MESA Banner
Turmoil and Tolerance: Unpacking the Current Crisis in Yemen

Panel 082, sponsored byAmerican Institute for Yemeni Studies, 2015 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 22 at 4:30 pm

Panel Description
Yemen is currently in a state of major political transformation with multiple groups vying for power, many of them funded by external powers. Grafted on to the traditional hierarchies of an elite religious group (Sada) in the north, tribes and other traditional groups are numerous new players, including Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, the Huthi movement and the southern secessionists (Hirak). After the fall of President Ali Abdullah Salih, a National Dialogue was held to come up with a new constitution and an improved form of government for a country with acute poverty levels and economic downturns. In early 2015 this process was interrupted with the takeover of government offices by the Huthis and their allies. This panel will unpack elements of the ongoing political crisis with a focus on the role of tolerance in the longue duree of Yemen’s history. One paper examines the culture of tolerance in Yemen by scholars from the sects of Sunnism, Zaydism and Ismailism with a focus on four major figures: ‘Umarah (12th century), al-Maqbali, Ibn al-Amir and al-Shawkani. In addition to contributing to a culture of tolerance, they were also accomplished poets. A second paper examines the ways in which the historic social and occupational hierarchies in the central and northern highlands were mediated by egalitarian propensities originating in tribal organization and values. It is argued that an underlying egalitarian heritage has helped fuel the demonstrations of 2011 and developments since then. A third paper provides a linguistic lens, exploring the implications of providing constitutional recognition to the Mahri and Socotri languages used in Yemen. A fourth paper provides a discursive analysis of relevant literature circulated by the Huthi movement’s rhetorical alignment of its tribal and sectarian identities with a growing public search for national agency from implications of U.S. war on terror. 
International Relations/Affairs
  • Dr. Mohammed Sharafuddin
    Yemen is presently going through serious waves of sectarian conflicts. This is a peculiarly new phenomenon as far as Yemen and its culture are concerned. Although political rivalry existed throughout Yemeni history, it is remarkable how the Yemeni society was able to maintain peace and cultural harmony. This has be due to the ancient Yemeni heritage of toleration as well as the efforts made by some charismatic scholars representing Yemen’s major religious sects, mainly Sunnism, Zeidism, and Ismailism. There is a wealth of literature in Yemen, as specifically reflected in poetry, that calls for tolerance towards all kinds of opponents, whether in politics or creed. Scholars, like Umarah (12th century Yemen), al-Maqbali, Ibn al-Ameer, and al-Shawkani, dealt with people from different denominations not as enemies but as genuine seekers of truth. Intellectual and moral persuasion was their main goal. As they assert in their writings, particularly poetry, each individual has his/her own justification and reasoning for the faith and views he/she adopts. These scholars represent remarkably positive models of religious leaders who dealt with others not as opponents but as friends and equal fellow beings. Their works, which call for tolerance and understanding between Islamic sects as well as other non-Muslim communities, created a unique culture that has its impacts in many aspects of present Yemeni life and practices. Interestingly, these practices are no longer invoked in the present time. Although these scholars’ ideas are still held with great esteem by their followers, their views on tolerance are downplayed and ignored.
  • Thirty years ago, social science researchers on their way to Yemen read about a social and occupational hierarchy composed of three major endogamous groups: a religious elite, tribes (qabā’il) forming a majority in the middle, and an amalgam of low status service providers. This and similar social hierarchies continue to exist in many parts of Yemen. Yet the social relevance of these distinctions has eroded, only to be replaced in the past 20 years with a new class system based on wealth rather than descent. Even in the 1970s, however, historic social and occupational hierarchies in the central and northern highlands were mediated by egalitarian propensities originating in Yemeni tribalism, Zaydi doctrine, and land ownership characterized by small holdings distributed among the rural population. Behavior across status boundaries did not conform to the expected norms of hierarchical systems. People from various status groups ate and socialized together, shared houses, and participated as equals in community-wide celebrations. More recently, and in a development that parallels and challenges the formation of new urban classes, rural tribes have expanded their understanding of tribal identity to include previously excluded groups. Based on the author’s field research and published sources on the subject, this paper will explore the various levels of mediation of historic and current hierarchies in Yemen. It will argue that an underlying egalitarian heritage has helped fuel the nation-wide demonstrations of 2011 as well as current political developments.
