A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
The issue of identity in the Arab world has never been as urgent and hotly contested as it is today. The end of the Cold War saw the retreat of political ideologies (socialism, communism and patriotism) and the emergence of ideologies of identity (political Islam, Sunnis, Shiites, separatist movements based on race and cultural specificity). Samuel Huntington had predicted that the post-Cold War world would witness a “clash of civilizations”, but what we are actually witnessing today is a world of identity conflict within one civilization.
Identity itself is not a problem. One cannot live without having a clear or implicit conception of one’s ‘identity’. The problem is that in the world of the twenty-first century there are those who imagine that they bear only one identity: a pure, eternal and unchangeable one, which faces the threat of annihilation by the ‘enemy other’. In Amin Maalouf’s words, pure, fixed and threatened are the three deadly pillars of identity.
Yemen, like other nations, had to some extent surpassed identity struggles after the September Revolution, a revolution once described by Abdullah al-Sallal (1917–1994), the first president of Northern Yemen, as “a thousand-year leap in one day”. Still, Yemen witnessed an eight-year civil war in the North between 1962 and 1970, along with ongoing conflicts in the South, most notably the civil war that broke out on 13 January 1986. However, despite the backdoor presence of tribalism and sectarianism, these wars were essentially political conflicts, fought under the banner of politics and its objectives.
Photo courtesy of Rahman Taha
However, 2004 and 2007 witnessed the rise of two strong movements built on a collective identity discourse in unified Yemen. These two movements are: the Houthis, who fought their first wars with the state in 2004 in the Saada region in Northern Yemen, and the Southern Movement, which found its beginnings in Aden in 2007.
The Houthis believed they were defending a single and pure identity that represented them, that of Zaydism. Fixed and unchangeable, it is not an identity to be understood anew and reinterpreted; and most importantly, it is threatened with annihilation by the ‘Wahhabi other’. The Southern Movement, on the other hand, shifted from a claim-based political movement to an identity-based one. It defends its Southern exclusive identity, frozen for thousands of years, which is threatened with influence and invasion by the ‘Northern other’.
The process and tactics of the two movements differ. The Southern Movement relied on peaceful action and worked on mobilizing through civil disobedience, demonstrations and sit-ins, whereas the Houthis resorted to tribal and sectarian mobilization, violence and serial wars. Currently, the Houthi movement controls the northern areas of the North, and the Southern Movement controls the South, or most of it.
The question that arises, in light of recent developments since the beginning of the civil war in late 2014, is whether these two movements can become political movements in the mainstream Yemeni political arena.
The civil war holds the answer to this question, although the Southern Movement moved a little closer to politics and somewhat away from identity, after the Inclusive Hadhramout Conference and the declaration of the Southern Transitional Council. Other combat identities were ready to occupy the broad battlefields since the fall of the state on 21 September 2014. There were those who considered the war a religious confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites and remained behind the barricades; while others considered it a North–South war, between the Upper North Plateau and Middle Yemen, turning geography into static identity statements in an endless state of hostility.
However, from a cultural point of view the recent establishment of the new movement, al-Aqyal, is interesting. Formed by a group of youths, it claims and defends what they refer to as ‘Yemeni patriotism’. The movement sought to dig out the great national symbols of ancient Yemeni history, recalling figures such as Abhla al-Ansi and the Agyāls of the ancient civilization of Saba and Himyar. They did so to confront a fierce and bitter struggle over identity, a struggle against what they call the ‘Hashemite occupation’ of public functions, wealth and politics.
Despite the importance of re-reading history to understand the current conflicts, some of which have deep historical implications and point towards further future conflict, the emergence of this cultural movement in the midst of a civil war over the Yemeni identity raises a flag over the revival of ancient symbols to serve as another ‘combat identity’. In this case, in the eyes of these youth, the Yemeni identity is no longer a national identity but has become a ‘patriotic’ one, based on pure ‘ethnic’ belonging of Yemenis for thousands of years. Ethnicity has the ability to include and exclude, and ‘newcomers’, even those who have settled in Yemen for a thousand and one years, have no place in this pure ethnic entity.
