. If we do not view US support for Israel as a uniquely salient and striking example of the tendency to uphold colonialism, exaggerate and utilize ethnic and racial tensions, and take part in war crimes and human rights abuses, it is likely that many other geographies upon which US brutality is enacted will go ignored. When any movement becomes larger the tension between growth and principle is bound to take place. For many liberals, including those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, an analysis that points to the unsavory nature of US foreign policy as a whole is either a bridge too far or something they have yet to consider.  

The silence from the solidarity movement mirrors that of the Muslim community in the US. Unfortunately, parts of the Muslim community are unwilling to wade into injustices that might create tensions in their congregations. In the summer of 2014 the Israeli bombing campaign occurred right at the start of Ramadan. At the masjid I attend, dua (supplications) were made for Palestine nearly every night. The Imam and the congregation were often in tears as they prayed for the protection of the Palestinians from the Israelis. The bombing of Yemen overlapped with Ramadan in 2015. The only dua I ever heard for Yemen was a short one, praying for “our brothers and sisters in Yemen.” No blame was placed on the Saudi regime. There was no mention of bombs. I can only imagine that the silence was a product of the funding our masjid receives and the makeup of the congregation (significantly Saudi). The Muslim community is not uniquely affected by sectarianism, nationalism and ethnic pride, but its susceptibility to these constructs is one of the primary reasons why the bombing of Yemen has continued without much condemnation.  

Where I disagree with Norton is on the issue of “complication.” Norton does not argue against non-complication as a factor in when one should address an injustice. Norton simply believes the Yemeni case to be uncomplicated. This is untrue. There is an entire history of the Houthi movement and their relationship to previous Yemeni dictators that has been neglected by most analysts. It is unclear if the Houthi movement has popular support in Yemen, but it is clear that they have committed many human rights abuses of their own. North – South tensions in Yemen will likely continue to be a cleavage that shapes the future of the country. Additionally, the specter of ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continue to loom over crisis. Yemen is as “complicated” as any other geopolitical tragedy.

How complicated or uncomplicated an injustice is is simply a poor metric in deciding where energies should be allocated. Norton claims Yemen is “cut and dry” while Syria is “complicated,” therefore justifying energies towards the former. Individuals such as Ramah Kudaimi, correctly point out that “complication” is used as an excuse by Zionists to justify inaction on the issue of Israeli human rights abuses. Since it is inherently a dubious concept and it is unclear why the complicatedness of an injustice should reduce moral obligation, complication cannot be used as a justification to put more focus on Yemen as opposed to Syria.  

Yet, I believe Norton is right that US activists should place more focus on state-inflicted injustices in Palestine and Yemen. However, the reasoning should be made clearer. There is a moral case and a pragmatic case for putting more energy into agitating against the Saudi-inflicted massacres in Yemen than Assad’s in Syria. I will begin with the moral case. There are two primary secular moral frameworks with which to tackle international injustice. The first is cosmopolitanism, meaning that the ethical obligations and rights of human beings are not derived from, differentiated by, or mitigated by man-made borders. The second is international libertarianism, meaning exactly the opposite. While I believe in the former the world operates by the latter in practice. For those of us that are US citizens, we have unique responsibilities and obligations based on what the US does. We pay taxes in the US and we vote in the US. We are responsible for what we do. Not for what Syria does. Not for what Russia does.

Thus, the moral case for why we are uniquely responsible for the actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, as opposed to the actions of Assad in Syria, is clear. At the beginning of President Obama’s first term, the US concluded a multi-billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia; the largest arms deal in history. The US sold Saudi Arabia an additional billion dollars in arms and ammunition this November, which should be viewed as a “replenishment” of Saudi capabilities, which will allow the regime to continue to transform Yemen into rubble. Of course, a similar dynamic is present in the case of Israel, which allows it to bomb the Palestinian civilian population mercilessly. Needless to say, no comparable support has been given to Assad.

The pragmatic case for addressing Saudi aggression in Yemen is similar. The destruction of Yemen is currently a consequence of US policy. There is no need to debate whether or not we should send in troops or limit our actions to a bombing campaign. There is no need to debate how to pass a UN Security Council resolution that is amenable to all veto-members of the UNSC. Curtailing Saudi crimes is simple: stop what we are doing. Stop assisting Saudi Arabia by providing intelligence that allows it to carry out its airstrikes. Stop arming Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf. Stop participating in the blockade of Yemen. As citizens of the US, with some measure of freedom of expression and access to relatively uncensored news media, we have an ability to alter state policy in a way other populations do not. We have more opportunities and more tools to alter US policy towards Israel and Yemen than altering the policies of Assad or Russia, as ineffective US sanctions have shown. Therefore, even if we believe that ethical obligations extend uniformly beyond borders (which again, I do), there is a pragmatic case for addressing US-sponsored atrocities rather than those carried out independently by other actors.  

Western-based pro-Palestinian solidarity activists should issue stronger condemnations of the US-sponsored Saudi bombing of Yemen. Intra-Muslim community politics and the liberalizing of Palestinian cause must be overcome. When critics inevitably respond, “What about Syria?” (by which they mean the Assad regime) pro-Palestinian activists should be prepared to point out unique Western complicity in the case of both Palestine and Yemen and the unique position of the Western-based activists to put an end to these crimes. Assad is a criminal and a murderer. Hezbollah has shown itself to be an unprincipled sectarian militant group willing to starve children to death. However, the bombs dropped by both Israel in Palestine and by Saudi Arabia in Yemen (literally) have our names on them. The resulting blood is on our hands.  

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I generally agree with all this. But in my own limited experience people’s reactions are slightly more, um, complicated. Most liberals are more than willing to criticize the Saudis–the Saudi regime is only liked by people who receive money from them, so far as I can tell. But the same folks who will bash the Saudis are reluctant to criticize Israel. On the other hand, there are some liberals who are willing to criticize US… Read more »

there’s so much to tackle in this article i don’t know where to begin. the Palestinian solidarity movement has failed to mobilize against the US-backed Saudi war on Yemen. i never got the mobilization orders. i didn’t even know the Palestinian solidarity movement was supposed to mobilize against SA. so please accept my apologies for our failures. i followed all your links and didn’t notice where this mobilization was centralized. do i like SA, no… Read more »

Broaden your horizons boys and girls Yemen overlooks the Bab el-Mandeb Strait (the Gate of Tears), one of the choke points absolutely critical to that great oil slut the global economy Countries near to shipping lanes and transit choke points are kept fragmented, small & relatively powerless https://www.google.com.au/search?q=choke+points+doe+-wikipedia One major reason Iran has been of concern is its position relative to the Straits of Hormuz Korea was divided for the same reason … Taiwan …… Read more »

Western-based pro-Palestinian solidarity activists should issue stronger condemnations of the US-sponsored Saudi bombing of Yemen. Intra-Muslim community politics and the liberalizing of Palestinian cause must be overcome. When critics inevitably respond, “What about Syria?” (by which they mean the Assad regime ) [emphasis added] ———————- Really? The Assad regime? The clear parallel to “US-sponsored Saudi bombing of Yemen” would be US-sponsored Islamist terror in Syria– not the Assad regime. —————————— Hezbollah has shown itself to… Read more »

” At the University I attend, I have met many pro-Palestinian activists involved in the BDS movement who view US support for Israel as a deviation from standard US foreign policy. These activists believe the US is committed to democracy, racial equality, human rights etc. but simply fails in the case of the Palestinian” How ridiculously ignorant and chauvinist of them, to further propagate this problematic thought and ideology of American Exceptionalism and also whitewashing… Read more »