In Yemen last November, James Robin King ’04 saw little reason for hope in the country’s future. Nor did his Yemeni friends and colleagues.
“There are a million and one reasons for despair,” King said, “a perfect storm of crises that includes desperate poverty, food and water shortages, an oil economy that’s running out of oil, two longstanding political conflicts and the presence of an al-Qaeda affiliate.”
Then, on Feb. 11, ordinary Egyptians forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.
“It nearly brought me to tears,” King remembered. “I knew then that, throughout the region, anything could happen.”
In fact, by the next day, he said, “the previously innocuous, ongoing protests in Yemen had become a full-blown revolution. People have been inspired to seize their political destiny—nonviolently.”
Since graduating from Calvin, King has dedicated his career to religious diversity, interfaith dialogue and political justice for the Arab world. He has lived in Jordan on a Fulbright grant and worked on Muslim women’s rights and interfaith partnerships.
But it is Yemen, in particular, that he says has “transfixed and transformed” him. That began in the summer of 2007 when, as a graduate student at Columbia University, he lived in the capital, Sana’a, and interviewed (in Arabic) eminent members of the Zaydi community, a sect of Shia Islam that ruled much of Yemen from the ninth century until 1962.
“It’s a diverse and ancient culture, rich with complexity and beauty,” King said. “But because of what Americans hear on the news, they often think of Yemenis as terrorists or as problems to solve. In fact, I have never experienced a region more hospitable.”
That disconnect compels King to tell and write, in both scholarly and popular venues, the story Americans don’t hear about the country.
He credits his Calvin experience, especially the semester he spent in Egypt, with sparking in him “an intense passion to be a cultural ambassador from the Middle East to America and vice versa. The Reformed worldview showed me that, as a Christian, I could engage the world and effect change.”
Following the Arab spring and its popular uprising in Yemen, King has been offering analysis of U.S. policy toward the country and recommendations for change.
“The 2009 formation of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula made Yemen a key priority in U.S. counterterrorism efforts,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Obama administration has been seduced into thinking there’s a quick fix in missiles and in propping up a deeply unpopular regime.
“We need to side with the people, and the people want us to side with them. In Yemen, everybody’s got a cousin in Texas or New York who’s experienced the American dream. They understand that we could and should support their revolution. As Americans, it’s who we are, and we must demand that of our government.”
With an urge to be more engaged in change, King began a job in July at the Institute of International Education in New York City. A program manager for its Scholar Rescue Fund, he helps scholars from the Middle East and other regions who are threatened in their home countries find refuge at host universities until they can return safely.
Yemen is never far from his mind, though.
“As I watch my Yemeni friends struggle for freedom and peace, I’m inspired. Who could have predicted that Yemen, and the broader Arab-Muslim world, would become the latest examples of the power of nonviolent resistance?”