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Austrian Academy of Sciences
Institute for Social Anthropology

Islamic Radicalisation

This subproject deals with the emergence and persistence of the the Huthi phenomenon in the northern provinces of Yemen.

Salafism spread in northern Yemen from the early 1980s onwards, as the religious scholar Muqbil al-Wadiʿi set up Dar al-Hadith, an Islamic educational institute in Dammaj, in close proximity to the city of Saʿdah. Salafism is an intellectual strand within Sunni-Islam that is characterized by its literal, often anti-rational interpretation of the Quran and the deeds and sayings of Muhammad (sunna), its frequent references to a canon of specific theologians and the high importance of ritual practice and purity. While there are also a violent, jihadist and a peaceful but political strand of Salafism, the Salafism promulgated by Muqbil al-Wadiʿi belonged to the quietist, apolitical and non-violent form of the movement. This, however, does not mean that there were no students joining terrorist organizations later on.

Huthi banner
A Huthi banner in Old Town Sana'a.

The appearance of Salafism was part of the general spread of more rigid forms of Sunni Islam and their progressive ingrainment in Yemen’s political and especially educational sphere. This led to the emergence of a Zaydi revivalist movement the early 1980s out of which the Ansar Allah movement, commonly referred to as the Huthis, developed. Named after its founder and first leader Husayn al-Huthi, this movement began to voice its grievances in public from the early 2000s onwards, addressing issues such as the economic marginalization of Yemen’s north, the religious and cultural suppression of the Zaydi denomination by state as well as non-state actors and the increasingly felt foreign influence, which was perceived as neo-imperialistic. Since 2004, the Huthis have been involved in a protracted multilayered conflict with the Yemeni government, in which the Salafi teaching center in Dammaj was eradicated and the Salafis were forced to leave the town. In September 2014, the Huthis occupied Sana’a, ousting the government under President Abd Rabbihi Mansur Hadi and taking control of the most populous regions of Yemen.

The aim of the subproject is to analyze the reasons for the emergence and persistence of the Huthi movement. To achieve this in a comprehensive and theoretically inspired manner, the study will rely on social movement theory and go beyond the socio-psychological explanations that identify structural strains as the ultimate cause for alienation and consequently mobilization, which dominate previous research on the topic. Relying on structural factors not only omits the importance of the movement’s agency, the resulting accounts can also not account for the type of movement that emerges, nor for the fact that in some cases simply no movement emerges. Conceptualizing the movements on the basis of the tripartite framework of political opportunities, mobilizing structures and cultural framing, increasingly adopted in social movement research, will give a more profound understanding of the structural as well as the movement specific and internal factors contributing to the movement’s continued ability to attract and hold members.

Since the current security situation in Yemen for the foreseeable future does not allow for field research in Yemen, data has to be acquired by other means. Besides analyzing relevant previous research and conducting interviews in person with Yemenis living in the diaspora, as well via new modes of communication with people on the ground, the study makes extensive use of material available on the internet, especially on social media, be it sound recordings and videos, blogs, pamphlets, books or pictures.

Researcher: Alexander Weissenburger