- 1 Research for this article has been carried out in the framework of the When Authoritarianism Fails (...)
- 2 On the roots and history of the Salafi movement in Yemen: Burgat & Sbitli, 2002; Al‑Jamhī, 2008; Bo (...)
- 3 Our definition of Salafism puts emphasis on the Salafis’ unease towards institutionalized politics. (...)
- 4 Hirschmann, 1970.
1The Salafi movement1 as it has developed in Yemen since the early 1980s has long been described as essentially quietist2: Salafi leaders and activists in the country were said to have retreated from worldly affairs to focus on “religious matters”. Most leading Salafi clerics in Yemen3 have built their doctrine on a rejection of what they refer to as ḥizbiyya (partyism) and on a refusal to endorse democracy or to take part in elections. They would put emphasis on issues of creed (‛aqīda) and proselytism (da‛wa) rather than on questions of social justice and politics. By advocating loyalty to the political ruler while simultaneously proclaiming to be voluntary outsiders to the political field, they have seemingly navigated between what Albert Hirschmann4 would label “exit” and “loyalty”. The third part of Hirschmann’s triptych, “voice”, which implies public criticism and contestation, generally contradicts their doctrine. Quietist Salafi leaders nevertheless approve the act of advising (naṣīḥa) the rulers so that they may correct their behaviors, provided such advice remains secret and does not foster division (tafarruq) and chaos (fitna).
- 5 On the history and influence of Muḥammad al‑Shawkānī, see Haykel, 2003.
2Muqbil b. Hādī al‑Wādi‛ī (d. in 2001), originating from a tribal background in northwestern Yemen, has generally been considered to be the founder of the country’s contemporary Salafi movement. His writings and charisma allowed him to emerge as a pivotal figure in the 1980s, and to establish his own teaching institute, Dār al‑Ḥadīth, in northern Yemen, in the small town of Dammāj. Later, a network of teaching centers and mosques appeared around Dār al‑Ḥadīth, mostly the work of al‑Wādi‛ī’s former students. While the Salafi movement in Yemen had local historical roots and referred to various Yemeni sources (in particular 18th century cleric Muḥammad al‑Shawkānī5), it perceived itself as at odds with mainstream Yemeni society. Accordingly, reform through proselytism (da‛wa) and reinstating the Islamic norms of the first generations of Muslims (the salaf al‑ṣāliḥ or righteous ancestors) became a primary goal of al‑Wādi‛ī and his followers. Non‑Salafi Yemenis, including many analysts, were mostly critical of the movement, portraying it as a novelty, exported by Saudi Arabia and detached from “authentic” Yemeni culture. Despite local criticism, the movement emerged as a significant player, able to compete, in less than three decades, with existing religious groups. It challenged the Zaydī Shias who historically dominated the northern Yemeni highlands, the Shāfi‛ī Sufis present in coastal areas and the east of the country, as well as the Islamist groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
- 6 On these internal controversies, see Al‑Daghshī, 2004.
- 7 On inter‑Salafi dynamics in Jordan, see Wagemakers, 2014.
- 8 Lacroix, 2014.
- 9 Aḥmad al‑Daghshī, 2013. “Al‑salafiyya fī al‑Yaman: min al‑da‘wa ilā al‑ḥizb” [Salafism in Yemen: fr (...)
3Ever since its emergence in Yemen, the question of whether or not to institutionalize Salafism, either in the form of charity organizations or in the form of political parties, has been very controversial within Salafi circles6. Debates and feuds revolving around the question of ḥizbiyya have recurred since the early 1990s. Muqbil al‑Wādi‛ī and his followers used to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood and certain Salafi clerics of engaging in politics, a practice said to spread chaos. Al‑Wādi‛ī published hundreds of recorded sermons and dozens of books condemning political participation and stigmatizing many fellow clerics, including some of his former students. Such accusations contributed to his local and international fame. In fact, the Salafi movement’s alleged apoliticism and the associated controversies have distinguished Yemeni Salafis from Islamist and Salafi groups in other countries: while quietists appear to be marginal in Kuwait, Jordan7, and Bahrain, and increasingly in Saudi Arabia8 and Egypt, they clearly used to call the shots in Yemen. Evidently, the local historical context explains much of Yemeni Salafis’ distrust of politics: the so‑called democratization process that had been launched following the unification of northern and southern Yemen in 1990 created little more than a façade of multi‑party competition, unable to challenge the quietists’ aversion to political corruption. Against a background of predominant quietism, the emergence of a Salafi party in the aftermath of the Yemeni popular uprising of 2011 was seen as a rupture, both by Salafi activists themselves as well as by analysts9. It is precisely this break from dominant Salafi history in Yemen that this paper seeks to describe and analyze.
4The prevailing depiction of Yemen’s Salafi movement as consistently apolitical or as purely quietist is incomplete10. Salafis have rarely lived up to their claim to stay away from worldly life (ḥāya dūnyawiyya). In 1990 the unification of Yemen gave rise to a multiparty environment, in which refusing to participate in elections and criticizing the concept of democracy resulted in automatic loyalty to the ruler and the stigmatization of contending political and religious identities (in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, Zaydi revivalists, Sufis but also socialists). Thus, the Salafis’ alleged “apoliticism” amounts to a political statement, expressing a clear vision of how public affairs should be managed. Salafis have also impacted political, religious and social equilibriums, fostering tension and competition with other religious groups, participating in a number of interactions that easily qualify as political. At the grassroots level as well, many sympathizers do not fully comply with the Salafi doctrine in their daily lives and consequently compromise. As such, the Salafis’ self‑proclaimed apoliticism is merely an illusion.
- 11 Fawzī al‑Kāhilī, “Ra’īs taḥḍirīyyat Ittiḥād al‑Rashād al‑Salafī: Sayakūn li‑l‑mar’a dā’ira wa ṣawt (...)
- 12 The teachings of ‛Abd al‑Raḥmān ‛Abd al‑Khālaq and Muḥammad Surūr Zayn al‑‘Abdīn, foreigners based (...)
- 13 Nabīl al‑Bukayrī, “Al‑Maqṭarī: al‑Salafiyyūn barran mimmā yuthār hawlahum wa li‑hadhihi al‑asbāb na (...)
5Public violations of the quietist motto were significant prior to the 2011 uprising, with an increasing number of Salafis beginning to question the relevance and utility of their movement’s “apolitical” stance. In fact, Salafism in Yemen has long witnessed individual or collective attempts to depart from predominant quietist doctrines or to adapt them to shifting socio‑political contexts. Interestingly, Salafis supporting such attempts generally framed these as evolutions and as being “complementary” rather than a clear rupture11. In the 1990s, the establishment of two Salafi charity organizations, al‑Ḥikma and al‑Iḥsān, was a significant step taken by some of al‑Wādi‛ī’s former students. It signaled a nascent politicization process in the course of which Salafis adopted new role models and references, building in particular on the experience and teachings of Salafis in Kuwait12. Following the death of al‑Wādi‛ī in 2001, competition between his most prominent intellectual heirs, in particular Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī and Muḥammad al‑Imām on the allegedly “orthodox” side and Abū al‑Ḥasan al‑Ma’ribī on the “political” side, centered on accusations of ḥizbiyya, ultimately provoking an internal schism. Local elections gave some activists affiliated to al‑Ḥikma the opportunity to present themselves as independent candidates, but their success was limited. In the late 2000s, ideological conflicts between the various branches of Salafism gained prominence through online forums and through a wide range of Salafi publications. In 2008–2009, as political parties were preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections, some members of the Ḥikma association debated the opportunity of establishing a Salafi party with official endorsement of the organization. In early 2008, ‘Aqīl al‑Maqṭarī, one of the founders of the Ḥikma association, explicitly called for the establishment of a Salafi party “as in Kuwait”, later qualifying, however, that “the issue was just a proposed objective for the Salafis”. As he later explained in an interview, a major obstacle to the formation of a Salafi party prior to 2011 was Yemen's “law of political parties” which many Salafis thought went against the Islamic law. They particularly objected to the law prohibiting any explicit religious or sectarian affiliation. On a more general level, al‑Maqṭarī argued, the idea of forming a political party required time to mature. In Yemen “the elders have not yet got used to the idea [...and] the young have been raised to consider politics as ḥarām [forbidden]13”.
