An Interview with Yemeni Writer Hussein Al-Waday

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

Yemen’s historic revolution in the last decade resulted in many positive and negative repercussions, among them the emergence of critical intellectual voices calling for a review of concepts regarding what is sacred, as well as socially and politically drawn convictions and perceptions, which are deemed universally untouchable. These Yemeni intellectuals publish their views and criticisms on local and international websites and social media platforms that connect them with followers from different backgrounds and convictions. These platforms, with their interactive features, have thus become a rhetorical and intellectual battlefield.

And it’s in such a space that Al-Madaniya interviews Hussein Alwaday, who is among Yemen’s most prominent critical voices. Al-Waday, a Yemeni intellectual, writer and jurist, is interested in issues of democracy and secularism in the Arab world. He publishes his research and articles with various Arab research centers and media platforms.

Al-Waday’s critical style is uniquely specific and sharp. And although his writing can be witty and sarcastic at times, he is also known to invoke modern scientific theories in his arguments and in his suggestions of alternative solutions. Because of the clarity and ease of his style, and perhaps because it is devoid of what the late Muhammad Arkoun called “implicit compromises”, Hussein Alwaday’s writing is met at times with aggressive reactions from those who see his arguments and suggestions as transgressions of what they consider is their heritage or social and religious axioms.


Al-Madaniya: Welcome, Mr.  Alwaday. What initially shaped your intellectual journey? What do you remember about it from your younger years?

I welcome you as well and thank you so much for giving me access to your magazine to discuss some thorny topics that many sites may hesitate to touch on.

The question of my intellectual or educational journey is difficult to answer because it is a continuous process that has yet to end. But I can identify ten years that were central to my intellectual formation, which stretched from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s or shortly thereafter. I can honestly say that these years have shaped most of my religious and intellectual orientations to date.

Perhaps it is ironic that I became interested in Marxism and Leftist thought at the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and took down with it the last manifestations of Marxism and Socialism in governance and politics. Perhaps this is what kept me from joining any political parties with strong intellectual or political appeal, like some leftist parties, which I got to know through some of its most prominent intellectual iconic figures, such as Mahmoud El Alem, Hussein Marwa, Mahdi Amel, and others.

That period also saw the rise of political Islam, or the so-called Islamic Awakening. And so I spent my time reading the essential writings of political Islam theorists, from Sayyid Qutb to Muhammad Qutb and Sa’id Hawwa. I have, of course, also read the works of the school of thought known as the Movement of the Enlightened Islamists, such as Muhammad Amara, Fahmi Huwaidi and Tarek El-Bishry.

The writings of Sayed Qutb and Sa’id Hawwa caused me a serious psychological and intellectual crisis. Had I not succeeded in getting out of the framework of political Islamic writing, I may have joined one of the jihadist groups active at the time against the state and against the thinkers and intellectuals who disagreed with them.

Perhaps my individual reluctance and my reading of multiple and contradicting writings kept me from being drawn into any particular political or intellectual movement. For, as I read Sayed Qutb and Hassan al-Banna, I also read Salama Moussa, Fouad Zakariyya, Shibli Shumayyil, Taha Hussein, Ismail Adham and Ali Abdel Raziq. My mentality and psyche was tense, suspended between two worlds: the world of secular critical thought and the world of totalitarian religious thought.

The most important building block was learning about the European Enlightenment through the available translations of the main iconic figures and its various conflicting movements.

My time at university was a time when I was able to make up my mind and define my trajectory as a secular citizen who believes in Enlightenment values, and dreams of a world governed by democracy, free discussions and the maintenance of human rights as well as civil and social freedoms.

I found that critical theory is the most important movement among Arab intellectuals. Starting with Taha Hussein, who first criticized religion and history in his book On Pre-Islamic Poetry, then went on to criticize Arab culture in The Future of Culture in Egypt, and then all the way to Sadiq Jalal al-Azm who criticized both Islamic and Christian religious thought in Critique of Religious Thought, and criticized the roots of Arab political thought in Self-Criticism After the Defeat. Then came Fouad Zakariyya, who criticized the Egyptian left in Abdel Nasser and the Egyptian Left (‘Abd Al-Nasir Wa-Al-Yasar Al-Misri) and criticized Hassanein Heikal and his centrist journalism and politics in How Long Is the Rage (Kam ‘Omru al-Ghadab) and then he criticized political Islam in The Islamic Awakening in the Mind’s Balance. As for Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, his writing launched a new era and an exceptional horizon. The critique of popular thought, marginalizing it and formulating a new critical thought, only to then rebel against the new critical thought and criticize its centrality then marginalize it as well. And so on, in a never-ending process. Not to mention Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd whose writings helped us formulate our own critical thoughts regarding the prevailing religious discourse relevant to a rigorous methodology. And George Tarabishi, who tried to switch from criticism to criticizing criticism, which is a mighty step.

