There was no need for the Yemeni President to liken southern separatists in Yemen to apostates from Islam.
It would have been enough, and his right, to praise the achievement of uniting Yemen and establishing the republic and to have said some sentimental and effective words about the history of Yemen and how it had fell under the yoke of colonialism, a foreign mandate, backward sheikhdoms and the ruthlessness of the Imamate. It would have been enough had he spoken about all the sacrifices that had been made and all those who had laid down their lives to bring the two parts of Yemen together, as it has become a key state in the southern western corner of the Arabian Peninsula overlooking the southern part of the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf.
All of this and more should have sprung to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s mind in his most recent speech addressed to Yemeni expatriates. He described, for them, the current critical situation in their homeland, from the Houthi sectarian rebellion in the north to the regional separatist movement in the south along with the Al Qaeda serpent that is doing its best to choke its victim.
The president could have spoken frankly to the public admitting that mistakes have been made by the governing party in the past. He could have informed Yemeni migrants of his plans to rescue Yemen and call to account the corrupt and the failures in order to protect the unity of the country and its republican structure. Being a strong man in the face of confrontations and an expert on the current status and the history of Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh could have done that. However, he resorted to provoking the religious aspect and making a miscalculated comparison between the southern separatist movement on the one hand and apostasy on the other. That was a grave error and will be held against him. He will be accused of brazenly branding the people of the south as apostates, though the Yemeni president spoke elaborately in his speech about this point and said that the majority of southerners and members of the Socialist Party are for the concept of unity heart and soul. He also spoke very touchingly about the fusion between the revolution of the south against colonialism and sultanate rule and the revolution of the north against the Imamate. But it is only natural that his opponents will forget about this and focus on the “apostasy” part of the speech. They will try and convince the neutral or hesitant southern masses that their president is accusing them of apostasy, which is the last thing the president meant.
Actually, this problem, which is related to political discourse, is not confined to the aforementioned incident. It is a prevalent problem in Arab political discourse as a whole. We are talking about the excessive use of religion and the attempt to monopolize it, which leads to a conflict over who is the most worthy representative of this religion. This conflict becomes more volatile with increasing religious fervour in our region and the reliance upon religious references in all matters of political dispute. There are numerous examples of this.
There is a strong competition between Arab governments and authorities on the one hand and those who oppose them on the other to wave the flag of religion and to be the most worthy of representing religion. It is quite a perilous and thrilling competition because it is one that has no end and because of its dangerous impact on calm, rational thinking and because it distracts from real problematic issues such as poverty, corruption, education and injustice. These are the issues of real contention. They are issues of this world; not arguments or affairs of the afterlife.
The Arab political powers, whether or not they are in authority, derive their strength from one main source, i.e. the idea that the entire Arab population is only concerned with religion and religious discourse and can only understand matters after they have been presented under the cloak of religion, and also the idea that the monster within the masses cannot be pressed to act unless the card of religious fervour is waved at it first.
Will anybody ask whether the Arab masses are really deaf to everything except the voice of religious mobilization? If that is the case then who made the Arab masses so mentally poor? Aren’t the majority of Arab political powers, whether in authority or not, responsible for injecting the Arab masses with this religious passion? Of course we are talking about the Arab political powers from the outbreak of the Second Gulf War onwards until the eruption of sectarian and religious impulses following the 9/11 attacks and its repercussions (the Afghan war, the fall of Saddam Hussein, the wars of Lebanon and Hezbollah, Al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia…etc).
The Arab masses vary contrary to what many political leaders think. The Arab masses are not like some mad bull that is easily provoked and directed by merely being shown the religious card. There have been moments of impressive awareness where the masses have managed to rationally put matters of contention in their normal context – the context of public services and civil demands. A clear example is that a large number of Iraqis withdrew their support for religious parties in the Iraqi governorate elections. However, unfortunately, these are rare as most of the time we are in a permanent state where the masses are being deliberately distracted by social and media battles that revolve around religious and sectarian issues just as the current situation is in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Pakistan and many Gulf countries.
