Sana’a, Yemen – Most people refer to Sheikh Abdul Majeed Zindani, one of the leading figures in Yemen’s Salafist movement, as the cleric with the red beard.
Surrounded by rumours and legend, Zindani remains emblematic of divisions in today’s Yemen. Some see it as a country in transition while others believe it is a state facing intractable divisions. Yemen is seen as misunderstood by some while others believe it’s a danger to the world.
It remains unclear whether the controversial cleric will be able to ride the waves of change in post-revolutionary Yemen.
When a few hundred protesters attacked the US embassy in Sana’a, the capital, last Thursday, the New York Times reported that it “came hours after a Muslim cleric, Abdul Majid al- Zindani, urged followers to emulate the protests in Libya and Egypt”.
At his home a few days later, Zindani responded, saying he doesn’t encourage violence against embassies – although he does believe in protests against the anti-Islamic film that sparked the recent strife.
“Insulting our prophet motivated hatred and because of that they should condemn what happened,” he said. “But in peaceful ways and in ways were there are no violations against anyone.”
Sitting in the garden of his fortified house on the edge of Sana’a, Zindani’s views on current developments in Yemen were carefully tempered. He had clearly thought out his position on the subjects discussed – and his position for this interview was firmly more moderate than his reputation maintains.
Attacks against civilians from the West were forbidden, he said. When pressed, he distinguished between diplomats and soldiers – referring to the 50 US Marines controversially deployed to the US Embassy for protection after attacks.
Rather than openly endorsing attacks on soldiers, he preferred to mention those who should not be targeted.
“If there are civilian people and military trainers who the Yemeni government use to train [the army] for a limited time, they have protection guarantees,” he said. “But to bring forces for occupation which could expand – this is what we reject.”
That Zindani – a man considered one of the most militant Islamic clerics in Yemen – should speak out about protection for US military trainers honing the skills of the government’s elite units fighting al-Qaeda, is quite a stretch.
He has previously preached that if foreign soldiers come to Yemen there should be a Jihad against them.
The US says he is an al-Qaeda leader, and in 2004 named him a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist”. The Americans say he was once a spiritual advisor to Osama Bin Laden. He is the founder and leader of Al Imam University – an ultra-conservative Salafist centre.
‘No right to kill’
American-born Yemeni cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was infamously assassinated by the CIA in Yemen a year ago, delivered lectures at the Imam University and it is thought that Umar Farouk al Mutalab – otherwise known as “the underpants bomber” – attended the school.
“When Awlaki came to our university and was giving speeches there in the mosque he was preaching like anyone can if they come,” said the cleric. “But killing any Yemeni by foreign forces, whether al-Awlaki or others, is not acceptable because the American forces don’t have a right to kill Yemenis.”
Zindani’s Yemen is now a place of deep political shifts which have yet to settle. If he is an al-Qaeda leader then he must be inwardly alarmed.
Although al-Qaeda advanced quickly across the south and east of Yemen during the turmoil of the Arab Spring and the ouster of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a massive military campaign has pushed them from some strongholds in recent months. The US played a significant role in the conflict, advising Yemeni commanders and stepping up CIA drone attacks targeting al-Qaeda leaders.
The US remains adamant that Zindani is dangerous.
“With Zinadni it’s easy – the United Nations has identified him as a supporter of terrorism. There is no issue with him,” said US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein when asked about the definition of a terrorist.
Zindani commands support in Yemen from the local population, and the Yemeni authorities have never arrested him. They say there is no proof he is a violent man. The US is in the same boat, he said.
“The Americans have no real proof against me,” said the elderly cleric, smiling. In recent years, many Yemenis accused of terrorism were simply opponents of former President Saleh. He and Zindani were allied for years, with Saleh using him as a bargaining chip with the US. But when the cleric sided with last year’s Arab Spring-inspired rebellion in Yemen, Saleh was furious. Zindani fled to a protected tribal area just outside Sana’a.
The Sheikh has rarely appeared in the city for the past year. Now, with the transfer of power moving forward, and the Islamist party Islah gaining in power, his is more confident.
But he still has powerful enemies – the result of his independent stance over the years. His house is surrounded by concrete walls and guards with automatic weapons. The Americans are not his only enemy. Even the Islah party refers to Zindani as someone who simply represents himself, wary of how his views can compromise their own political maneuvering.
Eccentric medical claims
Despite this, other power brokers in Yemen would have a difficult time openly opposing the Shiekh. His power lies in his loose allegiances and respect commanded not just from the local population, but tribal leaders and politicians alike. In many ways, this makes him as much of an expert political mover as ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Americans, however, remain firmly unconvinced. Zindani makes no secret of hoping his name will be removed from the terror list. His moderate responses to recent developments in Yemen could be a part of this plan.
If he wants to put forward an image of himself as a moderate man wrongly accused, he was somewhat convincing. His family was inside the compound preparing for lunch. The garden was beautifully maintained, and Zindani sat just in front of a glass window behind a running machine. It was all strikingly normal.
Yet, the old, controversial and eccentric Zindani was still present. His firm belief that he developed a cure for AIDS was openly discussed despite the Sheikh having been scorned for years by the international community for the claim. He said the US put him on the terror list because of this, insinuating his “cure” could endanger pharmaceutical corporations’ profits.
He also proudly announced his development of a new drug to cure heart disease. “This is an announcement for you, as an exclusive,” he smiled deeply, hands in the air with enthusiasm.
It is tough to tell whether Zindani is a dangerous extremist pretending to be moderate, or a moderate trying to placate the ultra-conservatives of Yemen.
As he tries to place himself in post-revolutionary Yemen and its political structures, even his critics agree that Zindani remains defiantly eccentric.