Yemeni Jews face growing sectarian troubles

Shiite rebels, entagled in a fight with the government, drove members of the country's small Jewish community from their remote village.

By , Contributor

Yahya Yousef Mousa is one of the several hundred Jews still living in Yemen. His grandparents refused to join the mass evacuation to Israel that followed anti-Jewish riots in 1948. Instead, they opted to continue a traditional life that their ancestors had peacefully pursued in Yemen for generations.

But, in January, that peace was shattered when Mr. Mousa was confronted by masked gunmen from a Shiite sect that accused him of spreading vice and corruption. He and his neighbors were told to leave their homes in the northern province of Saada or lose their lives.

Now, Mousa and eight Jewish families from the village of Salem are living in a secure residential compound in the capital, Sanaa. Their expenses are being paid by the Yemeni government, currently battling an armed rebellion mounted by the same Shiite group that threatened the Jews. "We are safe here, but we're afraid we'll be killed if we go back to our village," Mousa says. "We want to stay here until conditions improve."

Recommended: Sunni and Shiite Islam: Do you know the difference? Take our quiz.

Only Mousa's locks and skullcap visibly identify him as Jewish. He is dressed Yemeni-style in a long, white robe and shawl. He speaks Arabic, even praising Allah for his good fortune to be rescued and housed by Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemen's Jewish minority is clustered in small communities north of Sanaa. They are protected under Yemen's constitution and identify strongly as Yemeni citizens. Though these good community relations are being tested by the expulsion of the Salem Jews, Mousa is still determined that he and his family will stay in Yemen.

"We haven't had any help from the Israeli government," he says. "And if they offer us a home, we will refuse because we are all Yemenis and we want to go back to our village."

The threats against the Salem Jews are only a symptom of a larger local and sectarian grievances in the Zaydi Shiite heartlands, a remote region close to the border with Saudi Arabia.

An ongoing rebellion

Just days after Mousa and his group fled from Salem at the end of January, a series of skirmishes broke out between Yemeni security forces and the rebels. Fighting has escalated over the past two months, with hundreds dead and aid agencies warning of a humanitarian crisis. Journalists are banned from the conflict zone.

The rebels belong to an organization known as the Youthful Believers, a group that was initially established to spread Zaydi Shiite doctrine in the Saada region. They are loyal to the charismatic Houthi family, led by 20-something Abdul-Malik, and they have repeatedly taken up arms against the state. Abdul-Malik's elder brother, Hussein, was killed in the first insurgency in 2004 and his father fled to exile in Germany in 2005 at the end of the second bout of fighting.

"The Houthi family are sayyids who claim descent from the prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband, Ali," says Australian academic Sarah Phillips, an expert on political reform in Yemen. "They are strident critics of President Saleh's alliance with President Bush on counter-terrorism, and are increasing their rhetoric against the president's personal power and position."

The Houthis are rumored to dispute the legitimacy of the Yemeni republic, which replaced the northern Imamate after the 1962 revolution. They allegedly regard Mr. Saleh, who hails from a Zaydi background, but is not a sayyid, as an illegitimate head of state.

But the family says they are simply fighting for religious tolerance and freedom of speech.

Connections to Iran?

Yemen's Zaydis take their name from their fifth Imam, Zayd ibn Ali. They are doctrinally distinct from the Twelvers, the dominant branch of Shiite Islam in Iran and Lebanon. Twelver Shiites believe that the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, has been hidden by Allah and will reappear on earth as the savior of mankind.

But Yemen's Shiite-dominated government has been quick to frame the conflict in the regional context of growing Iranian influence. Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi has spoken of "external support for the rebellion, which aims at pushing Yemen toward sectarian conflict."

Some charge that Hussein al-Houthi developed ties to Iran before he was killed and that the rebellion may be receiving funds from the Islamic republic. But Abdul-Malik has denied the links, and Western diplomats are skeptical of direct support by the Iranian state.

"This is an expedient move by the Yemeni government designed to defame and discredit the Houthi family and their followers," says Bernard Haykel, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University.

Sunni-Shiite tensions

Yemen's Sunni majority enjoys predominantly stable relations with the Shiite minority. But in Saada, the Houthi family is also pursuing grievances against the Salafis, a hard-line sect within Sunni Islam. The Salafis have connections with Saudi Wahhabism, and they run a network of madrassas in this border zone. The Houthis say that Saleh's administration is privately backing the Salafis and complain of a government campaign to replace Zaydi Shiite preachers with Salafi imams.

Dammaj is the biggest Salafi religious institution in Saada, housing several thousand students. This defensive pocket of Sunni believers – within a Shiite enclave – relies on a private militia to patrol its borders. It attracts dozens of Western-born Muslims and converts from Europe and the US.

On March 26, a French student was killed during fighting between Houthi supporters and Salafis at Dammaj, suggesting that local tensions are increasing further as the insurgency extends into its third month.

The Yemeni military is up against well-armed, guerilla-style fighters who know the mountain terrain intimately. "Tactics this time around appear to be more sophisticated than in the previous two conflicts," says one Western diplomatic source. "It's not clear if a military solution exists."

Saleh has stated there will be no negotiations with the rebels, but he may be forced to reconsider if he wants the matter settled ahead of a crucial Persian Gulf investors' conference scheduled for the end of April.

Recommended: Sunni and Shiite Islam: Do you know the difference? Take our quiz.
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