The Houthis—otherwise known as Ansar Allah, the Partisans of God—the de facto government in Sana’a, have steadily attempted to refashion Yemenis’ moral conduct in different public spaces, including universities, training venues, cafes, and restaurants. One such attempt was expressed in issuing decrees that prohibited males and females mingling in universities and other public spaces. This marked a curious turn in Yemeni public life. When I was doing my undergraduate studies at Sanaa University back in the early 2000s, gender mixing was not prohibited. Moral conduct and display of good character were matters of self-cultivation. Neither the university administration nor the state intervened to regulate student conduct. The affairs of the heart rarely involved public displays of affection. They were rather articulated in moral terms. For instance, it was in spaces of public mixing that the moral conduct of individuals who did not want to follow the traditional style of matchmaking was observed and judged by potential partners for suitability toward more serious life projects such as marriage.
The Houthis have averred, like conservatives elsewhere, that practices such as gender mixing, getting western-style haircuts, and wearing dresses are signs of the West’s cultural infiltration and thereby signify the absence of piety. The Houthis claim that visibility of these practices denotes transgression against decorum and Quranic teachings. They also allude to weakness and decay in morality, which has been the cause, in Houthis’ rendition, of delay in the victory against the US-Saudi-Emirati led aggression against Yemen that began in 2015.
The efforts to refashion public morality have sparked an outcry among Yemenis in Sanaa. Activists, intellectuals, and journalists have dubbed such efforts as the “Talibanization” of the city, attempts to turn Sanaa and areas under Houthi control into “Qandahar.” However, the invocation of the Taliban by way of critiquing the Houthis’ move to police and reshape moral order is troubling. It unwittingly taps into a universal Islamophobia that since 9/11 has come to equate Islam with backwardness, misogyny, repression, and violence. It ultimately produces Islam as the universal antithesis of notions of liberty. More importantly, little does it tell us about the nature of power at work.
I wish to make two arguments. The first is that neither the term “Talibanization” nor the focus on “Islamization” alone can help us grasp the Houthis’ concern and desire to transform the population that inhabits the areas under their control. I contend that it is best to examine the Houthis’ attempts by exploring how religion and the secular cannot be untangled. While the normative assumption is that religion is the opposite of secular, scholars of religion have shown how these two are rarely “immutable essences.” The second point I want to make is that the Houthis’ efforts to homogenize the population under their control allude to the transformation of the Houthis from a political movement to state actors. It signifies activities that contribute to the formation of a secular modern state under the guise of the Quranic March (al-Masirah al-Quraniah) as the state of war facilitated the conditions for such an ambition.
In recent years, the Houthis issued decrees and legislations aiming to impose restrictions on established public mores. The restrictions attempted to target many aspects of Yemeni public life and social gatherings. They levied gender segregation in universities, (private) schools, training venues, public transport, parks, restaurants, and cafes. In the universities, the Houthis dispatched their security forces to monitor student conduct and, occasionally, to discipline and punish male or female students who violated the expected moral code of conduct, which according to their authorities must follow Quranic teachings. They went as far as denouncing and prohibiting music and songs in weddings, graduations, and other festivities. Attempts to subject the population to the Houthis’ way of knowing and doing went on to distribute decrees in barber shops to forbid imitating western hairstyles. At times, they imposed hefty fines on those who violated such orders. Recently, the Ministry of Health also promulgated several legislations that forbade the use of birth control methods. If used, one must follow Quranic teachings and they have to be approved by the husband. The Houthi police also stormed shops that sell abayas—an external long black gown that women wear outside households, in public spaces. There, they confiscated and burned belts; they viewed wearing belts that hug women’s bodies as immodest and against the rules of modesty in Quranic teaching.
As maintained by the Houthis, such practices and activities are against moral decency and veer away from their version of (al-Hawiyyah al-Imaniyyah) fiducial identity. More curious is their claim that the visibility of these practices in public space signifies the invisibility of piety; a sign of a decaying social moral order that needs to be protected and “immunized.” It is for these reasons, in the Houthis’ interpretation, that the war rages on and their victory against the US-KSA-UAE coalition has not been achieved. For it is only through upholding Quranic teachings that Yemen will become stronger and remain steadfast in resisting aggression, thereby defeating it. Mobilizing religious discourse to constitute and maintain legitimacy is not a novel phenomenon. The question that begs itself, then, is whether such a mobilization represents a proper understanding of moral order within the Islamic tradition. Before I delve into this question, a brief introduction of the Houthis is in order.
