Sana’a (MPN) – Day and night, Yemenis in rebel-held areas are bombarded with polarizing sermons, radio ads reminiscent of the vitriol that fueled the 1994 Rwandan massacre, and leaflet drops that routinely rain down messages of disunity like confetti commandments hurled from an angry, vengeful God.
A phalanx of flickering video cameras frames the portly Saudi Imam in a shimmering half-light, as he exhorts a brigade of Sunni Muslim mercenaries from the East African nation of Sudan to prepare for battle with rebels from Yemen’s Shia sect known as Houthis.
“The (Saudi) King Salman Bin Abdulaziz brought you to defend the Prophet Muhammad; Salman gave you the honor of defending the Prophet Muhammad’s companions.”
He continues, accusing the heterodox Houthis of heresy, in effect:
“For Aisha, wife of Prophet Muhammad, has been accused of adultery by the Houthis. You should defend her. You will die on the path of Allah; you will go to heaven. You must be thankful to (King) Salman for giving this chance to you.”
Posted on YouTube, the imam’s stemwinder is part of Saudi Arabia’s broader media campaign to portray its military effort here at the Arabian peninsula’s edge as an intervention of sorts, an altruistic attempt to help a population of 28 million Yemenis sort out sectarian rivalries between Sunnis and Shias that date back centuries.
Since the conflict in Yemen erupted seven years ago, Saudi Arabia has taken to the pulpit and the airwaves, Facebook and Twitter and the Western media, to inflame Islamic passions, manufacture dissent, and rally Sunni Muslims both at home and abroad to repel the backwards Shia rebels and their supporters from Iran, which is home to more Shias than any country in the world. Day and night, Yemenis in rebel-held areas are bombarded with polarizing sermons such as in the above YouTube rant filmed in 2017, radio ads reminiscent of the vitriol that fueled the 1994 Rwandan massacre, and leaflet drops that routinely rain down messages of disunity like confetti commandments hurled from an angry, vengeful God.
“We’re trying to save you from the Persians,” reads one batch of leaflets. “Coalition forces came for you when the Furs (Persians) tried infringing the origin of Arabism and Arab people, also for keeping your wealth and safety.”
Combined with Saudi cash, this propaganda campaign has succeeded in recruiting Muslim sectarians and mercenaries from around the world, and disseminating its narrative in the Western media.
“How Sectarianism shapes Yemen’s War,” reads a Washington Post headline.
“How Sunni-Shia Sectarianism Is Poisoning Yemen,” reads a headline for the Carnegie for Middle East Center’s website.
“Combat in Yemen Risks Stirring Sectarian Hatreds,” reads a Reuters headline.
But here in Yemen, among a population that is roughly that of Texas, such Balkanizing rhetoric has largely fallen on deaf ears. In one interview after another, Yemenis told MintPress that they do not view the conflict in tribal terms but through a geopolitical lens: along with its allies in the U.S., Western Europe and Israel, Saudi Arabia wants to seize control of Yemen’s lucrative oil and natural gas reserves, and strategic supply routes.
Hence this war, which has left more than 600,000 dead and injured. A Saudi blockade of Yemen’s ports led to the deaths of 50,000 children from starvation and illness in 2017 alone — and human rights groups say that, on average, 130 children continue to die each day in Yemen, transforming what was the poorest country in the Middle East into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said at a news conference in the Swiss city of Geneva on Friday that April 2018 has been the deadliest month this year so far, with a sharp increase in civilian casualties in Yemen.
As of this month, hundreds of thousands of people in Hodeida, western Yemen, are internally displaced and, thanks to a recent Saudi-led Coalition military campaign and a U.S.-supported Saudi blockade on Hodeida port, millions lack access to potable water.
Amnesty International says intense fighting near Yemen’s largest port of Hodeida has displaced around 100,000 people in recent months, most of them from Hodeida Province — saying “the worst could be yet to come.”
