(The London Free Press, February 8, 2003)

SANA’A, YEMEN – Chalk up a victory for misguided tolerance in the recent flap with Lebanon’s ambassador to Canada, Raymond Baaklini.

The ambassador shared various wonky views with a Montreal-based Arab newspaper, including that Canada’s “Zionist party” controls 90 per cent of Canada’s media.

He says he regrets the furor that followed and his remarks were for Arab audiences. Still, he reiterated that “Jews or Zionists” control Canada’s media in a subsequent National Post interview.

Rather than request a more suitable representative from Lebanon, Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham says Baaklini’s regrets are good enough and it’s case closed. So tolerant.

Then again, Arab audiences would understand completely. That’s because, as I’ve discovered in Yemen, folks here are also incredibly tolerant. Especially about Jews.

Really.

In fact if Ottawa wants to make it to the tolerance big leagues, I suggest it closely observe Yemen. With practice, there’s no reason it can’t become as open-minded as this country’s government.

For instance, the following is preaching from a mosque on Yemeni television: “O God, destroy the United States and its allies and let them suffer, particularly tyrant and arrogant Americans. Destroy the Jews, for they are within your power.”

Tolerated.

Then there’s anti-Semetic school curriculum.

Tolerated.

Graffiti on a main drag here in Sana’a, in English no less, states: ‘Get the #@!%& (Jews) out of Jerusalem.’

Tolerated.

But it’s the media that can really set the tone. Here’s what has come across my own desk. You be the editor:

“This report will prove to you beyond a reasonable doubt that the American government is the biggest and most murderous terrorist organization, along with the United Nations and their Hidden Masters of the Jews Masonic Illuminati Super Government.”

And: “The biggest Israeli ring ever existing in the United States has been detained in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. But, instead of trying them and making them known to the public, they’ve been sent back to Israel amid the silence of the Jews-controlled American media.”

There it is. The truth is out. But Jews don’t control Yemen. No sir. That’s because none are left. There were thousands here at one time. But most fled after a killing campaign 50 years ago. The remaining few hundred aren’t allowed into Yemen’s government.

It’s all tolerated.

There are some not-so-tolerant people here also. My boss, Walid al-Saqqaf, publisher of the newspaper that employs me, is one. That’s why, unlike Yemen’s Arab-language press, The Times won’t print the big story on the Jewish world conspiracy.

Walid, in fact, calls Israel a scapegoat. “We say the Zionists are putting hurdles in our way, even though it’s our own corruption and mismanagement,” he notes.” “People may have a point regarding Palestine’s strife and so on, but we don’t have enough bread to eat and we still want to destroy Israel.”

Walid represents a new wave that’s growing in pockets across the Arab world. Particularly since 9/11, some level-headed Arabs are leaving the conspiracy blame game. Globalization is also revealing what they’re missing.

Dignity, a voice and other practical tools for economic and political change are what they really want. The tiny Arab island nation of Bahrain, for example, just held its first free elections. Change may spread.

Which is why Ottawa needs to stay focused on Yemen. A country that didn’t even have a bank until the 1960s, this place is so backward even Houdini wouldn’t quickly escape its ways.

“This is a culture of fear. If you don’t go along, you’re not a good Muslim,” Walid explains. “People are used to it.”

Walid, who lived in Washington briefly as a youth, credits his late journalist father for his progressive thinking. Still, he predicts it might be 100 years before Yemen can move on. Cultural change can be painfully slow.

That’s the good news for Ottawa. There’s time for Foreign Affairs to learn how to let larger gobs of tolerance creep into Canada’s national psyche. That will attract more men like Baaklini. And then we’ll all be that much more Canadian.

Sure it may kill us. But we won’t offend anyone. And that, after all, seems to be what it’s all about.