Al-Madaniya: Why do you write about thorny topics that could potentially cause you personal trouble? Do you have a strategy to persuade your readers of your arguments?

To be honest I don’t choose these topics because they’re sensitive… I choose them because they are in dire need of discussion. I am always driven towards and attracted to discussions and common topics that are usually accepted as the norm or the truth. I approach these issues rationally and critically, which often involves employing simple scientific thinking mechanisms to deconstruct and rebut them.

And the importance of the fundamental criticism of what is historically framed as the origins of Islam in the current era comes from the reality that Islam itself has become a globalized religion. It is thus no longer practiced only in Islamic countries, but it is also practiced in European and Western countries by people who clash in bloody battles over the values of secularism, freedom and equality.

This is why the question of Ijtihad is no longer the central question of Islam today. Discussing Ijtihad in the minor details of life is as absurd as going from prohibiting singing to allowing singing and music, or going from banning cinema to allowing it on the condition that it not contain sexual scenes, and other such superficial and minor attempts at Ijtihad.

I am also interested in criticizing common ideas in the Yemeni context, like those that contribute to the ‘Narcissistic Yemeni Wound’. An example is the common idea that ​​Yemen is the origin of all Arabs, the root of civilization and the center of Eastern civilization, as is commonly repeated among some elite writers and the common people of Yemen. Such thought is usually followed by the naïve popular belief that Yemeni customs are superior to others and thus glorifies eating qat, regardless of it being a collective addiction with catastrophic consequences.

Al-Madaniya: Moroccan philosopher Mohammed Abed al-Jabri believes that secularism cannot be adopted as an Arab concept since we do not have a church to govern it. He suggests rationality and democracy as an alternative to this questionable concept. Is secularism in its radical concept valid for application in the Islamic space, or is Islam itself secular by nature, as the Iranian thinker Abdolkarim Soroush argues?

Mohammed Abed al-Jabri is a pivotal intellectual, but at the same time he was a politician and a member of a political party. It is clear al-Jabri’s political orientation was a nationalist orientation.

I support Tarabishi’s opinion that al-Jabri betrayed himself and his methodology by taking this stance on secularism. The truth is that al-Jabri was a secularist, and his proposal of ‘democracy and rationality’ as an alternative to secularism is, in its essence, what we mean by secularism in politics and society. Secularism means the resistance of law and people to religion. And so, instead of submitting to the authority of the clergy or to a ruling by divine right, the political structure is built on the basis of democracy and the governance of the people. And also, instead of resorting to religious text, one would turn to science and reason to solve the common problems.

Al-Jabri rejected the ‘term’ secularism but he did not reject the ‘content’ of secularism. He debated secularism as a politician, not as a philosopher. A politician speaks with the general public in an attempt to win them over by using the rhetoric of vagueness to communicate his ideas, which he conceals with deceptive words that suggest something else entirely.

Although al-Jabri rejected the term secularism but not its content, his approach in rejecting secularism in its Arab context was extremely flawed and incorrect, both religiously and historically. Unfortunately, others have adopted al-Jabri’s flawed approach to secularism in the 1990s while he was at the peak of his intellectual stardom.

Conflict in Islamic history was not a conflict between religion and politics. Rather, it was an employment of religion in the service of politics and religion’s total control over politics. It was a religious–political authority grappling with religious–political authority. The apparent excuse was always religion, but the hidden goal was always politics.

There is no solution to ensure stability and social peace except by separating religious authority from political authority in Islam. And this can only be achieved through secularism: the foundation of secularism in politics, and its foundation in society and in thought.

Moreover, saying that there is no church in Islam is a kind of wordplay. The church was a symbol of the religious authority that tries to control matters. And in Islam, like other monotheistic religions, there is a religious authority that wants to control worldly matters. So, secularism must exist as a force that stands in the way of religious authority, or that places it in a separate category that relates it to the spiritual and the personal and prevents it from controlling public affairs.

From this viewpoint, secularism appears more necessary in Islam than it does in Christianity. If there is no secularism or a separation between religion and politics in Islam, then this separation must be found either from inside Islam or outside it, in order to put an end to these waves of wars, massacres and violations.

Referring to Islam as a secular religion is similar to referring to fire as friendly or to murder as merciful. It is a pointless discussion that combines two terms distinct in knowledge and practice.

