A Photo From Yemen
The photo above was virtually smuggled out of Yemen. According to CNN, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Yemen have blocked journalists from visiting the country, by threatening to cancel the aid flights that are their only way in or out.
The photo is of Batool Ali, who is six years old and weighs 35 pounds. She is suffering from “severe malnutrition,” which is a sort of euphemism for starvation.
It may surprise some readers to learn that children are right now being starved to death for political reasons. Perhaps we got the impression from our high school history classes that such behavior has been out of bounds since Hitler and Stalin targeted whole religions and ethnicities for starvation. At stake in Yemen, however, is no ordinary political reason.
The Houthi rebels are Shiite Muslims. Their foe, the Yemeni government, is run by Sunni Muslims. Regional nations have taken sides in a proxy war, along sectarian lines. Shiite Iran supports the Shiite Houthi, while Sunni Saudi Arabia and other gulf states support the Sunni government of Yemen.
Differences between the Shiites and Sunnis are based mainly upon an argument over who was the legitimate leader of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in CE 632. Various other differences have emerged since then in the flavor of worship and selection of shrines, but that pretty much sums up the root of this conflict.
It’s also the root of the conflict in Syria, the civil war that engulfed Iraq after the U.S. invaded, and centuries of armed conflict and persecution before that. It is impossible to guess how many millions of children like Batool have had their lives snuffed out for the sake of a dogmatic clash.
Poor Batool knows nothing of this silliness. It’s safe to say she has never read the books of Islam, and knows next to nothing about the religion – the theocracy – that will be imposed upon her if she survives this manmade famine. Perhaps she knows a song or a prayer, but she is no fundamentalist. Batool’s thoughts at this moment are consumed by gnawing hunger and pain, as they have been for much of her short, tragic life.
What goal could possibly justify doing this to a child? What value set says this is acceptable? Is it anyone’s genuine hope that creating the conditions that led to the starvation of this child will resolve a 7th century power struggle?
Why can’t the adults admit it doesn’t matter whether a man named Abu Bakr or a man named Ali should have been named caliph in 632? The dispute is irresolvable because we are talking about religion, not politics, not ethics, and certainly not nature. No amount of evidence or suffering would matter to anybody in this fight.
For centuries, God has failed to send an unmistakable signal that could have resolved the question and saved Batool from this fate. Take a wild guess why.
In God’s absence, supposedly holy men have spoken on his behalf. Often, they have said that the followers of other holy men must be killed. When enough people believe their local holy man, you live in a place like Yemen.
Sometimes people take us to task for insisting upon secular government. They ask what harm it does to let the fundamentalists erect religious monuments on government lands or lead students in forced prayer. Those critics do not see the connection between the religion of Yemen and the religion of Arkansas. They do not understand that Batool is with us today. She is any Arkansas first-grader and her future is in our hands.
Theocracy in America would lead to the same results seen across the world and across the centuries: brutality, disease, and deprivation. Europe in the era of Christian theocracy looked a lot like Yemen today. Unlike Batool, we were lucky to be born on an island of secular government.
As we struggle to maintain secular government in these trying times, let us not forget Batool, or the millions of other kids whose futures have been diminished by the inherent consequences of religion. Let us not forget how lucky we are, and how as the caretakers of our republic we have a duty to prevent the chaos seen in pictures from far away. The plight of the Yemenis teaches us the descent into theocracy is a long way down.
Remember, this photo is recent. Batool has probably not yet died. She is likely still starving at the moment you read these words. Secularism doesn’t just matter, it’s urgent.