The Financial Times has reported on the activities of the group in Yemen known as “The Committee for Protecting Virtue and Fighting Vice”, established by the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood headed by Abdul Majid al-Zindani who has both extensive ties to the global Muslim Brotherhood as well as having been described as a “loyalist” and “spiritual advisor” to Osama Bin Laden. According to the report:
“The vice and virtue people? They are a catastrophe.” A barking laugh rises from a veiled woman in Sana’a’s old city, only her eyes visible. Her ire is directed at a group of Islamic scholars and politicians who are putting themselves forward as Yemen’s new religious and moral guardians. The group is headed by a red-bearded fire-brand sheikh, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, who figures on US and United Nations’ lists of “global terrorists” linked to al-Qaeda and is also a leader of the opposition Islamist Islah party. Sheikh Zindani and his supporters want the group to play an official role in the country, but it is not clear yet how far Yemen’s secular-leaning president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is willing to let things go. Critics of the group – which calls itself The Committee for Protecting Virtue and Fighting Vice – liken it to Saudi Arabia’s religious police of virtually the same name. These bearded, short-robed official vigilantes enforce the strict religious and moral codes in the kingdom, forcing shops to close at prayer time and making sure that men and women who are not related do not mix. “That is not at all the way we do things in Yemen,” says Yahya Jumaan, a grocer in the old city of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. He says he is a religious man who prays five times a day but does not want others to force him to comply with their set of Islamic rules. “We have our traditions, we would never stand for it.” Yemen’s tribal society has become more overtly religious in the past few decades. Older Yemenis remember a time when many women did not wear the veil, especially in the once-socialist south but also in rural areas. Now, that is virtually unthinkable. In spite of the drift towards stricter values, Yemenis are proud of their religious tolerance and scoff at the “backwardness” of their Saudi neighbours, with whom relations have often been hostile. They see the vice and virtue group as a threat to women’s participation in society, which is greater than in Saudi Arabia. “Reading their tracts makes me want to throw up,” says Salma Nassabi, who sits, dressed in black, her face covered except for the eyes, in her office of supervisor of Sana’a largest school district. Ms Nassabi is a leading member of the president’s General People’s Congress party and a leader of the women’s union that fights for gender equality. “The people from vice and virtue want women to stay at home and take care of the children. They regard us all as prostitutes,” she says. On her desk is a statement she says was circulated at the founding meeting of the vice and virtue committee, which claims that women’s participation in the workplace leads to “sexual chaos”. The vice and virtue committee is lobbying against the imposition of a quota in next year’s parliamentary elections that would guarantee women at least 15 per cent of seats. Sheikh Hamoud al-Thaheri, the committee’s secretary-general and an Islah party leader, denies that the committee wants to ban women from public life. “This is propaganda spread by those who promote vice,” says Mr Thaheri. He adds that he personally opposes the quota “because MPs should be elected directly by the people”. Analysts and opposition politicians suspect a political motive behind the establishment of the committee, fearing that Mr Saleh, the president, may be using the group to split the opposition and the Islah party, which has both a moderate and a more activist wing. A spokesman for Mr Saleh’s GPC denies backing the group. “It is not the right of any organisation to limit citizens’ freedoms. We will stand against it.”
Yemeni media have called the Islah Party a “a moderate party willing to cooperate with those who stand on the other side of the political spectrum” and refer to Zindani as the leader of the “hardline” faction within the party. According to one report:
Sheik Al-Zindani’s new Authority for Protecting Virtue and Fighting Vice presents a threat to the JMP coalition due to its predicted controversy of violating human rights. Launching the Authority might result in a split inside the Islah Party or a collapse of the coalition itself, which in either way will hamper the coalition parties’ chances in the coming parliamentary elections, and if the parties survive this dilemma, it will be a good material for the GPC in the election campaign.
The role of Zindani is Yemen’s electoral politics was also discussed in earlier posts.
The same article also indicated that the Islah Party has been receiving “technical training” by the American Democratic Institute, likely the National Democratic Institute currently headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and which is known to be active in Yemen.