Yemen's controversial Abdul Majid al-Zindani

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.

In Yemen, the sanctions against Zindani are ignored and the idea of forcing him to answer to the West is considered absurd.

When a Western journalist asked at a press conference in mid-January why Zindani was not in jail, Rashad al-Alimi, the deputy prime minister for national security and defense, said that the sheik had not violated any laws. “He’s not a criminal, we cannot arrest him,” he said.

No one, however, denies Zindani’s shared history with some notorious Islamic militants of the past three decades. The U.S. claims that he served as a spiritual guide for Osama bin Laden in the 1980s and, more recently, Zindani was said to be affiliated with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Yemeni-American cleric who preached to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, and Nidal Hassan, the man accused of killing 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas, in early November. Awlaki has also been linked to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day bomber.

Awlaki is believed to have both studied and taught at Iman University, the institution Zindani heads. Zindani has denied any direct relationship between himself and Awlaki, but did not deny his presence on the campus. By the end of the month, Iman officials said Awlaki was neither a student, nor a teacher there.

The Yemeni government maintains that connecting dots from Zindani to Awlaki, and from Awlaki to Al Qaeda, does not make the sheik a criminal.

Zindani’s history has been inexorably linked to the history of Al Qaeda, and his ideas are similar, but that does not mean they work together, said al-Qadhi, the parliamentary member.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Zindani, like many Islamic clerics in the region — not to mention the U.S. government — urged young men to join the fight against the “godless communists” during the Soviet-Afghan war. Zindani supported these so-called mujahadeen in Yemen, and counseled them abroad, but he did not personally fight.

When the U.S. left Afghanistan in 1991, and withdrew its support for the mujahedeen, many of these young fighters returned to their home countries, jobless and uneducated. Heavily armed with nothing to do, some mujahedeen fighters focused on a new enemy: the West. They called themselves, Al Qaeda, or “The Base.”

Zindani’s relationship to the mujahedeen was over before Al Qaeda emerged in the early 1990s, said the political science dean, al-Suhaili, but his political positions have been often in synch with those of the militant organization. Zindani has repeatedly denied being a member of Al Qaeda, but his radical political sermons continue to stir up virulent anti-American sentiment on the streets of Sanaa.

Although Zindani is widely respected and loved in Yemen, many locals also feel his politics do not reflect the beliefs of modern society.

“His popularity is unbelievable,” said Yemeni journalist Abdul Salam al-Korary. “I cannot justify it.”