- 14 On the closure of the political field during the 2000s, see Blumi, 2012 and Philips, 2011.
6The elections planned for 2009 eventually ended up being postponed and so the debate over the foundation of a party was put to rest. The following years were marked by rising tensions and various conflicts (in particular in the Ṣa‘dā’ governorate and in former South Yemen) rendering participation in partisan and formal politics unattractive14. Yet, the seeds of politicization had been sown. Building on the narrative of the Salafis’ gradual politicization process, this paper places particular emphasis on the experience of the Rashād Union (Ittiḥād al‑Rashād), a Salafi party established in March 2012, and its connection with the revolutionary uprising of 2011 in Yemen. We will also examine how the Yemeni version of the “Arab Spring” led to a reconfiguration of the Salafi field.
- 15 For discussion of the transition model, see Stepan & Lynz, 2013 and Davis, 2013.
7Distancing itself from transition and modernization theory approaches, the main hypothesis of this paper asserts that the politicization of Salafism and its institutionalization through political parties is anything but a uniform, linear and one‑way process: quietist Salafism remains resilient in Yemen and once “politicized” Salafis may well end up being “depoliticized” once again. As such, the Salafi case study in Yemen highlights the analytical shortcomings of many narratives that developed in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring”, depicting the transition to democracy as a smooth and univocal process15.
- 16 See chapter 7 in Bonnefoy, 2011.
8As shown above, and analyzed in detail in other publications16, the debate in Yemen on the formation of Salafi political parties had been considerable prior to 2011. However, until the fall of ‛Alī ‛Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ, no Salafi figure had taken the initiative to call for direct political participation, nor to establish a party. In fact, the political uprising in 2011 and the consequent “revolutionary process” acted as a booster for politicization and had a significant impact on the Salafi field in Yemen.
- 17 For a critical analysis of the concept of “political opportunity”, see Meyer & Minkoff, 2004.
- 18 On the concept of politicization, see Lagroye, 2003 and Aït Aoudia, Bennani‑Chraïbi and Contamin, 2 (...)
- 19 Salmān al‑‛Amārī, “Ishkalāt al‑salafiyya al‑yamaniyya fī al‑taḥawwul lil‑‛amal al‑siyāsī” [Ambiguit (...)
- 20 ‛Abd al‑Razzāq al‑Jamāl, “Abū al‑Ḥasan al‑Ma’ribī: Anṣaḥu Ṣāliḥ bi‑an yuqtadī bil‑Ḥasan Bin ‘Alī [I (...)
9As this section will demonstrate, the revolutionary uprising of 2011 constituted an important political opportunity17, meaning a consistent change in the dimensions of competition in the political field. It created an incentive for certain Salafis to yet again review their approach to politics and, this time, to realize their idea of a political party. For them, reorganizing and reassessing their socio‑political role meant entering a politicization process departing from the critique of ḥizbiyya, which had long defined and structured Salafism in Yemen. Building on the work of French sociologist Jacques Lagroye, politicization is understood in this article as a process through which actors “re‑qualify” their practices and hierarchies and start framing them in political terms18. These activities are converted in compliance with a set of rules, and a specific vocabulary is used to re‑frame new priorities. Applied to the Salafi movement, such politicization processes imply that political action, including the formation of parties or the participation in demonstrations, is increasingly viewed as an efficient means to conduct da‘wa and reform society. Accordingly, ‛Ammār al‑ʻArīqī, a Ḥikma affiliate, explained in 2012 that “over time Salafis' engagement in education and charitable activities was no longer considered enough to help to expand da‛wa [...] and serve Islam and the Muslims”. He emphasized the fact that much like their Egyptian, Kuwaiti and Bahraini counterparts, Salafis in Yemen began to participate in politics in order “to resist secular expansion and the infidel atheists19”. Similarly, Salafi cleric Abū al‑Ḥasan al‑Ma’ribī, who had supported Ṣāliḥ’s campaign for re‑election in 2006, reassessed in 2011 the priorities of his educational and missionary work, admitting that “engagement in politics may be necessary to facilitate that work20”.
- 21 Bilāl al‑Talīdī, “‛Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī: al‑thawra lam takun ‘alā al‑istibdād faqat” [‘Abd al (...)
- 22 Salmān al‑‛Ammārī, “Al‑Shaykh al‑Shaybānī: al‑thawrāt anḍajat al‑salafiyīn” [Shaykh al‑Shaybānī: Th (...)
10As such, protests against ‛Alī ‛Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ’s regime in 2011 led to an acceleration of a pre‑existing trend toward politicization among Salafi entrepreneurs and activists. As secretary general of the Salafi Rashād Union, ‘Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī, later explained: “The revolution was not only a revolution against tyranny, but it was also a revolution in attitudes and ideas within the Muslim communities, including the Salafi movement21”. According to another prominent figure of the Ḥikma association, the “Salafis have matured with the revolutions22”. However, interestingly, and much like in the 1990s when the first Salafi charity organizations were established in Yemen, such maturation was generally considered to be in continuity rather than a break with the doctrine elaborated by Muqbil al‑Wādi‛ī and fellow quietist Salafis.
- 23 Bonnefoy & Poirier, 2012.
11Following mobilizations in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemeni citizens of all age groups, regions and socio‑economic backgrounds began to engage in massive protests in 2011. They thereby turned the world’s attention to what was arguably a Yemeni version of the ‘Arab Spring’. It was especially after the resignation of Ḥusnī Mubārak in February 2011 that demonstrations in Yemen spread, with tens of thousands of activists gathering in front of Sana’a University and taking the streets elsewhere in the country. The names and social composition of ad‑hoc organizations that were created during the uprising emphasized the young age of the protesters and the peaceful means of their movement23. The revolutionary narrative initially put forward by activists was predominantly secular. References to Islam only appeared marginally during the first weeks of the uprising. The “Arab Spring”, in Yemen as elsewhere, was at the time constructed as a matter of rights (ḥuqūq), dignity (karāma), freedom (ḥuriyya) and change (taghyīr).
- 24 “Jihadis” praised the uprisings and the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian rulers but were obvio (...)
- 25 Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī, head of the Dār al‑Ḥadīth institute in Dammāj since 2001, broadcasted on his websi (...)
12In such a context, Salafis, both quietists and “politicals”24, were at first either uneasy about or outright critical of the uprisings. Interestingly, quietists who had long rejected politics were initially given publicity as they were encouraged to take sides by the Ṣāliḥ regime (but also curiously by Libyan leader Mu‛ammar al‑Qadhdhāfī25), in order to deny the opposition any religious legitimacy, and to advocate stability.
- 26 Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī, “Al‑thuwwār ‘alā al‑dawla” [The revolutionaries raid in the state], recorded lectu (...)
