As any regular reader here knows, one of my favorite subjects is the intersection between the war on drugs and the war on terror. And as we now get sucked into the lawlessness of Yemen, it provides another subject matter. Qat (also spelled ‘khat’) – a plant that can be chewed for its stimulant effects – is extremely popular in Yemen, among all strata of their society from rural villagers to government officials. I’ve even read one report out of Yemen that much of the country shuts down in the early afternoon as many people use qat as a daily ritual. I’m not sure how much of an exaggeration that is, but it’s safe to say that chewing qat is a fairly significant part of daily life in that country.
Here in the United States however, and even here in Seattle, qat is an illegal substance. This has caused a significant backlash from this area’s Somali immigrants, who feel they should have the right to partake in a custom that was commonplace in their homeland and does not harm others.
With that in mind, I noticed this passage from a blog specifically devoted to dealing with Yemen:
The US must be much more active in presenting its views to the Yemeni public. This does not mean giving interviews to the Yemen Observer or the Yemen Times or even al-Hurra, which is at least in Arabic. It means writing and placing op-eds in Arabic in widely read Yemeni newspapers like al-Thawra. I detailed a golden opportunity that the US missed with the Shaykh Muhammad al-Mu’ayyad case in August in a report I wrote for the CTC Sentinel (which is available on the sidebar). This also means allowing US diplomats to go to qat chews in Yemen – and even, perish the thought, chew qat with Yemenis. The US should be honest about what qat is and what it does and not hide behind antiquated rules that penalize a version of the stimulant that does not exist in Yemen. Whether or not the US knows it, it is engaged in a propaganda war with al-Qaeda in Yemen and it is losing and losing badly. US public diplomacy is all defense and no offense in Yemen, this has to change or the results of the past few years will remain the roadmap for the future. And that future will witness an increasingly strong al-Qaeda presence in Yemen.
As we’ve already seen in Afghanistan, an overzealous drug war can severely undermine attempts to combat Islamic radicalism when we’re not realistic about both cultural differences and economic realities when it comes to drugs. It’s definitely something to keep an eye on in Yemen because if we deal with qat there the way we’ve been dealing with it here, it has the potential to really blow up in our face.