Al-Zindani’s alliance lacks the front [Archives:2006/927/Opinion]

March 9 2006

Mustafa Ragih
The U.S. demands Yemen arrest Sheikh Abdulmajeed Al-Zindani, included in a United Nations list issued under international decision, and freeze his assets on suspicion of funneling money to terrorism while the Yemeni side released the U.S. letter in neutral language, closer to defaming Al-Zindani and exerting pressure on the Islah Party.

This past week witnessed escalating charges against Al-Zindani, Islah's Shoura Council chairman. Yemeni army mouthpiece September 26 weekly and the official Al-Jumhuriyya and Al-Thawra daily published a letter from U.S. President George W. Bush to his Yemeni counterpart, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The letter contained an official U.S. protest against President Saleh's accompanying Al-Zindani in Yemen's delegation to last year's Muslim Countries Summit in Mecca.

The U.S. letter demanded Al-Zindani's capture, seizing his property and preventing him from traveling abroad. The demands were based on a UN resolution accusing Al-Zindani of funneling money to terrorism.

Al-Zindani has been considered one of the prominent militants, in addition to other American nationals, who fought hard in Afghanistan. For two years, the U.S. Department of Treasury and other official parties charged Al-Zindani with funding terrorism, mainly supporting Islamic groups in Iraq.

The file of charges against Al-Zindani later was forwarded to the UN, which officially took up the issue along with others regarding names contained in its terrorist list. The issue is troubling relations between the U.S. and Yemen, which joined a terrorism fighting coalition and signed a security agreement following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.

The matter of extraditing terror suspects and locating their trials remained ambiguous while Yemen refused to surrender any Yemeni citizen to a foreign force, as such harms Yemen's sovereignty. Yemen vowed instead to try any suspect based on sufficient evidence. This matter also raises tension in different political aspects due to Al-Zindani's status as a great Islamic scholar. During 1994-95, he was a member of the Presidential Council. Most important is that he has relationships with those in power both inside and outside Yemen due to his previous activities. So, targeting Al-Zindani is bound to open a never-ending file.

Al-Zindani's case was in a position to tighten and attract Yemen and the U.S. over the past two years, but U.S. demands were confined to freezing his assets and preventing him from traveling abroad. There was no demand for his capture. It is of crucial importance that Al-Zindani and several parties cast doubt on the published letter's authenticity, particularly the demand for his capture, considered a type of pressure by Yemeni authorities for political purposes.

Despite confessing to the significance of development in the U.S. stance, in case the letter with all its demands is proven authentic, another more important thing is reflected in the way Yemen dealt with the letter. Although Yemeni authorities have been enthusiastic enough to defend Al-Zindani, taking into account that the state is responsible for his case, the situation differed this time and no attention was paid to the issue.

The letter was leaked to the official press, despite media silencing imposed on letters like it. Authorities become angry when the U.S. Ambassador is subjected to issues like this in public or when he talks about demands for political reform, which is a local matter.

Authorities never commented on the letter, published in a neutral manner closer to defaming and pressuring Al-Zindani and the Islah Party, unless it paves the way for more centrist stances to be discovered in coming days. Yemen's stance was limited to asking the U.S. Administration for clear-cut evidence in order to hunt for Al-Zindani and bring him to trial in Yemen.

The issue developed because Al-Zindani, Iman University rector, resumed pursuing his activities publicly by giving sermons, holding symposiums and leading huge protests against the Prophet Mohamed cartoons published by a Danish newspaper. The new climate and popular feelings constituted a suitable opportunity for Al-Zindani to get rid of the solitude imposed on him for nearly four years. Islah is said to be the first party that demanded Al-Zindani restrict his activities following the 9/11 terrorist attacks before others restricted them.

Remarkably, Al-Zindani has become a burden to the Islamist Islah Party with its judicial policies that bring it closer to, or rather to top, the forces of democracy and the civil community. The party has broader alliances with the leftist and liberalist opposition, as well as channels for dialogue and deliberation with the U.S. Al-Zindani is believed to be closer to Salafi groups than to Islah. Multiple doubts emerge regarding authorities' stance toward Al-Zindani after they supported him along with Iman University over the past time period and tightened the noose around Islamic politicians in the Islah Party.

The situation indicates that political motives, not the War on Terror, are behind pressuring Al-Zindani. Pressure is being exerted upon him to back President Saleh in September's presidential elections, as well as on the Islah Party that joined the JMP calling for political reforms. The JMP is expected to nominate a single candidate to compete against President Saleh in the upcoming presidential elections. Al-Zindani's alliance with the authority and several other parties is broader than his relationship with the Islamic movement.

Al-Zindani is viewed as a religious hardliner, but disputes with him proceed to the advantage of the Islah Party to peacefully attract Al-Zindani and integrate him into the political movement. External targeting of Al-Zindani helps him gain strength and power.

Two political sides are racing to win Al-Zindani, but both evade any harm associated with him. The authority defends him as a terror suspect to gain his trust, while the Islah Party views him as a burden on the judicial Islamic movement.

Mustafa Ragih is a Yemeni journalist.