Watching the Iran-backed Houthis’ celebration of Prophet Mohammed’s birthday earlier this month has been discomforting for many Yemenis who cannot reconcile their image of Yemen before the war to what it has now become. However, it was not the celebration that caused concern, but the way it was conducted, which obscured a cult-like political agenda in a religious ceremony meant to revere the Houthi leaders more so than the prophet himself.
The event, also known as al-Mawlid, was nothing short of spectacular. Aerial footage and cell phone videos projected views of the crowds that were tantamount to images of pilgrims to Mecca, if not for the green robes and colors they dawned. Thousands of Yemenis assembled in Sabeen Square to watch the sermon of Abdulmalek al-Houthi, the group’s supreme leader, as they yelled in unison: “Death to America” and other anti-Semitic slogans the leadership dictated. Roads leading up to the square were entirely blocked as they filled up with tens of thousands of people.
Yemenis have often celebrated al-Mawlid moderately through a few state-sponsored events geared at children. Other sects in Yemen observe the Mawled through their rituals, including the recital of the Quran and meditative chanting. However, most go on about their business without paying attention to it. But the seemingly unending green lights hanging in the alleyways, the local shops’ doors painted green, the green shawls on white robes, and the green robes on white dresses, along with the scale of this event, were a manifestation of a new state identity. Even some kids’ faces were sprayed with green, a color that the Muslim prophet allegedly favored.
Locally, the event and new rituals provide the Houthis with the prospects to further sculpt their narrow ideological framework and enable them to deepen their control. For their followers, this framework exalts the prophet and his descendants, giving them an impeachable and untouchable image that cannot be doubted or questioned. For the outside world, the ceremony is intended to showcase the uniformity of the movement, its powerful reach, and mass appeal. In reality, however, this greenwashing is a testament to the Houthis’ coercive power and the helplessness of civilians who must show blind loyalty and obedience to the militia.
In the weeks leading up to the Mawlid, Houthis organized several campaigns to collect donations from individuals to help cover the costs of the festivities in all areas under their control. Although Abdelmalek al-Houthi stated that contributions are voluntary, no person asked is willing to risk refusing, as noncompliance with the Houthis’ wishes has serious consequences varying from fines to imprisonment. This is particularly disturbing given the multitude of deteriorating humanitarian and economic conditions of Yemenis under Houthis’ control.
BUILDING THE IMAGE OF A NEW THEOCRACY
The Houthis’ ideological fixation with the prophet is core to their belief and internal justification of their rise to power. Yemeni families have often revered specific households that claim a genealogical linkage to the Muslim prophet through his daughter Fatima and husband Ali. Families that trace back their origin to this point are commonly known across the Arab world as the people of bani Hashem, or Hashemites. They are also referred to as the Ahl al-Bayt, meaning “the people of the house.” Although Muslims from all sects revere Ahl al-Bayt, Shia and a subsequent Zaydi sect believe they are the rightful leaders ordained to govern the Muslim community. This position gives them exalted status as it has historically been used by a line of Zaydi leaders who ruled Yemen for millennia until the establishment of Yemen’s Republic in 1962.
Houthis’ use of religion — or sectarianism — as propaganda is vital in attaining their political aims and a central component of the group’s “image-building.”
However, the Houthis’ adoption of Iran’s teachings is now overpowering Yemen’s traditional Zaydi practice, which doesn’t sit well with many Yemenis, including Zaydi scholars. Since the Houthis’ takeover of Yemen, the group started commemorating Shi’a religious holidays, such as Ashura and Eid al-Ghadeer, and Khomeinist ones, such as al-Quds Day. But the difference between Khomeinism and Zaydism is becoming blurry over time. Since the Houthis completely dominate the country’s northern parts, they have claimed the Zaydi mantle as their own. And although many Zaydis criticized the Houthis, this criticism decreased dramatically when they seized power and is only expressed by Zaydi scholars who have fled Yemen.
Houthis’ use of religion — or sectarianism — as propaganda is vital in attaining their political aims and a central component of the group’s “image-building.” The leadership thereby projects an image of their movement as pious, righteous, and militarily omnipotent to achieve its objectives and justify its involvement and continuation of the war. Through opportunities like al-Mawlid, the Houthis can explain the rationale of their takeover of Yemen in 2014, justifying their involvement in this conflict to protect Yemen from the interests of foreign actors and the “corruption” of Yemen’s government. Their narrative deepens phobias among community members and increases their sense of isolation from the outside world. In general, Houthis are attempting to establish a sense of national identity for Yemenis that centers around the survival of the political echelons of their leadership.
As Houthis create this new national identity for Yemenis in the north and bring groups to support their vision, they discourage any divergence. This includes a rejection of a pluralistic Yemen that endorses the different stripes of society with their divergent political and religious aims. The Islamist party, al-Islah, which also incorporates people from the Zaydi community to which the Houthis belong, criticized the event in light of the falling humanitarian situation in the country that Houthis have relegated to the international community. Tribes or groups attempting to oppose or be neutral are eliminated and humiliated, as seen with the Hajour tribes.
Other political parties are troubled by the Houthis’ actions as they attempt to turn Yemen into a theocratic state. The Islamist party, al-Islah, and members of the Zaydi community to which the Houthis belong criticized the Houthis’ exaggerated celebration and “extortion” of cash-strapped citizens to fund this event. Other activists call it the “Looting Season,” as the funds collected are estimated to have been millions of dollars. All the while, Houthis remain neglectful of their duties toward civilians in their areas and assign the responsibility for critical humanitarian assistance and economic relief to the international community while continuing to govern the country without any accountability.
A TROUBLING CHANGE
These changes that the Iran-backed Houthis are imposing on the Yemeni society are truly harmful because they are engineered to drive the idea that only a divine-imposed entity can govern. This idea should belong in fiction and not in the real world. Should a negotiation on a political settlement be considered in the future, the Houthis’ concept will stand in the way of its implementation because a fair and effective political settlement is incompatible with their dogma.
To this effect, the recent tweet by Houthi leader Mohammed al-Bukhaiti on the peace process was quite telling: “We make our decisions based on divine guidance, and the resolutions of the Security Council are under our feet.” All the while, Houthis continue to negotiate with the international community for the sole purpose of buying time while fortifying their military capability, strengthening their political group, and laying down the foundation for a theocratic state. That millions of Yemenis under their control are being influenced daily by this propaganda should make us all uncomfortable about the country’s future and stability.
Fatima Abo Alasrar is a non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute and a Senior Analyst with the Washington Center for Yemeni Studies.