The Houthis (Ansar Allah)
The Houthis are a Zaydi revivalist movement that emerged in the 1980s in reaction to, and against, Saudi Salafi infringement in Saada, the home of Zaydi teaching in north-western Yemen. They rose to the forefront of the Yemeni political landscape when the leader of the Houthis, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi raised resentments against the Yemeni government’s economic marginalization of Saada. He also critiqued collaboration with US imperialism and its so-called “war on terror.” The rise of the Houthi movement “the Believing Youth” was equally concerning to both the central government and the KSA, erupting into the six wars between the Houthis and the central government (aided by the KSA) between 2002-2010. In 2011, the Houthis joined the 2011 “Youth Revolution,” driven by the Arab uprisings. When the Yemen uprising was thwarted by the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative (GCCI), the Houthis abstained from participating in the referendum, proposed by the GCCI, that brought to power the figurehead Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi as its lone presidential candidate. In September 2014, the Houthis created an alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, and took over Sanaa.
The Houthis loosely follow Zaydi-Shi‘i teaching, which is closer to Sunni Islam than Iranian Twelver Shi‘a Islam. They borrow from Iran a set of political symbols, rhetoric of resistance and revolution, and a set of organizational structures. The Houthis emphasize the ascendancy of the Quran and follow only those sayings and teachings of the prophet Muhammad (hadiths) they view as compatible with the Quran. Traditional Zaydi fiqh is not central to their project. Central to their project is the dissemination of educational materials written by Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi. The Houthis claim to be reviving the fiducial identity embedded in Quranic teaching and promoting a non-sectarian version of Islam. The Quranic message of freedom and justice that appeals to individuals from diverse intellectual and ideological backgrounds is pivotal to their rhetoric. Framing their message as such, like many religious movements do, generated considerable support and legitimacy for the Houthis. Indeed, during the 2013 National Dialogue Conference and right after the Houthis took over Sanaa in 2014, Houthi ideology attracted diverse followers who found in the Houthis’ claims a possible recipe for the change that Yemen needed.
However, at the behest of the Hadi government in 2015, the United States and Saudi Arabia, joined by the United Arab Emirates and other countries, led a military intervention in Yemen in response to the Houthis takeover which was painted by the Gulf monarchs as an expansion of the Iranian Shi‘i influence in the Sunni-majority Arabian Peninsula. Perhaps, one has also to situate the Gulf states’ desire to contain the Houthis within their aim to supress political Islam, particularly after the Islamists’ electoral victories in post-Arab uprisings. The KSA and UAE in particular feared that such victories will embolden Islamists in their countries to demand political and democratic reform. The UAE has taken a rather decisive approach to delegitimize and marginalize political Islam by associating it with “terrorism” all the while promoting Salafism as a “moderate” form of Islam. As the war continues, the KSA and UAE have taken different approaches to Islah, the main Islamic party in Yemen which is part of the Hadi government that called for the military intervention. The KSA continues to support Islah’s paramilitaries (joined by some Salafi groups) in its fight against the Houthis. The UAE assumed control over South Yemen and supported the separatist movement there, the Southern Transitional Council, whose leaders are identified as Salafis. Although the Salafis were generally concerned with creed rather than politics, the Salafi movement associated with the separatists has been militarized by the UAE and used to form security forces against both the Houthis and the Hadi government. Though fragmented, the coalition, Islah’s militia, and Salafis still share one objective, and that is defeating the Houthis. This is not limited to fighting in the battlefield but also in the domain of faith, by representing the Houthis as heretic.
This is a necessary backdrop against which the Houthis’ approach to their project of “Islamization” can be comprehended.
The Houthis and Making Invisible Piety Visible
In one of Abdulmallik al-Houthi’s lectures, he warns of two dangers: distortion (tahreef) and perversion (inhiraf), to which, according to him, Islam in Yemen is subjected. He starts by stressing the nature of faith and piety at the heart of Yemeni identity by drawing on the Prophetic Hadith: “Yemenis are the most gentle and soft-hearted people.” He proclaims that “Piety and spirituality are vital to such an identity and can be cultivated only by constantly keeping Islamic rituals, attending prayers and religious learning circles in mosques.” He continues, “but this identity is threatened by the ‘takfiri’ forces, supported by the US and Saudi Wahabism, which seek to distort Islam and separate Yemenis from their authentic fiducial identity… Beware the different approaches of the takfiris’ version of Islamic doctrine and morals. Their aim is to harden your hearts… they normalize violence, hatred and spite, they do not hesitate to commit genocides, and they show no mercy even for children.” Perversion is related to the aforementioned issues of infiltration and imitation of western practices.