One question springs to mind: is the phenomenon of exploiting religion in political disputes a new one? And is it confined to rulers?
The answer is no. It is not a new phenomenon and it is not confined to rulers. Throughout Islamic history, the physical elimination of the opposition and combating rebellious groups has always taken place under religious slogans to enable the ruler to mobilize people and justify the idea of war to public opinion. This took place during all the major Islamic battles starting with the battles of Jamal, Siffin, Nahrawan, and the wars of the Abbasids against the Umayyads to the wars between the Safavids and the Ottomans. A lot has been written describing all these wars and these writings have taken on the religious form. Originally, these were messages of political justification written in religious language. Over time these messages found their way to the field of jurisprudence and political-religious theories.
This very effort to justify was made by rulers against people who opposed them and consequently, many opposing intellectuals were killed and persecuted under different pretexts. But there was one common accusation levelled against all opposing individuals, whether they had been persecuted or killed, and that is their deviation from the true faith. Some people who had nothing to do with politics and ideology fell victim to this accusation. They were eliminated under the pretext of being atheists. This is what happened to the poor Abbasid poet, Ali Bin Jablah, known as “Al Akouk” who was killed by the Caliph for praising one of the army commanders more than the Caliph. However, the Caliph justified the murderous act by using a religious pretext, claiming that Ali Bin Jablah was an atheist.
This policy continued to be used even in modern times. King Fuad I of Egypt prompted the liberal Azhar scholar Sheikh Ali Abdul Raziq who had written his famous book ‘Islam and Foundations of Governance’ in 1925 to refute the necessity of the Caliphate, which was abolished in Turkey in 1924 following the Ataturk Revolution. Muslim rulers at that time affirmed the hereditary nature of that title with all its implications of power and authority, and King Fuad I was one of those who dreamt about earning that title. But the decisive book of Sheikh Ali Abdul Raziq was a juristic and an intellectual rejection of that dream. Accordingly, the ambitions of King Fuad I to win the title of Caliph were thwarted and as a punishment, Sheikh Ali Abdul Raziq was branded an atheist and was expelled from the assembly of Azhar scholars.
On the other hand, and in a severe and excessive manner, groups belonging to the political opposition, ever since ancient times and until today, have been deeply immersed in employing and exhausting religion so as to mobilize the masses against the state and those in rule. This applies to the Kharijites, the Shia and the old Batiniya. The same goes for the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ul Tahrir and all Salafist Jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and others not to mention Shia opposition groups in Iraq and Yemen. They all use religion as a tool and claim they are people of the true faith. They say authorities have strayed and deviated from the right path and that their purpose is to put them back on the right path in terms of religion. But, of course, those groups try and hide their desire for power.
Back to our main topic, the issue of unity in Yemen, the rise of the Yemenis and the protection of this unity through all possible means is an honourable and noble cause that speaks for itself without having to resort to calling people apostates and excluding people from Islam. The southerners, including the separatists, did not defect from Islam. The same goes for the Houthis; they are Muslims and are not apostates. Even members of Al Qaeda are still Muslims and cannot be considered apostates. And to all the opposition groups I would like to state that all Arab governments are Muslim governments and not apostates as they claim.
The Yemeni President’s cause is a just and noble one. If he approaches it in the right way, he would not need to make such accusations as his rivals will respond with counter accusations that exceed this. The current discord between Muslims is related to precise issues. It has nothing to do with the core of Islam or any religious matters. The whole matter is much simpler than we think. So why resort to accusing someone of apostasy and resort to Islam and history? The issue is clear and the dispute is plain and obvious. But these are the rules of political deception that destroys, before anything else, the pure image of Islam.
Let us set aside all sorts of religious slander and accusations of apostasy, and argue instead about worldly matters. Unless, of course, we believe that worldly matters would reveal how much we are actually out of touch with our reality, and so we resort to hiding that flaw under the cloak of religion.