The current armed conflict in Yemen began, essentially, as a domestic struggle for power between political and tribal factions. This reality ran contrary to the conventional narrative in the international news media that Yemen was another sectarian arena in the proxy war between the Middle East’s two great Sunni and Shia rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively.
With the intensification of violence, however, and especially since the Saudi-led coalition began its military intervention in Yemen in March 2015, the rhetoric espoused by the warring parties has taken on an increasingly acerbic sectarian tone. This has become a key feature in the country’s collective discourse: sectarian slurs that were once the exclusive domain of extremist groups have become mainstreamed, and open appeals to sectarian solidarity have been expressed by prominent national voices.
The result has been the emergence of deep new fissures within a society that had previously been characterized by its profound religious tolerance. While these divisions have evolved largely as a result of the ongoing conflict, they will likely be one of its most destructive legacies, and thus a direct challenge to the establishment of an enduring peace after the conflict.
This paper will examine:
- The rise of the Houthi movement in Yemen’s north and how, despite its Zaidi Shia roots, it framed its struggle as a populist resistance against injustice, and in-so-doing was able to garner a base of public support beyond the Zaidi sect. As the conflict has progressed, however, Houthi actions have taken on an increasingly sectarian edge, even while the group’s rhetoric has generally avoided such.
- In response to Houthi military advances, how various rival groups – including traditionally secular parties – have employ bigotry-laden sectarian rhetoric against the Houthis, even as their core concern remains the maintenance and/or expansion of their political and military power. The central motivating factor for this change in language appears to be its short-term expedience in mobilizing soldiers and support, with little thought given to the lasting damage this inflammatory messaging may have on Yemeni society.
- Steps to help mitigate sectarian strife in Yemen, including: local and international stakeholders refraining from inflammatory sectarian rhetoric; empowering moderate voices and disempowering extremist voices in the public domain; rescinding patronage appointments in government and the military based on sectarian affiliation.
Introduction: The rise of the Houthis
The roots of the Houthis lie in the Shabab al-Mu’min, or the “Believing Youth” movement. The heartland of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam is Northern Yemen, and the Believing youth was a Zaidi revivalist group formed there following the 1990 unification of the country’s north and south (1). Lead by Zaidi elites and religious figures, the Believing Youth was organized around the idea of shoring up the Zaidi faith and traditional power structures, which were seen as being under threat from rival tribal leaders in Northern Yemen, the central government based in the capital, Sana’a, and the expanding influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi and Wahabi ideologies from Saudi Arabia.
Initially, the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh tolerated the Believing Youth, whose social groups and summer camps drew tens of thousands of Yemenis from the northern Saada Governorate and nearby areas, while key figures affiliated with the group – chief among them Hussein al-Houthi and his brother Yahya al-Houthi, both elected members of Parliament – were allowed space in the political mainstream. Over the years, however, as Hussein al-Houthi’s popularity and power over the Believing Youth grew, he became increasingly critical of Saleh’s corruption and close relationship with the United States. The Yemeni president eventually retaliated by sending security forces to arrest al-Houthi, leading the latter to be killed in September 2004. The organization Hussein al-Houthi had built within the Believing Youth then took on his name and the Houthi movement was officially born, lead by Hussein’s younger brother, Abdulmalek.
In the years that followed the Houthis and the Yemeni Army fought a series of six brutal wars in the Saada governorate. By 2011, when the Arab Spring uprisings began in Yemen, the Houthis had managed to secure control over much of Saada. The Houthis then aligned themselves with the protest movement against Saleh, who eventually handed the presidency to his deputy Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi as part of an internationally brokered power transfer agreement. Concurrently, Houthi military expansion in the north continued, at the expense of rival tribal leaders and central government.
By the summer of 2014, public support for Hadi’s presidency was in retreat due to accusations of corruption and severe government mismanagement. The Houthi’s seized the chance to assert a populist mandate against Hadi for their military expansion and – now backed by forces loyal to former President Saleh – the Houthis took over Sana’a on September 21 of that year. Over the following months the Houthis and Saleh consolidated power, removed Hadi from office, and continued their military expansion southward. In March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition began a military intervention – including a massive aerial bombing campaign, a land, sea and air blockade, and support for ground forces opposing the Houthis – with the stated aim of reversing Houthi gains and returning Hadi to the presidency.
In the 14 months since – during which there have been thousands of civilian casualties, tens of thousands wounded, millions displaced, more than 15 million enduring conditions approaching starvation, and billions of dollars in property and infrastructure destroyed – sectarian polarization in Yemen has become much more acute. While the Houthis and Saleh have gradually lost territory to Hadi-allied forces advancing from the south, the former still hold the capital as of May 2016, and a decisive military victory by either side appears highly implausible in the near term.
The sectarianization of a political struggle
The Houthis’ Zaidi ideology is a principal factor motivating the group’s actions and creating the historical and contemporary context within which the Houthis frame their narrative. The Zaidi school of Islam has traditionally been viewed as being ideologically somewhere between Sunni and Shia – in many ways bearing more in common with Sunni Islam despite its roots in Shiism and its belief in a temporal Imam(2).
