Sana’a witnessed a shocking and unprecedented event last month: on 24 November a sectarian bomb attack was carried out against a group of Zaydi Muslims. The group was commemorating the anniversary of the killing of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein. Ashoura—the traditional name given to the anniversary—is customarily marked by Shi’ite Muslims, the sect to which the Zaydi school of thought belongs, as a day of mourning. The attack killed four people.
Sectarian violence is a new and worrying development in Yemen. Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise. Almost a decade of fighting continues between the Houthis, a group of Zaydi revivalists, and the Yemeni government. This struggle is complicated by violent confrontation in various provinces between the Houthis and armed men belonging to the Islah Party, the main Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated grouping in Yemen, as well as fighting between the Houthis and Salafis in the town of Dammaj.
In Sana’a itself, even before the tragic Ashoura bombing, sectarianism was becoming more evident. The Houthi slogan is plastered across the city, located not too far from the Houthi heartlands further north. Their slogan—“God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam”—is violently xenophobic, and partially explains the violence perpetrated against Yemeni Jews in areas with a heavy Houthi presence. In Sana’a, the slogan is often found with the parts referencing America, Israel, and Jews scribbled out (scribbling over Islamic references is a moral dilemma for the Houthis’ opponents), and with an anti-Shi’a hadith provocatively stenciled next to it. Those stenciling the hadith are believed to be Islah activists.
The historic Old City of Sana’a, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has turned into Houthi Central over the last year. On a recent stroll through its winding alleyways, I saw a plethora of large Houthi banners commemorating Eid Al-Ghadeer, a Shi’a celebration in honor of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin. Some of these banners went beyond what some Zaydis would see as traditional Zaydism. One banner announced that those who rejected the mandate of Ali, namely the Sunnis, were rejecting the mandate of God–a statement that many Sunnis would have issues with.
A recent conversation with a Yemeni friend revealed more depressing anecdotal evidence of sectarianism. When asked what he was doing on his gap year between high school and university, he replied that he would be “going to the library and reading books that target the Rafidha,” Rafidha being a derogatory term used to describe Shi’ites. The emergence of the term in the Yemeni context is a worrying indication of the divides that seem to be deepening in this unstable nation.
However, it is important to look at the Yemeni case in isolation to really understand why the issue of sectarianism is emerging. First, many of the terms that are generally used when talking about sectarianism and religion in the Muslim and Arab World, including some of those that I have used here, need to be qualified.
The very use of the words “Sunni” and “Shi’a” in the Yemeni context, particularly in the northern Yemeni highlands, is open to debate. Zaydis are considered Shi’ites, but their traditional thought differs greatly from the more numerous Twelver Shi’as, and is viewed as being closer to the four schools of thought in Sunni Islam. Likewise, when discussing the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah Party, it should be noted that the Al-Ahmar family, several of whom are leading backers and members of the party, are Zaydis or from a Zaydi background, thereby making it problematic to label the group Sunni.
Sectarian identity is very fluid in northern Yemen. Many families have a Zaydi background, but are far more loosely affiliated today. In fact, looking at my own family history, I can find those who identify as Sunni or Shi’a, as well as those who see themselves as Zaydi, and those who reject any sectarian identification at all.
The current clashes and divides in Yemen are in no way solely sectarian, and must be viewed in light of various power struggles. The initial emergence of the Houthis as a fighting force was against a president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was himself Zaydi. The fighting that has occurred between the Houthis and Islah can also be seen in the wider context of the two factions competing over who can dominate the political scene in the coming years.
The current strife is not necessarily an issue that will plague Yemen in the future. The Ashoura bomb attack truly shocked many in Sana’a, and all the major factions, including those opposed to the Houthis, condemned it and offered their condolences. Politics is largely reflected in all that is described as being sectarian.
However, should similar attacks occur, it will be more and more difficult to escape the nightmare of sectarian conflict in Yemen. The Lebanese and Iraqis look at their countries blighted by sectarianism, and remember days when these divisions did not exist, and people inter-married and co-existed freely. Many Yemenis hope that their society, traditionally free of sectarianism, lasts.