Although three years have passed since pro-democracy activists took to the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Manama and Sana’a to proclaim the birth of a new Middle Eastern world order, strong of the desire to see flourish modern democracy and social justice, and yet the entire region remains in the throes of unprecedented violence and bloodshed, engulfed in a cycle of savagery which seems to know no bound.
In the midst of such chaos stands Yemen, the poorest and most populous nation of the Arabian Peninsula. While Yemen has been hailed the world’s over for its peaceful transition of power, branded a model of the Arab Spring movement for its political restraint and its officials’ determination to bow to popular will, Yemen stands ever closer to the abyss, as nefarious political agendas could lay waste its social and religious equilibrium.
Until recently unburdened by the so-called Sunni-Shia divide, Yemen has seen a surge in targeted violence and anti-Shiism over the past months - a direct result of foreign meddling and political manipulation, a dangerous phenomenon rights activists both within and without have been keen to denounce and warn against.
Unlike other Arab countries in the immediate region where, except for Bahrain, the Shia community happens to be a minority, Yemen Shia Muslims account for an estimated 45% of the population, hardly a group which anyone could discard as unimportant or attempt to dismiss. But while Yemen Shia represent the country’ second largest religious group, targeted attacks against the community has meant that Shia Muslims have been made to feel vulnerable and fearful; a situation which has only been accentuated by politicians’ insistence to link Shia Islam with the Houthis and beyond, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Houthis, who are Zaidi Muslims (a small sect of Shia Islam) is a political faction organized under the leadership of Sheikh Abdel-Malek Al Houthi, and have always made clear that while they belong to Shia Islam, their political views are however all-inclusive and not in any case sectarian-based or even sectarian-motivated. More importantly, the Houthis, who have now joined mainstream politics under their new denomination, Ansar Allah, have always stressed that whatever political agenda they carry, they do so on their own behalf and not under the banner of Shia Islam.
The Houthis say to aim to speak for the Yemeni people and represent the Yemeni people’s aspirations, beyond religious dogma. Such differentiation is absolutely crucial!
Sheikh Salih Ayash, a Shia community leader and well-respected tribal chief explained that just as it would be ludicrous to assume that all Sunni Muslims are in support of Al Qaeda doctrine on account radicals have claimed to be of Sunni Islam, not all Shia Muslims in Yemen are in alignment with the Houthis’ political views.
He noted, “Politicians and officials both in Yemen and abroad have helped create this fiction, this farce whereby the Shia community has been systematically reduced to a political movement in order to belittle our beliefs and generate hostility within the population.”
And indeed, while it is difficult to fight a religion, discrediting a political movement can prove far less tedious. By reducing Shia Islam to the rank of a political movement, factions within Yemen seek to delegitimize its religious foundations, challenge its tenets and ultimately bring down its entire structure through repression and persecution. One has only to look at Egypt to witness with which ferocity the Egyptian military establishment has clawed at the Muslim Brotherhood (Sunni pan-Arab political party) to suddenly grasp the extent of the problem Yemen could soon face.
By associating Yemen’s entire Shia community to the Houthis, and beyond that to Iran, factions are playing a dangerous game of globalization. As far as such flawed narrative goes, Yemen Shia and the Houthis are one and the same, and since Iran has expressed its support of the Houthis, ergo the Houthis and by extension all Yemeni Shia are Iranian agents, thus the self-proclaimed enemies of Yemen.
While of course put in such a way, this analysis clearly appears short-sighted, bias, inherently inaccurate as well as incoherent, such is the message which politicians and their affiliated media have been so keen on promoting and perpetuating.
As noted by Zbigniew Brzezinski - former U.S. national security adviser, “Sectarian wars are the easiest way to divide states … The quickest and most effective way to break up regimes, states and nations is deepening communal, sectarian and ethnic wars by empowering one sect over others.” And this is exactly what radicals in Yemen are attempting to do!
It is crucial to understand that all Shia Muslims in Yemen are in alliance with the Houthis, or even support the Houthis’ political ideology. Reducing the two down to one common denominator, one label, only serves to enflame anti-Shiite sentiment.
Shia Rights Watch – a prominent rights organization based in Washington D.C. – has said it is absolutely vital such bias against Yemen Shia community be put to rest. “Systematically associating the Houthis to the Shia community has had negative and dangerous effects on society as a whole and it has led to prejudice and on some instances violence. Religion should never be used to promote hatred and social dissension,” warned SRW.
It is time we all understand that the real enemies of stability and prosperity remain radicalism and extremism.
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