Sunni-Shi’a strife inspires Houthi-Salafist conflict in Yemen

By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem
Recent clashes between Houthis and Salafists near the town of Dammaj in north Yemen have raised questions whether the sectarian conflict is still local or has become an extension to the regional Iranian–Saudi confrontation. Today, nine people were reported killed in sectarian fighting in north Yemen between Shi’a Houthi rebels and Sunni Islamists backed by local tribes.
The Houthis or Ansarullah is a Zaidi group founded by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who was killed by Yemeni army forces in September 2004. Zaidism is a Shi’a Islamic school originating with Zaid Ibn Ali, the grandson of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali. Zaidism is close to the Mu’tazili school in terms of theology. Zaidis have worked to protect literature from the school of Mu’tazili thought and books following the crackdown of their thinkers and followers and banning of their books by the Sunni Ash’ari authorities.

The Mu’tazilah religious movement was founded in Iraq in the first half of the 8th century by Wasil b. ‘Ata’ and subsequently became one of the most important theological schools of Islam. The school was based in reason and rational thought and asserted the perfect unity and justice of Allah, and the Qur’an must therefore have been created by Allah as it could not be co-eternal with God.
Regarding the Imamate principle, Zaidis believe that the Imam, or leader of the Muslim Ummah (community), must be Fatimi, the descendant of Prophet Mohammad through his daughter Fatimah, whose sons were Hassan and Hussein, sons of Imam Ali Bin Abi Taleb. Zaidi Shiism differs from Twelver Shiism in that its followers do not believe in divinely inspired and infallible Imams. Instead, they believe that any descendant of the Prophet Mohammad who fights against tyranny and injustice can be the Imam.
In 897 A.D, al-Hadi Yahya Bin al-Hussein, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, was invited by the local tribes to settle a dispute in the northern region of Yemen, and he was announced as the Imam of Yemen. The Zaidi Imamate lasted in North Yemen until the 1962 republican revolution that was supported by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who sent nearly 80,000 Egyptian troops to Yemen to fight the Imamate army, supported by the Saudi Arabia.
In 1970, Saudi Arabia stopped its support of the royalist forces, which ended the civil war and the Zaidi Imamate and led to the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic. From that time, the new regime of North Yemen implemented an anti-Zaidism policy, fearing the return of the Imamate’s rule. This policy neglected the Zaidi religious schools, oppressed Zaidi clerics and allowed Salafi Wahhabis to open religious schools in North Yemen, notably in Zaidi areas like Dammaj. On the other hand, Salafists, supported and funded by Saudi Arabia, have established hundreds of religious schools in Yemen, trying to spread Wahhabi thought and convert Zaidis to Wahhabism.
This plan has resulted in the conversion of thousands of Shi’a Zaidis into Sunni Wahhabis, including leaders of prominent Zaidi tribes such as the Hashed tribe and its Al-Ahmar family branch, as well as the former president Ali Saleh’s family. The Zaidis, who were the majority of the population of the Yemen Arab Republic at the time of its establishment, became a minority after 40 years due to the spread of Sunnism by Wahhabi schools and by the unification of the North with the republic of South Yemen. The population of Yemen’s south is Sunni Shafi’i Madhab.
Yet the Yemeni union brought the country political pluralism and kind of freedom that allowed Yemenis to establish new parties and newspapers. Accordingly, Zaidi clerics and activists formed their own party, Al-Haq, and participated in the parliamentary elections and won a few seats. They also re-opened their religious schools,  re-published their religious books and launched their newspapers and websites. However, the awakening of Zaidis frightened both the Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen – the regime of Ali Saleh and the alliance of Al-Ahmar tribe and the Islamic Islah’s party. The last party was a combination of the Muslim Brotherhood association, the Salafists and the tribe’s powerful leaders.
The Al-Haq party has split into two currents: one is more tolerated by the regime and the other is more revolutionary, demanding for the restoration of Zaidi thought and a confrontational policy with American and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. This group was led by prominent cleric Badreddin Al-Houthi and his sons who formed the Ansarullah group, inspired by the Islamic republic of Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

In conversations with The Atlantic Post, many Houthi officials said that while they are not Shi’a Twelver like most Iranians and Hezbollah, they believe that Ayatollah Khomeini and his predecessor Ayatollah Khamenei are Imams according to the Zaidi doctrine, since they are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, confronted tyranny and implemented an Islamic state. Thus, Houthis and some other Zaidis believe that they should obey Khomeini and Khamenei as ‘right’ Imams.
The Houthis first encountered Yemeni forces when demonstrating and chanting “Death to America, death to Israel.” The conflict with Saleh’s regime, backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and the Houthis led to four wars between 2004 and 2010.
The Yemeni regime has accused the Houthis of becoming Shi’a Ithna’shari (Twelvers) and being a puppet of Iran and Hezbollah, while the Ansarullah denied this allegation. They asserted that they are Zaidis and their relations with other Shi’a are a normal alliance of Muslims against the occupation of Israel and the American hegemony in the region.
The representative of Ansarullah in the National Dialogue Conference  of Yemen, Mohammed Nasser Al-Bakhiti, told The Atlantic Post in a phone interview that his group does not have any relationship with Iran or Hezbollah, despite the group’s admiration of their resistance and Shi’a ideology.
Bakhiti explained that the conflict with Salafists in Dammaj is political and not religious or sectarian. He accused the Salafists and their allies of Al-Ahmar family and Saudi Arabia of trying to hinder the national dialogue towards building a civil democratic Yemen as a way to promote their political influence and economic interests in the regime.
Bakhiti said that Houthi clashes with Salafists of Dammaj started because the Salafists have brought hundreds of foreign Salafists from around the world to stay at the religious school of Dammaj to fight the Houthis and control the city. He wondered why did the Salafis choose a Zaidi town to establish a school that preaches anti-Zaidi thought.
The Salafists have accused the Houthis of granting Iran a foothold in Yemen. They have attacked the town of Dammaj and Salafi schools several times, killing dozens of Salafists.
Some analysts believe that the clashes of Dammaj were Saudi Arabia’s revenge for the Geneva agreement between Iran and the P5+1, while others say it is an extension of the regional conflict between Tehran and Riyad and a spillover of the Sunni-Shi’a sectarian strife.
Dr. Haytham Mouzahem is The Atlantic Post’s Middle East Analyst, based in Beirut, Lebanon.


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