Yemen: The New Shia-Sunni Frontline Which Never Was

G656433333In utter and complete violation of international law, Saudi Arabia, the world’s most violent and repressive theocracy declared war on its southern neighbor – Yemen, on March 25, 2015, calling on a broad military coalition to lend its support. Behind Saudi Arabia stands Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Sudan, the UAE, the U.S., the EU and Pakistan.

As unsuspecting Yemenis slept in their homes, Saudi Arabia and Co. unleashed a deluge of bombs onto the capital, Sana’a, caring little for the millions of civilians below, intent on crushing their designated enemy – the Houthis.

The new object of the kingdom’s disaffection, the Houthis – a Yemeni rebel group hailing from northern Sa’ada organized under the leadership of Abdel-Malek Al Houthi – have been actively depicted in western and pro-KSA media as the source of all evil, a Shia rebel faction in colluding with Iran, the new enemy to hate and above all the new target to destroy.

And while such narrative could be easily construed as politically charged – the mere manifestation of Saudi Arabia’s paranoiac fear that Iran might one day ambition to dissolve its mighty Arabian empire; labelling the Houthis as Shia and inferring they represent Yemen’s entire Shia community has only served to fuel negative sectarian sentiment, while stripping all Shia in Yemen from their inalienable national civil rights.

The equation has been as followed: Houthis are Shia and therefore all Shia in Yemen are Houthis. Since all Houthis are in alliance with Iran and therefore inherently bad, all Shia in Yemen should be treated with suspicious and eventually neutralized.

While this rhetoric serves the kingdom’s reactionary religious stance, appealing to its radical religious leadership, it has put Yemen and of course all Yemenis in the crossfire of a dangerous debate – freedom of religion.

In the words of famous Irish politician, David Trimble, “The dark shadow we seem to see in the distance is not really a mountain ahead, but the shadow of the mountain behind – a shadow from the past thrown forward into our future. It is a dark sludge of historical sectarianism. We can leave it behind us if we wish.”

So what happened in Yemen that the world has felt compelled to revert to religious labeling and shaming in order to advance, promote and carry out its political agenda on the ground.

The first element here which needs to be understood is that Saudi Arabia, the instigator of violence and promoter of hate, is itself define within the parameters of religious radicalism – by essence reactionary, Sunni Wahhabis are prone to reject anything which does not fall in line with their understanding of the divine. This trait has been amply demonstrated by Riyadh in its brutal and often bloody repression campaign against Shia rights activists in the eastern province of Qatif.

The arrest and subsequent sentencing to death of Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr stands testimony to Saudi Arabia intolerance towards whoever is perceived to represent a threat to its authority — religious, political or otherwise.

But back to Yemen.

A lesson in religion – What is Zaidism?

To better understand what is at play, and truly grasp the tragedy which is unfolding in this once joyous nation of southern Arabia, one needs to go back to the social-religious makeup of Yemen.

Yemen is a Muslim nation. And though Islam acts the axis upon which the constitution has been weaved, it is important to understand that unlike its northern neighbor – Saudi Arabia, Yemen is at heart a tolerant and religiously inclusive country.

Now, Yemen’s Muslim population can be broken down into two main religious groups — the Sunnis to the south and the Zaidis to the north.

Zaidism, the oldest branch of Shia Islam, carries very little difference to Sunnism, at least not in the sense many might think. Just as Sunni Islam is not Saudi Arabia, Zaidism is not Shia Iran.

Now, about 40% of Yemen’s total population is Zaidi. Yemen’s Zaidi tradition dates back to the eighth century AD, when the Ummah (Muslim community) was experiencing its first great schism.

Inspired by Imam Hussein’s grandson, Zayd, Zaidis are also know as Fivers and are different in their philosophy from the Twelvers – mainstream Shia Islam.

With a religious tradition stretching back across the centuries, Yemeni Zaidis are hardly an oddity or even a new religious phenomenon as some media have attempted to convey. If the world suddenly woke up to Yemen’s Zaidi character it is mainly because the religious suddenly appeared as a potent political catalyst, a weapon of opportunity.

