Dammaj, a small village situated in the northern province of Sa’ada has been the scene over the past few weeks of an alarming escalation in violence between the Houthis – a Shiite group led by Sheikh Abdel-Malek al-Houthi – and Salafi militants.
While tensions between the two groups have span several decades, one group always trying to assert its religious dominion over the other in an endless power dance, never before has violence been witnessed to such a dangerous extent.
Over the past ten days alone, an estimated 42 people – civilians and tribal militants on both sides included- have perished, struck down by bullets, mortar shells or other military devises. Beyond simple sectarian-motivated violence, officials in Sana’a fear that a regional war could be in the cards as Salafis are bent on establishing a fief in the heart of Yemen’s highlands, right next door to Saudi Arabia and on the central government’s door step in Sana’a.
While Salafis in the past only sought to indoctrinate local residents to their vision and understanding of Islam, the group’s recent move toward politics has shifted militants’ focus toward a more territorial approach. Where they aimed previously to control the minds, they seek now to dominate a land and establish their own dogma and act as a counter-power to the central government.
Very much like al-Qaeda which has called for the creation of a Yemeni Caliphate, Yemen’ Salafis want to establish themselves as a power to be reckoned with. It is important to understand that the group’s new political and territorial aspirations coincide perfectly with the Houthis new found popularity across Yemen.
If back in 2004, the Houthis were no more than an ordinary Shiite movement, their move to the political arena under Ansar Allah’s flag – the Houthis’ new political denomination – has proven to be a powerful magnetic pull across many of Yemen provinces. No longer just a tribal faction, the Houthis’ political aspirations found large echoes in Yemen Zaidi community – 40% of Yemenis are Zaidi Muslims. While decades ago the Houthis zone of influence where limited to Sa’ada and al-Jawf, they have now a claim over many provinces – Hajja, Sa’ada, al-Jawf, parts of Amran and Ibb – their members have set up intricate networks of alliance throughout Yemen southern provinces. Their stand for political self-determination, political and social justice have made the Houthis natural allies of al-Harak – the Southern Secessionist Movement.
This was witnessed earlier this October when both factions teamed up in their lobbying of the NDC – National Dialogue Conference.
As the Salafis remain an isolated religious faction, whose philosophy rests on bloodshed and intolerance, the Houthis have managed to translate their regional political vision into a national political movement which can longer be dismissed. From the northern city of Haradh to the southern city of Mukalla, the Houthis have asserted their presence.
It is this success which the Salafis want now to see destroy.
The sectarian nature of this conflict has been the source of much worry in the capital, Sana’a, as officials have been keen to downplay political frictions for the sake of the National Dialogue. With Yemen set to announce the result of its six-months national debate, another bout of violence would only unravel Yemen’ shaky coalition government and lay waste to the GCC-brokered transition of power.
Media sources, among which AhlulBayt agency, have confirmed this Tuesday that over 4,000 Salafi fighters have gathered in Sa’ada, ahead of a planned attack against the Houthis. Moreover, the Salafis who hold close ties to the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia – both sects have often been likened and on many instances identified as one and the same – plan to open up other fronts across Yemen where they feel the Houthis have gained too much influence, such in Hajour in the northern province of Hajjah, Kataf in Sa’ada and Hashid in the southern province of Taiz.
Despite calls from several state officials, among whom Human Rights Minister HooriahMashour to end all violence, no truce could be brokered so far.
The Yemeni Salafi movement was born in the 1970s under the influence of Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’I and the Salafis chose to establish their first centre at the very heart of Zaidi Islam, in Dammaj.
As per described by Laurent Bonnefoy in his book, Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity, “Salafism is a creed focused on purifying Islam from local particularities and innovations.” It claims to want to return to the Islam of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and the Companions. So far their understanding of purification has been to victimize the Zaidi community for wanting to remain true to their religious roots and beliefs.
While most Yemeni Salafis theoretically reject almost all forms of political engagement, some splinter groups have since 2011 uprising taken a more active role and founded a political party – the Yemeni Rashad Union.
The Salafi movement emerged into a turbulent age, and social and political changes have led to religious identity becoming an increasingly contested arena in Yemen. The growth of the Salafi movement has been both a cause and consequence of social upheavals. After the 1962 revolution in which Zaydi Imam Badr Hamid al-Din was deposed and replaced by a republican government, many Zaydis felt Zaydism to have been deliberately weakened.
The subsequent rapid and often aggressive spread of the new creed of Salafism has caused many Yemenis to consider it alien, and a product of deliberate state-sponsored Saudi proselytizing. Non-Salafi Yemenis frequently consider Saudi Wahhabism and Salafism as interchangeable.
While Salafis could terrorize Yemen Zaidi community in all impunity until 2011, as the group’s religious crusade served then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s agenda in the region and his immediate sponsor, Saudi Arabia; the fall from grace of al-Islah – Sunni faction which accounts in its ranks the Muslim Brotherhood – and a shift in political alliances in post-2011 Yemen has left the Sunni radicals so greatly weakened and wounded in their positions that violence seems now the only viable option.
Stripped from all political protection, the world is essentially witnessing the unraveling of decades of sectarian persecution against the Houthis, only this time Yemenis have woken up to the truth and many have rose in support of Zaidi Islam, the religious heritage of their forefathers.