Notably, the right for the people to rise up against an unjust or corrupt ruler is enshrined within Zaidi theology, something that has manifested itself throughout history in numerous rebellions against Yemen’s imams(3). In the last three decades, as North Yemen began opening more to the outside world, non-indigenous ideologies began to influence Yemeni Zaidism, with the most notable being the Iranian “Twelver” branch of Shia Islam. For instance, Badreddine al-Houthi, a prominent Saada-based cleric and Hussein and Abdulmalek’s father, lived in Iran, while numerous Zaidi leaders from the present generation have studied in Qom(4). This influence has, however, tended to be more political than religious in nature in that Iran – as the head of the “axis of resistance”(5) – has been a prime example for the Houthis of a nation that stands up against the perceived injustices of the Saudi, American and Israeli governments.
As the scion of one prominent Zaidi family put it: “to be a Zaidi is to resist injustice.”(6) This mentality has led many Yemeni Zaidis to support a broad range of insurgent movements, both locally and internationally, and also helped the Houthi movement frame its domestic agenda as one that is more broadly based than just the Zaidi sect. In casting themselves as being in opposition to Yemen’s political establishment – something with wide public appeal – rather than representing the vested interests of one sect, the Houthis have portrayed their movement as one that transcends localized aims.
Indeed, the Houthi movement has always defined itself in opposition to some great enemy. This is put bluntly on display by their slogan: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curses on the Jews, victory to Islam.” Houthi ideology asserts that the group’s defining feature is its place on the side of good against the forces of evil – they are the defenders of Islam against the “Zionist-American devils”. This Manichean duality underlies Houthi actions and rhetoric, which consistently casts matters large and small as “us” – that is the Houthis, upholders of an authentic and pure Islamic Yemeni identity – versus “them” – the many forces lined up to defile that identity.
More recently however, the Houthi definition of who is a “defiler” seems to have expanded to include almost anyone who disagrees with them(7). This was apparent after the Houthis began sweeping crackdowns in Sanaa and cast opponents as wide-ranging as Muslim Brotherhood members to secular feminist activists as American-backed Al Qaeda supporters, working at the behest of Saudi interlopers(8). While in their public messaging the Houthis have generally avoided openly sectarian statements, in practice their military operations have begun regularly targeting the homes, schools and mosques of religious rivals.
The general difference in the rhetoric used by the Houthis and their rivals in the current conflict is that where the Houthis will frequently use language that is somewhat innocuous to voice public statement’s with sectarian implications, their opponents will employ bigotry-laden sectarian terms – anti-Shia slurs that were almost unheard of in Yemen until the recent escalation of the conflict – to express their opposition to the Houthis, though this opposition often has little to do with religion.
There are, of course, groups in Yemen opposed to the Houthis for solely ideological reasons; the hardline Salafi factions have explicitly preached that Zaidis in general, and Houthis in particular, hold deviant practices, with many going as far as to declare the Houthis un-Islamic. But for the most part, while much of the anti-Houthi rhetoric has acquired a sectarian coloring, it is actually rooted in other grievances, many dating back to the overthrow of Yemen’s Zaidist monarchy in 1962 and birth of the modern Yemeni republic. Various Yemeni political factions and figures opposed to the Houthis have, in a sense, fused Yemeni republicanism with anti-Zaidi sectarianism. This line of thinking deems that the political inclusion of the Zaidi sect – particularly those hailing from the Hashemi families that formerly made up Yemen’s ruling class – is anathema to the values of the Yemeni republic(9).
The rising manifestations of sectarianism in Yemen
Formerly hushed stereotyping based on last name or origin has, unfortunately, entered the mainstream of Yemeni society. Even President Hadi himself faced criticism while still in office from members of the Islah party – the Yemeni wing of the Muslim Brotherhood – for nominating what they saw as “too many” Zaidis of Hashemi origin to the ill-fated constitutional drafting committee.
When Houthis took over Sana’a and deposed Hadi, they then quickly began to replace high-level members of the military and government bureaucracy with Zaidi cadres, including tens of prominent Hashemites figures who, for the most part, had little in the way of criteria qualifying them for their posts beyond their Hashemite last names. This can be understood as an extension of the so-called “Zaidi Document”, developed by Abdulmalik Al-Houthi in 2012, which states that power and ruling is ultimately reserved for the ancestors of the Prophet Muhammed – meaning, effectively, himself and other Houthi elites. Public areas and busy streets in Sanaa under Houthi control have also become adorned with large billboards depicting divisive religious figures, such as the secretary general of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, and the supreme leader of Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini.
On the other side, popular resistance leaders and anti-Houthi military figures have employed starkly sectarian rhetoric and characterized the conflict as a “war for God” to mobilize fighters. For instance, prior to their defeat, prominent tribal leaders in Amran province cast themselves as “lions of the Sunnis” in battles against the Houthis, in spite of these tribal leaders’ own Zaidi origins. Even many secular leaders in South Yemen which, owing to its overwhelmingly Sunni makeup, had comparatively little history of Sunni-Shia sectarian tension, have begun to characterize their fight in starkly sectarian terms(10).