- 27 For in‑depth analysis of the history and practices of the Iṣlāḥ party, see Philbrick‑Yadav, 2013.
- 28 Muḥammad al‑Imām, Muḥammad al‑Imām yufti fī Tawakkul Karman [Muḥammad al‑Imām rules on Tawakkul Kar (...)
13Many quietist Salafis emphasized that the uprisings brought chaos to the Arab world and benefited the “enemies of Islam”: the West, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Christians and the Shia. Many also considered the Muslim Brotherhood to be a driving force behind the revolutionary uprisings and a main beneficiary of the changes taking shape26. Muḥammad al‑Imām, a prominent quietist Salafi based in Ma‛bar 70 kilometers south of Sana’a, for instance, accused the Muslim Brothers of having deceived populations across the Arab world. He stigmatized in particular Tawakkul Karmān, who became a famous figure of the Iṣlāḥ party — the somewhat peculiar Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood27 — and of the revolution. Amongst others, he accused her of having received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 while at the same time “corrupting women and the youth28”.
- 29 Zayd Mutahhar, “Al‑Shaykh al‑duktūr ‛Aqīl al‑Maqṭarī fī ḥiwār khāṣ” [Shaykh doctor ‛Aqīl al‑Maqṭarī (...)
- 30 Muḥammad al‑Mahdī, “Ra’y faḍīlat al‑‘allāma al‑Mahdī fī al‑waḍa‛” [View of the honorable cleric al‑ (...)
- 31 Salmān al‑‛Amāri, “Mawāqif mutabāyana wa murāja‛āt fiqhiyya jadīda: al‑salafiyūn fī al‑Yaman” [Diff (...)
14Not all Salafis however shared such blunt critiques of the unfolding political dynamics. Some of those who were engaged in the institutionalization of the movement prior to the uprising, or who had initiated politicization processes, had a more nuanced perspective of revolutionary events in Yemen. Not surprisingly, ‛Aqīl al‑Maqṭarī took a clear stand in support of the revolution, calling for a peaceful transition29. He was quick to actively engage in a process he had long been encouraging, announcing his plans to establish a new party (which he planned to call al‑‛Adāla wa al‑Tanmiya (Justice and Development)) only a month after the beginning of the uprising. Others affiliated with al‑Ḥikma or al‑Iḥsān, such as Muḥammad al‑Maḥdī and ‛Abd al‑ Majīd al‑ Raymī, as well as independent Salafis, like Abū al‑Ḥasan al‑ Ma’ribī, were initially more cautious and remained critical of the protest movement and its effects. They highlighted the risks of instability, the opposition’s lack of a political project and its links to Western powers, in particular the United States30. Their simultaneous criticism of the regime’s repression of the uprising eventually prevailed, however, causing them to ultimately support the fall of Ṣāliḥ. Nevertheless, many of the above‑mentioned Salafi figures fell short of clearly siding with the opposition and maintained a tentative “wait‑and‑see” approach31.
- 32 Muḥammad al‑Mahdī, “Ra’y faḍīlat al‑‘allāma al‑Mahdī fī al‑waḍ‛” [View of the honourable cleric al‑ (...)
- 33 Salmān al‑ʻAmārī, “Al‑‘Āmrī: Waẓīfat al‑ḥākim al‑yawm taḥawwalat ‘ān mā sārihā al‑shar‘ī [The pract (...)
15Unsurprisingly, inter‑Salafi debates over the legitimacy of the uprisings involved a discussion on religious doctrine. In fact, numerous Salafi figures who criticized the revolution, including Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī, referred to the Islamic notion of the walī al‑‘amr — a temporal Muslim ruler, whom dominant Salafi doctrine considers to command mandatory loyalty. Likewise, Muḥammad al‑Mahdī, who has strong ties with the Ḥikma association, based his initial anti‑revolution stance on the principle of required obedience to the walī al‑‘amr, declaring: “I am a Muslim man who follows the Islamic tradition; therefore, I do not permit myself to revolt against the Imam of Muslims, not when he hasn’t done anything that is considered blasphemy or kufr [disbelief]32“. Those in support of political change did not challenge the validity or importance of being loyal to the walī al‑‘amr, but gradually questioned the status of Ṣāliḥ as the “Imam of the Muslims”. For Muḥammad al‑‛Āmirī, a leading member of the Iḥsān association and future president of the Rashād party, the brutal repression of peaceful demonstrations in March 2011 explained why Ṣāliḥ no longer qualified as the walī al‑‘amr. In a press interview, he argued that the concept of walī al‑‘amr prescribed not only rights, but also obligations: If the ruler fulfills his duties, the people are obliged to obey, help and advise him. Al‑‛Āmirī pursued that if, however, the ruler neglects or fails to act upon his obligations people have to “enjoin him to promote virtue and prevent vice”. Consequently, he stated that dissent became legitimate on religious grounds33.
- 34 Interview with Murād al‑Qadasī, Sana’a, 2012.
16Such a position appeared to be consistent with the actions of many Salafi grassroots activists. Indeed, in several governorates Salafis were participating in the uprising, frequently through small‑scale informal Salafi organizations, most of which had been established in the very first weeks of the revolution. They included the “Pioneering Youth Coalition of Change” (I‛tilāf Shabāb al‑Taghyīr al‑Rā’id) in Sana'a or the “Justice Union” (al‑ʻAdāla) in Taiz. Eventually, the League of Revival and Change (Rabīṭat al‑Nahḍa wa‑l‑Taghyīr) (LRC) was established in late April 2011 to coordinate and guide these Salafi associations at the national level. The league contained prominent members of the nation‑wide Salafi organizations, al‑Iḥsān and al‑Ḥikma34. ‛Aqīl al‑Maqṭarī initially took the lead and acted as the mouthpiece of the LRC. Since the government was undergoing a profound crisis and lacked legitimacy at the time, the LRC never requested official recognition by state institutions.
17Building on the experience of the LRC, many of its members organized a large‑scale, three‑day conference in Sana’a, which led to the public announcement of the establishment of the Rashād Union on March 14, 2012. It rapidly received full official recognition by the “national unity government” established in November 2011 as part of the transition agreement signed by Ṣāliḥ’s party and the opposition, and under the patronage of the Gulf Co‑operation Council. Numerous Salafi clerics, including Muḥammad b. Mūsā al‑‛Āmirī, ‛Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī, ‘Abd Allāh al‑Ḥāshidī, ‛Aqīl al‑Maqṭarī, Murād ʻAbd Allāh al‑Ḥumayrī, and ‛Abd al‑Rabb al‑Salāmī had participated in the conference and stood behind the party announcement. Most of them, while not being among the most prominent leaders of both organizations, had Ḥikma or Iḥsān backgrounds. In fact, the establishment of al‑Rashād allowed several second‑tier clerics, little known prior to 2011, to gain prominence. The party’s secretary general for instance, ‛Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī, born in 1972, had once been affiliated to al‑Iṣlāḥ party before joining al‑Iḥsān and served as one of the local representatives of the Qatar‑based al‑Karāma organization.
- 35 Interview with Kamāl Bāmakhrama, Sana’a, 2012.
- 36 Email interview with ‛Abd al‑‛Azīz al‑Duba‛ī, 2012.