There is no secular religion. But there are secularized religions that have been stripped of their public authority. And a secularized religion is one that has been reformulated into a personal and individual religion concerned only with spiritual matters and that holds no control in the public domain. A secularized religion is also one that cares more about the world than the hereafter. Its purpose is to help the individual live a virtuous life. Such is the concept of secularized religion. I think Christianity, to a large extent, has become a secularized religion unlike Islam, which does not (yet) recognize the independence of the world from it and does not recognize any authority other than its own.

Al-Madaniya: Arab secularists accuse their intellectual opponents of puritanism and of being overly technical in their narratives. But some argue that Arab secularists themselves are often characterized as being condescending and of holding rigid ideological convictions that do not differ much from those of the ultra-Orthodox. Why make people choose between two opposing sides? Is there no other ideological formula that respects everyone and provides them with practical benefits as they pertain to peaceful coexistence and encouraging everyone to give their best?

Let’s agree, first of all, that secularism is not an ideology. Secularism has no sacred texts, no inspired leaders, and no holistic ideas for solving economic, social and political problems. Secularism is the closest to democracy as a procedural concept for peacefully resolving conflicts within a society.

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And secularism emerged for the sake of a society in which the different religions coexist securely, peacefully and equally. And after the emergence of European atheism, secularism came to also mean that believers and atheists coexist within the same community peacefully and without conflict.

I do not know what rigid convictions Arab secularists believe in… I would be very happy if you’d give me examples of these rigid convictions, because I see it as entirely opposite. Arab secularism is apologetic, flexible and fearful. It hides behind religious and reformist slogans for fear of angering the masses and in fear of the sword of the laws of apostasy that could fall on their necks. It is a terrified secularism, unlike Western secularism, which is brave and dominant.

Arab secularists are not dogmatic… They are flexible by virtue of the precision of the reality that stands against them with a pen and sword. They calculate and rethink things a thousand times before making any claims regarding the separation of religion and public life. And they deliberately limit secularism to only one aspect, which is the separation of religion and politics. Whereas secularism also means the separation of religion and science, and of religion and morals. This separation does not mean that religion is no longer a source of morality. Rather, it means that it is no longer the only source nor the dominant source. It is in fact one of many sources of morality.

The separation of religion and politics does not mean that major religious principles cannot be used to guide political principles. Rather, it means that parties cannot be established on a religious basis, and that political campaigns cannot be based on religious slogans that employ terms of faith and sin and refer to a particular party as a representative of Islam while all other parties represent the devil.

The formula that respects everyone is secularism. If we are faced with a choice between the religious state and the secular state, then that means the following: in the religious state, there will be no  freedoms, and the only given rights are to the followers of the dominant religion. The circle is narrowed. There will be no freedoms and rights except for those who follow the dominant sect. The religious state cannot be a state for all citizens.

In a secular state, however, believers of all religions coexist, and Muslims of all sects coexist with believers and atheists alike without transgressing or limiting anyone’s rights.

Yes, there are some extremist secular speeches calling for the abolition of the Islamists’ right to political action and banning Islamic parties from operating and calling for the total confiscation of religious discourse. Such discourse does not constitute the essence of the Arab secular discourse. The secular discourse is a discourse related to public freedoms within the framework of a civil state that guarantees everyone’s right to expression, action and change.

Al-Madaniya: What is the status of the public debate in Yemen about central concepts in universal philosophical and political debates, such as democracy, secularism, cross-cultural communication and human dignity? Have the educated elite done something useful for society since Yemen’s two revolutions in the 1960s?

It is noticeable in the Yemeni intellectual discourse that there is no significant presence of major universal concepts, such as democracy, secularism and human rights. Yemeni intellectual and political discourse revolved around Yemeni concepts, or ‘Yemenized’ concepts. For example, from the 1960s until today, we have wasted thousands of pages discussing the revolution (as in the September and October revolutions), and thousands of other pages discussing unity and the republic.

Yemeni thought was confined to these three central concepts mentioned above. And because these concepts are very general and non-procedural, it isolated the Yemeni debate and deprived it of the opportunity to enter into the discussions that took place on the world stage about the concepts of democracy, secularism and human rights. This in turn kept the concepts of unity, revolution and democracy from intellectual and procedural clarity.

