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Yemen's controversial Abdul Majid al-Zindani

A nation's spiritual and intellectual leader or a key backer of Al Qaeda?

Yemeni Islamist leader Abdul-Majid al-Zindani talks to reporters during press conference in Sanaa, Jan. 11, 2010. Many in Yemen revere al-Zindani as an educational and spiritual leader. But the U.S. regards him as a terrorist. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

SANAA, Yemen — His smile is wide and his round face crinkles when he laughs. His beard, dyed orange with henna, fans outward.

Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani’s politics are controversial in Yemen, but his popularity is not. Most Yemenis love the man. They respect him and listen to him, said Ismail al-Suhaili, the political science dean at Iman University, the school Zindani founded and now heads.

“They know what Zindani did for them, without personal benefits,” al-Suhaili said, referring to the sheik’s role in the country’s political development. “He is an important leader.”

Yemen's Iman University
Yemen's Iman University.
(Heather Murdock/GlobalPost)

In Yemen, Zindani is considered a scholar, a political leader and a spiritual guide. But in America, he is considered a terrorist. And while the Yemeni government supports Western efforts to crush Al Qaeda, public opinion in Yemen has emerged in force against foreign meddling. In some ways, the sheik personifies the incongruity between how the war on Al Qaeda is viewed by Yemenis, and how it is viewed by the West.

Many in Yemen say Zindani is the voice of the Yemeni people. He is vehemently opposed to American policy in the Middle East, and makes no secret of his distrust of Western military power in the region — a fairly universal opinion in Yemen.

The day before Western leaders gathered in London late last month to discuss how best to combat terrorism in Yemen, Zindani held a press conference condemning Western involvement in Yemeni affairs, and had previously promised to call for “global jihad,” if Western soldiers were to set foot on Yemeni soil.

In domestic politics, Zindani’s views are more controversial. He has led a campaign against a law that would prevent adult men from marrying children, and has said women can participate in government — so long as female parliamentarians attend sessions in separate rooms.

Zindani can also be a bit of an eccentric. He claims to have invented a cure for HIV/AIDS, and to have found scientific proof that women cannot speak and remember at the same time — an assertion that justifies excluding women from testifying as sole witnesses in a court of law.

But even those who disagree with the sheikh’s hard line political views — and unusual scientific claims — acknowledge his power and influence in Yemen.

Shawqi al-Qadhi, a member of Yemen’s parliament, said he disagreed with many of Zindani’s positions, including his stance on early marriage and the role of women in government, but said Zindani’s influence is irrefutable. Most educated Yemeni adults read some of Zindani’s more than 20 books in school, and even leaders who disagree with him often defer to him because of his influence among Islamic scholars. “The sheik is someone people thought should have been president,” he said.

To the West, however, Zindani is best known as a terrorist. The U.S. lists him as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” and accuses him of funneling money to terrorism organizations. The U.N. describes him as “belonging to or associated with,” the Taliban, has called for his assets to be frozen and has placed him on a no-fly list.