North Africa, West Asia

Flawed narrative: anti-Shi’ism, radicalism and the dangers of sectarianism in Yemen

Yemen is battling sectarianism as its Shi'a face discriminiation. Making up 45 percent of the population, they find their religion conflated with radical extremism and foreign conspiracies. 

Catherine Shakdam
4 June 2014
Shi'ite Houthis march in anticipation of Prophet's birthday. Demotix/Luke Somers.

Shi'ite Houthis march in anticipation of Prophet's birthday. Demotix/Luke Somers.

Three years have passed since pro-democracy activists took to the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Manama and Sana’a to proclaim the birth of a new middle eastern world order, strong of the desire to see flourish modern democracy and social justice. Yet the entire region remains in the throes of unprecedented violence and bloodshed, engulfed in a cycle of savagery which seems to know no bound.

In the midst of such chaos stands the Yemen, the poorest and most populous nation of the Arabian peninsula. While it has been hailed the world’s over for its peaceful transition of power, branded a model of the Arab Spring movement for its political restraint and its officials’ determination to bow to popular will, Yemen stands ever closer to the abyss, as nefarious political agendas could lay waste its social and religious equilibrium.

Until recently unburdened by the so-called Sunni-Shi’a divide, Yemen has seen a surge in sectarian-based violence and anti-Shi’ism over the past months – a direct result of foreign meddling and political manipulation, a dangerous phenomenon against which rights activists both within and without have been keen to denounce and warn.

Unlike other Arab countries in the immediate region where, except for Bahrain, the Shi’a community happens to be a minority, Yemen Shi’a Muslims account for an estimated 45 percent of the population, hardly a group anyone could discard as unimportant or attempt to dismiss. But while Yemen Shi’a represent the country’ second largest religious group, targeted attacks against the community have meant that Shi’a Muslims have been made to feel vulnerable and fearful; a situation which has only been accentuated by politicians’ insistence to link Shi’a Islam with the Houthis and beyond, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Houthis, which happens to be a Shi’a political faction organised under the leadership of Sheikh Abdel-Malek Al Houthi, have always made clear that while their most intrinsic values are indeed based on Shi’a Islam, their political views are however all-inclusive and not in any case sectarian-based or even sectarian-motivated. More importantly, the Houthis, who have now joined mainstream politics under their new denomination, Ansar Allah, have always stressed that whatever political agenda they carry, they do so on their own behalf and not under the banner of Shi’a Islam.

The Houthis say to aim to speak for the Yemeni people and represent the Yemeni people’s aspirations, beyond religious dogma. This differentiation is absolutely crucial.

Sheikh Salih Ayash, a Shi’a community leader and well-respected tribal chief explained that just as it would be ludicrous to assume that all Sunni Muslims are in support of Al Qaeda’s doctrine because its radicals have claimed to be of Sunni Islam, not all Shi’a Muslims in Yemen are in alignment with the Houthis’ political views.

He noted, “Politicians and officials both in Yemen and abroad have helped create this fiction, this farce whereby the Shi’a community has been systematically reduced to a political movement in order to belittle our beliefs and generate hostility within the population.”

And indeed, while it is difficult to fight a religion, discrediting a political movement can prove far less tedious. By reducing Shi’a Islam to the rank of a political movement, factions within Yemen seek to delegitimise its religious foundations, challenge its tenets and ultimately bring down its entire structure through repression and persecution. One has only to look at Egypt to witness the ferocity with which the Egyptian military establishment has clawed at the Muslim Brotherhood (Sunni pan-Arab political party) to suddenly grasp the extent of the problem Yemen could soon face.

By associating Yemen’s entire Shi’a community to the Houthis, and beyond that to Iran, factions are playing a dangerous game of globalisation. As far as such flawed narrative goes, Yemen Shi’a and the Houthis are one and the same, and since Iran has expressed its support of the Houthis, ergo the Houthis and by extension all Yemeni Shi’a are Iranian agents, thus the self-proclaimed enemies of Yemen.

Put in such a way, this analysis clearly appears shortsighted, biased, inherently inaccurate as well as incoherent, such is the message which western powers and their affiliated media have been so keen to promote and perpetuate.

Only this week, Khaled Fattah, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre identified at a lecture Iran as the main single threat to Yemen’ stability, as he claimed Tehran has been inciting dissident groups to violence against the coalition government to serve its hegemonic ambitions. He said, “The instability and social and security unrest in Yemen at the moment should be blamed on tensions in northern, eastern and southern areas including the acts of the Houthis Group and the Southern Separatist Movement (Harak).”

Regardless of Fattah’s true motivations when unwarrantedly accusing Iran of meddling within Yemen internal affairs, politicians have used such narrative to promote fear and mistrust within Yemen on a sectarian level, exploiting religious rhetoric for their own dubious ends.

As noted by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. national security adviser, “Sectarian wars are the easiest way to divide states…The quickest and most effective way to break up regimes, states and nations is deepening communal, sectarian and ethnic wars by empowering one sect over others.” And this is exactly what radicals in Yemen are attempting to do.

Just as not all Shi’a Muslims in Yemen are in alliance with the Houthis, the Houthis are neither Iranian agents nor are they Tehran affiliates in the Arabian peninsula; the three are completely different entities. Reducing the three down to one common denominator, one label, only serves to enflame anti-Shi’ite sentiment.

Shi’a Rights Watch – a prominent rights organisation based in Washington D.C. – has said it is absolutely vital such bias against Yemen Shi’a community be put to rest. “Systematically associating the Houthis to the Shi’a community has had negative and dangerous effects on society as a whole and it has led to prejudice and on some instances violence. Religion should never be used to promote hatred and social dissension,” warned SRW.

It is time we all understand that the real enemies remain radicalism and extremism, not Shi’a Islam. 

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