18Interestingly, not all members of Ḥikma and Iḥsān supported the party’s foundation. Muḥammad al‑Mahdī, for instance, remained outside of the newly‑established al‑Rashād party without, however, publicly criticizing it. As Kamāl Bāmakhrama, teacher at the Iḥsān‑related Daʻwa academy in Sana'a, explained, “according to some groups, the continuance of education is enough to change society [and ultimately the state in a bottom‑up manner]35“. Similarly, high‑ranking al‑Ḥikma member ‛Abd al‑‛Azīz al‑Duba‛ī, explained that “political work is a vehicle that some people can draw upon and others can leave aside”, adding that “it is not necessary that all Salafis occupy themselves with politics, especially because politics in our age and within our Arab systems is all strategies and tricks and is at odds with our values36”.
19Without much doubt, the instant electoral success of the al‑Nūr Party in Egypt (which managed to secure 25 % of the votes during the legislative elections of 2011–2012) served as an incentive and as an eye opener for Salafis across the world. The Yemeni initiative, however, was shaped by a specific context, different from the Egyptian one. Contrary to al‑Nūr, for example, which explicitly designated itself as ḥizb (party), al‑Rashād called itself a union (ittiḥād). This choice of wording evidently relates to past and very central Salafi debates over ḥizbiyya. In fact, in the Yemeni context, unease towards ḥizbiyya went beyond the Salafi movement, and was shared by a wide range of political parties: the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, al‑Iṣlāḥ, referred to itself as a "gathering" (tajammu‛) while Ṣāliḥ’s party, the GPC, was called a “congress” (mu'tamar). After the unification of Yemen in 1990 and the emergence of multi‑party politics, national cohesion and unity was seen as threatened by social and political fragmentation. This fear of ḥizbiyya seems to have prevailed until today, with the NDC website emphasizing the importance of placing national over factional interests37.In public discourse, the term “party” had most often been used in Yemen to describe socialist rule in Aden and its hinterland. Accordingly, Yemenis often refer to the period between 1970 and1990 in South Yemen as the “days of the party (ayyām al‑ḥizb)”.
- 38 Interview with ‛Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī, Sana’a, 2012.
20When asked in summer 2012 why his party had been established, al‑Rashād’s secretary general, ‛Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī, gave a list of five reasons: 1) Changes within contemporary Salafi thought — not in the understanding of religion but in the perception of reality; 2) Changes within Yemen, most importantly the establishment of real, as opposed to weak democracy (Dīmuqrāṭiyya ḍa‛īfa); 3) Pressure from the Salafi youth to come up with a new political project; 4) The intention to provide young men with a political and peaceful alternative to violent groups; and 5) The current absence of a clear Islamic voice in Yemen, where “political hypocrisy dominated38”.
- 39 Ibid.
- 40 Video, Ḥiwar al Mustaqbal, Al‑Yaman TV interview with Muhammad al‑ʻĀmrī, 2012. http://www.youtube.c (...)
- 41 Interview with ‛Abd al‑Majīd al‑Qāsim, Sana’a, 2012.
21These institutional changes in particular appear to be consistent with the logic dictated by political opportunity theory. Accordingly, al‑Rashād leaders pointed to the futility of establishing a party under Ṣāliḥ’s autocratic reign. As al‑Ḥumayqānī explained, “it is better to use your energy for something that will actually benefit your nation rather than wasting it in a useless political project39”. Likewise, al‑Rashād’s president, Muḥammad al‑Āmirī, argued that Yemen’s political system did not allow for real participation prior to the Yemeni uprising of 2011: “The people were marginalized and the ruler had everything in his hands: the media, money, authority… A partnership with this kind of ruler was considered a waste of time40”. It was only with the revolution and a change in political structures that the formation of a Salafi party appeared sensible and promising. As al‑Rashād member ‛Abd al‑Majīd al‑Qāsim emphasized: “the environment changed, the atmosphere changed, we have to change. Like other people before us did41”.
22The Salafis’ politicization and the re‑qualification of their activities in the framework of formal party politics are best viewed as part of broader and ongoing developments in Yemen. These are not simply a response to the Yemeni revolution and evolving opportunities, but can be linked to developments internal to Salafism. As al‑Ḥumayqānī's above‑mentioned statement indicated, a plurality of factors needed to be included in the rationalization of al‑Rashād’s establishment. Those include generational aspects (“pressure” from the youth), the Salafis’ intent to extend the scope of daʻwa activities and the aim of some political and religious entrepreneurs to set themselves apart from the previous generations and to push forward their own interests. Interpersonal and inter‑organizational connections that exist between certain Yemeni activists and Gulf States, in particular Qatar and Kuwait, are likely to have also played a part in the establishment of al‑Rashād. Consequently, the alleged rivalry between Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries might constitute a relevant yet marginal factor in the understanding of the Yemeni Salafi movement. However this is something difficult to substantiate beyond rumors.
23While the Salafis’ politicization and their foundation of a political party were fundamental steps, they only constitute the beginning of much longer profiling, organizing, and positioning processes. Al‑Rashād still needs to develop its own structure, to establish a party base and to define its own “added value” in inter‑party competitions. What exactly defines al‑Rashād and how does it differ from existing political players in Yemen, particularly the Iṣlāḥ party? These are questions that leaders and activists in Yemen and beyond have been struggling to answer.
24Evidently, building a party is a lengthy process and in the absence of general elections at the time of writing, the analysis of al‑Rashād is difficult and doomed to be incomplete. However, as this section will highlight, the party’s political experience and the internal debates it has gone through over the past two years offer sufficient relevant data to start outlining the party’s position within the Yemeni political field.
- 42 Fawzī al‑Kāhilī, “Ra’īs taḥḍirīyat Ittiḥād al‑Rashād al‑Salafī: Sayakūn li‑l‑mar’a da’ira wa ṣawt m (...)
- 43 Yaḥyā al‑Ṣaddāmī, “Ra’īs ittiḥād al‑Rashād al‑yamanī li‑l‑iyāsa al‑kuwaytiyya” [President of the Ye (...)
25From the outset, al‑Rashād had an ambiguous relationship with the other Sunni Islamist party in Yemen, al‑Iṣlāḥ. While sharing its basic goal of bringing society in line with a religious ideal, al‑Rashād had to stand out for its establishment to appear meaningful and necessary. In theological terms, al‑Rashād leaders therefore equated al‑Iṣlāḥ with the Muslim Brotherhood and contrasted their own “religious superiority” against al‑Iṣlāḥ’s alleged lack of orthodoxy. Not only did they claim to be the closest to “original Islam”, they also claimed to follow a clear approach, building their message on the Prophet’s methodology (manhaj) and that of the first generation of Muslims. Furthermore, al‑Rashād leaders made it their goal to compensate for the absence of a “clear Islamic voice” in Yemen, by creating “an authentic, orthodox and realistic Islamic message” and by providing “a new model42”. As al‑Rashād’s President Muḥammad al‑‛Āmirī explained in an interview in 2013, “the biggest factor in preventing their [Salafis] participation in politics is the fear that the Rashād party would become a replica of existing Islamic political work in the Yemeni arena43”.
- 44 For more information on al‑Rashād leaders’ attempt to differentiate “their” party from al‑ Iṣlāḥ, s (...)
26On a more political level, al‑Rashād leaders skillfully took advantage of the fact that theirs was one of the rare parties that had emerged after the 2011 uprising and was not affiliated with or led by long‑established political players in Yemen. By placing themselves on the side of the people and the revolutionaries, and by rhetorically opposing Yemen's political establishment and past political practices, al‑Rashād leaders implicitly criticized and distinguished themselves from other political actors in Yemen. In addition to al‑Rashād members’ previous absence from politics, their refusal to be seen in close affiliation with any of the existing political parties substantiated their status as political newcomers.44
- 45 Video, Ḥiwar al Mustaqbal, Al‑Yaman TV interview with Muhammad al‑ʻĀmrī, op.cit.
