A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, August 24, 2009

Yemen's Scorched Earth Campaign: A Word About Zaydism

I haven't said anything yet about the renewed military campaign against the Houthi rebellion in the northern part of Yemen. The Houthi problem has been simmering for several years, and is an uprising in the Sa‘da region of northern Yemen centered on a religious revival movement of Zaydi Muslims who are followers of a religious figure, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi (or Huthi), who was reportedly killed in 2004. It's a complex tribal issue in a country where the central government's writ traditionally doesn't run very far. Now, the Zaydis of Yemen are followers of a variety of Shi‘ite Islam that is quite different in most ways from the "twelver" Islam of Iran, a variety which ultimately allows any descendant of the Prophet to serve as Imam, and can accept multiple imamates in different parts of the Muslim world. The Imamate which ruled in Yemen until 1962 was a Zaydi Imamate. To refer to the Houthis as "Shi‘ite" is technically correct, but a bit misleading if it implies some identity with the Shi‘ites of Iraq or Iran.

But when I read an article such as this one from Al-Jazeera English, I realize just how confused even other Arabs are about the Zaydis of Yemen. Yes, the Houthis are Zaydis. Yes, a majority of the population of United Yemen is Sunni. But what the Al-Jazeera article doesn't seem to understand is that President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih is himself a Zaydi, as is a considerable part of his power base. He comes from a small tribe in the larger Hashid tribal confederation. The Hashid and the other big Zaydi confederation, the Bakil, used to be referred to as the "wings of the Imamate" when Zaydi Imams still ruled in what was then North Yemen. The Houthis are indeed Zaydi, but so are quite a lot of the troops fighting them. Portraying the conflict as a Sunni-Zaydi clash is misleading. Most of the major Zaydi tribes have long since adapted to Yemeni republicanism, but the Houthis, by some accounts, want to restore the Imamate.

In a country where tribal rivalries run deep and vendettas can last a long time, the scorched earth campaign the government is waging in the north raises a lot of questions as to its wisdom. But when even an Arab-based news service portrays this as a Sunni-Zaydi conflict, it merely confuses the issue further. The fact that the Houthis are Zaydi fundamentalists (much as I hate that word) while the government is secular is probably more relevant than that the Houthis are Zaydi. So is Salih.

The BBC tends to muddle the issues too. I don't claim to be an expert on Yemen — I've never even been there — but I think portraying this as a Sunni-Shi‘a fight is misleading in the extreme.


JR said...

When a mistake this egregious is made, it may be useful to look for a political agenda or agendas in operation.

Especially when accompanied by the usual, the Iranians are coming charge.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Michael, for pointing this out so clearly. It is amazing how many journalists get this muddled.