Came along the Houthis – As it happens the Houthis, a tribal faction from northern Sa’ada organized politically under the denomination, Ansarallah, are Zaidi Muslims. And while they never hid this factor from their identity, their affiliation to Zaidi Islam has been of no consequence when it comes to their political demands.

Like any other political groups in Yemen, the Houthis have defined themselves through their demands, not their faith – That the Saudis and the world would do for them!

While all Houthi tribesmen – not to be confused with the group’s political arm, Ansarallah since the faction now includes within its ranks Sunnis – are Zaidis, not all Zaidis are Houthis. The Houthis are merely a tribal group within Yemen, they do not speak nor represent the whole of Yemen Zaidi community.

It is this confusion which has actually fed the wave of abuses which has befallen Yemen Zaidis and a to a greater extent Yemen’s broad Shia community.

As noted Hawra Zakery, a rights activist with Shia Rights Watch, “Considering the increasing anti-Shia movements in Middle East it is critical that politicians and media outlets differentiate between militant groups and majority of Shia populations in order to present this minority in a more realistic picture.”

She added, “The Houthis themselves say to aim to speak for the Yemeni people and represent the Yemeni people’s aspirations, beyond religious dogma and such differentiation is critical.”

The Shia boogeyman

Shia Islam stands now the boogeyman, the twisted religious ideology which everyone is so very scared of. Thing is, no one really knows why. And there lies an interesting question indeed.

Why is it for example that the Houthis continue to be labelled as this “Shia rebel group” when other groups do not enjoy the same flurry of adjectives? Not even Al Qaida terror group. Why not describe Al Qaida as this Sunni radical/Wahhabi terror group? Or would that be upsetting for Saudi Arabia? Would that automatically entails painting off all Wahhabis and Sunnis for that matter under the terror brush?

Actually yes it would! And of course that would be unfair.

Playing religion to fuel negative sentiments and somewhat rationalize violence will only lead to more senseless violence and bloodshed.

And while the world remains at war with Yemen, Shia Rights Watch has rung the alarm, calling on world powers to honor their commitments to international law and human rights and change the pervasive narrative which is tearing Yemen apart from the inside out.

“Freedom of religion is an alienable rights. Yemen’ Shia community should not be turned into a political target so that to fit foreign powers’ agenda. People should not have to feel threatened in their religious identity and be turned into easy targets of hate, shun by society as they are members of a minority,” said SRW in a statement.

SRW actually argues that groups such as Al Qaida and ISIS have benefited from the rise of anti-Shia sentiments, both in Yemen and the broader region as such binary set-up fits directly into its politico-religious narrative.

“The violence in Yemen began this month on March fourth when a car bomb exploded outside a stadium in Beitha which resulted in the death of 10 Shias and the wounding of 50 more. This was only the beginning of the casualties as 167 Shias were murdered, and 400 were injured. 143 of the deaths and 350 of the injuries took place on March 20th when the Islamic State terrorists performed four mosque bombings. This is the first month this year that Yemen has had reported anti-Shia incidents, but the invasion by neighboring Gulf States may bring more casualties. The Arab coalition forces have already begun racking up the civilian casualties, which include a refugee camp, and the invasion cannot end well,” wrote SRW in its March report.

More troubling yet, Yemeni Zaidis have been turned away from hospitals in the capital, refused care by doctors on account of their Zaidism over the past few months; yet another manifestation of this new rising hatred politicians and media have fueled and fed.

Hossam Al Hamdi, an administrator at one of Sana’a hospitals said he personally witnessed two incidents when Zaidi patients were told to leave the premises and seek treatment elsewhere. “There’s been a great deal of tensions within the communities as a lot of people have transferred their political antipathy of the Houthis onto all Yemeni Zaidis … This is really a worrying development as Yemen has never experienced such problems before.”

While Yemen suffered many woes over the years, decades and centuries, sectarianism was never part of the equation. Are we to believe that Yemen Zaidi community, which has been around since the eighth century suddenly became a potent threat to national security? Or rather is it that politicians would much rather exploit religion to rationalize very worldly ambitions — money and power.

Catherine Shakdam is the Associate Director of the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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