The Houthi are the most like Sunnis of the Shia

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The New York Times has a piece within the title Experts See Signs of Moderation Despite Houthis’ Harsh Slogans. It mulls over the fact that the Houthi rebels, who are rapidly becoming the establishment, brandish anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, and are clearly getting Iranian money. The piece mentions that the Houthi rebels are Zaydi, which is a branch of Shia Islam. But to me the article tip-toes around a somewhat important point about Zaydi Shia Islam: it is usually considered the most “Sunni-like” of all the Shia sects. One of the aspects of John Walker Lindh’s biography was that when he was in Yemen he was offended that Sunni and Shia prayed in the same mosques on occasion. This reflects the fact that Zaydi are not as deviated in practice from Sunni Muslims as other Shia. In the article there is the question of an analogy to Hezbollah:

“The Houthis are not Hezbollah,” said Charles Schmitz, an expert on the group and a professor at Towson University, referring to the Iranian-supported group that dominates Lebanon and is actively fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “They are domestic, homegrown, and have very deep roots in Yemen, going back thousands of years.”

All true. But I think it needs to be emphasized that Hezbollah espouses the same Twelve Shia religion as Iran, and the connections between these two groups is historically very deep. The conversion of Iran to Twelver Shia Islam occurred in the 16th century under the direction of ulema imported from southern Lebanon, basically the same group which has supported the rise of Hezbollah. The reciporcal exchange of ulema between this region and Iran has continued down to the present day (see The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr). Any attempt to connect the Houthi to Iran has to be careful, emphasizing the situational aspect of this relationship when compared to Hezbollah. Because of Hezbollah’s ideological and historical identity with the Iranian religious order it is hard to ever imagine a scenario where it acts counter to Iranian interests. This is not the case with other groups which are allied with Iran, such as the Assad regime, whose Alawite sect is only nominally Twelver (due to some political machinations in the 1970s), or the Houthi, whose Zaydi sect was the dominant one within Shia Islam for many hundreds of years before the conversion of Iran to the Twelver set.

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