As Yemen looks poised for the next stage in its transition of power religious fault-lines are threatening to unravel the impoverished nation and awaken a long standing feud in between Shia and Sunni Islam, all on the backdrop of radicalism and sectarian-based prejudices.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand” – Matthew 12:25
Yemen, this unruly nation of the Arabian Peninsula, stands on the third year of its revolution to fall prey to sectarian violence, adding to an ever-growing list of Middle Eastern countries on the brink of a complete socio-political meltdown.
While Yemen has been by every definition a failed-state, a walking institutional dead man, its people in all their poverty and strife remained united in their core identity, undisturbed by one’s religious affiliation or even preferences.
In the midst of all its tribal and political feuds Yemen has never allowed negative religious sentiments to drive a wedge in between its people. Unlike many of its neighbours, Yemen has always approached Islam as a rallying flag, not a seed of division requiring bloodshed to justify ideological supremacy. Is it probably how Yemen came to Islam in the first place which has prevented its people to tear each other apart over religious semantics. If several missionaries were sent to convert Yemen to Islam, only Ali ibn Abu Talib—Prophet Mohammed’s cousin, his first lieutenant, and son-in-law—was able to tame the sons of Sheba, bringing Arabia’s oldest civilization to receive the Quran.
“Peace be upon Hamdan,” were Imam Ali’s words. Within those words Yemen as a whole pledged its allegiance and loyalty to Islam, never to stray or renege, never to break the promise made before the house of the prophet. If countries have waged bitter wars over Islam, if Shi’ites and Sunnis have crossed iron to assert their respective paradigm, claiming their vision holiest over all, Yemen weathered all raging storms and changes of tides, its people having found a stout unity in their coming into Islam.
But this Yemen of old has but completely disappeared, lost under over-lapping crises and bitter misery; its people suffocated by corruption, its politicians driven by greed, its society eroded by fear and prejudices.
For Yemen has been at war! Yemen has been at war with the most pernicious and malevolent forces of all: bigotry, intolerance, and radicalism.
As a malign tumor, radical Islamists have spread their venom throughout Yemen, poisoning from within a society which formerly knew nothing of religious fanaticism. Very much as a song which keeps on playing, Islamists have insidiously embedded themselves into Yemen’s psyche, exploiting poverty, fear, and tribal ambitions to form allegiances and draw in loyalties.
Just as Sunni radicals grew under the unforgiving Sun of Wahhabi Islam (a fundamentalist and ascetic interpretation of Islam) Yemen’ Zaidis (a branch of Shia Islam), who it is important to note represent about 40 percent of Yemen’s population, hardly a minority, rose in reaction. And so the two houses of Islam began to clash and collide, giving out from their frictions enough space for enmity and rancor to grow.
Today the two factions have risen in opposition of each other, both driven by the desire to lay waste the other, both unable to tolerate any challenge to their religious truth, so much apart they have grown out to be.
With the Houthis having descended from northern Sa’ada to reclaim the land they felt had slipped into radicals’ hands, Al Qaeda has called upon its hordes to declare war on Zaidi Islam, keen to regain lost grounds.
Yemen’ second revolutionary wave, people’s rejection of Al Islah – Yemen’ Sunni radical faction – Yemenis’ call for real democratic reforms stands once more to be high-jacked by a secondary crisis, one which could unravel the entire Arabian Peninsula. Sectarianism is gnawing at Yemen.
Tittering at the edge of a precipice, Yemen is desperately looking for its footing.
When the Houthis, a formerly obscure tribal faction from Sa’ada organized under the leadership of Abdel-Malek Al Houthi, first dared challenge Al Islah’s political and religious monopoly over Yemen in 2011, keen to assert and carve itself a place at the revolutionary table, politicians were quick to dismiss the faction as a fluke, a tribal aberration which would not survive the post-Arab Spring political order.
And yet, against all odds, the very faction which suffered decades of burning humiliation and oppression under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh rose amid all political clouds, the vessel of Yemenis’ discontent.
The pariah of Yemen’s political apparatus, the Houthis reinvented themselves the people’s champion. As weeks turn into months, the Houthis’ denunciation of tyranny and abuses of power became the nation’s rallying call for change. Soon enough what all thought impossible happened – Sana’a, the Yemeni capital fell to the Houthis, all Islahis having been driven out by the very men they fought to destroy less than a decade ago.
But as Al Islah lies in tatter, its leadership broken, Al Qaeda has rose in anger, determined to revenge what it understood as a challenge to its rule over Yemen. If Al Islah has always denied any links to the terror group, it is uncanny how its downfall brought about a veritable terror explosion.
Within days of Al-Islah’s defeat in Sana’a, Al Qaeda militants ventured as far as Sa’ada, well beyond their southern Yemeni hideouts, at the very heart of Houthi dominion, killing as many as 40 in a car-bomb attack.
When foreign and state officials lauded the Houthis for brokering a truce with President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, thus putting an end to months of tensions, Wahhabi militants called upon their flocks to take up arms and revenge Sunni Islam, threatening to re-ignite the furnaces of war.
Al Qaeda followed such calls by a statement reading, “Sunnis, take up arms, take the path of struggle and know that your rights are only attained by the gun … Al-Qaeda has already prepared itself to defend the Sunnis.”
With lines drawn in the sands, it appears only a matter of time before Yemen is turned into yet another Iraq or Syria.
But maybe this time, Yemenis will see past religious prejudices, past hatreds and narratives of war to understand that their real enemies lie not in Islamic interpretations but in the abomination which is fanaticism.
Let us remember that Al Qaeda and its affiliates speak not and stand not for religion.