- 46 Ibid.
- 47 Interview with ʻAbd Allāh al‑Ḥāshidī, Sana’a, 2012.
27The “new‑kid‑in‑town” effect along with al‑Rashād leaders’ public association with Salafism explains the media attention that the party instantly attracted. In Yemeni and numerous other Arab newspapers and television shows, al‑Rashād was discussed as Yemen’s first “Salafi party” and its leaders were questioned about their “sudden” political participation, their relationship with the Iṣlāḥ party and intra‑Salafi controversies regarding their “break” with an “apolitical past45”. While al‑Rashād undoubtedly benefits politically from such fame, the media, and the image of Salafism it conveys, are perceived by party leaders as a double‑edged sword. Al‑Rashād’s President Muḥammad al‑Āmirī regrets that “there is no objectivity when opinions on Salafis are circulated”, saying time and again that, “the Salafi stance is moderate [and] far away from extremism46”. Due to Salafism’s negative public connotations, some leaders of al‑Rashād, like ‛Abd Allāh al‑Ḥāshidī, oppose the specific designation of “Salafi” altogether, wishing to replace it with the more appropriate term “Muslim47”.
- 48 Interview with ‛Abd al‑Majīd al‑Qāsim, Sana’a, 2012.
28The way in which ‛Abd al‑Majīd al‑Qāsim, head of al‑Rashād’s “rehabilitation and teaching department”, reflects upon his party membership throws further light on al‑Rashād’s conflicted stance towards the Salafi label. Al‑Qāsim, born in 1978, teaches information technology at the global company “ExecuTrain” in Sana'a. He studied in Kuwait, and claims to have adopted the Salafi understanding of religion late in his life by attending lectures, reading circles and seminars: “I think they [al‑Rashād] chose me because they needed to tell the people we actually have modern members. Look at me, wearing jeans and a shirt....[laughs]. They chose me to show they are not exclusive. They want to tell the other people that not all party members are religious scholars48”.
- 49 Interview with ‛Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī, Sana’a, 2012.
29Al‑Rashād leaders frequently appear to be aware of the fact that Salafism is widely associated with the phenomenon of “terrorism” and alleged Islamic extremism. Hence, they place great emphasis on pointing out existing differences between theirs and al‑ Qaeda’s interpretation and implementation of Islam, by publicly and repeatedly condemning al‑Qaeda’s violence, while simultaneously emphasizing their own peaceful character. In a difficult balancing act, this goal of differentiation is combined with a discourse of reconciliation and inclusion. Instead of unequivocally demonizing al‑Qaeda, al‑Rashād leaders deploy a rhetoric that tends to humanize the group, by highlighting the various motivations of the young men joining it. By placing reconciliation over further exclusion and mutual antagonisms, al‑Rashād leaders (unsuccessfully) advocated the inclusion of al‑Qaeda members in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in 2012.49 Provided they put down their arms, al‑Rashād leaders demanded all Yemeni groups to participate in the NDC, which arguably constituted the most important part of the above‑mentioned Gulf initiative, offering a forum for debate over Yemen’s long‑term political future.
30In spite of the Rashād Union’s attempt to develop a balanced approach, it finds itself attacked by high‑ranking Salafi figures, such as ‛Abd al‑Mājīd al‑Raymī or quietists like Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī on the one hand, and established political players inside and outside of Yemen on the other.
- 50 US Treasury Department, Treasury Designates Al‑Qa’ida Supporters in Qatar and Yemen, 18 December 20 (...)
- 51 Six months prior to the US Treasury decision, al‑Karāma, established in 2004, had published a very (...)
- 52 “Al‑Yaman yarfuḍ rasmiyyan idrāj siyāsī salafī ‘alā al‑qā’ima al‑amirīkiyya li‑dā‛imī al‑irhāb” [Ye (...)
- 53 Abigail Hauslohner, “Yemeni Global ‘Terrorist’ says he has counterterrorism advice for Washington”, (...)
- 54 Adam Baron, “US Treasury Labels Prominent Yemeni Politician a Terrorist”, CS Monitor, 3 February 20 (...)
- 55 Quoted in Abigail Hauslohner, “Yemeni Global ‘Terrorist’”, op. cit.
31In a public statement, released in December 2013, the US Treasury Department branded ‛Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī “a specially designated global terrorist” implying “his” party to be a terrorist cover‑up: “al‑Ḥumayqānī and AQAP [Al‑Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] leadership have planned to establish a new political party in Yemen, which AQAP planned to use as a cover for the recruitment and training of fighters and a means to attract broader support. AQAP leadership decided that al‑Ḥumayqānī would play a public role as a leader and spokesman for the new political party50”. The US Treasury’s report further accused al‑Ḥumayqānī of having used the Karāma51 association as a cover for channeling financial support to AQAP. At the same time as al‑Ḥumayqānī, Qatari ‛Abd al‑Raḥmān al‑Nu‛aymī, president of the Swiss‑based al‑Karāma Human Rights association and a prominent public figure with links to the Qatari government was branded a “global terrorist” by the United States. The press release of the US Treasury contained factual errors, ignoring, for instance, that al‑Ḥumayqānī had already established a political party two years prior to these accusations. Having received great media attention, the US Treasury’s allegations caused a wave of discontent in Yemen–from within both the religious and the political field. The Yemeni government was quick to openly take issue with the US Treasury’s report. In a public statement, the Yemeni Foreign Minister Abū Bakr al‑Qirbī demanded evidence on the basis of which al‑Ḥumayqānī could and in fact should stand trial in Yemen52. Several political parties, including al‑Iṣlāḥ and the socialist party, condemned the US accusations.53 While the Yemeni government ultimately sent the Treasury Department a formal letter condemning al‑Ḥumayqānī’s designation, protest went well beyond formal political institutions. Posters stating “we are all Ḥumayqānī” were seen in Sana’a and demonstrations took place54. Al‑Ḥumayqānī denied all charges against him, again highlighting his opposition to and difference with so‑called “jihādī groups”. Al‑Qaeda, he explained, does not believe in participatory politics. They view jihād as a “means to establishing an Islamic state, and […] believe that joining the political arena is a form of infidelity, or a non‑Muslim goal55”.
- 56 Email Interview with ‘Abd al‑Majīd al‑Qāsim, 2014.
- 57 Ibid.
32Although al‑Rashād’s criminalization was not endorsed by the Yemeni government, it reinforced party members’ reservations against “Western perceptions”. Instead of questioning the relevance of their recent politicization, however, they focused on improving their image through a number of training events and through a willingness to appear as a competent and balanced alternative. As an effect of its ongoing development, al‑Rashād began to organize an increasing number of workshops in its local branches throughout the country. Participants are usually trained in time‑management skills, the art of persuasion, body language, political analysis and the general importance of political action. Al‑Rashād’s personal development methods are widely inspired by North American literature, including, for example, Stephen Covey’s “Time management matrix” or John C. Maxwell’s “21 Laws of Irrefutable Leadership”56. In some cases, those works are not simply adopted but “domestificated” and “appropriated” by al‑Rashād’s lecturers. ‛Abd al‑Majīd al‑Qāsim for example, who is in charge of these workshops, links Covey’s time‑management to the goal of “being Islamic”. He bluntly declares that, “if we do not respect time, this means that we do not respect the times of prayer, we do not respect the times of fasting, we do not respect many things […]. If we respect time, we respect ourselves and we respect others as well. That is what I believe. And I train people to believe the same”. Next to North American sources, ‛Abd al‑Majīd al‑Qāsim explains, he also occasionally refers to the texts of famous Kuwaiti scholar and businessman Tāriq al‑Suwaydān, who has played a great role in popularizing personal development literature in Arabic since the late 1990s. Interestingly, al‑Qāsim further links his party’s surge in training events to recent American terrorism charges, explaining that al‑Rashād wished to not only appear more professional, but also wanted to improve the image of Salafism in general57.
