Together with the signing of the GCC-Initiative in November 2011, Yemen’s so-called National Dialogue is another step in the long process of solving the country’s multiple on-going crises. Since May 2012, a Liaison Committee has contacted various oppositional groups and is aiming to bring various political factions to the negotiation table. While it remains unclear which groups will participate in the dialogue, it appears that the country’s Islamic scholars are being sidelined.
Quoting the president of the clerics’ association, Abdulmajid Al-Zindani, the Yemen Times reported on Thursday July 5 that the clerics disapprove of their exclusion. Considering Al-Zindani’s importance, the decision not to include him in the National Dialogue is to a certain degree particularly unexpected. It, however, comes as little surprise to those keeping a close eye on Yemen’s dynamic political party landscape.
Al-Zindani is a somewhat controversial figure. His questionable claim about discovering a cure for AIDS, his Fatwa allowing the so-called “Friend Marriage”, and his alleged connections to Al-Qaeda all add to his notoriety. He is, nevertheless, Yemen’s most popular Islamic scholar, and as such, holds a prominent place within society.
Recordings of Al-Zindani’s Friday sermons are widely distributed, and his positions on politics and religion remain largely unquestioned by Yemen’s conservative population. And, while he profited from his close relationship with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, there has been little criticism of Al-Zindani since the start of the Yemeni Revolution in February 2011.
A leading member of the Islamic Islah party since the early 1990s, Al-Zindani has been influential in Yemen’s political arena. However, during the last decade, internal splits between Al-Zindani and his Salafi followers, and the Muslim Brotherhood, widened, affecting his standing within the party.
Al-Zindani’s marginalization became ever more apparent after the 2006 presidential elections. Instead of supporting the Islah candidate, Al-Zindani stood by Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was hoping to use Al-Zindani to mobilize the Salafi movement in order to counter the opposition and further divide Islah’s Muslim Brothers from its conservative Salafi members.
In 2007, Al-Zindani suffered the consequences of his loyalty to Saleh, and was not re-elected as president of Islah’s Shura Council. In response, Al-Zindani increasingly began to seek support outside Islah. In the same year, rumors emerged that a Salafi party was to be established under his leadership. Although the party did not materialize at the time, this re-orientation was symptomatic of Al-Zindani’s marginalization within Islah.
Since the start of the Yemeni Revolution, this process of marginalization has continued. After Al-Zindani fled Sanaa, the Muslim Brothers managed to spearhead the political negotiations between the regime and opposition forces. With the establishment of the Unity Government in December 2011, Islah party leaders gained access to state institutions, and are now able to influence government politics. The party’s leadership is also represented within the Liaison Committee, which is responsible for preparing the National Dialogue.
While there may be many reasons for the clerics’ exclusion from the dialog, it can be understood as an extension of Al-Zindani’s marginalization within Islah. Nevertheless, as noted by Fernando Carvajal, a political consultant based in Sanaa, Al-Zindani and the clerics may find other ways to participate in the political process, such as through the recently established Salafi party.