It's time to add the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen to the journalistic shopping list

There's very little that unites Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran these days, but here's one thing that does. Both Muslim nations mix austere religion with political repression to the detriment of individual freedoms.

But you knew that, right? So why bring it up again? Because of the worsening situation in Yemen that started as a civil war but has morphed into an increasingly bloody proxy war between the two Middle East powerhouses.

There's much more to say about Yemen, and we'll do so below. But first here's a couple of examples of how far-reaching the heavy theocratic hands extend in Riyadh and Teheran.

I present them as examples of how misdirected the priorities of the two governments are.

The first example is this recent Washington Post story about a Saudi teen who became love struck online. Click here for the details of how he was arrested for flirting online -- "goofy" flirting, according to the Post -- with a California woman barely out of her teens that he asked to marry.

Abu Sin (the teen's nickname that in Arabic means "the toothless one"; referring to his misaligned teeth) was arrested for "violating decency and religious values," says the Post piece. It added:

His exchanges with Christina, according to lawyers, could violate the nation’s cybercrime law that bans creating online material that goes against morals and religious values, as well as its rigid interpretation of Islamic law.

Example two is this recent New York Times story, datelined Tehran, that opens with this snappy lede: "They won the match and mourned." Here's some of the text:

In a collision of international soccer scheduling and the eve of Ashura, Shiite Islam’s most solemn and sorrowful holiday, Iran played South Korea on Tuesday in a World Cup qualifying match held at Tehran’s 100,000-seat Azadi Stadium.
The Iranians beat the South Koreans 1-0, normally a cause for rapt joy for the home-team crowd. But clerics and state officials had strongly urged the fans to avoid cheering for their players or celebrating the victory, which was deemed an insult to religious values.
In a compromise, the religious authorities said the match could proceed if the stadium were turned into a place of mourning, with black banners commemorating the death of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, more than 1,300 years ago.
State media told spectators to wear black. Instead of chanting a soccer cheer — “What will Iran do? Destroy them!” — they were urged to shout the mournful cry, “Ya Hossein!,” or “O Hussein!” if Iran scored.

Do these examples strike you as being silly? I think they are.

What's not silly, however, is how both nations are willing to sacrifice the lives of others to push their version of which branch of Islam should prevail (yes, I know, Saudis are Arabs and Iranians are Persians, so there's that complicating historical enmity as well).

Which brings us back to Yemen, where hapless civilians caught in the middle suffer the most. (Click here for background on the conflict.)

Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world. Today, it's another setting for the Sunni-Shiite rivalry stretching from Lebanon, through Syria and Iraq, to the Arabian Peninsular and beyond (Pakistan, for example).

And guess what?

Once again, the United States has become directly involved, not surprisingly in support of Saudi Arabia. See this Associated Press feature.

Which begs the following questions:

Why does Washington repeatedly find itself supporting and even fighting alongside one morally compromised nation after another in Middle East wars that appear endless and insolvable? And because we support the Saudi side's much criticized bombing campaign, what responsibility does the U.S. have to Yemeni civilians?

These questions are fertile ground for religion writers, who should be considering the moral dimensions of our government's actions.

Here's an assessment from the website of Mark Lavie, a former AP correspondent in Egypt and Israel, where he still lives. His concern here is the relative little attention the situation in Yemen receives in the American press.

Once again, the US is caught up in a no-win situation in the Mideast, because there are no good guys in the Yemen conflict, only combatants and civilian victims -- 10,000 dead so far, and millions in desperate need of food and other aid. Children are starving, the country has collapsed, but no one seems to notice.
They might notice if this escalates into a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is not out of the question, and then there will be many politicians in the West who will ask, where did THAT come from? Now you know.

It's true that Yemen has been under-covered. But it's also true that this lack of attention is understandable, given that we're approaching the end of an American presidential campaign, unlike any the country has seen, that's sucking most of the journalistic air out of newsrooms nationwide.

Plus, whatever is left over for Middle East coverage is going to Syria and Iraq.

One standout exception on Yemen has been the New York Times, but then its resources and range are matched by few, if any, other American news operations. The Times has even weighed in editorially, arguing that Washington should no longer aid the Saudis in this fight if Riyadh continues to excuse the excessive loss of Yemeni civilian life.

The editorial, which ran earlier this month, was headlined, "America's Moral Duty in Yemen."

As journalists, and religion journalists in particular, we need to ask the same question, and the sooner the better -- the presidential campaign notwithstanding.

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