Fear and uncertainty in Yemen’s Mosques

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

SANA'A – One hour after each prayer session must be dedicated to condemning Saudi Arabia’s air campaign. Imams in all mosques will preach sermons advocating key principles, and will not deviate from the prescribed message.

These are several of the new measures being enforced by the Houthi, the armed Shi’ite faction that has taken control of much of Yemen. Previously The Media Line has reported how the group has used restrictions on the press and wanted-lists to intimidate the population into conforming to its ideals: now it appears that mosques are the next tool.

Since the Houthi took control of Sana’a in September of last year it has imposed its religious and sectarian doctrine over the city, bringing Yemen’s capital into line with the cities the group already controlled in the north of the country. Any individuals resisting the group’s religious tenets are reportedly condemned as either infidels or affiliates of the Islamic State (ISIS).

The most recent diktat from the Shi’ite faction is that following each evening’s prayers in the mosque radio broadcasts, beseeching God to damn the Saudi led air campaign, are played from the city’s minarets.

“Controlling the mosques was a priority for the Houthis upon entering Sana’a,” Qaid Mohammed Qaid, director of the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Guidance, told The Media Line. “The ministry, like all other ministries, is under the Houthis control, which is a normal thing in this period,” he said, rather nervously.

Qaid admitted that the acting minister for the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Guidance had been put in place by the Houthi and that a number of imams had been selected by the group to preach in key mosques.

Houthi fighters came to the mosque and forcibly installed a speaker, Hassan Mahdi, imam of Al-Nour Mosque, told The Media Line. The speaker plays during the evening between the Maghreb and Ashaa (the fourth and fifth call to prayers) and airs Sam FM broadcasts, Mahdi said. Sam FM is a radio station affiliated with the Houthi.

“In the beginning we rejected this and tried to stop it, but they forced it on us – their gunmen entered the mosque,” Mahdi explained, adding that once the broadcast started and he realized it was prayer recital he was less concerned, “that made it less invasive to us”.

Imams throughout Sana’a have received instructions from the Houthi dictating to them a list of subjects which must be preached during Friday prayers. Sermons on Friday are the most important in the Muslim week and will be attended by the largest number of worshipers. No preacher would violate the Houthi's orders, Mahdi explained, adding that on more than one occasion an imam has been pulled down from the pulpit and replaced by a Houthi speaker.

Some residents have been angered at the increased noise. “Previously around this time of day we used to hear nothing from the mosques,” Adullah Al-Wejrah, a resident whose local mosque now sports the new Houthi speakers, told The Media Line. “Even if there was a sermon, the sound would be limited to the inside of the mosque and not outside it. Right now we hear the noise from every mosque annoying the neighbors and the passersby,” he complained.

Other Yemenites were angered at the use of mosques as a show of control over the capital. “By imposing this, the Houthi wants to send a message: that it controls all mosques in Sana’a and that people should pray for it (in its fight) against the Arab-coalition,” Radhwan Al-Matari, a resident of the capital, told The Media Line. “It uses the House’s of God, for its own political interests and personal gains – using religion and mosques, this is unacceptable.”

Al-Matari was most chagrined by the inclusion of prayers wishing for the damnation of the Saudis in Sam FM’s broadcasts. Under Islamic custom, a Muslim should not pray for a person’s – even an enemy’s – damnation, as this would deny him God’s mercy if it were granted.

But not all residents of Sana’a objected to the changes in the city’s mosques. “We have reached a point that we feel helpless, and the only thing we can do is pray and call on God to help us,” Majid Al-Nehim, a local resident, told The Media Line. “It is a beautiful thing that all mosques in Sana’a be united in broadcasting Sam FM’s prayers,” Al-Nehim said, asking why anybody would deny a group the right to pray to God as a community.

Any recent amendments to the way prayers were conducted in Sana’a’s mosques were completely voluntary, Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi's political office, told The Media Line. “There is no obligation to participate in the hour of prayers against the Saudi aggression – it’s a personal initiative from groups of young men who suggested to their imams that they cooperate with us by broadcasting Sam FM’s radio channel.” No punishment will be directed at imams or mosques that choose not to take part, Al-Bukhaiti added.

Significantly, an expected ban on the Tarawih prayer to coincide with the start of Ramadan has not taken place. The Tarawih is not conducted by Shi’ite Muslims, as it was not introduced by the Prophet Mohammed himself, and so there was widespread concern among Yemen’s Sunni that the Houthi would ban it for the start of Ramadan. If a ban had been imposed it might have had significant implications for sectarian relations in the country.

Although the Houthi does not consider the Tarawih to have any basis in Islam it did not ban the prayer, Al-Bukhaiti said, because its fighters believed in religious freedoms.

Mosques and synagogues reach across divide

American Jews and Muslims, reaching beyond the Middle East conflict, are joining hands to battle prejudices within and against their communities.