33The NDC held in Sana’a between March and December 2013 offered an ideal platform for al‑Rashād’s political profiling and image improvement. Al‑Rashād Union was (alongside the liberal‑leaning Justice and Development Party (Ḥizb al‑‘Adāla wal‑Tanmiya)) allowed to join the NDC as a new party, and granted five seats among the 565 representatives, while al‑Iṣlāḥ was granted 51 seats58. Throughout the National Dialogue, al‑Rashād representatives tried to come across as reasonable and competent, continuously condemning violence while emphasizing peaceful dialogue. They took their political role very seriously, emerging as some of the most active participants in the NDC: al‑Rashād members gave numerous TV and television interviews, the party’s secretary general appeared increasingly on BBC Arabic and al‑Jazīra and frequent reports were published on al‑Rashād’s website, in which the party’s official viewpoints, objections and support on various issues were outlined.
- 59 “‛Aḍū mu’tamar al‑ḥiwār al‑shaykh Kamāl Bāmakhrama [Dialogue conference member, shaykh Kamāl Bāmakh (...)
- 60 “Hay’at ri’āsat mu’tamar al‑ḥiwār tawqif Bāmakhrama ‘alā dhimat takfīr zumalāahu” [Presidential com (...)
34In a number of cases, especially those close to “Islamist hearts”, al‑Rashād members made headlines during the nine months of NDC and saw their positions supported by the most uncompromising segments of its Iṣlāḥī counterpart. Most dramatic was the reaction of Salafi (yet not al‑Rashād representative) Kamāl Bāmakhrama in July 2013, who fervently opposed the decision of the NDC state‑building committee to make sharia “the main” and not “the only” source of legislation in Yemen’s new constitution. In a public document, titled “urgent appeal to every Muslim Yemeni”, he demanded all Yemenis to “save the identity of the Islamic state in Yemen59”.He equated the committee’s ruling on the status of sharia, and that of its most prominent figure, Yasīn Sa‛īd Nu‛mān, the secretary general of the Socialist Party, with an act of polytheism (shirk). He praised al‑Rashād, al‑Iṣlāḥ, al‑Iḥsān and, quite surprisingly, Aḥmad ‘Aqbāt, representing the “Hūthī” movement in the NDC, for withdrawing from the committee meeting in protest against its majority vote. Kamāl Bāmakhrama’s allegations were heavily criticized by other NDC participants, who ultimately brought his case before the NDC disciplinary committee, which expelled Kamāl Bāmakhrama for three days. In spite of his punishment, Bāmakhrama enjoyed broad support of Yemen’s Islamists. ‛Abd al‑Majīd al‑Zindānī, a well‑known leader of al‑Iṣlāḥ, and his son, Muḥammad, published a statement, emphasizing the legitimacy of Yemen’s hitherto constitution and its provision that sharia was the only source of legislation. They further published a list of 37 names of NDC representatives that, according to them, were “combating Islam”. For his part, al‑Rashād’s President Muḥammad al‑‛Āmirī publicly opposed Bāmakhrama’s expulsion without, however, endorsing the list published by the Zindāni family60.
- 61 “170 imra’a yuhaddidna bi‑l‑insiḥāb min mu’tamar al‑ḥiwār [170 women threaten to withdraw from the (...)
- 62 “Ḥizb rashād ya‛tariḍ ‘alā al‑kūtā al‑nisā’iyya” [rashād party opposes female quota], al‑Akhbar Now(...)
35Tensions surrounding al‑Rashād further developed when the NDC’s good governance committee proposed to introduce a quota of 30 % of women in all public (political) leadership positions. Again, al‑Rashād found itself siding with some of al‑Iṣlāḥ’s most radical leaders, ‛Abd al‑Majīd al‑Zindānī and ‛Abd Allāh Ṣa‛atar, firmly opposing the reform proposition61. In a statement published on its website, al‑Rashād listed the reasons for its disagreement. From a constitutional and legal standpoint, it was argued that the quota would be at odds with the principle of equal citizenship, creating a system that was “discriminatory against men”. The quota was further accused of violating the embodiment of the voters’ will and the principle of equal opportunities, preventing access on the basis of sex62. Furthermore, the quota system was claimed to be a Western concept imposed on and flying in the face of Yemeni traditions and values.
- 63 ‛Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī, “Amīn ‘ām al‑Rashād li‑l‑Jazīra net: “Ṭarīḥ niẓām al‑fidirāliyya aw al (...)
- 64 ‛Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī, “Ḥiwār ṣaḥīfat al‑waṭan al‑qaṭariyya” [Interview with Qatari al‑Waṭan (...)
36Both with respect to the women quota and the role of sharia in Yemen’s new constitution, al‑Rashād revealed a conservative standpoint that matched the positions of certain Iṣlāḥ factions and was in accordance with the views of its religious‑traditional constituency. However, al‑Rashād representatives were ultimately required to make compromises, being outvoted on several key issues debated during the NDC‑ those mentioned above, as well as the question of federalism. From the outset, al‑Rashād leaders, alongside most religious clerics, opposed the concept of federalism, which they viewed as a political construct, detached from geographic, economic, cultural, social and demographic realities on the ground. They claimed that federalism would cause major divisions inside Yemeni society63. In spite of their dissatisfaction with the outcomes of the NDC, al‑Rashād representatives reluctantly agreed to the changes. In an interview, ‛Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī pragmatically explained that “it is impossible to gain all that you want” and that consensus was necessary in spite of al‑Rashād’s reservations64. Such willingness to appear as a responsible actor and to engage with other political and religious groups did not prevent controversies from emerging, however.
- 65 Interview with Murād al‑Qadasī, Sana’a, 2012
- 66 Ibid.
- 67 The Facebook page of ‛Abd al‑Majīd al‑Raymī, also known as ‛Abd al‑Majīd al‑Hitārī, was closed down (...)
37Early on, the party dealt with rivalries between the Ḥikma and Iḥsān branches. Several high‑ranking al‑Ḥikma members, who supported the establishment of the party, dropped out in protest after the first internal party elections held in late April 2012, playing with the idea of establishing a second Salafi party in Yemen. As Murād al‑Qadasī, head of the Consultative Scientific Council of the Ḥikma branch in Sana'a, explained in 2012: “we […Al‑Ḥikma members] were the first to call for the establishment of the Rashād party; furthermore, we were the ones who urged Iḥsān to do so as well. And ironically, they [al‑ Iḥsān] ended up taking the lion's share of al‑Rashād65”. With no Ḥikma member being voted into Rashād leadership positions, it was claimed that pre‑arrangements had been made and that the internal elections were a fraud66. Hence, well‑known Ḥikma members, like al‑‛Aqīl al‑Maqtarī, who had participated in the conference leading to al‑Rashād’s establishment, ended up staying out of al‑Rashād’s party structures. ‛Abd al‑Majīd al‑Raymī, also close to al‑Ḥikma, announced in January 2014 his plan to establish a new Salafi organization, the Islamic congregation for da‘wa and for the revival of sharia (al‑Tajammu‘ al‑Islāmī li‑l‑da‘wa wa iḥyā al‑sharī‛a). He persistently accused al‑Rashād of being too lukewarm on the issue of illegal American drone strikes and of endorsing the Western and “unislamic67” concept of democracy. It remains to be seen, however, whether this new movement will act as a full‑fledged political party or not. Far from representing a united Salafi front, al‑Rashād hence has struggled to position itself within a divided Salafi and Islamist field.
