So far, followers of the late Yemeni Zaydi cleric, Hussien Badr al Din al Houthi, refuse to lay down their arms. It appears that, as soon as their battle with the Yemeni government comes to a close, it flares up again.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s President remarked recently that this Zaydi movement was focused on the past and wanted to return to a time when its imams ruled the country, prior to 26 September 1962.
The question, however, is not whether the religious government had focused on the past and dismissed the future. Instead, one needs to ask if the secular republic that replaced it has succeeded in moving the country forward. Has the Yemeni republic provided the means for success in this day and age? Unfortunately, the answers might make uncomfortable reading for some.
The issue is not one of slogans but facts and figures that can expose the truth.
Yemen, since the end of the imamate and the victory of republican revolutionaries, with assistance from Abdul Nasser has seen much turmoil in the last half-century. Most significantly, a cold war raged between the Baathist north and the Marxist south until the two united in 1989. A short war of separation in 1994 was followed by the victory of Saleh and his alliance of different groups, including the Islamic movement headed by Sheikh al Zindani who opposed the partnership with “atheist” Marxists in the south.
The Islamists and al Zidani aligned themselves with Sheikh Abdullah al Ahmar, the powerful tribal leader and formed an umbrella Islamist group, the Yemeni Gathering for Reform (al Tajammu al Yamani lil Islah). What happened next is well documented and need not be mentioned here. It is important, however, to examine Saleh’s claims that al Houthi and his rebels have harmed the country.
Similar accusations have been leveled against the Sunnis in Yemen, especially supporters of al Qaeda, the likes of Abi Ali al Harthi or Hassan al Muhdar or Jarallah Omar’s killer and all others who fought a jihad (holy war) against the regime in the name of God and Islamic Sharia.
Militant extremism was not in any way confined to al Houthi’s movement, the Faithful Youth (al Shabab al Mu’min). It spread to all sects and communities, from Zaydi to the Abadhiyah, dominant in Oman, and the Ithna Ashariya, a Shiaa sect. One must recognize that the growth of militant Islam is not exclusive to any Muslim sect but is an international problem which affects all religions and many societies.
When responding to al Saleh, is it sufficient to indicate that the Zaydis feel marginalized in their own country, especially in their strongholds in northern Yemen? Or that the regime supports the Salafis against them, such as the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the salafis in Dammaj, near Saada, their spiritual home? Can one explain how the young al Houthi turned his back on tradition to establish the Faithful Youth in search of an identity? Or are explanations to be found in the economic depravity in areas inhabited by al Houthi and his supporters and the chronic absence of state support? Is this why they took up arms against the government? Or is it because these followers sought to oppose the United States and call for jihad against it, using slogans that resembled the Iranian Basij militia?
Undoubtedly, the modern Arab nation state has failed. The rise of extremism which has taken on two forms: militarized and pacifist, as embodied in al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, is a clear example. If another alternative existed, Arab or Muslim citizens might have opted to rid themselves of both the government and the militants!
This return to the glorified past is especially political, as was abundantly clear in an intercepted letter by the extremist Arab fighter in Chechnya, the Saudi Abu Omar al Saif, killed last week. Addressing the insurgents in Iraq, he urged Sunnis and supporters of jihad to reject democracy because it opposes God’s rulings and was an “atheist religion”. He called on them to select a just imam, according to political jurisprudence and a thousand year old book, “Ahkam al Sultaniyah” by the Muslim scholar Abu al Hassan al Mawardi.
Did extremism rise in the Islamic world? Definitely. Does it represent a great danger? To a great extent. Have Arab and Muslim citizens given up on the nation state or modernity? I believe not. Instead, individuals now have rejected the application and not the model itself. In the future, they might also reject the model state that extremists would have implemented. This will continue so long as slogans are detached from reality and justice has yet to prevail, as leaders continue to promise. This is what truly matters for everyday citizens.