Yemen Bombing: It’s not ISIL and it’s not Sunni-Shiite Conflict

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The massive twin bombings at mosques in the capital that shook Yemen on Friday, killing over 100 and wounding many more, were immediately claimed by Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). Since the mosques were largely attended by members of the Houthi movement in Zaidi, Shiite Islam and Daesh is ultra-Sunni, the bombings also suggest Sunni-Shiite conflict of the sort that has characterized Iraq’s recent sectarian violence.

But Daesh doesn’t in fact have a toehold in Yemen, and it clearly is not only franchising itself to Muslim radicals but also making grandiose claims to be behind everything any of them does. If radicals were involved at all in Yemen, it would be al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has a long history of terrorism in Yemen and of targeting the West with it, as with the underwear bomber over Detroit in 2009.

But in any case the issue isn’t primarily one of radical Zaidi Shiism versus radical strains of Sunni Islam. The two great branches of Islam can, by analogy, be understood as similar to Protestantism (Sunnism) and Catholicism (Shiism) in Christianity. This analogy is extremely inaccurate, of course, but maybe it helps understand some of the basic divisions. Sunni clerics are more like pastors than priests and aren’t owed much authority, and many strains of Sunnism are iconoclastic in modern times. Shiite clerics must be obeyed by the laity and have a hierarchy, although it is much less formal than in Catholicism, and Shiites are frequenters of shrines and in Iran and Pakistan even put up pictures of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet whom they see as his successor, a la Peter in Catholicism.

Zaidi Shiism, just to make things more complex, doesn’t have ayatollahs and is often thought of as between Shiite and Sunni Islam in many of its emphases.

The reason the mosque bombing can’t be seen as primarily sectarian is that religion alone almost certainly did not drive it. About a third of Yemenis are Zaidi Shiites, and the proportion is much higher in the north. Many Zaidis felt targeted by the hard line Wahhabi Islam of neighboring Saudi Arabia, whose leaders tried to proselytize them and denounced Shiism as heresy. The Houthi movement arose as a response to Wahhabi incursions, and it gradually came into conflict with the secular Yemeni government, which was financially supported by Saudi Arabia and appears to have supported the proselytizing. Several battles between the two sides were fought in the north in the past decade. The Houthis also fought local Sunni radicals who had joined al-Qaeda. Although conspiracy theorists see the Houthis as Iran-backed, they are in fact largely a local movement with local grievances and their form of Shiite Islam is very different from that in Iran.

Last September the Houthis took over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, having become a movement of political Islam. They subordinated the government to themselves.

Recently several government officials, including President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, have fled south to Aden and established a rump government there. Note that some of them are secular Zaidis, Arab nationalists, and not religious. Six southern Yemen provinces have announced that they won’t follow directives from the Houthi government in Sanaa. There is also just in general a strong secessionist movement in south Yemen, which doesn’t want Mansour Hadi or any northerner as president and wants an independent South Yemen (which existed 1967-1990 before unification).

Elements of the Yemen air force loyal to the Houthi government in Sanaa tried to bombard Mansour Hadi’s presidential mansion in Aden the day before the bombing.

So this is political. The Houthi movement has politicized Zaidi Islam, after the Saudis politicized hard line Sunni Islam. The Houthis have all kinds of enemies now– secular Arab nationalists loyal to the Aden government, Sunnis who resent Houthi dominance of largely Sunni cities like Taizz, southern secessionists, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Any of these could have hit the mosques, not because they hate Shiism but because they oppose the Houthi take-over of Yemen’s government in the north.

When religion is deployed for political purposes and there is no separation of religion and state, religion acts like a political movement and throws up political opposition. Where politics is violent, so is religious politics.

Countries were there is a separation of religion and state have much less religious violence, because there is no point in deploying religion for political purposes where religion is barred from attaining them.

Related video:

Yemen: Dozens die in suicide attacks on Sanaa mosques – BBC News

22 Responses

  1. “not because they hate Shiism but because they oppose the Houthi take-over of Yemen’s government in the north.”
    And the church in Lahore, what was that for? How many gropes have attacked worshippers and claimed responsibility, could various grope like AQAP and ISIS surrogates cooperate for such an attack? This attack could be simply religious to obtain blessings.
    link to youtube.com

    • Really Nap! Yemenis went to Pakistan and attacked Churches? So lame..
      It was Pakistanis who did it in retaliation for daily drone bombings by Christians which kill scores of innocent women and children every day.
      Oops! but we can’t blame Christians for that!
      Oh yeah?
      Well, they do; just like you like to vilify Islam for everything – except for intellectual academics like Dr.Cole.