The Saudi-led Coalition’s warplanes indiscriminately target homes, schools and farms; and Yemenis, both Sunni and Shia, respond accordingly. They fight together and pray together, bury their martyrs together and die together defending their homeland from the foreign threats. Sunni women cook for Shia fighters and sell their jewelry to support them. No one interviewed for this story reported ever seeing an Iranian combatant or arms dealer, nor do they know anyone who has. Just last week, an angry mob gathered in the northern city of Sa’ada to set fire to leaflets dropped from Saudi aircraft.
When asked if Saudi Arabia is fighting for “Sunni interests,” one Yemeni taxi driver referenced the Saudis’ support for the Egyptian military’s 2012 coup that overthrew a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Sunni sect.
“Saudi does not care about the Sunnis. You know the Saudis immediately used their financial muscle to help the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup . . . led by General Sisi to consolidate its control over that country.”
A young Yemeni woman majoring in political science at Sana’a University, referenced Saudi Arabia’s support for Israel’s 2014 bombardment of the Palestinian territories:
“When it came to Gaza, Islam’s template was discarded. Saudi Arabia gave Tel Aviv a green light to destroy Hamas in 2014.”
Taha Abu Talib — the head of the Yemen Legal Center for Rights and Development, which tracks coalition airstrikes on a daily basis — said that most of the casualties are Sunnis. A Yemeni scholar, Mohammad Taher Anam, told MintPress:
“Saudi Arabia depicts the war on Yemen as a sectarian war to provoke Sunni followers . . . It is just like a bullfighter irritating the bull by waving the red cape.”
Yemenis are not falling in Saudi propaganda
While the Houthis do represent the vanguard of Yemen’s resistance movement, their beliefs are relatively moderate within the context of Islamic factions, and historically Sunnis and Shias lived together peacefully. Even before the war, it was not uncommon to see Sunnis and Shias praying together at local mosques in Yemen.
A popular Sunni cleric, Major Yahia Al Deir, led a brigade of Houthi fighters when he was killed on a battlefield near the city of Najran. In a video recorded shortly before his death, he urged all Yemenis to fight together against Saudi invaders.
In Major Yahia’s village, al Wathan, roughly 35 miles south of Sana, Abdullah Al Deir said his brother was motivated by the violence Saudi Arabia inflicted on Yemenis, both Sunn, and Shia. A friend who fought alongside Major Al Deir, Ahmed Al Qaseem, said the cleric was fond of saying
“We are fighting together, there is no Sunni and Shia.”
Typically outnumbered in their colonial conquests, European settlers in the Arab world and across the global South have sought to divide the many by pitting the indigenous and working-class people against one another. In the Americas, that strategy has largely fallen along racial lines, as the elites have pitted every wave of white immigrants against the descendants of African slaves. In the African and Arab world, the fissures are more likely than not either tribal or religious or both.
Tribal divisions in Africa, for example, were traditionally fluid and seldom violent — tantamount, for the most part, to rivalries between fans of college basketball or professional football teams. But, in openly favoring one tribe over another for decades, European settlers inflamed tensions that led to real political violence between, say, the Shona and Ndebele tribes in Zimbabwe, Zulu and Xhosa in South Africa, and, most famously, the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, a former French colony.
As Ansarullah Political Bureau member Ali Al Quhom, told MintPress:
“The American-Saudi aggression main goal is to occupy the country and plunder its wealth. They want to sink Yemeni people into chaos by reviving the ethnic and sectarian conflicts.”
Yemenis, however, have largely avoided such tensions.
In March of 2016, Sunnis gathered in the western city of Hodeida for a conference billed as “Together to reject sectarianism, Saudi aggression, and siege.”
Sunni scholar Taher Anam, who attended the conference, told MintPress:
“The war on Yemen is a Saudi war, not a sectarian war, it is not for supporting Yemen’s former Riyadh-friendly government or against the country’s Houthi advancement. Surely it is against all Yemenis.”
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News and local Yemeni media.