Al-Houthi: Rebel with a cause, or religious zealot bent on total victory?
The way the Houthis are viewed in the West never ceases to amaze me. We seem incapable of learning from previous mistakes: Rebels are not good simply because they are apparently the underdog.
If one wants to know whether rebels should be supported, analyze what they say about matters unrelated to war. Hold them accountable for the way they treat those under their rule. Find out where they come from and what they want. Above all, don’t just look at what they publish for external consumption, but also what they say to their own people.
By these measures, if you care about human suffering, you shouldn’t support the Houthis.
The Houthis don’t try to hide their true nature, which is revealed in their core slogan: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, a curse upon the Jews and victory to Islam.”
It is hardly surprising that a European hard-left filled with anti-Semites who despise the US should find fellow travelers here. But, sadly, that is not the only support the Houthis have in the West. At least one prominent British Conservative MP appears to believe that the Houthis are, in fact, the legitimate government of Yemen, and should be recognized as such.
The essential problem is twofold: First, the war in Yemen is (to quote the one-time UK leader Neville Chamberlain in a somewhat different context) “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” The Houthis are extremists, but it is not a group that particularly threatens the UK. Iran’s proxies are focused on terrorism closer to home.
It is time that the West takes the Houthis seriously. The Houthis don’t pretend to be anything other than religious extremists seeking an idealized state — a state that Abdel-Malik Al-Houthi would rule.
Second, as far as many in the West understand the war, it is fought between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It is not regarded as a civil war being fought with outside support. And for many, particularly on the left, opposition to Saudi Arabia is such that those who fight the Kingdom must be regarded as good.
The battle remains to convince those with such simplistic views of the conflict to see its reality.
The Houthi movement that Al-Houthi heads is a family affair. It was founded by his brother, Hussain, but the crucial figure in understanding it is Badreddin Al-Houthi, his father, who died in 2010. Badreddin was a Zaydi scholar who studied under Majd Al-Din Al-Muayyadi, the prominent scholar appointed Grand Mufti of the Hijaz for Zaydi Muslims by King Faisal.
When both Badreddin Al-Houthi (1926) and Al-Muayyadi (1913) were born, North Yemen was ruled by a 1,100-year imamate of Zaydi Muslim sayyids — descendants of the Prophet. During the Nasserite republican revolution of 1962, Al-Muayyadi supported the royalist side, which lost. But he soon came to terms with the new reality and began to apply his scholarship to the issue of shart Al-Batnayn, the Zaydi religious-political principle that the only legitimate rule should be by a sayyid. He eventually came to the conclusion that this principle didn’t apply in the modern political reality.
By contrast, his former student came to the view that where there was not a suitably qualified sayyid, then government could be held by non-sayyids. But this was second best.
This remains the view of the Houthi movement. The difficulty is that the Al-Houthi family are sayyids. They have never said publicly whether they regard themselves as suitably qualified to rule — but as they are ruling the territories they control, it is safe to say that they regard themselves as restoring legitimate rule to the sayyids.
There is another significant element of Zaydi doctrine that is crucial in understanding — and in defeating — the Houthi rebellion. That is the principle of resistance to oppression and the pursuit of justice.
Houthi claims that they launched their coup in 2014 to restore justice ring false. To start with, Houthi representatives were part of the transitional process, easily the greatest democratic exercise in Yemeni history. They did not achieve all that they wanted, but they were not excluded.
But it is how they have ruled their territory that shows the greatest flaw in their claim. As recent reports have noted, the Houthis have long obstructed deliveries of aid unless there are “donations” to the Houthi cause. They recruit children to fight, use human shields, and fire rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas both within Yemen and in Saudi Arabia. They launch attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. They break agreements made in pursuit of peace — because the only peace they will accept is total victory.
It is time that the West takes Yemen seriously. And that means taking the Houthis seriously. They don’t pretend to be anything other than religious extremists seeking an idealized state — a state that Abdel-Malik Al-Houthi would rule.
• Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen.