The Houthis ramped up their harsh crusade against Yemen’s educational and societal freedoms in August, including changing school curriculums to glorify Imam Al-Hadi Yahya, the father of the country’s Imamate which ruled north Yemen from 897 until 1962. This comes under the Houthis wider aims of imposing their strict interpretation of Zaydism, a branch of Shia Islam, in order to revive Yemen’s historic Zaydi Imamate.
These changes follow various other strict measures imposed on Yemeni civilians. The Houthis in June passed a “supremacist” taxation law granting 20 percent of all Yemenis’ income and revenue to the Bani Hashem clan, to which the movement’s leaders belong and claim descends directly from the Prophet Mohammad.
“The Houthi group has been seeking for years to change Yemeni society by converting it to the Zaydi doctrine that this group espouses. Their primary belief is that no one may rule except them,” Nabil AlBukairi, an Istanbul-based Yemeni Researcher, told Inside Arabia.
The Houthis have created an open-air prison for critics of their system. They have carried out brutal torture methods against dissidents, while parts of their territory resemble military complexes in their war against the internationally-recognized government and Saudi Arabia’s forces. The faction has also employed most of the child soldiers in Yemen’s five-year-long war, and is accused of covering up vast numbers of coronavirus cases, to guarantee their recruitment capabilities continue.
While there is more focus on these abuses, their manipulation of Zaydi ideology to control society is often overlooked, though it leads to more human rights violations. This is a central part of their desires to form an austere regime with the Houthis’ leaders enjoying absolute power.
“The Houthis seek to replicate the Zaydi Imamate with some modifications today, adapted from the Iranian experience, so that Yemen remains a republic, but an Islamic republic like Iran, and Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi is its general guide and real ruler,” added AlBukairi.
From Revivalist Movement to Powerful Militia
The faction emerged out of Sadaa as a small revivalist movement in 1992, then known as the “Believing Youth.” It claimed it was protecting authentic Zaydism from the growth of Salafism, while supporting those who were economically and politically marginalized following the Imamate’s fall.
However, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh later warned that the Houthis sought to overthrow Yemen’s government and re-establish the Zaydi Imamate. Many Yemenis had also observed the faction’s partial drift towards Iran’s “Twelverism” Shi’ism, as Tehran built ties with the movement.
After six consecutive conflicts against Saleh’s government known as the “Sadaa wars” between 2004 and 2010, the Houthis after the Arab Spring expanded much of their control over Yemen, seizing the capital Sanaa’ and sweeping across Yemen from September 2014. They even teamed up with Saleh’s deposed forces to fight the internationally-recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi– until they executed Saleh in December 2017.
Having withstood the Saudi-led military campaign from March 2015, the faction has secured control and established itself as the de-facto ruling power in north Yemen.
Enforcing Their Views
According to one resident in Yemen’s Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa’, the Houthis founded new schools and institutions in Sadaa to spread their ideology to young students and society in general throughout their expansion, while also promoting Iranian ideological thought.
“The Houthis are now using TV channels, radio stations, and all forms of media, while [regulating] schools, mosques, social events, and even replacing school and college instructors and heads with their supporters, all to impose their ideology in territories they control,” Fuad Rajeh, a Yemeni researcher, told Inside Arabia.
“They are changing regions under their control completely from a Yemen heading for a democratic and prosperous future into an austere religious state which presents Iran’s example [of a revolutionary theocratic state],” said Rajeh.
In the Houthis’ heartlands in Sadaa, the group in February 2020 introduced into schools daily videos of lectures by leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi’s brother, Yahya Al-Houthi. According to some of the students’ parents, the Houthis used these lectures as “an attempt to [turn the children into] followers, and to throw them into their battles in accordance with the guidance of the Houthi leader [to] satisfy his desires to take over Yemenis and rule them.”
The use of schools as recruiting hubs dates to the Sadaa wars, where the Houthis sent tens of thousands of young men to summer camps and social or educational programs, to indoctrinate them into engaging in battles. More recently, they have glorified their allies in these programs, particularly Iran, further indicating the Houthis’ shift towards Tehran.
A resident of Sanaa’ said the Houthis also want to make the next generation ignorant and undereducated, to easily control the population. They have imposed heavy taxes on private schools, making stronger education less accessible, the resident added.
A Battle for Yemen’s Culture
Meanwhile, the Houthis are eroding Yemen’s own cultural traditions, particularly those which contradict the faction’s values.
“They are closing shops because they sell clothes and dresses which violate their beliefs, or they burn their goods. They also arrest young people with haircuts which are violating their teachings,” said Rajeh.
Last March, the Houthis went on another “moral campaign,” shutting down various cafes in Sanaa’. Its militias stormed one female-only café and demanded its closure.
“Armed men filled the street, directing obscenities at the women as they left,” the owner, Shaima Mohammed, reported in a Facebook post announcing the cafe’s closure.
“Women should be in their homes. Why are they going out in public?” one of the militias reportedly said.
Though Yemen has previously respected individual freedoms as well as leisure and other cultural pursuits, the Houthis are trying to erode Yemeni society’s values. They have also sought to erase Yemen’s historic cultural heritage during their expansion. The faction has emptied museums of various centuries or even millennia-old artefacts. Local residents also accuse the faction of shelling a museum in Taiz out of lack of respect for Yemen’s heritage.
As the faction deliberately impoverishes Yemenis, Rajeh added “it is also important to let the world know one of the Houthi leaders’ main goals is to get rich. Now all the Houthi leaders have companies, luxurious cars, and huge investments.”
Such lavish lifestyles have therefore led many Yemenis and observers to believe that the Houthis are merely using their doctrine as a means of controlling society and stemming opposition to Houthi leaders.
While the Houthis currently focus on their heavy conflict in the Marib governorate since last January, fighting local and government forces, the Houthi conflict is clearly an ideological one, rather than just political. It is a battle which threatens Yemen’s own freedoms and ways of life.
Though it is crucial to address Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ involvement in Yemen’s war, the international community must come to terms with the Houthis’ true nature, rather than seeing the war solely through a political lens, in order to bring a more just system for Yemenis.
This article was originally published by Inside Arabia