News / Middle East

Popular Yemeni Sheik Demonstrates Divide in al-Qaida War

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Heather Murdock

In Yemen, Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani is well-known as an influential, if controversial, leader and scholar.  In America, he is considered a terrorist.  More than anyone else, Zindani personifies the disconnect between how the war on al-Qaida is viewed by Yemenis, and how it is viewed in the West.  Heather Murdock reports for VOA from Yemen's capital, Sana'a.

This is the sound of Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani leaving a room.  Journalists and fans swarm around him, waving and jumping, trying to get his attention.  With a bushy red beard, and a famous smile, the sheik is a Yemeni rock star.

Although he is less famous in America than in Yemen, Zindani is also fairly well known in the West.  The U.S. government calls Zindani a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" and accuses him of being a spiritual guide to Osama bin Laden and of funneling money to terrorist organizations.

Ismail al-Suhaili is the head of the political-science department at Iman University, an Islamic college Zindani founded and now heads.  He says the United States has its history confused.

Zindani, like most Yemeni clerics, and the U.S. government, encouraged young Arab men to join Afghanistan's fight against the Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s.  Osama bin Laden may have been one of the fighters, al-Suhaili says, but he was just one of many.  Zindani, he says, has nothing to do with al-Qaida.

But Zindani makes no secret about his hostility towards Western policy.  At a Sanaa press conference he says American leaders lie to the people, and that the World Financial Crisis was caused by U.S. waste in Iraq.

In mid-January, Zindani called for "global jihad" if the West sends troops to fight al-Qaida in Yemen.  Most people here oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and joke that if the U.S. military came to Yemen, everyone would join al-Qaida.

And although Zindani is charged with funding terrorist organizations, Yemenis have a different list of who is a terrorist and who is not.  Hamas, for instance, is widely considered the legitimate government of Palestine, and Zindani, like many prominent Yemenis, openly supports the organization, which the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist group.

U.N. sanctions against Zindani have also been mostly ignored.   An official at Yemen's foreign ministry, Wael al-Hamdani, says the government cannot punish Zindani because he has not broken any laws.

"Sheik al-Zindani is a Yemeni citizen, abiding by Yemeni law," said Wael al-Hamdani. "If he had committed anything he would charged and prosecuted for it."

Some of the sheik's more eccentric offers are controversial in Yemen.  Zindani claims to have invented a cure for HIV/AIDS and says he has discovered scientific proof that women cannot think and remember at the same time, which is why in Islamic court two female witnesses have the same clout as one male witness.

The sheik's domestic policy is also divisive in Yemen.  Last year, Zindani led the opposition to a proposed law that would have banned adult men from marrying little girls.  He also objected to measures that would encourage women in politics, and supported a Saudi Arabian style "virtue police."

But for many Yemenis, even those who hate his politics, Zindani remains a national father-figure and a star.  Politicians say he is too popular to oppose and the very idea the Yemeni government would force the sheik to answer to Western charges is absurd.   

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