Every morning, 300 children – mostly boys, ages 7 to 15 – gathered at the Great Mosque in Sanaa to memorize the Koran during the summer months. For centuries, different sects have run private religious summer schools in mosques throughout Yemen. Some of these are now threatened by closure.
In a speech last month announcing the end of a four-year war with the Al Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh inaugurated new, government-sponsored religious summer schools serving up to 172,000 youth.
These new institutions are part of a campaign to create national unity and counteract what Mr. Saleh describes as the extremist ideology taught in unlicensed religious schools. But members of the sects deny extremist leanings and claim that the new summer program is an attempt to weaken opposition parties aligned with particular religious groups.
Yemen is increasingly perceived by the international community as a haven for Islamist jihadis. There have been 20 terrorist attacks in Yemen this year alone.
In a state dominated by tribes, some of which are connected to religious minority sects, government control over regions outside the capital is weak. Saleh has described his relationship with tribes as "a dance with snakes." The summer programs, then, are an attempt to improve Yemen's counterterrorism record.
Under Yemen's education laws, the government began shutting down sectarian schools as early as 1991.
"Extremist groups could be responsible for some summer camps which encourage terrorism," says Hamoud Ubad, minister of youth and sports. "We do not want to give permission to any extremists who would like to plant undesirable ideas ... in the minds of our youth." In response, the government began a program of summer camps three years ago, which this year doubled in number.
Four sects are considered extremist in Yemen, explains Saif al-Asaly, professor of economics at Sanaa University: Sufi, Salafi, the Shiite Al Houthi, and the Islamic Brotherhood, represented by factions within the Islah Party. Although the majority of Yemenis do not formally belong to one of these four sects, Mr. Asaly says, "Yemenis are being affected by their ideas through the sermons they hear at mosques, lectures, and [in] books."
Members of these sects deny any affiliation with extremism. "There are extremists in Yemen, but not from the Islah Party," asserts Amat al-Salaam Rajaa, a party leader. She adds that the summer program is a political maneuver by the president's party to weaken the ability for opposition parties to recruit new members.
The conservative Islah Party, an opposition party, holds 15 percent of seats in parliament. According to political analyst Hani Zainulbhaii, the Al Houthi and Islah Party use summer schools to recruit members. Over the past four years, 50 to 60 camps run by the Al Houthi rebels have been shut down, says Hamoud al-Hittar, minister of endowments and religious guidance. Ten to 15 of these were closed in the past month. The Yemeni press, meanwhile, has reported the closure of 1,000 religious summer camps this year.
Analysts suggest that the president previously allowed religious sects greater freedom because they were willing to fight in the conflict against Al Houthi rebels. Now that there is a break in warfare, the president is bringing these sects back under his secular party's control through antiextremism measures.