      • Sorry, but that’s not a solid answer about it being ‘revenge’ by ‘Pakistanis’ (who are actually certain militants that attack other Pakistanis) for the drone bombings. There’s been bombing and gunmen attacks on Christians and Churches or other groups well before the drones or even pre-9/11 in Pakistan.

      • uh……Christians don’t have drones……GOVERNMENTS have drones. So you mean to say American s right?

    • I find that statement not quite right too. Shiism was hated well before the Houthi takeover by Sunni fundamentalist groups. The Houthis taking over inflamed and added religo-political motivation to these already existing certain groups, but not necessarily all other Sunni populations who do view it in political ethnic terms mostly.

  2. “There is also just in general a strong secessionist movement in south Yemen, which doesn’t want Mansour Hadi or any northerner as president …”

    Just to point out that Hadi is actually a southerner, from Abyan (though that doesn’t necessarily make him popular in the south).

  3. “Since the mosques were largely attended by members of the Houthi movement in Zaidi, Shiite Islam and Daesh is ultra-Sunni” […]

    should read something like

    “Since the mosques were largely attended by members of the Houthi movement, who follow the Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam, and Daesh is ultra-Sunni” […]

  4. Thanks for this background, which was not provided by any of the several MSM news items I’ve seen about this.

    • Yes indeed, I found this a very informative and clear-eyed essay. Yet another reason why this site has been on my daily news “Go To” list for over ten years now.

  5. You forget to mention that in sunni countries the sunni clerics are not allowed to be independent and are employed by the state.

    • May be so in Middle Eastern countries. I haven’t been there. Certainly in Indonesia where I did my religious studies and in all of South and Southeast Asia there are very few Government-employed religious scholars (what this site calls “clerics.”)
      Juan, I would make this point: Western observers keep referring to the Wahhabi groups such as DAESH as “Sunni” or even “ultra-Sunni.” They certainly regard themselves as that. But they are not, because they regard the 98% of Sunni Islam that doesn’t subscribe to their doctrines as “murtadd” ie apostate. That is why they are so free to fight and kill Sunni Muslims who don’t follow them.

  6. Al-Qaeda in Yemen released a statement yesterday denying any responsibility for the attack. ISIL in Yemen, however, released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, the first-of-its-kind, through Its “Sanaa Media Bureau”. ISIL in Yemen does have supporters in Yemen, especially some former AQAP members entranced by ISIL’s rise in Iraq and Syria and disenchanted by AQ leadership. How many supporters ISIL, this of course remains unclear, but it is a small number. We cannot and should not overplay the AQ-ISIL card, but at the same time we cannot totally downplay the facts on the ground. Yes, ISIL could be a facade for the attack; maybe some other anti-Houthi actors played a role but not necessarily ISIL. But the nature of the attack has the fingerprints of Zarqawi and Baghdadi written all over it. Mosques have been a no-no for attacks in Yemen for any group, especially considering the facts on the ground that Zaydis and Shafiis have pray side by side and behind each other’s imams for the longest time. Lets not discount ISIL’s role in the attack. But let’s take note of the circumstances that allowed this attack to happen: Houthi takeover of government institutions and aggressive maneuvering, increasing sectarianism for the first time, etc.

  7. Thanks for this. Most organizations are not reporting the internal dynamics in Yemen (I knew they were complicated, since I’m old enough to remember North and South Yemen, but I’ve never found as clear a description as yours.)

    It seems to me that the alliance between the Saudi royals and the Wahhabis has been a poison which has been damaging the entire region. And this alliance is propped up pretty much entirely by the US and the West paying for Saudi oil; does anyone think the Saudi regime would survive for a month after the oil money dried up?

    • In a sense the religious wars have become a puppet of the biggest war in our world. Over time wealthy America’s two favorite Middle Eastern allies, wealthy Saudi Arabia and wealthy Israel, have become one military front.

      The Sauds use the Wahhabis to concoct theology that says to love the monarchy above all else, secondly to hate Shiites, and only thirdly to hate Israel. That demotion to 3rd place funnels disgruntled young Saudis, Kuwaitis, etc to Iraq and Syria instead of Gaza and the West Bank. They also promoted the neoliberal billionaire regime in Lebanon before its weakness was exposed by Hezbollah – that’s when the Sauds turned to radical armed movements to co-opt democratic revolutions and openly betray the US by creating its own jihadi-controlled sphere of influence.