  • Dr. Marieke Brandt
    Huthis and Tribes: Prospects for Tribalism in Huthi-Controlled Areas 2014 was a fateful year in Yemen. It saw both the completion of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) and an enormous expansion of a Zaydi Shia movement called Huthis or Ansar Allah (i.e. “Partisans of God”, as the Huthis have called themselves since 2011 in official contexts). Since their inception in the northernmost governorate of Sa‘dah during the first years of the new millennium (their various local predecessor organizations date back to the 1980s), the Huthis have managed to evolve into a mass movement whose agenda today addresses a significant part of the population of Yemen’s former North. Their enormous increase in importance and their expansionist impetus culminated in the seizure of the capital in September 2014. The Huthis’ vast dominion is today neither homogenous nor uncontested. It reaches from the Saudi border to the capital, thus including a major part of Upper Yemen. The attention of the media and most researchers has since focused on the complex domestic and international political coalitions and alliances through which the Huthis were able to assert their claim to power in the capital and the surrounding peri-urban areas. Yet the strategy of domination which the Huthis are pursuing in the rural tribal areas of their vast dominion remains largely unexplored. Based on the author’s field research and social anthropological bottom-up approach, this paper will investigate the complex relations between the Huthis, the local tribes, and the state. It will explain why the Huthi rule has the potential to lead to an entire re-definition of tribal leadership as it had evolved during Yemen’s Republican era.
  • The presence of tolerance in Yemen or its lack thereof is informed by the fragile nature of the political revolutionary process since February 2011, which has fractured state power through military division, sectarian unrest, tribal conflict, regional disunity, and partisan polarization. At the core of this process has emerged a rising anxiety against national sovereignty amidst regional and international dictations often guided by priorities unresponsive to local overlapping, sometimes incongruent, demands. In this context, the United States has advocated a paradoxical role sustaining status quo politics in exchange for licensing its drone warfare against the threat of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), locally known as Ansar al-Sharia. Despite emphasis on accuracy and efficiency of the drone program, reports on civilian casualties unveil inherent intelligence flaws that demonstrate lack of knowledge about Yemen’s sociopolitical complexity. This has prompted the solidification of a resistance narrative that foregrounds a sensational public outcry against the intertwined deployment of U.S. hard power and complicity of Yemeni ruling elite. To unpack the parameters of such a narrative, this paper proposes a discursive analysis of relevant literature circulated by the Ansarullah Movement (aka Houthis), a sociopolitical entity that has recently transformed from a group embattling state atrocities into a well-organized force inclined to re-write the country’s transition. The significance of this work draws from proposed interrogations of the movement’s rhetorical alignment of its tribal and sectarian identities with a growing public search for national agency from implications of U.S. war on terror.
  • Dr. Sam Liebhaber
    At least one item in the draft of the new Yemeni constitution (published 1/15) stands out both for its pre-eminent placement and unexpected content. Immediately following the declaration of the identity of the Yemeni state (Section 1 Article 2: “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language”), Article 3 takes an unexpectedly pluralistic turn: “The State shall pay special attention to (tawallī al-ihtimām) the Mahri [Mehri] and Soqotri languages.” Article 3 in the proposed constitution thereby displaces its 2001 predecessor – “Islamic Sharia is the source of legislation”– to Article 4. In offering non-Arabic indigenous languages constitutional recognition, Yemen joins a small club of Arab nations to do so: Morocco (Amazigh in the 2011 constitution) and Iraq (Kurdish in the 2005 constitution). However, unlike Amazigh and Kurdish speakers, the political leverage available to Mahri and Soqotri speakers is limited due to their small numbers and peripheral location. From outside the constitutional drafting process, the rationale for the inclusion of Article 3 Section 1 is not self-evident. Drawing from interviews and social media sources, I will attempt to reconstruct the decision-making processes that led to the inclusion of Article 3 Section 1 in the draft of the new Yemeni constitution. My talk will further attempt to situate this decision within the framework of local Yemeni politics as well as within the broader language politics of the MENA region. Finally, drawing from interviews with Mahri and Soqotri speakers who will be most effected by Article 3 Section 1, I will explore its potential impact on the preservation and future development of the Mahri and Soqotri languages, including the significance of this article for minority language preservation efforts elsewhere in the Arab world.