Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Varieties of Islamism in Yemen: The Logic of Integration under Pressure1

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Varieties of Islamism in Yemen: The Logic of Integration under Pressure1

Article excerpt

In the spring of 2005 in a remote corner of former South Yemen, the driver of an old Toyota Land Cruiser displayed two seemingly opposite pictures on his windshield. The first showed Ali Abdallah Salih, the president of Yemen since July 1978 and a new ally of the United States in the "War on Terror," while the second depicted Usama bin Ladin, the world-famous embodiment of transnational terrorism. This reveals much about Yemeni society and its political system; nevertheless it can be framed and interpreted in different ways.

First, the relative tolerance of local authorities (who were necessarily aware of the truck driving through the villages) toward such a display of double allegiance can be seen as yet another symbol of the infiltration of the government by violent Islamist groups and of tolerance toward so-called "jihadi" movements.

In Yemen, these groups have been given much attention since the investigation into the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 by a cell linked to al-Qa'ida in Aden. In this framework, Yemeni authorities are frequently accused of paying only minimum lip-service to the American anti-terrorist agenda, while many inside the government directly support violence or turn a blind eye toward those who grant active support to militants.2

The Land Cruiser anecdote (while not necessarily common) could consequently be understood as an illustration of the ambivalent relationship between the state and the Islamists. It may also symbolize a manifestation of state and government plurality. The integration of various Islamist groups into the state apparatus should actually be considered a stabilizing factor. It is a means of minimizing violence through social and political integration rather than encouraging it through stigmatization and repression.

Since the beginnings of Islam, religion has been closely associated with political power in the Yemeni highlands and coastal areas. After having ruled for over a millennium, it was only in 1962 that the fall of the Zaydi imam's monarchy gave way to a more direct separation between politics and religion in the country. This occurred through the establishment of the republican regime, once inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser's model in Egypt. The modernization of the state and society in North Yemen and in Marxist South Yemen (a former British colony that became independent in 1967 and remained the only socialist Arab state until its fall in 1990) did not really undermine the influence of the religious political actors. The same can be said of the May 1990 unification of North and South Yemen.

Historically, Yemeni society has been divided along two main religious identities. Zaydis are constituents of a Shi'a sect often described as moderate in its jurisprudence, distinct from the Twelver Shi'as found in Iran, and close to Sunnism in many aspects.3 Shafi'is are Sunni. Yet throughout the twentieth century, the divide eroded considerably, and consequently it does not appear to be as important as in the past, when Zaydi imams ruled North Yemen. No accurate and reliable statistics exist, but Shafi'is are usually considered to be the significant majority among a population of 24 million in Yemen, while Zaydis represent around 35 percent of the population, with their bastions in the North.

Owing to recent changes-particularly internal and external migrations, individualization and marketization of religious identities, as well as the improvement of education levels-most Yemenis now consider the divide as merely symbolic. Recent difficulties due to a brutal conflict in the North of the country opposing the army and an armed Zaydi revivalist group called the Believing Youth do not seem to have had a significant effect on the structure of the convergence of religious identities. Indeed, despite episodes of violent stigmatization orchestrated by certain radical groups, the vast majority of the population is at times indirectly (and most of the time passively) involved in the convergence. …

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