A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Huthis, Zaydis, and Trying to Get the Yemen Story Right

Though overshadowed by events elsewhere, major developments have taken place in Yemen. The Houthi or Huthi movement, after years of resistance to the Transitional Government in Sana‘a', has signed a peace agreement, and now seem to have fully occupied the Yemen capital.

For general background, see my MEI Colleague Charles Schmitz' "The Huthi Asccnt to Power," which covers the basics. But I also want to revisit a point I made over five years ago in a post about the Huthis and Zaydism in August 2009: If you insist on interpreting Yemen in dualist Sunni/Shi‘ite terms, you're going to mislead. For years media analysis interpreted the struggle between the Huthis and President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih's regime in precisely those terms, though like the Huthis, Dalih was a Zaydi. He was a republican Zaydi but a Zaydi nonetheless.

And Zaydis are Shi‘ites in the sense that traditional Zaydis insist on rule by the Sada, the descendants of the Prophet (they are called "Fiver" Shi‘ites by some, but generslly do not restrict the Imamate to a single line), but they are not Twelver Shi‘ites like Iranians, Iraqis, and Lebanese and Bahrainis. I'm not a Yemen specialist and have never even set foot in the country, but the tendency to identify the Huthi struggle as a simple Sunni versus Shi‘ite dichotomy is just wrong. Saudi Arabia has long had a somewhat excessive focus on Yemen, and separately and for different reasons on Twelver Shi‘ism, and I suspect the Saudi perspective has influenced much of the media commentary.

Now that the Huthis seem to have taken over the capital, we'll see what comes next, but Yemen is a mix of Zaydi revivalists (the Huthis), Zaydi traditionalists, Sunni Salafis, Sunni secular republicans, and even jihadis like AQAP. It doesn't resolve itself into neat sectarian dichotomies.

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