      Israel, meanwhile, had promoted Hamas to undermine Fateh, and now reports are appearing that it is promoting ISIS to undermine – what, the remnants of sanity? Once it was helping the ayatollahs to screw the Arabs, now it helps the extremists created by Wahhabism to wage war on Iran.

      Which leaves the US as the sucker, victim of its insane idea of making Saudi Arabia and Israel the region’s co-hegemons. I must confess, it’s worked longer than I thought possible. I think it’s because the rich all over the world have exploited the “Washington Consensus” to seize vast wealth and power. The Sauds and Israelis are too closely tied to Wall Street to abandon our oligarchic faction, but they see it is run by idiots and traitors and thus freelance at the expense of real American interests. But meanwhile, newly rising economic blocs are peeling away from Wall Street and starting their own factions. Now the world isn’t big enough for all these oligarchs. Saudi can’t keep playing its anti-Shiite games without bumping up against Iran’s new friends, Israel can’t keep provoking Arabs while expecting the Sauds to keep them co-opted.

      It has the stench of 1914, alliances of worthless elites using militaristic patriotism to beat down the demands of their own poor only to find that they must deliver on the militarism to maintain credibility. Like in those days, the very act of the rich colluding against their own fellow citizens has marched them into the brink of a war against each other.

  8. The Yemenis in general have never liked the Saudis. They resent the seizure of Najran, Jizan, and Assir in the 1930s and they despise the way they are treated when they emigrate to work in Saudia as many do or have done. The Houthis most attractive feature to many Yemenis is their rejection of Saudia and its hateful Wahabi ideology.
    Having said that Yemen with its mountainous geography and marginal agricltural foundation has throughout its history been subject to centrifugal forces and was rarely united for any length of time.
    In recent decades oil revenues and foreign aid distributed from the top down have provided the glue that held the house of cards together. But population growth (from 8 -24 million) in less than 40 years together with a decline in oil revenues has meant less income and more people wanting assistance. (It should be added that top down distribution of resources tends to alienate leaders from their constituents.) The resulting instability is almost inevitable regardless of the ideologies involved.
    I do not see a happy ending.

  9. “Since the mosques were largely attended by members of the Houthi movement in Zaidi, Shiite Islam and Daesh is ultra-Sunni”

    The term “Ultra-Sunni” should actually be read as “Wahabi”.

  10. The two great branches of Islam can, by analogy, be understood as similar to Protestantism (Sunnism) and Catholicism (Shiism) in Christianity. This analogy is extremely inaccurate, of course, but maybe it helps understand some of the basic divisions.

    I personally have always found Sunnism more like Catholicism, and Shiism more like Protestantism — because Shiism, like Protestantism, has a tendency to schism, while Sunnism and Catholicism historically tend to be less purist, more sloppy and accommodating of local variations.

    Wahhabism, from this POV, is *highly* aberrant Sunnism, and can be predicted to have the same tendency toward schism that Shiism has.

    As you say, the analogy isn’t exact either way.

  11. “Countries where there is a separation of religion and state have much less religious violence, because there is no point in deploying religion for political purposes where religion is barred from attaining them.”

    Thanks for that Juan. It’s the lesson of our time. Secularism in government actually keeps people from killing each other over religion. When will the ignorant flocks in religious based societies finally figure this out? It can’t come soon enough.

  12. Of course, by definition, secular states have less violence labelled religious. They don’t necessarily have less violence, it’s just not called religious violence. For much of the first half of the 20th century Europe had some of the world’s worst violence. It wasn’t called religious violence. Secular Ukraine is in the midst of a very violent period at the moment. Many of today’s most violent places are in Latin America, all in secular states. Several of the world’s most violent cities are in the secular United States, some others in secular South Africa. Parts of secular India have very serious political, not religious, violence. Religious belief, even religious difference, is not a cause of violence but it can be used as the label by particular groups clashing with each other.

    • no, religious conflict is extra on top of everything else an politicizing religion causes it. Was not talking about secular societies

      • Yes Juan, thanks for the response, certainly politicising religion causes religious conflict. I meant that in the absence of the religious excuse, if there is going to be conflict it will occur. Is it extra? I’m not convinced but willing to keep an open mind about it. In any case as a practising Muslim I’m both grieved and ashamed of the events in some countries taking place in the name of my religion. But as an Australian citizen I’m ashamed of certain actions taking place in the name of my nation.

Comments are closed.