By Sarah Gamal Ahmed
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me —
And there was no one left to speak for me.” – Martin Niemöller.
Niemöller was a prominent German Protestant pastor who publicly opposed Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. The context, which always reminds me of Niemöller’s quote, is obviously different for this is Yemen not Germany, and there is no way I am comparing Nazi concentration camps to the situation of whoever opposes the social mainstream in Yemen. Yet, this quote haunts me each time I try to imagine how a person facing charges of apostasy feels especially when one has to do so completely alone with no significant social back up.
Even though the history of apostasy in the region is not quite recent, yet Yemen changed from being a safe haven for cultural wealth and variety to one of the most suffocating environments for artists, thinkers and writers since the end of the 1994 war (note: the civil war between North and South Yemen), which began with an apostasy fatwa in the first place targeting leftists in the South and in all Yemen in general. Moreover, the growing power given to religious extremists by former president Saleh’s regime continued even after the war to target any source of thought that happens to be different from the fundamentalist winds coming from the Saudi neighbor. As a result, Yemen witnessed major drought in cultural production not because it lacks creators of arts and culture, but simply because a whole generation was raised under a hostile extreme speech that alienated the Yemeni society from arts, literature and culture and portrayed them as enemies of faith and religion. Not only did the fundamentalist wave close down schools of art and cut down governmental funding dedicated to houses of culture, public libraries and publishing but also had its own touches on the public basic and higher education, which were emptied from any opportunities to continue and develop the cultural heritage that Yemenis were known for in the past.
Nowadays, and just like Niemöller found himself all alone, the very few Yemeni men and women who managed to escape the mass alienation of creativity and culture are on their own facing the most dangerous charge of all times: apostasy, the charge that cannot be dropped with time when a theocratic power manages to engrave it in the collective conscious of a society, so that even if courts find one innocent, the society is trained to pursue him/her till the end.
Even though 2011’s uprising seemed to break all the boundaries that Saleh’s regime created, boundaries intellectuals began to face got more powerful than ever. Six episodes of apostasy occurred since the Yemeni uprising took place. It all began in February 2012 with a statement signed by 70 Yemeni scholars and religious figures demanding a trial for Bushra Al-Maqtari, a Yemeni writer and member of the Yemeni Socialist Party’s central committee. Bushra faced death threats and her house was under siege for days by religious extremists who called her an infidel as a result of her article “A One Year Old Revolution”, in which they claimed she insulted God’s divinity in one of the expressions she used.
Later, Ali Al-Suaidi, General Director of Planning and Budget of the Supreme Judicial Council in the Ministry of Justice, was tried after the prosecution charged him with apostasy and requested separating him from his wife until he gets a death sentence for posting a status on Facebook questioning a religious opinion. After that, similar charges were filed against Samia Al Aghbari, a socialist journalist, for giving a speech in which she criticized the coalition of region, arms, and tribes in Yemen. Lately, a university lecturer had to leave the country after he was fired from Al-Baidaa University in Rada’a for asking his students to read a couple of novels which were perceived by the university management as obscene and anti-Islamic. Ahmed Al-Arami left the country after several death threats and hate speech, which he feared would be an introduction to future physical violence.
At times of conflicts, political and economic turbulence, people tend to protect themselves and gather under any tribal, sectarian, geographical umbrella especially under the absence of a comprehensive country for all people that can employ their differences to create a home with a citizenship for all. Meanwhile, individuals pay the price of not following the herd alone where no protection or social support can be provided for those who chose not to be part of the collective conflicts and only chose to recite a poem, teach a class, write an article or sing a song. And the question remains: Who will be next?
Sarah Gamal Ahmed is a blogger and sociologist whose main focus is on gender issues. She is currently working for Yemen Polling Center.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect La Voix du Yémen’s editorial policy.Français
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