38Quietist Salafis, in Yemen as elsewhere, had been placed in a delicate situation by the “Arab Spring”. Advocates of automatic loyalty to the ruling regimes were facing an evident crisis as the legitimacy of their stance was put into question by popular uprisings, the demise of authoritarian rulers and the establishment of Salafi parties like al‑Rashād. The fall of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and the capacity of Islamist movements to win elections and secure power, challenged the Salafis’ previously dominant rejection of political activism. In Yemen, the legitimacy of Salafi figures like Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī, Muḥammad al‑Imām, or ‛Abd al‑‛Azīz al‑Bura‛ī appeared to be eroding.
- 68 Bonnefoy, forthcoming.
- 69 Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī, “Limādhā jull al‑sha‘b al‑yamanī yuḥibb al‑ra’īs ‛Alī ‛Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ” [Why does (...)
39During the Arab uprisings, quietists’ determination to preserve their doctrine occasionally led them to support contested regimes68. In Yemen, for example, in the summer of 2011, as the balance had visibly tipped in favor of the opposition, Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī, head of Dār al‑Ḥadīth, published an open letter in which he listed the twelve reasons why “people love ‛Alī ‛Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ69”. Including surprisingly few references to Islamic traditions or the Quran, al‑Ḥajūrī bluntly emphasized the absence of any political alternative to Ṣāliḥ and his various qualities: his patience, his support to religious scholars, his benevolence and his openness to dialogue.
40Despite such absurd sounding stances, events since 2011 have highlighted a certain resilience of quietist Salafism in the Yemeni context. As this section will show, such durability is mainly linked to political contingency and not to an explicit doctrinal revision. Much like the Rashād party’s experience, quietist Salafis’ resilience highlights the plasticity of Salafi doctrines and practices and the limited relevance of doctrine as a single or even relevant explanatory variable.
41As quietists’ critiques of the 2011 uprisings cannot be explained by referencing a Salafi “doctrinal core”, they need to be contextualized. Salafis of all branches appear to be flexible and practices are widely made dependent on political dynamics – a trend that ultimately favors a rather pragmatic approach to political processes. Indeed, once Ṣāliḥ was toppled and ‛Abd Rabbuh Manṣūr Hādī elected as the new president of Yemen, quietists generally adapted to the new situation and modified their stance, without however admitting to have been wrong. Interestingly, the nature of Yemen’s transitional government and debates surrounding the new constitution did not foster significant discussions within quietist Salafi circles. Instead, focus was primarily placed on the confrontation with the “Ḥūthīs” and, quite tellingly, on the critique of the politicization of Salafism.
- 70 On Zaydi revivalism, see Dorlian, 2013 and King, 2008.
42Events in Yemen since 2011 have led the quietists in northern Yemen to appear as victims of the growing local dominance of the “Ḥūthīs”, a Zaydi revivalist, Shia movement70. This dynamic has put Salafi quietists back in the spotlight and generated renewed support and sympathy for them, acting as a symptom of their resilience.
- 71 On the issue of tribal alliances as part of the Ṣa‛da war, see Brandt, 2013.
- 72 On the Ṣa‛da war, see Salmoni, Loidolt & Wells, 2010; Bonnefoy, 2010.
43In early 2011, after an eight‑year‑long armed struggle between the state (allied to local tribes71) and the so‑called Ḥūthī insurgency72 in the northern region of Ṣa‛da, peaceful mobilizations against ‛Alī ‛Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ in Sana’a forced the regime to drop its fight against the Hūthī insurgency in order to concentrate its shrinking security resources in the capital. Ṣa‛da city and its surroundings were consequently left open to the “Ḥūthīs”, who managed to establish a quasi‑autonomous area in Sa‛da, benefiting, as the official state narrative suggested, from alleged Iranian support.
- 73 A detailed (although at times disturbing and inexact) account of the life of Salafi students in Dam (...)
- 74 Weir, 2007, p. 296.
44As already mentioned, quietist Salafis, doctrinally and historically at odds with Zaydi revivalists, had their main teaching institute, Dār al‑Ḥadīth, located in the outskirts of Ṣa‛da. Ever since its establishment by Muqbil al‑Wādi‛ī in the early 1980s, the institute had continuously harbored thousands of Yemeni and foreign Salafi students (ṭullāb al‑‘ilm) and their families73. Prior to 2004 and the start of the so‑called Ṣa‛da war, skirmishes between Zaydi revivalists and Salafis had occurred. These had been described by anthropologist Shelagh Weir as a “clash of fundamentalism74”. With the war, skirmishes had become intermittent, yet never posing a serious challenge to the teaching activities at Dār al‑Ḥadīth. However, the control that the Ḥūthīs gained over Ṣa‛da in 2011 dramatically increased tensions. In October of the same year, Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī sent out a letter in which he called for government support in protecting the institute. The letter was addressed to Ṭāriq Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ and his brother Yaḥyā Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ, the powerful nephews of the president and respectively head of the Presidential guard and of the Central security forces. Al‑Ḥajūrī stressed the Salafis’ role in condemning the demonstrations and in combatting ḥizbiyya. Al‑Ḥajūrī’s outreach to Ṣāliḥ’s security forces failed to avoid the Ḥūthī’s blockade on Dār al‑Ḥadīth and its student population, which followed the Salafis’ alleged receipt of weapons from the government. The institute was shelled in October–November 2011 and the Salafis portrayed themselves as victims of “Shia oppression”. Fighting left dozens dead on both sides.
- 75 “Nouvelles du blocus de Dammaj”, al‑Oloom al‑salafiyya en français, 23 December 2013: http://aloloo (...)
45Following this episode of escalation and a cease‑fire, Ḥūthī leaders maintained their control over Sa‛da and pursued their strict blockade of Dammāj. Tensions were intermittent and al‑Ḥajūrī and his supporters remained very critical of the Ḥūthīs. On both sides, publications and recorded lectures highlighted the increased sectarianization of the conflict. In late 2013, tensions reached a new peak as the Ḥūthīs again accused the Salafis of training fighters and of allying with jihādī groups. Ḥūthī fighters raided a Dār al‑Ḥadīth‑affiliated mosque in the district of al‑Kitāf, north‑east of Ṣa‛da. The mosque was later blown up and videos of the explosion were later posted on the Internet by Ḥūthī militants. Concomitant fighting in Dammāj put the Salafis in a dire situation. The International Committee of the Red Cross intervened to grant wounded Salafis medical support. Al‑Ḥajūrī’s son was killed along with at least a hundred other Salafis. A national and international campaign, very active on the Internet, called for solidarity with the Salafis in Yemen who, according to various forums and e‑petitions, were facing a “genocide75”. Transition President ‛Abd Rabbuh Manṣūr Hādī sponsored a difficult tribal mediation between the Ḥūthīs and the Salafis in order to reach a cease‑fire.
