Why is “Death to America” A Winning Slogan in the Middle East?

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Published on: February 14, 2015

For those who may have missed it, the American-backed government of Yemen recently collapsed and a group of Iranian-backed Islamists rose to power. Rod Nordland works for the New York Times and has been reporting from Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen.

In a recent interview with Judy Woodruff of PBS, Nordland says that the new leaders of Yemen have recently been working very hard to connect with the US and express their hopes for friendly relations.

Thus far the US government has been reticent to work with the new Yemeni government because the Iranian-backed Houthis (who now lead it) have always been very vocally anti-American. In fact, their slogan even includes the words, “Death to America”! But Nordland said that a spokesperson for the Houthi recently told him that

“‘Death To America’… is just a slogan; we don’t mean it literally…”

Rod Nordland: 

[The new Houthi government in Yemen] are trying desperately to reach out to thew United States, to try to persuade them that they want to be on friendly terms. 

They haven’t had much success doing that, I think the Americans want to see a government in place, one that the Houthis agree on with other parties, not one completely dominated by them…

The Houthis have long campaigned against American drone strikes, even though they are against their bitter enemies al-Qaeda, and since taking control they have done nothing to interfere with those, in fact they have dialed back the anti-drone and anti-American rhetoric…

I interviewed their leader here a couple of days ago and he was very adamant about trying to have better relations with the U.S., and he even went so far as to pretty much repudiate their slogan, which includes “Death To America,” and say that is just a slogan we don’t mean it literally. We want to be friends with the United States, and Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the region. They even downplayed their connection to Iran — it is widely believed that the Iranians finance them, they say it is not true and they don’t want to see Iran make headway in Yemen either.

I am optimistic that these efforts to connect with the US and to downplay their friendliness with the Iranians is a good sign of our future with Yemen… but I am also really concerned. I mean, even if the Houthis are being honest when they say that their slogan “Death to America” doesn’t really mean actual DEATH… what does it say about the people in their region that the way to win their hearts is by saying they want to kill us?

To me this points to a bigger overall problem for us in the Islamic world. If the general feeling of the populations of the Islamic world make slogans like “Death to America” a winning slogan, then how far off from the mainstream are the “extremists” really?


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