Because of these two imminent dangers, the Houthis expanded their campaign against US imperialism and its regional allies, pronouncing the war to be no longer limited to the material war on the battlefields. To the Houthis, it was important to proclaim the infiltration of both distorted Islamic doctrine and western culture as a “soft war” into Yemeni society. The battlefield thus extended to Yemeni society itself and its faith. The Houthis’ anxieties about the capacity of the collation to mobilize Islam in its “Sunni/Salafi” forms against their own religious legitimacy has made it all the more pressing for them to regulate the nature of religious piety cultivated by the population under their control. The nature of faith, in Houthis’ rendering, is connected to security and war victory.
To regulate and refashion the different aspects of Yemeni’s public life and public moral conduct, the Houthis have mobilized the state’s legislative system they inherited from the previous government. They have also assumed the right to surveil one of the most private domains in society. Those familiar with Yemeni society in the North might concede that it is relatively conservative, especially when it comes to regulating women’s bodies and private lives. Women’s public daily activities in Yemen are still very much conceived as a domain that should not be accessible to the outsider’s gaze, including state policing forces. Households are private spaces and are largely considered women’s quarters. The Houthis’ desire to govern as many aspects of Yemeni daily life and make them visible to its policing watch scrutinized even spaces constituted historically and Islamically as “hurmat”—a concept rooted in fiqh that gives private spaces a sanctuary status and forbids public intrusion into them.
To legitimately access these spaces, the Houthis established a police force composed of female members called “al-Zaynabiat.” The Zaynabiat are trained to carry out home incursions and arrests and to crack down on female protests and demonstrations. They participate in many special tasks such as detecting and surveilling females in weddings, private gatherings, and workplaces. In the latter, they especially target female activists or female relatives of male activists, usually accused of involvement in espionage.
The Zaynabiat’s responsibility is also to ensure that women are abiding by the new restrictions in public venues. They police public spaces to make sure women abide by the designated code of modest dressing, gender segregation in universities and other public venues. They restrict women from visiting parks, cafes, restaurants, and other public places without their husbands or children.
The Houthis’ declared ethical concerns about the state of public piety have come undone as their approach to protect it do not represent a proper understanding embedded in Islamic tradition. Surely, piety is central to maintaining public moral order in Islamic tradition. However, Islamic tradition does not assume the superiority of a centralized legal authority that imposes religious devotion. Neither does it attach piety to notions of security that elevate the state’s legislative power above the interest of the Muslim community.
The Houthis claim to be following the Quranic teaching, but their invasive approach negates the Quranic message in two ways. First, the cultivation of piety is a matter of self-consciousness (persuasion) and should not be enforced by an external power: “There shall be no compulsion in matters of faith” (2:256). Here, the key concern is that coercion is more likely to lead to resentment and aberration. In pre-modern Islam, for instance, public moral order was maintained through Shari’a, composed of Quranic principles, Prophetic Hadith, juristic debates and Muftis’ opinions. Shari’a according to Wael Hallaq, “formed a very complex set of social, economic, cultural and moral relations that permeated the epistemic structures of the social and political orders.” It did not rely on a centralized authority to surveil populations. It functioned through a thriving Shari‘a culture within which piety was a matter of self-cultivation. In the context of Yemen, Brinkley Messick avers that the pre-1962 North Yemen had the historical conditions where Shari‘a as a “total” discourse that “consisted of rules suffused with premodern ethical and moral concerns” thrived and governed acts of worship (ibadat) and daily interactions (mu’amalat) forming what he calls a self-cultivated “Shari’a society.”
Second, Islamic tradition does not posit that human interiority (nafs, or self) is accessible to any worldly authority. Self-cultivation, therefore, emanates not from fear of the surveillant gaze of an external power but from the All-Knowing God who knows people’s deepest and most invisible part of their conscience “Whether you conceal what is in your heart or reveal it, Allah Knows it all” (3:29). Muslims learn and acquire self-discipline because they are aware that God knows and evaluates the smallest of deeds and thoughts according to His moral laws, and following these moral laws is primarily guided by self-care, concerns and interests of the community and its moral order.
However, the epistemological basis for religion and piety associated with the rise of the modern secular state places different claims on subjects. The function of the secular modern state revolves around the significance of the visibility of material evidence rather than the invisible metaphysical world which renders religion superstitious. This claim provokes religious groups who seek to mobilize religion through the modern secular state apparatus to pursue grounding religious truth in empirical and material evidence reproducing the secular epistemic logic and desire to make subjects’ religious sensibility visible and docile. It is through the “pervasive techniques of surveillance and the administrative regulations… [which flow] from an external order with a view to dictating the very processes of the body’s activities, not only the results of its performance.” The techniques applied on the self by the self no longer seek the “renunciation of the material world” but become a performance that satisfy demands for material certainties the modern secular state requires of its subjects.