46The agreement implied that all Salafis that were not originally from Dammāj had to leave the village. As a consequence, around 10,000 Salafis moved out in convoys of packed trucks, carrying only a few of their belongings. Dramatic videos of these Salafi “IDPs” were posted on the Internet contributing, on the part of Sunni Islamists, to the stigmatization of the state’s incapacity to contain the Ḥūthīs and an alleged encroachment of Shia Iran in Yemeni affairs. Some analysts saw the hand of a shifting Saudi foreign policy in the demise of Dammāj, claiming that Saudi Arabia did not want to see a new terrain for “jihādīs” to emerge right at its southern border. Others considered the tragedy of Dammāj to be an unwanted effect of the competition between the Kingdom and Qatar; each one trying to destabilize the other by developing complex alliances in Yemen. While none of these tortuous interpretations can be corroborated, they all portray the Salafis as victims of political dynamics they do not control.
47The above‑mentioned truce between the Ḥūthīs and the Salafis in Dammāj, which was signed under the auspices of President Hādī, initially stipulated that the Salafis would relocate in the suburbs of Yemen’s fourth city, al‑Ḥudayda, on the coast of the Red Sea. Allegedly, local populations there rejected that possibility, necessitating the cohort of Salafis to move elsewhere. Most, including Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī, went to Sana’a where they established a refugee camp in al‑Sa‛wān quarter, close to the al‑Sunna and al‑Firda’ūs mosques. A few managed to resettle in Bayḥān, on the edge of the Rub‛ al‑Khālī desert.
48The closure of Dammāj constitutes an evident rift in the history of the Salafi movement in Yemen. The trauma it caused among Sunni Islamists was only increased by the subsequent fall of Sana’a in September 2014 in the hands of the Ḥūthī movement and the later demise of the transition president ‛Abd Rabbuh Manṣūr Hādī and of the government in January 2015. Not only did the forced evacuation of Dammāj a year before raise dramatic humanitarian issues, but it also led to jihādī critiques of quietists and their loyalist approach to politics. In a post entitled “Collateral Dammaj”, French militants advocated a clear rupture with governments and emphasized the strategic relevance of violence. They highlighted the fact that the students of Dammāj had only been humiliated because they separated da‘wa from jihād and had in the past delegitimized those who were fighting the “crusaders” without the government’s prior endorsement. As some anonymous French militants explained online:
49“In spite of its submission to former president Ali Abdallah Salih and his successor Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi, the Dammaj institute located in the Sa‘da region, the stronghold of Huthi rebels […], was completely abandoned to its sad fate. […] They [quietists in Dammāj] were the ones who rejected jihād in such a hateful and visceral manner by inventing so many conditions and restrictions. In the end, they quickly called for jihād and asked others to take up arms to defend their small shrines and their privileges. Yet, they had remained silent when the armies of kufr [in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Syria] had penetrated by the hundreds of thousands the lands of Islam (and worse of all, they even stigmatized those who had the courage to fight)76”.
- 77 “Salafiyū al‑Yaman bi‑Dammāj yarfuḍūn da‘m al‑Qā‛ida” [Yemeni Salafis in Dammāj reject help from al (...)
- 78 “Nāṭiq al‑Ḥuthiyin yujaddid hujumahu ‘alā al‑wasāṭa fī Dammāj” [Speaker of the Ḥūthis renews his at (...)
- 79 Amjad Khashshāfa, “Surūr al‑Wādi‛ī yukshif tafāṣīl al‑ḥarb wa al‑ḥiṣār” [Surūr al‑Wādi‘ī reveals de (...)
50Despite this mockery and criticism, the Dammāj crisis of late 2013 and early 2014 also had an opposite effect. In a way it ‘re‑legitimized’ Salafi quietists in Yemen and highlighted their resilience. Some Yemeni jihādīs, including the ones who claimed affiliation to al‑Qaeda, had offered their services to defend Dammāj but Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī had rejected their help, not wanting to be associated with “terrorism”77. Dammāj nevertheless received support from militiamen of the prominent Ḥāshid tribal confederation, considered to be a kingmaker of Yemeni politics with strong ties with the Iṣlāḥ party. Members affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood as well as leaders of the Rashād Union expressed their solidarity78. The Iḥsān association was also active in the camps creating bridges between the two competing branches of Salafism. Secretary general of al‑Rashād, ‘Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī visited Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī in Sana’a and helped dispatch aid to the Salafi refugees. In a statement published on the party’s website, he compared the Salafis’ camps to the camps of Palestinians “displaced by Zionism79”. Following increased control of the capital, of the state media and of various security institutions by Ḥūthī militias during the last months of 2014, Sunni Islamists were put under direct pressure. The Iṣlāḥ party became the prime target of Ḥūthī encroachment and expansion, in particular due to its alliance with the Aḥmar clan and with army units who had fought the successive rounds of the Sa’da war, under the leadership of ‛Alī Muḥsin. Leaders of al‑Rashād, while not endorsing the dominion of the Ḥūthīs over state institutions and the army kept a low profile, generally adopting a wait‑and‑see strategy, which highlighted a possible retreat to “apoliticism”. The governorate of al‑Bayḍā, from where ‛Abd al‑Wahhāb al‑Ḥumayqānī originates, quickly became a significant battlefield in the Ḥūthī‑led offensive against armed tribal and militant groups allegedly affiliated to al‑Qaeda. Owing to tribal mechanisms of solidarity, such a situation risked reinforcing a sectarian polarization which al‑Rashād had initially been cautious not to encourage when it was integrating institutional politics and participating in a once‑promising political transition process.
51In the Salafi field, the great attention that the Dammāj crisis has triggered in Yemen stopped the seeming marginalization of quietists which had begun in the aftermath of 2011. In fact, it allowed Yaḥyā al‑Ḥajūrī to expand his popularity. A lecture he gave on January 17, 2014 at the Sunna mosque in the Sa‘wān quarter was attended by thousands and his various recordings available on the Internet reveal a large number of views80. Following the capture of Sana’a by the Ḥūthī movement, coined a “Shia movement” by Sunni Islamists, al‑Ḥajūrī left the capital and organized various lectures in Ibb, Taiz and Aden calling for resistance against the Ḥūthīs, legitimizing an increasingly sectarian rhetoric. Such attention thus gave quietists an opportunity to re‑emerge as significant players in the Yemeni political and religious landscape and could well bridge some of the gaps that had appeared within the Salafi spectrum due to the emergence of al‑Rashād.
52More generally, political instability, security issues as well as economic difficulties, all of which frequently followed Arab uprisings triggered much pessimism among analysts and citizens. With arguably failed transitions, advocates of loyalty to the former president increasingly appeared to have a point when warning that chaos would follow the uprising. Oddly enough, in 2014, as Egypt was experiencing the consolidation of ‛Abd al‑Fatāḥ al‑Sīsī’s authoritarian rule and as many saw the Assad regime in Syria as a lesser evil, quietist Salafis and their call for stability appeared to be in line with dominant narratives regarding the “Arab Spring”. Thus, sticking with the authoritarian regimes may not have been the losing bet it once appeared to be.
53As developments in Yemen analyzed in this article have shown, the Salafis’ politicization is not a one‑way street and certainly not an automatic process. While al‑Rashād is still a young party with limited experience and capacity, and in need of definition, the resilience of quietist Salafism indicates that the processes observed during the “Arab Spring” and described by social scientists and actors themselves are rarely univocal. While the 2011 uprising did constitute a political opportunity, various Salafi groups framed it differently, adopting divergent attitudes towards the upheavals and political participation. With quietists still active and al‑Rashād increasingly constrained by the failures of the political transition, the capacity of Salafi activists and entrepreneurs to constantly move along the vast “Salafi continuum” is a reality that researchers will be eager to continue observing in the years to come, in Yemen, as elsewhere.