Religious Intolerance in Yemen: The Struggle to Practice Freely

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Religion is an interesting and versatile concept, and despite its multiplicity and various interpretations, it should not legitimize treating others with prejudice. Unfortunately, this is the case in Yemen. Judging and abusing others due to their affiliation or adherence to a certain religion or sect has alarmingly become the norm; in spite of the fact that freedom of religion is a right that should be protected by the constitution and law. According to the Yemeni constitution, Islam is the main religion in Yemen. Nonetheless, there is quite a number of other religions which are practiced by scattered minorities, such as Judaism, Christianity and Bahaism.

Photo Courtesy of Anwar Al-Sabri

The Bahai faith is a religion that has been practiced discreetly in Yemen by a very small fraction of the population. It has reached the Yemeni shores in the nineteenth century and continued to cautiously prosper among its followers. However, the presence of that minority was only really felt recently when they started campaigns and initiatives to free fellow Bahais from persecution in the Yemeni society in various areas by both the public and those in power.

I was once interviewing a friend for my thesis when I heard what she has to endure because she is a Bahai. I was shocked at the discrimination that can be exercised against fellow Yemenis. My friend is a very active member of society, eager to make a difference in Yemen and the world. She was a member of a non-governmental organization that aimed to improve the livelihood of the youth and equip them with the right tools to advance their future; a skill vital for our young people. They had many community activities to empower the youth and actually made a difference in the lives of these adolescents.

Sadly, when the war broke out, it was only a matter of time before their efforts were shattered. It started in the form of threats demanding that the Bahai activists stop their undertakings. These threats were ignored, and so in 2016, a militia broke into their workshop and arrested everyone. My friend was interrogated in a bedroom, a deliberate intimidation tactic utilized especially against women. She was told that if she wanted to be released, she needed to sign a document stating that she would never pursue such activities again. She refused, so they threatened her family, who ended up signing the document on her behalf.

Photo Courtesy of Hamza Shiban

In Yemeni society, custom dictates that a woman must be treated with respect and should not be harmed in any way. However, this comes with a condition: she must follow social norms and rules and be, more or less, invisible in society. By interrogating the activist in a bedroom, the militia showed its power, instilling fear in her because of her vulnerability to violence and all the implications of the setting. Fear is a powerful tool, especially at a time of conflict.

Moreover, being a member of the minority that follows the Bahai faith in Yemen influenced how she was treated. In normal circumstances, her faith would not have anything to do with how she was perceived or approached, yet this has been the case in Yemen for quite a while now for various social and political reasons. What you believe may sometimes determine your survival and prosperity. In short, being religiously affiliated with those in power can ultimately benefit you. Minority religions and sects are unlikely to escape being persecuted and abused.
Yemen is made up of various beliefs and religions which has contributed to its cultural richness which must be preserved by all means. Alas, it is far from the reality in Yemen. As we grew up, we were conditioned to believe that ‘the other’ is wrong, and in some cases, it is acceptable to abuse ‘the other’. And so, when Bahais started to make themselves known in society and wanted to integrate, there was a negative reaction that turned into a vigorous attack on the ‘non-believers’, as they were called.

Religious minorities in Yemen are approached politically to a great degree and mixing religion and politics has proven to be unwise and fundamentally constraining for the state and its subjects. Nevertheless, we find ourselves ruled and mobilized by the interpretations of a handful of so-called leaders and scholars who only inflame the emotions of the public through religion. Every day we hear stories of detention and kidnapping because people are practicing their right to freedom of religion. It is worth pondering the thought that someday it could be any one of us on the receiving end.

Photo Courtesy of Anwar AlSabri

My friend’s story is but one example of the persecution of minorities in Yemen because of their beliefs. It is truly shocking what antipathy to certain religions can do to a society. It is even worse when it is practiced by those who are subjected to it. Islamophobia is a widespread phenomenon and millions around the world suffer from it, yet it is best practiced by some so-called Muslims who know nothing about tolerance.

Religious intolerance is not a new concept in Yemeni society, but what is disturbing is that it is becoming a legitimized norm. When it comes to tolerance, there is no need for foreign intervention. It is a humane and spontaneous act. Religious freedom is a natural and individual right that every person should enjoy. As Yemenis, we are in dire need of tolerance amongst ourselves. If we cannot live in peace with one another, how do we expect others to accept and tolerate us?



Sarah Jamal is an animal welfare advocate who currently resides in Nairobi, Kenya. She has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the United States International University – Africa in Nairobi. She recently started working on various initiatives to improve the lives of feral animals in both Kenya and Yemen. She believes in the right to freedom and coexistence for all forms of life.

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