How can a country with a tribal society also see the spread of Islamic political movements? In anthropology, radicalism and tolerance are contradictory. In his book “Islamist Movements in Yemen” — published by the Center for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut — Dr. Abdul Malik Mohammed Abdullah Issa says that tribes constitute nearly 85% of the total Yemeni population and that there are 168 tribes in Yemen.
At the heart of this tribal social structure is also an Islamic religious identity. Yemeni society has historically been very religious. Although there are political differences within Yemeni society, there have not been ideological or religious differences except in a few cases — for example between Zaydi Shiite Houthis and Salafist Sunnis — and this is because most of Yemeni society belongs to the Shafi’i and Zaydi sects (there also used to be some Jews but most of them have emigrated to Israel).
Issa demonstrates that Yemeni society has historically been pragmatic. Yemenis come from one dynastic line from among the Arab Qahtani and Adnani lines. Yemeni society is highly tribal and religiously Muslim, divided between the Shafi’i and Zaydi sects. In his book, Issa explains the nature of these to sects and notes that there are very few differences between them. There are also some Ismailis, Hanafis, Abayidas, and Twelver Shiites, who came from Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule, and Wahhabis, who came from Saudi Arabia.
In his book, Issa followed an empirical approach. The book’s first section deals with the historical aspect. The second section deals with how Issa collected the data from questionnaires, how he assessed their validity, how he determined the characteristics of the population sample such as age, sex, occupation, income level and place of residence. The data was entered into a statistical software program where it was analyzed. All that, in addition to Dr. Fouad Khalil’s supervision and endorsement of the thesis, make Issa’s work highly credible in describing the political landscape of the Islamic movements and the problem of religious extremism in Yemeni society.
There are many reasons behind the growth of political Islam (these movements reject the label “Islamic fundamentalism”). Issa quotes from senior researchers and academics to explain how all these movements disagreed on various aspects of life and how that led to the birth of Salafism. Within Islamic political movements there is radical Salafism, the Muslim Brotherhood, the left — such as the Turkish Justice and Development Party — the jihadist Salafists and the da’wa [proselytizing] movements.
Yemeni society is first and foremost tribal. Beneath that lay the political ideas such as Islamic Marxism — which appeared in southern Yemen in the early 1990s — nationalism (including Nasserist and a few Baathist parties), and others. Yemeni society resorts to tribal customs to resolve major problems and issues.
There are four main Islamic political forces in Yemen: the Muslim Brotherhood represented by the Yemeni Reform Movement, Ansar Allah (the Houthis), the various Salafist movements and the Ansar al-Shariah movement represented by al-Qaeda.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the strongest among them in the political, social, educational, economic, security, media and diplomatic areas. It also has the most followers, prominent among them are tribal and business leaders, military commanders and politicians. These followers include Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar and his sons, Sinan Abu Lahhum and his sons, and military commander Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar who has the loyalty of half the Yemeni army.
The Salafist movement is divided into three branches:
1. A mainstream current close to the radical Salafist founder Sheikh Moqbel al-Wadii. Wadii was deported from Saudi Arabia because of his militancy and his being influenced by the Juhayman movement; he was also influenced by two Salafist sheikhs in Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Aman al-Jamii — who is of Ethiopian origin — and Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhili.
2. The Wisdom Society Movement, which is influenced by the Egyptian Sheikh Abdul Rahman Abdul Khaliq in Kuwait and by the Kuwaiti Heritage Revival Association.
3. The Ihsan Society (also called the Syrian Current), which is influenced by the Syrian Sheikh Mohammad Srour.
The Houthi movement is recent and emerged out of the rivalry between the government and the prominent Zaydi Shiite scholars Hussein Badr el-Din el-Houthi. He has raised the slogans of Imam Khomeini and called for the death of America and Israel and drew attention to the underdevelopment and poverty in the Houthi areas. Another cause of the Houthi movement’s emergence was the rivalry between Zaydi Shiites and the Salafist Sunnis who were transferred to Houthi areas.
Finally there is the al-Qaeda movement (Ansar al-Shariah), which was launched in 2009. Its predecessor in the 1980s was the Jihad in the Arabian Peninsula Movement, which recruited young men to fight against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Most prominent among that latter group was Osama bin Laden, who is a Saudi of Yemeni origin.
The Islamic movements in Yemen agree that Islam is both a religion and the state because they are affected by the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who was executed in 1966 in Egypt. According to Issa, the causes of religious extremism are many and complex, with poverty being among the most notable. Recent reports say that there are 10 million Yemenis below the hunger line. Issa says that the poverty rate is 45% in rural areas and 31% in urban areas, noting that 71% of Yemen's population lives in rural areas. Another cause is the closed political environment, the external regional intervention (by Saudi Arabia), social discrimination, religious propaganda and the presence of a leader or emir for the group. Issa notes how fast al-Qaeda spread in 2011. The other movements joined the Jan. 15, 2011, revolution as part of the unemployed and financially distressed youth groups. But not al-Qaeda. It resorted to violence and rejected any political settlement — i.e., the Gulf Initiative. This resulted in the assassination of the top al-Qaeda ideologue, Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki.
Issa presents Salafism as “an intellectual phenomenon that calls for the return to the early founding era of Islam — the era of the companions of the Prophet and his followers — and to the Koran and the Sunnah, which calls for the literal application of the teachings of Islam. Salafism staunchly rejects other Islamic doctrines. Salafism in Yemen is represented by jihadi Salafism, which is fighting the government; the traditional proselytizing Salafism, which supports the government; and the activist Salafism, which establishes associations and believes in takfir (Takfir is the practice of one Muslim declaring another Muslim an unbeliever).
Yemen has a civil society made up of 4,723 charity, labor and cultural organizations that call for democracy and pluralism. Yemen also has legislative and executive branches of government and a number of political parties. Nevertheless, the Islamists have become prominent and they represent a political force to be reckoned with. They seek to establish a theocratic state as stated in their platforms.