Consider some of the signs:

  • Starting next week, 50 synagogues and 50 mosques throughout the United States and Canada will get together for three days of “twinning” and intensive discussions.
  • USC, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and an Islamic foundation have jointly established a Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.
  • At UC Irvine, usually pictured as a hotbed of Muslim-Jewish antagonism, student leaders of both faiths recently returned from a two-week trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, with many preconceptions transformed into more complex and realistic views.

The transcontinental “Weekend of Twinning,” under the theme, “Confronting Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism Together,” will be held nationally Nov. 21-23, but Los Angeles will get a jump on the rest of the country. Next Monday evening, Nov. 17, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills will host the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, with Rabbi Laura Geller welcoming mosque director Usman Madha.

Guest speakers will be two national leaders of the twinning project, Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, a body of Islamic legal scholars.

Although past attempts at Jewish-Muslim dialogues have been generally short-lived in the face of Mideast flare-ups, Geller is optimistic that the twinning project will have a long life.

“This marks the first time that mosques and synagogues are giving their full support, and we are in this for the long haul,” she said.

Madha of the King Fahd Mosque warned that linking Muslim and Jewish interests would be a hard, long process, but that the election of Barack Obama “proves that the unthinkable can happen if we set our minds to it.”

Guest speaker Siddiqi, who also heads the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, said he was optimistic about the cooperative project and that it was widely supported by his members.

The twinning project got its start one year ago, when the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, headed by Schneier, an Orthodox rabbi, and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, invited 13 Jewish and 13 Muslim spiritual leaders to a meeting.

“Our goal was to enlist 25 synagogues and 25 mosques, but we ended up with double the number,” said Schneier, whose foundation has largely concentrated on Jewish-black relations.

“Both American Jews and Muslims are children of Abraham and citizens of the same country, and we share a common faith and destiny,” Schneier said.

“Of course, we cannot ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — it’s the elephant in the room — but I see the emergence of moderate, centrist Muslim voices, particularly in the United States, and we must do everything possible to encourage such voices,” he added.

Urging Jews to reclaim some of the passion they invested in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, Schneier said that a similar outreach to Muslims “can serve as a paradigm for Europe” and perhaps even for the Middle East.

During the Nov. 21-23 weekend, twinning sessions between mosques and synagogues, as well as Muslim and Jewish student groups on campuses, will stretch from Seattle to Atlanta, and from Mississauga, Ontario, to Carrolton, Texas.

Participating in the Southland will be Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica with the Islamic Center of Southern California, Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo with the Orange County Islamic Foundation and Muslim and Jewish student groups at USC and Chapman College in Orange.

The weekend meetings, which will be publicized nationally through public service announcements on CNN and a full-page ad in The New York Times, may be expected to become emotional on occasion. Indeed, guidelines for discussion leaders encourage “all participants to listen to one another in a courteous and respectful fashion, without interrupting or shouting down those with whom they disagree.”

As the concept of the twinning project evolved, Schneier turned for expert advice to the newly formed Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.

The center is the first of its kind and was established through an agreement signed by the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, HUC-JIR and the education-oriented Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation.

The three partners, all located in the same neighborhood, had been working together for some time and have now decided to formalize their collaboration, said Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at HUC-JIR.

“There are some anti-Jewish attitudes in the Muslim world and some anti-Muslim attitudes in the Jewish world, but there is no inherent conflict between Judaism and Islam,” Firestone said. “We have much in common in our goals and aspirations.”

A respected author, Firestone has written books on “Introduction to Islam for Jews” and “Children of Abraham: Introduction to Judaism for Muslims.” Out this month is his latest publication, “Who Are the Chosen People? The Meaning of Chosenness in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”

Firestone and Dafer Dakhil, director of the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, are the co-directors of the new center, with Hebah Farrag, a recent graduate of the American University in Cairo, as associate director.

The center’s first major project will be to compile a massive database on the key Jewish and Muslim religious texts for the general public. For instance, someone searching for an authoritative definition of “kosher” would also be referred to the Islamic equivalent, “halal.”

On a more popular level, the center is planning a film series on Jewish and Muslim topics, Farrag said.

Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation has provided a $50,000 start-up grant to the center, but Firestone worries about future financing.

Taking note that previous cooperative ventures between the two faiths have foundered on political and nationalistic differences, Firestone said, “We’re aware of these hurdles, but what would kill us is not trouble in the Middle East, but lack of funding. There are not a lot of Jews or Muslims who want to invest in what we are doing.”

Besides religious and academic efforts to bridge the Jewish-Muslim gap, there are also private initiatives.

One is the Levantine Cultural Center, founded seven years ago by Jordan Elgrably, an American Jew of Moroccan descent.