To the Houthis, the visibility of males and females mixing in public venues, or listening to music, suggests a degeneration of piety as they recognize it, even though piety cannot be measured by material presence alone. The panacea for such a presumed invisibility and decay of moral order was to use the heavy hand of the state apparatus to enforce certain moral codes of social conduct. By doing so, their proclamation of following the teachings of Quran to protect/restore the authentic fiducial identity is challenged as they operate through the invasive desires of the modern secular state to impose its central authority by controlling the visible bodily performance of its subjects.
Challenges of the modern secular state encountered by “Islamization” projects can be observed also in states like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In Iran, for instance, the Islamic practice of ta’zir (punishing those who commit acts that violate moral codes) was stripped from its characteristics during the process of its instatement as a fixed category in the state legal system. The “judge's social, moral and legal evaluation of a particular and unique situation which every case represented” was removed. In the case of Saudi Arabia, as Khaled Abou El Fadl argues, the restrictive laws and prohibitions directed towards women are “relatively novel” to Islamic law and amount to “the use of Shari’a to undermine Shari’a.” Similarly, looking at ISIS warfare practices, Sohaira Siddiqui argues that ISIS’s claim of being the authentic representation of the Islamic tradition articulates a “fundamental rejection” of Islamic tradition and its principles. Here, the modern secular state’s aim is to regulate Shari’a, religious institutions and its subjects, rendering them subservient to its legal will.
The Houthis’ project is not different to these “Islamization” projects. As Talal Asad has taught us, the conditions that the modern state places on religion makes it difficult for Islamists to reform life through the nation-state apparatus all the while subjecting everyone to its intrusive power and ambition to regulate public life. The modern secular state approach to religion is not open to arguments, persuasion, and self-cultivation. Rather, it is enforced through the punitive route of state law when security and public order are judged at stake.
As noted earlier, the Houthis’ attitude is imbued with suspicion and anxiety about the moral state of society and its implications for the security of the country and the continuity of war. Mobilizing their anxiety through state institutions, the past connotation to Islamic ethics have been transformed and are already embedded in the secular epistemology of the modern state to which questions of public order and security are attached. When questions of religion and public order preoccupy the state, they generate spaces imbued with anxieties and suspicions that make state intervention to regulate social order justifiable. For when public order is at stake, the state’s suspicious gaze is directed towards the invisible interiority of its subjects calling sovereignty into action so to make this invisible interiority visible, to deem it manageable.
To further unravel the Houthis’ project, the following section looks into the ways the state of war has further helped transform the Houthis’ political and moral ambitions.
War and Modern State Formation and Transformation
War, Charles Tilly asserts, is crucial to understanding modern state formation and the transformation of its forms of government. Although the Houthis may have been able to consolidate state power without it, war is a significant domain where the power of the modern secular state is relentlessly exercised, contributing to its configuration. The indexing of Islamization’s ambition promoted by Islamic political movements does not make the state Islamic, rather it signifies the transformation of the Islamic movement into an agent of the modern secular state. Such a transformation and embodiment of modern state power becomes even more glaring during war. Since the start of the war, the Houthis have presented themselves as the protectors of Yemen. They mobilized all means to assert themselves as such not only through violence against their foes but also through capital extraction from a society that is struggling economically under the heavy weight of war. The war allowed the Houthis to foster a unifying discourse of their brand of fiducial identity that promotes both corporeal and material sacrifice against external and internal aggressions. Such a sacrifice is always legitimate and justified under the pretext of protection, security, and public order at the expense of the interests of the Muslim community.
According to Siddiqui, warfare was a complex discussion within Islamic law that comprised of balancing Prophetic precedence, Quranic principles, and the need to protect and defend the interest of the Muslim community. She asserts that the plurality of the law meant that it was a bottom-up phenomenon in which jurists sought to apply it to serve the lives of individuals according to social circumstances. We see a contrast to it in the Houthis’ claim to protect Yemen and its fiducial identity against imperialist aggression. The Houthis decided to impose a war effort tax (majhood harbi) on all businesses, even those struggling to survive. This is sometimes referred to as the Islamic duty of financial Jihad. They also sought to legislate the “Khums”, the one-fifth, an obligated gift paid to families claiming to have descended from Prophet Mohammad. The Houthis have rejected any criticism of their punitive taxation system and the extreme pressure it imposed on a people already suffering the loss of livelihoods, lack of sustained salaries, and wartime inflation. They accuse such critics of treason and subject them to harassment or arrests.
