05/24/2011 03:15 pm ET | Updated Jul 24, 2011

How To Really Help Yemen Stop Their Civil War

With Yemen's embattled ruler Abdullah Saleh imprisoning foreign diplomats and attacking students, protesters and tribes alike, Yemen looks like it's poised on the edge of a bloody civil war.

The Gulf Cooperative Council's deal has failed, President Saleh has categorically refused to step down -- and has stepped up his campaign of terror on the streets of Sanaa instead -- and, when President Obama declared he had to go, Saleh turned around and signed a deal with Russia.

And what's even worse, at least from an American perspective, al Qaeda seems poised to take over Yemen's rural outback and make a post-Osama comeback, big-time.

However, the good news is that the answer to preventing civil war in Yemen, and preventing the resurgence of the world-wide threat posed by al Qaeda lies with the tribes: both ours in North America and theirs in Yemen. And with Muslims: both ours and theirs, too.

Yemen's tribes are independent powers in a country where the President's mandate extends hardly beyond the walls of his compound, unless he backs it up with bullets. Meanwhile, Yemen's tribes have more guns and soldiers than Yemen's army, and they've backed students and protestors on the streets.

Until recently, they were neutral on the subject of al Qaeda, but lately some have realized that al Qaeda threatens us all. So in the last four months, cheered on by students and protestors, they've cleared more land of terrorists than President Saleh has in years.

Those students and protesters, on the other hand, as well as capturing Yemen's imagination and the world's attention, have proven quite capable of bridging the gulfs between tribes in Yemen and between Yemen and the outside world together, making them a force to be reckoned with as well.

Oh, and what's the best part? Many tribes, students and protestors have chosen to back Yemeni reformist Tawwakol Karman, some even proclaiming her the next "Queen of Sheba." Women can't drive cars in Saudi Arabia? How about a woman running an entire Arabian country, right next door?

So what's the problem? Yemen's tribes are too independent. They have a long history of internecine struggle, strong religious divisions particularly between their Sunni and Shiite contingents, and little interest in cooperation within a federal constitutional framework.
If this was still the 18th or even the 19th century, that wouldn't be a problem, but it's not. Yemen's been dragged into the 21st century by the Arab Spring, along with her embattled President Abdullah Saleh, and her tribes. With Abdullah on his way out, to prevent utter chaos, those tribes need to find a way into the modern world, in a hurry, for the sake of everyone.

However, in this modern world there are more actors than even the ancient tribal system can handle. The Arab spring brought Yemen's youth to the street -- young men and women under 30, who make up 75 percent of the population and who have organized the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change, made up of more than 160 separate groups from across Yemen.

And let's not forget Yemen's clerics, most of whom issued fatwas in support of a peaceful revolution, and who have declared non-violent protests are the holiest form of jihad.
But despite all that Yemen remains deeply divided, geographically and politically North from South, religiously and tribally Sunni Abyan from Shiite Houthi, and with President Saleh's family standing alone, afraid to let him leave lest they be crushed for what they have done to others, themselves.

Finally, to complete the picture, let's not forget to add in the foreign actors, like Russia, the Gulf States and America, and you might finally begin to get a picture of the challenges Yemenis face today, and why they might appreciate a little help.

But where can we find a tribal culture with hard-won real-world experience in dealing with today? Enter North America's First Nations. Because using their own tribal wisdom, tribal culture and tribal traditions, those tribes have managed to resolve conflicts within all our lifetimes that are confounding us all.

But what about the cultural divide between First Nation and Muslim culture and religion? How do you reconcile polytheistic animism and rigid monotheism? Well, it turns out that's not as big of a problem as you'd think. Muslim and First Nation spiritual leaders have been talking together for years: I can still remember the excitement in my own imam's voice, when he was telling me about his first sweat lodge. It turns out that scholarly imams, the ones who actually know the most about -- and care the most about -- the religion, have been having polite conversations with non-Muslims for years.

But more importantly, this has nothing to do with religion. The tribal solutions to North America's First Nation's tribal problems rest in tribal culture: in the form of a non-violent, time-tested and effective consultative approach to conflict resolution, rooted in honored ancient traditions of respect and hospitality that all our peoples share, but melded into the world of today with communication technologies that let it cross modern borders with ease.

What's more, the tribally based governing structure under a mutually acceptable sovereign that the tribes and people of Yemen are demanding is honestly the only "Muhammad-approved" model of government in the entire history of Islam.

And that makes helping create the sort of representational democracy being sought by the students, reformers, citizens and tribes of Yemen an Islamically blessed act that must absolutely be aided and supported by observant Muslims throughout the world.

And that's why a coalition of Muslim, First Nation and humanitarian organizations with broad Yemeni support has proposed an initiative to assist the people of Yemen in resolving their conflicts peacefully and inclusively, and furthermore to eliminate the threat of al Qaeda in Yemen.

A plan that is already endorsed by the Muslim Council of Calgary, representing Canada's largest and most integrated single Muslim community, and Imam Hamid Slimi, Chair of the Canadian Council of Imams.
That proposal, championed by Intertribal Bridges: That We May Know Each Other, is currently making the rounds of governments and NGOs around the world, gaining support and gathering steam. Why ? Because it will work, even though nothing else has.

Because what's the real problem with modern diplomacy in the Arab world? So called "modern" diplomacy has failed repeatedly because it's actually based on 16th century European models, from a "once upon a time" world where leaders held absolute power over their ignorant masses. Those models just don't reflect the world we live in today.

But more importantly, our governments just don't have the right mandate to make a better world for everyone, no matter what they say. No matter how well intentioned, each is inevitably hampered by the simple fact that their primary purpose will always be to make sure whatever deal that goes down, goes down the best for them. A government's negotiating posture is inevitably, ultimately one-sided.

Peace, on the other hand, can't be one-sided unless you're willing to expend vast resources keeping it that way. Because peace can't be imposed by enforcing different ideologies or by building walls or by engaging in foreign wars anywhere, because that inevitably and ultimately just ruins someone else's peace for the sake of our own interests instead.

To be stable, viable and sustainable in the long term, peace must only be shared. In fact, real peace can only be shared.

So let's try something new for a change, using age-old wisdom that actually worked: one that has brought peace to both ancient Arabia and the so-called "new" world already.

Rather than making war for the sake of peace (an obvious oxymoron we've been trying unsuccessfully to make work regardless), with the help of North America's First Nations and Muslims, let's help Yemen's own people and own traditions stop their own war together.