“We have weekly programs that draw Jews, Muslims, Christians and Bahai, and we have Arabs, Armenians, Turks — people from all over the Middle East and North Africa,” Elgrably said.

They are mostly young people, and what they have in common is a love of popular music and culture, explored, for instance, in a recent program on Heavy Metal Islam.

Elgrably estimates the Levantine Center’s e-mail list reaches some 5,000, and its core membership is around 500.

“I don’t buy into the concept of an upcoming ‘Clash of Civilizations,'” Elgrably said. “What we are aiming for is an “Alliance of Civilizations’. There is something like this in the air, and, in a small way, we are trying to create a safe place for it to develop.”

Students Learn Nuances on Interreligious Mideast Trip

The campus at UC Irvine has been pictured for years as a hotbed of hatred riven over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making all the more remarkable the recent trip of a group of 15 Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze UCI students, who decided to go over there and see for themselves.

They spent two intensive weeks talking with Israelis and Palestinians, militants and peaceniks, government officials and falafel vendors, rabbis and imams, right-wing settlers and left-wing Tel Avivians, and came back with one overriding impression.

“Before we went, we had all the answers,” said one Muslim girl. “But the more we heard, the more confused we became.”

Isaac Yerushalmi, president of Anteaters for Israel (the anteater is the UCI mascot), had a similar take. “In the United States, you see everything in black and white. You don’t understand the complexity of the situation on the ground until you go there. There are a thousand different views,” he said.

“The land is so small, with more diverse opinions than I have ever encountered,” Paul McGuire said.

A Christian student observed, “Before I left, I thought all the settlers were crazy, right-wing Jews. But when we visited Ariel, I saw what they had built where there was nothing before. So maybe the settlements are not all bad.”

Before she left, Sally Moukkad’s parents warned her not to say anything against the government while she was in Israel. Once there, she found that “everybody says anything they want.”

It is one remarkable aspect of the project, called the Olive Tree Initiative, that it was conceived and organized by leaders and members of the Muslim Student Union and the Jewish Student Union, Society of Arab Students and Anteaters for Israel, as well as Hillel, Model United Nations, Middle East Studies Student Initiative, and simply interested students.

Just as noteworthy, everything was put together by the students, on their own, from holding weekly preparatory seminars for 18 months and raising $60,000 to cover expenses to lining up dozens of experts in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The UCI administration said it could not legally sponsor or underwrite the trip, but urged the students to “just go ahead and do it.”

Most of the participants were in their late teens to early 20s, with the exception of a major catalyst of the enterprise, a 29-year old doctoral student named Daniel Wehrenfennig, working with Katharine Keith, a graduate student in Middle East studies.

Wehrenfennig had both a professional and personal interest in the project. His study and research focus is on conflict resolution and citizen dialogues, and his laboratories are Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

He is also a German who had spent two months harvesting citrus fruits in Israel and is active in the Third Generation German-Israeli Dialogue. In addition, he wanted to rectify UCI’s negative image in the media.

In early September, the group flew to Tel Aviv with an itinerary so crammed and intensive that only a bunch of college students could have hacked it.

They met with students and professors, journalists, generals and government officials and participated in give-and-take discussions in West and East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, the Palestinian town of Qualqilyah, the Jewish settlement of Ariel, Nazareth, Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

Saturdays were free, so they went to the beach or sightseeing, toured the Dead Sea and Masada, studied the Bauhaus architecture of Tel Aviv and even squeezed in some shopping.

They learned about the Holocaust at Yad Vashem and prayed in synagogues, mosques and churches.

Two weeks ago, the travelers, including two advisers, reunited at the UCI Student Union and talked about their trip to a standing-room-only audience of some 500 students, who applauded each and every statement. Some questions from the audience were naïve (“I am not an Israeli or Palestinian. I am just a typical Southern California student — so why should I care?”) to the more perceptive (“How did the trip change any of your preconceptions?”).

Afterwards, a few student leaders were dragged out of a reception to talk to The Journal about the trip and about the mood and conflicts on campus.

“A few years ago, we had a pretty hateful situation here,” said Yerushalmi, the pro-Israel activist. “Now we feel quite comfortable as Jews, and no one is worried about his safety. It’s too bad that some outside people have tried to perpetuate the campus conflicts.”

Yerushalmi’s evaluation was seconded by Ali Malik of the Muslim Student Union and Amanda Naoufal, a former president of the Society of Arab Students.

For the future, the Olive Tree Initiative activists will continue to share the experiences and lessons of their trip with students at UCI and other campuses, at churches, synagogues and mosques, and at other forums.

“We are getting so many calls from other campuses that we are putting together a manual on our project for others to follow,” Wehrenfennig said.

For more information and a link to a video clip of the trip, visit http://www.uci.edu/uci/video/olivetree/

— TT