So do you regard Shahid and Malek as fellow countrymen?

Fergal Keane
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SO WHAT was your reaction when you first heard that five "Britons" had been arrested in Yemen? Alarm? Perhaps a touch of outrage? Did you feel an instinctive twinge of pity that five of our boys could find themselves at the mercy of a brutal regime? Some of you may even have felt the urge to pick up a pen and write to the newspapers, maybe even demand that the Government do something.

And then in the next breath, when you heard that their names were Shahid, Ghulam, Malek, Mohsin and Sirmad, when the penny dropped that they were not white "Britons", did you feel some mitigation of your anger? And when the Yemeni authorities announced that these not-quite-true Brits had been planning a campaign of terrorist attacks against Westerners, did you feel that everything was falling into place, that this was precisely what you expected from men with names like Shahid, Ghulam, Malek, Mohsin and Sirmad?

If the answer is yes to all or most of the above questions, I rather suspect that you are part of a majority. Not a right-wing, xenophobic majority, but a liberal one that likes to think of itself as tolerant on issues of race, and believes that by and large Britain is not a racist society.

I like to think of myself as one of those liberals. I have often compared racial attitudes in Britain to those in the United States and come away feeling that things here are a lot better. I have dismissed as unrepresentative the three incidents of racist abuse - all by whites against blacks - that I have witnessed since I started living in London a year ago.

When I drive through Shepherds Bush on my way to work and see white cops - every other day - stopping black men and searching them, I don't really pay much attention. And the racist "Pakis out" graffito that pops up now and again on the slides and wings in the local playground? Just the work of kids with nothing better to do, I tell myself.

I don't have many black or Asian friends here; I don't meet a great many in my daily rounds; but by and large I have been impressed with the way that people of all races seem to get on with each other.

Have I been too complacent? Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes. It has taken the unhappy saga of the Yemen arrests to shake my casual assumptions about race in Britain. For I have no doubt that had the boys in Yemen been Keith, Fred, Ian, Joe and Pete, had they been the same colour as I, then my level of outrage would have been infinitely greater.

Not just mine, of course, but that of the rest of the media, the political establishment and the great sweep of public opinion. Remember the outrage and media obsession that attended the tribulations of Louise Woodward and compare it to the whimpering indifference that has, up to now, typified the response to the Yemen Five.

Then the plight of a single white female caused shock waves from Washington to Downing Street. Television cameras were installed in her local pub and acres of newsprint were devoted to cheerleading for her defence.

Why is it that we were willing to allow the assumption of innocence to Louise Woodward, and not the Yemen Five. And why has it taken until this week, with the visits by the men's families to Yemen, for the British media to pay any detailed attention to the allegations of torture in that country?

For many people in Britain the words "Islamic" and "fundamentalist" mean one and the same thing. They have been hobbled together in the popular consciousness to create a grossly distorted view of the religion and its adherents.

"Islam" means Ayatollah Khomeini, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden. It means wild-eyed, bearded fanatics vowing vengeance on the West. Can you imagine this kind of poisonous oversimplification and demonisation being visited on Christians as a group because of the actions or utterances of our more fundamentalist clerics?

In the case of the Yemen Five the antipathy towards Islam has been extended to a generalised assumption that the men were "up to no good". But this assumption has been made solely on the word of the Yemeni authorities, whose record for fair dealing hardly stands up to much scrutiny. When the men's families deny that their sons and brothers were fundamentalists bent on carnage, should we not extend to them the same benefit of credence as we do to the Yemenis? Whatever they were doing in Yemen, we have no right to assume that they were terrorists.

I don't doubt that the Yemeni authorities felt they were on safe ground in arresting the five. They would have expected the indifference and prejudgement that have characterised our national response. They also clearly feel confidence in the ability of their secret policemen to secure the necessary confessions and convictions. By any reasonable standards Yemeni jails are places of spectacular brutality. Human rights groups speak of widespread torture and "grossly unfair" trials.

Consider this excerpt from a report by Amnesty International, published two years ago, on the conditions in Yemeni jails: "Such conditions have facilitated the systematic use of torture in Yemeni prisons and detention centres... government opponents and critics of the state have also fallen victim to abduction and beatings. Political suspects have been abducted from their homes or in the street and severely beaten to stop them criticising the government. Evidence suggests that these abuses were committed by the security forces..."

In other words, we are dealing with a judicial system that will use any means to secure a confession. When the detainees complain of electric shock torture, beatings on the soles of their feet and sexual violation, we must surely listen.

If the Yemen Five have signed confessions, then we would do well to ignore them. They are the kind of documents that would be thrown out of court in any half-decent judicial system. In Yemen, however, they may be used to secure the long-term incarceration - or worse - of five British citizens.

There is also the matter of the Yemeni government's uncertain motives in this matter. Can we assume that, hugely embarrassed by the bungled hostage rescue, they will be remotely even-handed in dealing with their British(with a small b, as it were) captives?

It is time our Government and media, all of us, woke up to what is happening in Yemen. In the last week there have been some hopeful signs. Newspapers and television have been giving increasing amounts of space to the men's families. But our politicians are too silent.

I have seen Labour's Keith Vaz on television, but none of the party's bigger guns. And as for the Tories who are now proclaiming a vision of a broader Britain? I await Mr Hague's intervention with interest.

This trial may prove to be a defining moment in the debate about Britishness. It is not simply a matter of crime and punishment. We have a chance to make a statement about inclusiveness, about the nature of British identity at the end of the century. This is an admirably open society in many ways. But the issues of race and identity need far more work than most of us have been willing to admit.

The writer is a BBC special correspondent