x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Salafis till fertile ground in Yemen

The conservative Muslim sect is attracting a growing number of followers, but others condemn its intolerance of other viewpoints.

From the bedraggled southern outskirts of Sana'a, Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Saleh and his fellow proselytisers fan across Yemen to preach the merits of their austere, but increasingly popular, version of Islam, known as Salafism. Their exhortations are often at odds with many of the country's diverse range of Muslims, whose various sects of Sunnis and Shiites have prided themselves on coexisting peacefully for over a millennium.

Those who traditionally pray with their hands resting at their sides, for example, are instructed by Sheikh Saleh's congregation to fold them across their chest. Worshipping with amulets and prayer beads, as is customary among many in Yemen, is forbidden, as it smacks of idolatry, Sheikh Saleh warns. It is their duty, said Sheikh Saleh, a gap-toothed spiritual leader at Omar Ibn Khatab, a small mosque in the Dhafar neighbourhood of Sana'a, to right such wrongs.

"There are many doctrines in Islam that have strayed from the true Islam," he said. We are trying to bring them back to the right path." While the Salafis, di stincitive in their sandals and straggly beards, claim their focus is on preaching and charitable work with the poor, there are concerns that their more extreme version of Islam could lead to a radicalisation of the people, and more alarmingly, the military.

Backed by Saudi Arabia's petrol wealth, Salafism has for the past several decades been popularised across the globe. It shares spiritual foundations with such radical groups as al Qa'eda, and its fervour has been used by Yemen's government to meet its own political aims. Some Salafis who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and who had returned to Yemen were used by the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to fight the secular, Marxist separatists in the south during a brief civil war.

And its teachings of ardent monotheism and disgust for modern politics ? including democracy ? are gaining ground in Yemen. Many speak of a growing number of converts, including those from Yemen's Zaidi community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as mosques like that of Sheikh Saleh's proliferate. But there are complaints of Salafi bullying at mosques and in the old city of Sana'a, a traditional stronghold of the Zaidis. "Sometimes when I go to the mosque, they hit my arms to make me pray like them," said Ali al Saqqaf, 22, a law student at Sana'a University.

At university, where he and his friends from Yemen's traditional Sunni community mingle in western dress, bearded Salafi instructors try to impress their faith on the students, Mr Saqqaf said. "We're still kids - it's easy to make us think a certain way." Zakaraya Riashe, 21, who worships at Al Khair, a hardline mosque about a kilometre down the road from Sheikh Saleh's, said he was convinced to convert to Salafism by men who approached him at his old mosque.

"We're tired of the politics of this place," said Mr Riashe, adding that many of his friends have also left the mosques of their parents for Salafi ones. "We want the Muslim world to return to the humble Islam of the Prophet Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him." Meanwhile, fears that Yemen has become an operating hub for radical Islamists are mounting. Al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, a joint venture of jihadis from Gulf countries who vehemently oppose Shiite and western ideology, is planting firmer roots in Yemen.

There is some concern among religious figures and members of Islam's other sects that Salafisim could lead to more divisions within the country. "I believe that Salafism is a form of racism," said Yahya al Najjar, a prominent religious leader and former deputy minister of the ministry of religious endowments. "One of its downsides is that the interpretation is at the extreme fringes, and some of its followers have ultimately moved on to become terrorists."

He expressed concern that the vibrancy of Yemen's Salafi community could have negative repercussions on the government and even Mr Saleh, who is a Zaidi. "They are for the most part against democracy, and this could encourage violence against the bodies of democracy - the people, the president. "They could turn on anyone." Indeed, there is concern that the military and its leaders, one of the president's main levers of power, is being radicalised. Its troops and officers, like most Muslims here, pray alongside multiple sects, including Salafis.

But Hassan al Hashidi, the managing editor of al Muntada, a magazine that espouses Salafi views, said Yemen's Salafis condemn al Qa'eda and their focus is on preaching and charity efforts to alleviate poverty. "We are against violence of any sort, whether its perpetrated by al Qa'eda or any other person or group," he said. One reason for the popularity of Salafism is that its activities and charitable work focus on areas where the government has failed - such as addressing poverty, which is at near-crisis levels.

"The needs of the people have increased and our services are of course making us more appealing to the people who receive them," said Mr al Hashidi, who is a member of the country's most influential Salafi charity, Al Hikma Al Yamaniah. In addition to deploying "thousands" of volunteer missionaries, Al Hikma helps orphans, runs after-school programmes, provides food to the needy and more. Its presence is felt in all governorates, and receives funding from donors in Gulf states as well as wealthy Yemenis who have become naturalised citizens of Saudi Arabia.

That money, said Mr al Hashidi, has helped to fund a number of planned projects, including a US$3 million (Dh11.1m) pharmacy institute last year in Aden. Some money even comes from the government. "Government support is not constant, but on occasion, like for mass weddings, the government will contribute several million [Yemeni] riyals." Other donors and investors, such as wealthy Yemenis in the eastern governorate of Hadramaut, have funded Salafi-oriented bookstores, such as Dar al Quds in downtown Sana'a.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Salafi community, including heads of religious institutions that are accused of radicalising students, are currying favour with Mr Saleh by endorsing his re-election bid and supporting all and any of his policies. In return, they are allowed to set up religiously conservative organisations such as virtue committees, the vision of Sheikh Abdulmajeed al Zindani, an influential cleric who in 2004 was placed on a list of terrorist financiers by United States.

It is their typically apolitical nature that makes them less of a headache for the president, said Saeed Thabet, a journalist and expert on political Islam. "President Saleh gives them a lot more freedom to organise, if you compare it to the country's opposition groups," he said. "Whereas the opposition is seen as a potential political threat, the Salafis are less so because they are seen as social organisation."

While the government arrests opposition journalists and closes down newspapers, Salafi charities have been dubbed Yemen's "real Muslims" by the president. "Saleh doesn't bother the Salafis like he does the opposition, because, as you can see, today the opposition is under siege by the government," said Mr Thabet. Others say the president, known for his skilful political manipulation, has increasingly found Salafi zeal useful in fighting those who challenge his rule. That includes his fight against Zaidi rebels in Sa'ada.

So as to hedge against Houthi insurgent sentiment, Zaidi leaders have been replaced by loyal Salafis. Zaidi religious leaders say they also have felt increased government presence at their mosques. "They come here to pray," Mohammed al Ammar, a Zaidi religious leader at the Dawood Mosque in Sana'a's old city, said. "Any rousing against the government, or sectarian stuff, they put a stop to it." Back at the Omar Ibn Khatab mosque, however, Sheikh Saleh is more upbeat. "There are many, many centres here like ours, and most of them are doing what we do.

"Insha'Allah," he said, "Yemen will become like us." hnaylor@thenational.ae