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Who are the Houthis?

The Shiite group in Yemen does the bidding of Iran

Houthi fighters and tribesmen gather in a truck near Sanaa, Yemen, on Jan. 14. Associated Press

Who are the Houthis?
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After months of notorious Houthi attacks against Red Sea shipping vessels, the United States and Britain have retaliated by launching air strikes—using warplanes, ships, and submarines—specifically targeting Houthi strongholds in Yemen. The main goal was to cripple the Houthis’ military capabilities, including their drones and missiles.

In response, the Houthis launched a few more rocket assaults on Red Sea shipping. The Houthis’ Islamist allies in the north, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, condemned the U.S. operations and declared that the Houthis will never stop, as this is a response to Israel in its war in Gaza.

Who are the Houthis and why was it imperative for the United States and its allies to intervene to stop their attacks?

The Houthis are a strong tribal family from northern Yemen. Their political power stems from their religious claim to be descendants of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. In particular, they claim to be from the family of Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, which designates them as Shiite Muslims. The Houthis’ adherence and devotion to Shiism makes them allies of Iran and a strong opponent to the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia, the adjacent northern neighbor.

The Houthis snatched power in Yemen in 2014, after they fought the Yemeni army and seized the capital, Sanaa. They went even further to launch several attacks against the Saudis, who then retaliated, as they feared the growing Shiite influence of Yemen in the south and Iran in the north.

Unlike what many claim or hope to believe, Sunnis and Shiites see each other as theological enemies, tracing back through most of Islam’s history.

The modern Middle East is thus roughly divided into two major Muslim camps: a Sunni camp under Saudi Arabia and a Shiite one under Iran. If Iran theoretically has two strong arms, it’s not difficult to identify them as the Yemeni Houthis and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Both are backed and galvanized by Iran and its hostility to the Sunnis and the West.

But there is a problem: The Shiite Houthis claimed to launch their attacks in support of Sunni Hamas against Israel. How does Hamas fit into this scheme?

Since major Sunni nations rejected an open endorsement of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian militant group threw itself in the bosom of Iran.

Hamas is a subgroup of the Muslim Brotherhood, and both are strong adherents of Sunni Islam. However, for radical Hamas, necessity dictates strategy, and a Sunni Islamic rule states that political necessities make religious prohibitions allowable. Since major Sunni nations—including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and United Arab Emirates—rejected an open endorsement of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian militant group threw itself in the bosom of Iran.

Iran embraced Hamas, as it gives Iran’s leaders access to a Sunni-majority region. But as an ally of Iran, is the Houthi family really against Israel and the West?

Yes, of course.

This is evident in the Houthis’ declared slogan: “Death to America, Death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to Islam.” Iran views the United States as the great Satan, and the Houthis serve Iran and its agenda by vowing to attack America and its allies until death, in a pursuit of what they see as Islam’s victory.

Here, it doesn’t matter much whether the Houthis are true believers of Islam or simply using the religion for political gain in service of Iran and its Shiism.

Were the United States and its allies justified to strike the Houthis?

Absolutely, and it is revealing that the joint strikes involved not only many other Western nations, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada, and Australia, but also Bahrain—a Muslim-majority nation.

It is truly unfortunate and alarming that some U.S. Muslim politicians and organizations quickly and naively condemned the U.S.-led operation against the Houthis. We hear of Palestinian-American Muslim Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., who condemned Biden’s decision and labeled it “unconstitutional,” while the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) openly came out in support of the Houthis and stated Biden’s decision “risks a regional war and endangers more innocent lives.” This unfortunate reality indicates that militant Muslim groups, like Hamas and the Houthis, not only flourish in the Middle East but managed to accumulate substantial support in Western lands through the freedom granted in the West.

For most nations and groups in the Middle East, the only language that makes sense is the language of power and assertiveness. If Iran and its strong arms of the Houthis and Hamas are left alone, many lives will perish and innocents will be hurt. It is time for the dreamers in the West to get the lesson.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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