Politics and the Evolution of Takfeer in Yemen
October 12, 2013, By Sama’a Al-Hamdani and Afrah Nasser for The Atlantic Post
I was declared an apostate at the end of April 2013 because of a political seminar on women’s empowerment hosted at my college in Taiz. In this gathering, I stated that Islam’s most stringent provisions – whether in the Qur’an or the Sunnah – are meant to refine rather than to terrorize. A radical cleric twisted my words and said that I called the Prophet Mohammed a liar and based on it, I was labeled a Kafir (apostate). - Sally Adeeb, age 21, law school student.
Since the overthrow in Yemen of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, 11 people have been accused of apostasy (see chart 1 below) in the practice referred to as Takfeer. One of them, Jamal al-Junid, was detained by the police in May 2013 for 15 days and finally was released after the staging of several protests. Another accused “apostate” is Ahmed Al-Arami, a literature and arts lecturer who was labeled a “secularist” in April 2013 and subsequently fled the country because of serious threats and the possibility that he might be executed. The sensitivity of offending religion is a stumbling block in the quest to return Yemen to stability.
NDC and the Evolution of Takfeer
Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which was launched in March 2013 and is part of a Gulf Cooperation Council plan for a negotiated transition for Yemen, has been targeted for accusations of apostasy by one of the country’s leading clerics. Abdul Majeed Al-Zindani, Yemen’s influential Muslim Brotherhood/Wahhabist cleric who is also listed as a “specially designated global terrorist” by the United States Treasury Department in 2004, recently released a YouTube video in which he condemned the current NDC political process. The video presentation discussed the framing of the state’s legislation being managed by “the State Building Committee” and claimed that the majority of the committee’s members had voted that Islam is “the state’s main source of legislation” instead of “the state’s only source of legislation.”
Al-Zindani is a non-official politician who influences the Yemeni masses by claiming the custodianship of the Shari’ah, or Islamic law. He established an non-profit religious university, Al-Iman, in 1993 and has claimed to have invented a cure for HIV/AIDS and to have found scientific proof that women cannot speak and remember at the same time.
In July 2013, Al-Zindani’s office, which is managed by his son, issued an official statement announcing the names of 37 NDC members who are allegedly “fighting Islam” and asserting that the named individuals “reject the Islamic Shari’ah and are the enemies of Islam.” The statement is believed to be a warrant and could become a Takfeer fatwa pointing to these aforementioned members as apostates. The action prompted an urgent press conference held by the NDC that condemned publication of the list or the issuance of any such destructive fatwas.
The dispute reflects not only the struggle for dominance between the traditional religious base and the newly-emerging civil power in the decision-making process; it is also a critical factor in the evolution of the nation’s potential new identity. As of yet, it remains uncertain whether or not Shari’ah will be the only source of legislation in Yemen.
Takfeer has long been a key tactic used by radical political Islam to silence its critics. Given its importance to Yemen’s ongoing transition, it is useful to look more closely at the nature of Takfeer in Yemen, who is mainly affected by it, who implements it and how it might be ended.
What is Takfeer and Who Does It?
Takfeer is the process of identifying and labeling a person an apostate from Islam. The objective of the process is to reprimand people who break fundamentalist norms, and it penalizes them on two levels. First, it publicly shames an individual by labeling him or her an “infidel” for “religious” purposes. Second, and on a more personal level, the individual becomes an “apostate” and his or her views are renounced as heresy. The “apostate” can be punished through social and/or legal ostracism, or even in some cases by execution through official or mob action. The Takfeer process effectively coerces the society to conform to a single ideology and is a means of enforcing a certain “norm.” Ultimately, the objective is to restrict creation of a pluralistic society.
The incidence of Takfeer is wholly political and can be traced back to the Abbasid Caliphate, where the targets were primarily influential thinkers, writers and philosophers, such as Al-Tabari, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes).
The modern Takfeeri movement tends to target marginalized individuals and women, because the wealthy and influential elements in the society tend to use the process themselves as a means of maintaining their position.
Declaring women infidels is not a new trend in the Middle East and is not unique to Yemen. For example, in Egypt, there was Nawal Al Saadawi and in Kuwait Laila Al Othman and Aliyah Al-Shouaib, among many others. The recent Takfeer attacks in Yemen have not been against corrupt individuals who were economically powerful or belonged to an affluent tribe. Marginalized groups and women simply constitute the easiest targets to be attacked.