The Houthis have systematically targeted those who refuse to participate in the war by displacing them, confiscating their possessions and then, blowing up their homes. They have justified the repression of different groups, arrests, and the confiscation of property as part of their responsibility to protect the areas under their control against imperialism and external aggression. In the process, they terrorized non-combatants—women, children and the elderly—thereby violating Islamic jurist discussion of immunity of civilians and the protection of vulnerable segments of the community. Meanwhile, the Houthis forced various businesses (particularly restaurants) to lay off female workers—many of whom were forced into work to meet wartime financial obligations—because their presence in these domains promote gender mixing. These women are often fired with no compensation or alternative means of livelihood.
Some Yemenis, particularly Houthi followers, see the Houthis’ attempts to regulate and remake piety in North Yemen justifiable. Others have rejected the very questioning of their own religiosity and piety. The Houthis have forced the latter to attend teaching circles in mosques under the banner of “cultural immunization,” whose aim is to strengthen recalcitrant citizens’ “fiducial identity” through teaching the Houthis’ educational materials. In some instances, the Houthis threatened to cut off the economic aid civilians receive through Houthi authorities. It is as of yet unclear how successful the Houthis have been in reorienting and transforming piety in North Yemen. What is more evident is that, once a political movement, the Houthis have since become state actors, and are acting like it. Their transformation cannot be simply reduced to a process of “Islamization” alone. As state actors, they have been enmeshed in the process and practices of nation-state formation. It is in this context of (secular) state formation that we should understand Houthi attempts to assimilate and homogenize society by regulating and refashioning its religious and moral conduct in their own image. In doing that, the Quranic March and the “fiducial identity” it promotes have been co-opted by the state’s existing legal apparatus and its ambition to exert control over the population as to protect moral order.
 Though Yemeni culture has experienced changes since then, unspoken and unwritten code of moral conduct remains authoritative in the society.
 As Noah Solomon demonstrates, focusing only on “Islamization” overlooks the problems that emanate from modern state forms of government. Noah Solomon, For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017), 35.
 See Talal Asad Formation of the Secular: Christianity, Islam and Modernity. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).
 Saba Mahmood, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 4 (2009): 836. See also Hussein Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012).
 The Houthi authorities denied that they directed their followers to storm abaya shops. Though, activists believe that the Houthi denied it to maintain an image of being “moderate” in the eyes of the international community.
 The Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative was a political settlement proposed by the GCC to reconcile between the Saleh Regime and oppositional parties, but ultimately its goal was to end the 2011 Yemen Uprising.
 The Houthis brought in some new practices that are alien to Zaydism, including celebrating Ghadir day and Ashura, rooted in Shi’ism.
 Mohammed Almahfali and James Root. “How Iran’s Islamic Revolution Does, and Does Not, Influence Houthi Rule in Northern Yemen,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, February 13, 2020.
 Except for some males’ quarters where guests are hosted; relatively isolated from women’s quarters.
 Named after al-Sayyedah Zaynab, the daughter of Ali Bin Abi Talib. The assumption is that they take Zaynab as a role model for her chastity, morals, patience, responsibility, and everything she embodied.
 Legal documents evidencing marriage have to be presented if a couple wants to dine in a restaurant.
 Wael Hallaq, “What is Sharī’a?” Yearbook of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law 12, (2006): 155.
 Brinkley Messick, Sharī‘a Scripts: A Historical Anthropology (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 40.
 Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: California University Press, 1992), 69-70
 Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 65.
 Mahmood, “Religious Reason,” 853.
 Hallaq, The Impossible State, 75.
 Wael Hallaq, Shari’a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 490.
 Khaled Abou El Fadl, Islam and the Challenges of Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 15.
 Hallaq, The Impossible State.
 Asad, Formation of the Secular, 199.
 Agrama, Questioning Secularism.
 See Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back in, ed. Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 167-187. I don’t claim that Tilly’s thesis is fully applicable to the case of Yemen. However, there are aspect of it that might help understand the Houthis’ orientation.
 As Noah Salomon shows us also in the case of Sudan’s “Islamization” project. See, Solomon, For Love of the Prophet.
 The movement initially mobilized sympathy and financial support from a vast segment of the population. However, as the war and grief persisted, and as society was beset by increasing economic collapse and the loss of livelihoods, the Houthis lost much of their appeal among many Yemenis.