Religious Discourse in Yemen: Between Fueling the War and Peacemaking


Tue, 18-01-2022 02:49 PM, Aden

Reem Al-Fadhli (South24) 

Over the ages, the religious discourse has played a main and fundamental role in the political and crucial conflicts in states and governments around the world. Moreover, they mostly have been used as an effective tool for grassroot polarization to boost the influence related to a part, a group, or a state.

Just like the religious discourse played a prominent role in fueling conflicts and disputes, it was involved sometimes in calling for internal and external peace within communities. For example, this could be illustrated through calls by the Vatican and Al-Azhar to “spread the culture of peace, respecting others and achieving welfare rather the culture of hatred, injustice, and violence. [1]

Like other Islamic and Arab countries in which there are various Islamic and non-Islamic sects and denominations, the religious discourse in Yemen has made a big presence in politics, war and terrorism issues. Both Sunni and Shiite political Islamic groups found fertile soil in this country to achieve their goals.

Meanwhile, the presence of extremist religious discourse has been strong and influential in all emergent paths in the country while the moderate one, especially adopted by the Sufi sects in South Yemen have been absent from the scene.

Analysts believe that the threats emanating from the escalation of such extremist narratives are attributed to Yemen’s sensitivity and vulnerability by the sectarian discourse because of the community structure dominated by the tribal character and the possibility of spreading political Islam in its two parts, Sunni and Shiite. [2] 

The political discourse and creating crises

1994 and 2015 were prominent indicators about the role played by religious discourse in creating war and undermining peace in Yemen. This discourse targeted elites and political parties in South Yemen for various justifications. 

In 1994, Sanaa Regime resorted to employing religious discourse through a takfiri fatwa, [3] issued by the then Minister of Justice, Abdul Wahab Al-Dailami who is an icon of the Islah Party. This fatwa was exploited to act as a religious pretext for justifying invading South Yemen and mobilizing Northern fighters and jihadists returning from Afghanistan to serve its interests. This came despite the criticism against the fatwa by Saudi and Egyptian clerks at that time. [4]

After the victory achieved by  North in the 1994 War and their ability to enter Aden, the religious discourse, led by the Islah Party(the Muslim Brotherhood) and some Jihadist groups close to it, continued its supporting of the ruling regime and attacking its opponents. The Dailami’s fatwa constantly chased the Southern political figures, which were mostly forced to flee abroad.

The same thing happened again in the 2015 War when the disputing Yemeni parties made the religious discourse a mobilization tool to attract fighters into their ranks. This exacerbated the Yemeni crisis and caused a lot of psychological hurt to the citizens in a way that has deepened fears that its ramifications could remain for a long period inside the Yemeni society. 

The Iran-backed Houthis have been on top of this discourse since 2015 as they obviously introduced themselves as being a political Islamic movement based on the Zaydi sect, which is close to the Shiites. There are accusations against the Houthis of adopting the “Twelver” Shiite doctrine.

The Houthi religious discourse attacked their opponents and mobilized fighters and affiliates in North Yemen, which acts as its doctrine incubator. Such a narrative has opened the door for sectarianism which was not as common as it is today. This led to the rise of counter-religious discourse in the Sunni areas, especially in South Yemen, and that has been exploited by “terrorist” extremist groups. 

Until recently, Yemen was the hub of the global religious jihadi discourse with the spread of the Sunni jihadist groups fed by such narratives as the AQAP and ISIS. The AQAP launched several off-sea attacks emanating from Yemen, or its members received training there. 

However, the activities of those organizations have been declined recently according to the US State Department's 2022 Report on Terrorism. [5] This has been in conjunction with the prominence of the role played by the STC-affiliated local Southern Forces backed by the UAE. 

Reducing religious and political discourse

Since the religious parties are the most engaged in fueling the conflict today and undermining peace efforts, and due to their dominant political nature as well as their affiliation with doctrinal schools relying on exporting political influence, some experts believe in the need for moderate religious institutions to play a role in this stage. This is likely a reference to the peaceful Sufi school which is spread in South Yemen.

Farida Ahmed, the Political Affairs Researcher in "South24” said: “The moderate religious institutions could play an important role in reducing the discourse of political-religious polarization by opening a dialogue with youth who are more enthusiastic and less experienced, and by monitoring their most important needs and cooperating with them for finding solutions to the community threats they face”. 

She believes that Media outlets have to play a role in that by “focusing on hosting moderate religious figures that spread the culture of accepting the other and renouncing violence and hatred”. 

Farida added that this is “an interactive process, especially if there are media programs and TV series which correct some wrong concepts that fed several generations in Yemen.

"South24" Researcher criticized the role of the state religious institutions such as “Ministry of Awqaf and Guidance” adding they contributed to creating job distinction by appointing “hardcore religious figures” some of whom belong to religious parties like the Islah Party or the Salafi Rashad Party in North Yemen in addition to fringe figures of the Zaidi sect.

Farida claimed that this led to “the decline of the role of many Southern clerks, especially those who belong to the “modest” Salafi or Sufi movements while hardcore and sometimes extremist clerks have been in the decision-making forefront”. 

“This contributed in strengthening some extremist religious groups which use the clergymen in such sensitive positions as a cove”. She added. 

According to Ahmed “the summer 1994 War in South Yemen was an indicator about how clergymen were used in the decision making positions and how they were being directed during the war times”. 

The Political Analyst, Ali Al-Ahmadi, who is affiliated with the religious Movement “Nahda”, admits that “the mutual religious discourse in Yemen has played a role in fueling the war after the warring parties resorted to it”. 

Contributing to making peace

With the Yemeni War entering its seventh year amid the escalation of violence and fighting and the absence of any signs to stop the civil war and the kicking off of a peace process, experts believe that the moderate religious discourse can contribute to boosting the concepts of peace at the social and popular levels. 

In this regard, Farida Ahmed believes that some religious parties can play a role in "the establishment of citizenship value, achieving social coexistence, spreading the tolerance and dialogue culture rather than violence and hatred, and reforming the existing religious discourse, or at least rationalizing it”.

Al-Ahmadi told "South24" that “moderate religious discourse is one of the most important factors for stability”

He added that “there is a need for inclusive, moderate, and coexistent discourse which beliefs in difference and coexistence away from fanaticism and hostility”. 

According to him, “this requires the presence of masterful clergymen and jurisprudence authorities which have sufficient eligibility to assess the quality of oriented religious discourse, particularly at times of war and turmoil”.  

Professor of Sharia Sciences at Hadramout University, Dr. Fayez Al-Somhi told South24 that “the balanced religious discourse can confront the extremist one through serious and solid discussions of suspicious ideas spread by extremists”.

Al-Somhi added that “This is the most important to confront these ideas, as the twisted can be eradicated only by sound moderate mentality”. 

The Hadrami Academic pointed to another solution to overcome the extremism and hatred discourse by “receiving Sharia through credible and best scholars who gather between the scientific masterfulness, piety, insight, and grace”.

He called for “highlighting those figures as good idols in the society which should be relied upon to receive knowledge rather than other half educated”.

Al-Somhi concluded that those steps “can contribute in creating a balanced religious discourse that highlights the Islam’s beauty, justice and compatibility with instinct” adding that “extremism has no religion as it is related to beliefs, thoughts, and actions, whatever their source”. 

Reem Al-Fadhli

Journalist and editor at South24 Center for News and Studies

Photo: The Houthis' "Allah is Greater, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam" slogan in Sanaa, North Yemen (AP)