Photo courtesy of Rahman Taha
Once again we find the same three deadly pillars of identity: there is a pure Yemeni identity, it is a constant that does not develop, and is threatened by the ‘other Hashemite’, which is defined interchangeably (i.e. from the self and the other) with a static ethnic definition.
Historically, what is known as the Adnani–Qahtani conflict, or Yemeni–Qurayshi conflict, has been a struggle for power and precedence to rule. It did not turn into an ethnic conflict that saw its end only with the political and social displacement of one another. This conflict came to an end with the entry of Yemenis into the modern era and adoption of modern ideas and ideologies, instead of sectarian and regional affiliations and identities
In a world laden with deadly and battling identities, it is necessary to focus on two ideas that are essential to create a rational awareness of identity and its conflicts. The first is the idea that identity does not consist of only one component. One’s identity is not just Islam, Arabism or Yemeni; it is the sum of all these components in their historical transformations. The components of identity do not have a consistent concept that is immune to change; the meaning of Islam or Arabism or Yemeni or tribalism today is different from the meaning it held a thousand years ago or even fifty years ago. Once a person, or a group, believes that only one component forms their identity, they cross from an open and tolerant sense of belonging to an exclusive, combatant one.
Since the mid-1970s, many Arabs believed that religious belonging was the only component of their identity. The phrase ‘I am a Muslim’ was a slogan that was raised on the streets, in political conflicts, and when emigrating to the West, or when in conflict with it. Forty years after the emergence of this closed identity, the Arab region has become an arena for deadly religious identities.
This happened when Arabs considered Arabism the main component of their identity. This ethnic belonging quickly ignited conflicts with other minorities and thwarted the process of development and openness to the world.
The second idea is that identities in the twenty-first century world are no longer fixed. Traditional concepts differentiated between identity and belonging. The idea was that identity was a constant, as race, sex, or nationality, while belonging is in a state of flux, as in belonging to a cultural party, vocational or labor union, or a sectarian group.
Later on, as societies moved towards freedom and globalization, old concepts evolved. Identity is now understood as being in a state of flux and multiplicity, perhaps even fragmented, and subject to the determinants of time and space in a globalized world. Interestingly here, the further a society develops, the more the decline in the importance of identities. On the contrary, it witnesses a rise in belonging or, more accurately, identity becomes more acquired than inherited.
Religion, for example, was an inherited unchangeable identity in traditional societies, but with the introduction of religious freedom, it was transformed from identity to belonging, and states were built on national rather than religious identities. At first, nationality and national belonging were maintained as unchangeable and inherited. Today, however, with the possibility of emigration and acquiring another nationality, and renouncing one’s own if wished, nationality also shifted from identity to belonging. Even notions of gender (male–female) have witnessed social transformation in (postmodern societies) from identity to belonging, following the advance of sex reassignment processes and the rapid cultural transformation of masculinity and femininity.
National belonging here is no longer based on race or descent, but has become a changing belonging based on loyalty to the homeland, and the acquisition of a nationality and recognition of its laws and values. There is also a difference between affiliation and belonging. Being affiliated with Yemen means you are affiliated by birth, but your belonging may be to the tribe, to the community, or to an entity that transcends borders. Faith in the values f citizenship, most importantly equality before the law, and non-discrimination on the basis of religion, sex, race or region is the basis of national affiliation. Today, according to this definition, national identity is an acquired and not an inherited identity.
Photo courtesy of Rahman Taha
Perhaps now is the time to invite Amin Maalouf to re-examine our identities. Identity is not pure (because it consists of multiple components and may be contradictory at times), it is not fixed (there are no fixed national or religious identities), and it is not threatened from the outside, as much as it is from within, through the social closure of society, intolerance and a rejection of change.