Asma Al-Mohattwari and Ahlam Mohsen
As Muslim communities around the world prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, hundreds of Houthis gathered in Change Square 18 January and marched for an hour through the city.
“We’re celebrating to renew our allegiance to the Messenger, to reclaim the spirit of freedom and to assert our right to express our religious convictions with pride and dignity,” said demonstrator Mohammed Al-Hamdani.
Celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday have historically been held in select Sana’a mosques. This year’s public celebration by the Houthis was a marked departure. Many Muslims regard such a celebration to amount to heresy, with the line between enthusiasm and worship effectively blurred. The Koran forbids worshipping anyone other than Allah, but those who mark the Prophet’s birthday reject the conflation of celebration and worship.
“It is a great day for all Muslims, and with this celebration people will know what Mohammed means to us and they will stop insulting what is holy,” demonstrator Abdullah Algolbani said.
Demonstrators handed out flyers by the General Forum of Revolutionary Forces and the Committee of Revolutionary Youth which announced support for the public commemoration.
The flyer endorsed the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday.
“This day is a great source of pride for all Muslims; mankind doesn’t have anyone greater than him,” the flyer read.
Demonstrators also chanted the Houthi slogan spray-painted across the city, ‘Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam’ – as they marched through Sana’a’s streets.
When questioned about the intended effect of such words, one demonstrator attempted to offer a more nuanced explanation, saying that while he wished for the death of the U.S. political establishment, he meant no harm towards ordinary American citizens.
A small group of Houthis disagreed amongst themselves regarding the portion which curses Jews; a few condemned the slogan for its inclusion, while others justified the anti-Semitism because of Israel’s military activities against Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories.
Demonstrators said a full-fledged celebration would be held on Thursday, January 24, in Change Square to mark the Prophet’s birthday. All Muslims were invited to come and honorably celebrate their Muslim convictions “without weakness and intimidation”.
The demonstration came one day after Islah tents were removed from the southern reaches of the square. Demonstrators offered different accounts of the bulldozing; some accused Ali Mohsen’s forces of being behind the action, while others blamed forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh for the removal. Most demonstrators who were questioned said they believed Islah forces had reached an agreement with residents to move their sparsely inhabited tents to the northern part of the square to reduce tensions with nearby citizens.
“The removal of camps doesn’t mean we will quit. We will stay here until we have a civil state which respects our rights,” Change Square activist Mohamed Al-Ansi said. “The revolution is better now because the people who simply wanted positions of power and were working for their own interests are no longer with us.”
Conversations at the square also focused on the upcoming National Dialogue Conference, which is intended to bring together the nation’s various parties, factions, marginalized groups and movements to decide on the nation’s political future.
Though the large Houthi contingent assembled on Friday largely dismissed the legitimacy of Hadi’s rule following the one-candidate election which brought him to power, most demonstrators said they preferred to hold judgment on the conference and its potential success until they knew better how political power would be negotiated and decisions reached.
“If it’s just America and Saudi Arabia determining the outcome, this conference will have no legitimacy. We have hope that the National Dialogue can solve our problems, it’s a good step as long there is no American or Saudi intervention,” shop owner Nabil Mohammed said.