The concept of revolution remained confined to the political revolution represented by the 1962 coup or the liberation war that ended with the independence of Yemen in the year 1967. However, the concept of revolution has not been expanded to include social revolution in the sense of changing the prevailing social relations, whether between a man and a woman, or between members of the tribe and the sheikh, or the relationship between the countryside and the city, or the transitioning of Yemen fully from tradition to modernity. To add, the theorizing of the Yemeni revolution has been isolated from principles of secularism, democracy, social justice, freedom and equality, and from the principles of dignity and human rights. The revolution was confined to one aspect, either the liberation from the Imamate or the liberation from colonialism.

The talk about the republic remained general and vague, as if the republic was ‘the opposite of the Imamate’… and it is possible and easy for this vacuous concept of the republic to overturn and control it through the contradictory religious, nationalist and military forces.

The same thing happened to unity, which was achieved at the same time that the world entered the era of globalization, democracy, capitalism and the centrality of human rights. The Yemeni debate continued to approach the topic of unity from its geographical dimension away from the major universal concepts referred to above.

There is a complete absence of the word secularism in Yemeni political thought from the 1930s to 2012, which was the first year that secularism became part of the official political debate. And democracy did not appear in its legislative form except in 1990, but it appeared in the sense of ‘elections’ without any reference to Yemeni democracy (is it a consensual democracy like that of Switzerland, or a competitive democracy like that of Britain, or is it a new kind of democracy?). Democratic practice emerged and disappeared in Yemen (1990-2014) before Yemeni democratic thought even surfaced!

Al-Madaniya: Why do we not have a culture of ‘recognition’ in Yemen? The various Yemeni powers — even at the grassroots level — do not recognize diverse identities in Yemen, not in its true practical sense. They also do not recognize the multitude of historic narratives, nor do they acknowledge error, failure, or another model for coexistence or even the possibility of a better way of life other than the life we currently life in.

The more conservative a society is, the more difficult it is for it to recognize the other. And Yemeni society is still one of the most conservative societies in the world. The masses are not the only conservatives; the educated elites in Yemen are also conservative. These elites are conservative at the intellectual level as well as at the social and political levels.

A researcher noted in the early 1990s that the black cloak and the black niqab are common attire among the daughters of families known for their religiosity as well as families known for their liberal and socialist orientations. Intellectual and social conservatisms are the hidden essence behind the emerging political revolutionary.

Even the politically  radical revolutionary elites (at the level of slogans at least) are, in reality, a conservative elite in their own way. That same researcher took the radical revolutionary idea as it appears externally and tried applying it literally in Yemen, and this literal application negated its revolutionism and replaced it with conservatism, traditionalism and Salafism.

Recognizing the other is not possible until one recognizes the plural and the idea that the other is different from me but is also equal to me in what they say, and that their ideas carry the same credibility as mine do.

However, the reasons for not recognizing the other are not just cultural. There is also the economic aspect. Yemen is a country with scarcity, as in its wealth is limited. Thus, the political elites often clash over Yemen’s limited wealth and resources. Limited wealth leaves no room for sharing among large groups because then the wealth will dissipate and lose its strength. Hence, the lack of recognition of the other becomes an economic necessity within a culture of farming i.e. fighting over the sheep (the 2011 uprising is an example of this). On top of that there are cultural and mental deposits within the context of a pre-modern conservative culture that applies the clan and sect mentality to the whole world.

Al-Madaniya: Is there a final word you would like to say about the future of critical thought in Yemen?

I don’t want to be pessimistic. The Yemeni cultural movement is currently active on social media. But unfortunately social media tempts intellectuals with illusions of stardom through the number of likes they receive on their posts and the compliments their followers leave them in the comment section. This false stardom contributes to the re-creation of the position of the intellectual-poet of the tribe, who is an intellectual who does not challenge axioms, but rather confirms them, rewrites them and promotes them to gain followers.

This is why a new type of populism began to prevail in Yemeni cultural debates on social media, which is a type of cheap populism… a populism that adopts all popular practices, whether negative or positive, defends them, sanctifies them, and transforms them into sophisticated and sublime cultural models.

For example, random popular activities are being exported once again and depicted as a simple way of life. Qat is once again looked at as a positive social practice. Gun culture and unplanned childbirth are also being promoted as kinds of folk practice that represent the spirit of the people, while at the same time attacking any kind of differing culture or criticism on the pretext that it is elitist and superior to the public.

Challenging the masses is a very difficult task. It is the biggest risk facing critical thinking, in addition to the fear of the reaction of religious and political authorities. I recall when my name, in 2002, was among the 40 names on a list of assassination plots, which was prepared by the same terrorist group under the leadership of Ali Jarallah al-Saawani that carried out the assassination of Jarallah Omar.

Culture across social media is fragile. Its fragility comes from the same source as its strength, which is its ability to instantly communication with a wife or a large audience.


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