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Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 12

doctrinal spectrums. Over the last several decades, the gulf between Zaydis and Shafeis has narrowed further, partly due to state actions, notably in education. The government raised the profile of prominent Zaydi historical figures who favoured “Sunnification”.36 Today only a minority of Zaydis define themselves specifically as Shiites; individuals (including President Salih and most elite members, whether from the ruling GPC or the al-Islah party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yemeni branch) may be labelled Zaydis due to geographic and sectarian origin, but this is a secondary aspect of their identity. In effect, they have been assimilated in a broader non-sectarian Islamic arena as the identities gradually converged.

Most Zaydis have abandoned Shiite trappings, and most Shafeis refrain from stigmatising Zaydism; many pray in each other’s mosques.37 Ali al-Anissi, head of the Bureau of National Security, an institution created in the framework of the post-9/11 anti-terror campaign, summed this up: “Zaydism is a Shiite strain within Sunni Islam, and Shafeism is a Sunni strain within Shiite Islam”.38

Although such a consensual identity is increasingly prevalent, it is not all-encompassing. Salafis, who emerged in the early 1980s and maintain ties to Saudi Arabia, continue to stigmatise Zaydis, highlighting their alleged links to Jaafarism (the dominant Shiite sect in Iran and Iraq).39 In turn, Zaydi revivalists, including the Huthis, cling to Zaydism’s theological and symbolic characteristics and expressly reject what they consider Wahhabi or Salafi predominance.40

The crisis in Zaydism is not religious alone; it also has a socio-political dimension. Until the 1962 advent of the republic, a Zaydi-based social stratification prevailed in the northern highlands, premised on division between Zaydi Hashemites, qadis (administrative judges), tribesmen and ahl al-thulth (third people), such as butchers or barbers,

36 A notable example is Muhammad al-Shawkani. See Bernard Haykel, Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of Muhammad al-Shawkânî (Cambridge, 2003).

37 Laurent Bonnefoy, “Les identités religieuses contemporaines au Yémen: convergence, résistances et instrumentalisations”, Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, no. 121-122 (2008).

38 Crisis Group interview, Ali al-Anissi, Sanaa, 14 January 2009.

39 Zaydism differs from Jaafarism in terms of jurisprudence and institutional organisation. For example, Zaydism does not have a clergy or give the same political and symbolic importance to Ali, Husein and Hasan as Jaafaris. Zaydis only recognise the first five Imams; Jaafaris recognise twelve (hence “Twelver Shiites”) and await the reappearance of the twelfth “hidden” Imam.

40 Crisis Group interview, Zaydi scholar, Sanaa, 11 January 2009.

who perform jobs considered vile inasmuch as they involve contact with organic substances.

The republic denounced such classification and promised equality to all. Coming up through military ranks, tribesmen and qadis from the Zaydi highlands allied themselves with elites and intellectuals from the Shafei lowlands to become the new ruling group. Resistance by Saudi-financed royalists who backed the imamate from their strongholds near Marib, Hajja and Saada lasted for more than seven years before the state prevailed. Saudi support was motivated less by religion (Zaydism stands in direct contradiction to Salafi/Wah­habism) than by politics: the Saudi monarchy preferred the Zaydi monarchy over the emergence of an Egyptian-backed North Yemeni republic.

This history left scars. Among former rulers and Zaydi revivalists, the republic is widely viewed as fundamentally anti-Hashemite and anti-Zaydi. Even though many of their successors are of Zaydi origin, they are suspected of ignoring their origins and paradoxically of succumbing to a Saudi-backed Salafi/Wahhabi influence that developed since the 1970s. To that extent, the Saada war can be seen as an extension of a process that began with the 1962 revolution41 and saw the decline of a social group of which the Huthi family were members.42

Zaydis also complained of state neglect of their strongholds, peripheral regions where, as an observer put it, “people know the republic solely

41 A Zaydi (albeit non-Hashemite) scholar who was detained during the Saada war said of the conflict’s origins: “The people now ruling Yemen continue to have a problem with the former Hashemite rulers. There is a kind of racism at play. They seem to consider that the preceding 1,200 years were all wrong and negative. Today it seems as though it would be impossible for a Hashemite to become president or even prime minister. Even to become a low-level minister, he would have to demonstrate again and again his loyalty to the president and ruling party”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 11 January 2009. President Salih expressly denied an anti-Hashemite or anti-Zaydi bias. In a May 2007 address to religious scholars of various backgrounds, he said the state was neutral and respected all identities and sects. Al-Thawra (official Sanaa daily), 15 May 2007.

42 See Gabriele Vom Bruck, Islam, Memory, and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition (New York, 2005). This is not to suggest that Huthis represent either Zaydism or Hashemites, or that the latter unanimously support or sympathise with the rebels. See, eg, Samy Dorlian, “Les reformulations identitaires du zaydisme dans leur contexte socio-politique contemporain”, Chroniques yéménites, no.15 (2008).

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