Yemen’s Hidden War
In Western media, the conflict has been cast in sectarian tones, with the shorthand reference, as the same newspaper’s editorial board put it in early July, to “an indigenous Shiite group allied with Iran.” The truth is far more complex and grounded in Yemen’s highly diverse society and tangled politics. For example, the Houthis are actually Zaydi Shiites, which is a different sect from Iranian Twelver Shiism, and closer in doctrine and tradition to Yemen’s Sunni majority.
At a hotel in downtown Sana’a, I meet with Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a senior Houthi official and member of Ansar Allah’s political committee. A short, broad-shouldered man with close-cropped stubble, Bukhaiti moves around the capital with a Kalashnikov and two bodyguards. A longtime political activist against Saleh’s regime, he had spent years in exile in Canada and is quick to reminisce about its fast-food chains and friendly people. He is unapologetic, though, about Ansar Allah’s anti-American ideology, which holds U.S. imperialism responsible for much of the Middle East’s troubles. “Look what happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and now Yemen,” he says. “Wherever there is U.S. interference, there is Al Qaeda and ISIS. It’s to their advantage.”
The Houthis’ philosophy both looks back to Islam’s original Sunni-Shia schism in the seventh century A.D. and forward to a contemporary global opposition to U.S. dominance that includes an admiration for Latin American leftism. “We should repeat the experience of the people of South America,” he says. “They enlightened themselves about the danger of American policy.”
When I point out that Ansar Allah’s slogan is anti-Semitic, Bukhaiti insists that they are not against Jews as a people, but Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. “If we were around during the time of the Nazis, we would support the Jews,” he says.
The mixture of Islamism and Che Guevara is clearly influenced by the radical ideology of the Iranian Revolution, and Ansar Allah has warm relations with Iran and the other militant groups it supports, as Bukhaiti openly acknowledges. “Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah — what unites us is that we are against American imperialism. It’s not something that we hide. We’re proud of it.” But he denies that they receive material support from Iran, or are in any way indebted to them: “We will never allow Iran to come here and use Yemen against any other country.”
The Houthis are not a monolithic group, and during the National Dialogue Conference in 2013, which was supposed to determine Yemen’s new political order, they advanced a surprisingly liberal agenda, one that supported limited women’s rights and placed Islamic law as only one of the sources for legislation. But their critics see them returning to their core identity as a militia in response to the pressures of war, especially in the wake the assassinations of Houthi intellectuals like Ahmad Sharafeddin, killed on his way to the National Dialogue’s final plenary session. “The problem is not that [the Houthi delegates] weren’t genuine but that they were powerless,” says the Carnegie Center’s Muslimi.
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