this week the current affairs analytical shop Wikistrat asked me to opine on the conflict in Yemen. Here it is:
"With Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni powers carrying out airstrikes in Yemen
and accusing their regional nemesis, Iran, of instigating the Houthi uprising in the country, Wikistrat asked its Senior Analyst Dr.
Timothy Furnish, who is an authority on especially Shia Islam, Mahdism and other Islamic sects, to provide background
on the conflict and explain to what extent Iran really is involved.
Dr. Furnish notes that Yemen has been a battleground
for rival brands of Islam for over a millennium.
In the 900s, it was contested by dueling Shiisms:
the (then-militant) Seveners, or Isma’ilis, from North Africa waged dawah and jihad against Fivers,
or Zaydis, from Iran. (This was before Iran’s forcible conversion to Twelver Shiism by the Safavids in the sixteenth
century.) The Zaydis won and established a militant Imamate in northern Yemen. The Ottomans occupied Yemen twice in order
to safeguard the holy cities of Mecca and Medina as well as Red Sea trade. Both times, Zaydi insurgents forced them out, despite
massive Ottoman efforts to delegitimize the Zaydi Shii Imamate.
Iran would like this map--because there's no Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But they'd dislike the return of
the Ottoman Empire.
In the 1960s civil war, staunchly Sunni Saudi Arabia (ironically) backed the
Zaydis while Nasser’s Egypt supported the “republicans” who ultimately emerged victorious. After unification
in 1990, the Sana’a government largely ignored the needs and demands of the 40 percent of the Yemeni population that
was Zaydi, contributing to the sense of disenfranchisement felt by the main Zaydi tribe, the Houthis — which has now
led to civil war again.
Iran has various aims in fanning the flames of the Houthi rebellion, Dr. Furnish
- Leveraging “persecution” of Shia into regional geopolitical influence for Tehran-Qom;
- Appealing to, and exploiting, historical connections with Shia Muslims of Yemen and greater Arabia;
- Undermining and delegitimizing the Saudi government;
- Strengthening its strategic position on
both sides of the Red Sea;
- Strengthening the anti-Israel Islamic front;
- Searching for allies wherever
they can be found.
But Dr. Furnish also cautions that Iran neither created nor controls Yemen’s
One might well argue, instead, that the Houthis Zaydi leadership is using Tehran
more than the other way around.
For much of the last 1200 years, Zaydis have ruled over much of Yemen and they
do have legitimate grievances against both the recent Sunni leadership in Sana’a and, of course, against Sunni jihadists
like Al Qaeda and (allegedly) ISIS there.
Saudi Arabia’s reflexive theological and political fear of Shiism in the
peninsula is understandable as well. Besides Yemen, there are large minority pockets of Twelvers in eastern Saudi Arabia and
of Seveners in Najran.
Also, Mahdism has been a real fear since 1979,
when Juhayman al-Utaybi declared his brother-in-law, Muhammad al-Qahtani, the Mahdi and their forces occupied the Great Mosque
— a fear that has grown in recent years as Saudi Arabia has suffered a rash of “lone wolf” Mahdis across
Simply bombing Yemen is not going to stop such eschatological fervor, though, Furnish warns. If anything, it could
drive more than just Houthis into Iran’s embrace.
Some means of redressing legitimate minority —
Shia of all three denominations, that is — grievances must be part of the equation. Perhaps Oman, whose Ibadi Islam
is tolerant of both Sunnis and Shiis and whose government is on good terms with Iran, can play a key role here.
Finally, Furnish urges Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to keep in mind
that the self-declared “Islamic State” to the north is ultimately far more dangerous than the Zaydis to the south."
Also, in 2013, I was in Israel lecturing on this topic,
at Haifa University. Here is the audio link.
The scimitar of the Zaydi Imam(s): Iran didn't forge it--but is helping aim it (at the Saudis).
In the final battle, it wasn’t even close: ISIS handily dispatched its cousin Boko Haram to the
tender care of the houris, making mincemeat, er, baba ghanouj of those pretenders from the Africa regional—as well as
of the Obama analysis that ISIS was “the JV team.” Ultimately, ISIS’ full-Mideast press, its much-maligned but politically-brilliant caliphate declaration,
and its literally slashing approach to both offense and defense won the day.
So ISIS will have a full year’s worth of bragging rights as jihadist champions—unless some other power declares a new tournament to challenge al-Baghdadi and his 7th century club.
But that appears bloodly unlikely.
We're Number Wahid! We're Number Wahid!
And then there were two…. After a grueling weekend of terrorism contests, the championship match
is set: Boko Haram, emerging from the African regional, will take on its ostensible master, ISIS/ISIL/Da`ish,
which rode roughshod over all pretenders in the Middle Eastern bracket.
Ansaru, like Michigan State, really stood little chance against its big brother Boko Haram—especially
when ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) canceled plans for a joint, zone defense against BH, thus freeing up the African jihadists par excellence to roam around the court
almost at will.
ISIS, unlike Kentucky, continued its string of victories, adding recruitment of American Muslim women to its already well-established reputation for artifact-plundering, er, “idol-smashing.” At the same time, ISIS took the fight directly to HAMAS, which choked...literally on its own blood, with ISIS beheading one of its shaykhs in Syria. HAMAS’ joint Western-Islamic approach proved no match for ISIS’ brutally literalistic, Qur’an-derived
Which Muslim terrorist team will lay claim to being the true Army of the Mahdi,
come midnight Monday? Allah alone knows!
ISIS' women's team won't dress like this (except under their burkas)--but they will sport