The main centers of impetus for Takfeer have been the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam associated with, but not necessarily endorsed by, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabist faction (commonly referred to as Salafism). Salafism is a Sunni movement that calls for the practice of Islam in the way that the Salaf (“predecessors” or “ancestors”) did. Technically, both Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabis are Salafis; however, in the Arab world, the term Salafi usually refers to Wahhabis only. In Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis are at times grouped together due to the lack of general understanding of their differences and to their resemblance in political perspectives.
Most Takfeeris belong to either one of these two factions, but it is essential to note that not all Muslim Brotherhood members or Wahhabis endorse the practice. In fact, several imams have denounced the Takfeer process as unethical; for example, the late Yemeni Islamic scholar, Muhammad al-Shawkani, who had supported Takfeer in his early years as a scholar, subsequently recanted and issued public condemnations of it. Another contemporary and moderate Islamic scholar, Habib Ali al-Jifri, also condemns Takfeer.
What Do Takfeeris Want?
As it is often a reflection of the nation’s underlying political trends, Takfeer is frequently an evolving process. It is primarily a means of keeping people’s attitudes in check through the manipulation of public opinion; as Takfeeris long for a theocratic state, the process of Takfeer, especially in a transitional situation such as now exists in Yemen, is likely to be reactionary rather than progressive.
During Yemen’s Revolution in March 2011, Yemeni radical cleric Abdulmajeed Al Zindani stated, “The revolutions happening in the Arab world are introductions to establishing an Islamic Caliphate.”
A modern day Caliphate would be a centralized religious dictatorship. Advocates such as Al Zindani are seeking to influence, dominate and restrain the masses. They romanticize and glorify the time of the caliphates and use propaganda to tarnish the prospect of a civil state by claiming it would corrupt faith. Takfeeris are radicals who reject compromise and claim to hold absolute truths through the exploitation of religion.
As is true of other Takfeeri groups in the Middle East, Yemeni Takfeeris seek to change and dominate the “norms” of the societies in which they operate. Takfeeris exhibit their political and religious affiliations through outward appearances such as dress and social rituals and attempt to force these on society as norms.
For instance, Yemeni women no longer wear colorful dresses but instead are covered in black. Women who do not follow this norm are easily identified and could be targeted. Such an obvious outward expression of adherence allows the group to measure its success: the more people comply to the uniform, the more authority they gain. This distinction facilitates an impression of greater cohesion. In turn, the Takfeeris have successfully created a binary community in Yemen where people are divided into “us” versus “them.”
Takfeer also is a means of suppressing dissent and effectively silencing the “enemy.” In a pious society such as Yemen’s, once God is added to the equation, individuals of faith are fearful to stand on the opposing side. The innate injustice of this situation is expressed in the quintessential proportionality argument; bringing God into a political or an ideological argument is equivalent to fighting a defenseless village with machine guns.
Takfeer in Yemen
Historically, Takfeer in Yemen has not been limited to Sunni Islam. The earliest record of mass-Takfeer traces to 1205 CE when the Zaydi (Shi’a) Imam Abdullah Bin Hamza declared as apostates a faction of Zaydis known as Al-Matrifiyah, an action that precipitated a bloody massacre in the governorate of ‘Amran in 1213 (610 Hijri).
The use of mass-Takfeer against political opponents was more recently on display during Yemen’s Civil War of 1994, when Al Zindani and ِAbdulwahab Al Dailami, Minister of Justice during Yemen’s Civil War in 1994, invoked it to legitimize war against secessionists.
Al Dailami issued a fatwa to that effect, and went so far as to legitimize the killing of civilians, accusing them of being weak Muslims for allowing the secessionists to be “shoved” among them.
Al-Dailami’s fatwa against people in Yemen’s south during the 1994 Civil War is considered one of the causes of the killing of thousands of people in the south. In the post-war era, Al-Dailami and Al-Zindani denied that they had issued any fatwa during that war.
Years later, during Sa’dah’s string of six wars that began in 2004, the beliefs and practices of the Houthis (now called Ansar Allah) were questioned, and some clerics labeled Zaydis as heretics.
During Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule (1978-2012), the Takfeeri movement targeted not only political opponents, but also journalists, artists and writers, as well as anyone else who had the potential to influence people’s minds (see timeline below for detailed information). Most of the Takfeeri fatwas issued in Yemen over the past 33 years were mandated by Wahhabi clerics.
The declaration of women as apostates is often part of the larger “us” versus “them” mentality; women who refuse to adhere to the Takfeeri dress uniform of a very conservative veil (norm) are considered “western” and therefore associated with the enemy (them). Also, women who do not adhere to the prescribed doctrines governing female behavior are considered “anti-social” to conservative norms.
Women facing Takfeer frequently are independent thinkers and are likely to have closer ties to youth movements rather than being associated with traditional political parties. The objectives of such women are usually wider than merely fighting marginalization and extend to the sort of defamation and baseless threats that are usually a part of being singled out as an apostate.
For their part, Takfeeris tend to view women as a homogenous group. Inspired by the domino theory, Takfeeris believe that if one woman leader is terrorized, other emerging women leaders would become silent. The same theory applies to other marginalized groups.
Acceptance of Takfeer
In the past 20 years, Yemenis have experienced a crisis of governance and have come to consider Takfeeri movements as a shift from the former regime, a lesser of two evils. Moreover, religious groups were the only opposition entities allowed to operate freely under Saleh’s regime, which saved him from being targeted as an “enemy of Islam.”
Operating in such a relatively free environment for the past 23 years, the Takfeeri groups have had plenty of time to assimilate into Yemeni society, and their level of organization has been enhanced as well by funding received from individuals residing in Saudi Arabia. Unlike other political movements in the country, their ideology is easy to articulate and powerful. The current transitional period in Yemen offers a fertile ground for their continued rise to power.
The increasing prominence of Takfeeris reflects a concomitant deterioration of ijtihad, the process of independent reasoning within Shari’ah, or Islamic law. It also highlights the domination of Sunni Takfeeri trends in the nation’s intellectual milieu and hints at an underlying confusion (because of the fragile religious scholarship in the country) in the ability to distinguish between what is ‘Aib(disgraceful/dishonorable) and what is Haram (forbidden/taboo).
Indoctrination, ignorance and political aspiration are the main reasons that Yemenis accept the process of Takfeer. Illiteracy in Yemen is 40 percent (around 70 percent for women) and the population depends heavily on the guidance of jurists. In the last two decades, Yemen gave precedence to Al ‘Ilm Bil Deen (religious studies) over Al ‘Ilm Bil Donya (scientific and technical studies). Yemeni society remains interdependent and it is easy to gain public support. Others fear being labeled irreligious. It is important to remember that most Tafkeeris genuinely believe they are carrying out God’s wishes on earth.
Takfeeris should be made aware that declaring people apostates will silence some individuals but is not a long-term solution of eliminating all opposition. The practice of Takfeer has no roots to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims and Islamists will benefit from a message that Islam is a tolerant and a rational religion. Atonement was and should be an option for “sinners,” especially when the sin is narrowly defined by a particular sect. Yemen desperately needs an Islamic critique on the use of Takfeer.
It is also essential that human rights, and especially those for women, be codified in the new Yemeni constitution. Members of the National Dialogue need to ensure that future jurists selected for the drafting process are aware of the need for a detailed consideration of people’s rights of expression to prevent future strife.
Shari’ah is presently the only source of legislation in Yemen. If this simplistic and vaguely defined body of law remains, it will be important to identify which schools of Islamic law will be followed and the specific jurists who will be issuing fatwas. Strict criteria also will be required on who can be an Islamic jurist in the future (perhaps graduates of Al-Azhar University or those who hold a Ph.D. or M.A. in Islamic studies). All of this needs to be done without restricting Yemen’s Islamic diversity.
Finally, mandatory education must be enforced to help individuals make informed decisions. The Yemeni educational system, which is currently being revamped, needs to give equal importance to scientific education (learned knowledge over memorized knowledge). More importantly, the people need to be aware of the influence of religious imperialism from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, Egypt and Turkey. When it comes to governance, people need to understand that there are modes of governance other than religious orthodoxy or failed “democracy.”
Sama’a Al-Hamdani writes the blog Yemeniaty, which covers a range of topics on Yemen, focusing specifically on women’s issues. You can follow her @Yemeniaty.
Afrah Nasser is a blogger from Yemen living in Sweden and co-founder of the @YemeniSalon in Stockholm.