The internationally-recognized government of Yemen – which is now based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – is also openly stirring sectarian strife. On February 10, 2016, Yemen’s ambassador to US and former General Secretary of National Dialogue, Dr. Ahmed Awadh Ben Mubarak, went even as far as suggesting that the struggle in Yemen is part of a larger struggle between “The Arabs and Persians.”(11) Official government statements coming from Yemen’s minister of information, as well as state-owned newspapers, television and radio stations, have also taken on a clearly sectarian bias.
Among the effects of all this has been the normalization of sectarian language and ad hominem attacks in the wider Yemeni society. For example, many TV talk shows and radio broadcasts that previously had a more inclusive tone have become vehemently sectarian, while online social media and general conversation in the streets of Yemen have become rife with the same.
While societal fissures in Yemen are more pronounced now than any time in recent history, there remain actions that can be taken by the various Yemeni factions and international stakeholders in the country, that can help rein in and eventually begin to heal these divisions. By far the most effective step in this direction would be ending the war and establishing an inclusive and representative transitional structure that would provide a means of accountable governance, with buy-in from the country’s diverse political, sectarian and societal groupings. In the interim period, however, there are other important steps that can be taken:
- It is incumbent that all parties both refrain from and declare their opposition to inflammatory sectarian rhetoric, both in their own public statements and in the media. This goes beyond the Yemeni factions involved and also includes members of the Saudi-led coalition and their respective media institutions. Indeed, there is no greater way for the coalition to put action to its assertion that its role in Yemen is about restoring security and legitimate governance than by declaring its intolerance for sectarian language and rhetoric.
- It is crucial that moderate religious voices – who ultimately speak for the majority of Yemenis – are empowered, while those figures espousing extremism and sectarian division be disempowered. Steps to do so would include: the internationally-recognized Yemeni government sacking or sidelining all officials employing divisive sectarian rhetoric; international stakeholders refraining from supporting extremist figures and/or groups with money, weapons, or political cover, while at the same time supporting and publically endorsing those Yemeni figures championing a pluralistic vision for the country.
- While remaining aware of the sectarian colouring the conflict in Yemen has taken on, the international community must recognize that it is, in essence, a political and tribal struggle, and avoid placing Yemen within the same sectarian narrative present in conflicts elsewhere in the region.
- As was discussed at the National Dialogue Conference in 2012, regulations must be enforced to limit the formation of political parties based on sectarian identities in any post-conflict scenario.
- The leaders of the Houthi movement must rescind the patronage appointments they have made within the government bureaucracy and military following their takeover of Sana’a, and either reinstate the former officials, where appropriate, or let government institutions carry out a transparent and merit-based selection process to choose the most qualified candidate.
(3) Mehdi Khalaji, “Yemen’s Zaidis: A Window for Iranian Influence,” Policy Watch 2364, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/yemens-zaidis-a-window-for-iranian-influence.
(4) Ibid. A number of figures within the Houthi movement are known to have gone as far as converting to Twelverism, though all publically available information suggests that they remain a small minority.
(5) See Alexis Knutsen, “Iran and al-Houthi proxies threaten counter-terrorism policy in Yemen,” AEIdeas, December 19th, 2014. http://www.aei.org/publication/iran-al-houthi-proxies-threaten-us-counter-terrorism-policy-yemen/print/ The axis of resistance—to some extent, a reclaiming of Bush era rhetoric casting Iran, North Korea and Iraq—has come to refer to an informal, Iran-lead alliance between the Islamic Republic, Hezbollah, the Asaad government in Syria and, until their break with Asaad, Hamas. The phrase tends to be employed by both Iranian officials and their rivals, typically with the aim of accentuating the Iranian government’s perceived regional reach.
(8) One female student activist held hostage by the Houthis in September 2014 publically remarked on the incongruity of her interrogation, noting that she was repeatedly—and simultaneously—accused of being an agent of American intelligence and the Islamic State (IS) group.
(9) As with most prejudices, this one takes a distorted and limited view of history. Yemen’s Zaidi community – including prominent figures such as Abdulwahab Jahaf, Yahya al-Mutawakil, Al-Fusail family, and many others – played a key role in the overthrow of the monarchy, and in the ensuing period Zaidis assumed key positions in the government with minimal controversy.
(11) Full interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjxxqBCZEG8
May 30, 2016
Sectarian slurs that were once the exclusive domain of extremist groups have become mainstreamed, and open appeals to sectarian solidarity have been expressed by prominent national voices.
Iran – as the head of the ‘axis of resistance’ – has been a prime example for the Houthis of a nation that stands up against the perceived injustices of the Saudi, American and Israeli governments.
While in their public messaging the Houthis have generally avoided openly sectarian statements, in practice their military operations have begun regularly targeting the homes, schools and mosques of religious rivals.
Popular resistance leaders and anti-Houthi military figures have employed starkly sectarian rhetoric and characterized the conflict as a “war for God” to mobilize fighters.
There is no greater way for the coalition to put action to its assertion that its role in Yemen is about restoring security and legitimate governance than by declaring its intolerance for sectarian language and rhetoric.