The Rise of North Yemeni Islamism in Birmingham, UK.

One of the reasons generally given for the rise of extreme Islamism is the Arab defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967 in the six day war.

It is theorised that, from this defeat (or Naksa as the Arabs refer to it), loomed the beginning of the end of Arab Nationalism and other, largely secular ideologies, which had hitherto led the struggle to liberate the Middle East from western domination and zionist colonialism. This defeat created the vacuum political Islamism has supposedly filled since.

This theory tends to be strongly insinuated at and espoused by British writers such as Seamus Milne, Jason Burke and the late Chris Harman.[1]

The theory overlooks one very important British initiated strategy[2] played out in the Middle East and South East Asia during the Cold War. That is the employment by Britain (and then America) of extreme Islamists to counter left-wing, nationalist and communist parties or movements because these movements were considered by the West to be threats to their interests and to their allies in the region.[3]

One of the ways Western backed regimes in the Middle East andSouth Asiaguaranteed a steady flow of extreme Islamists was through ‘Islamising’ the education system or promoting a parallel Islamist education system alongside the official state education system.

The schools that were and are part of the Islamist education system are popularly referred to as ‘madrassas’. Graduates from these madrassas tended to have been highly receptive to the militant Islamist cause. Even more so if this cause happened to dovetail with Western interests, such asAfghanistanin the 1980’s.

It is in the 1980’s that madrassas became popular. According to Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani academic, “madrassas provided the US-Saudi-Pakistani alliance the cannon fodder they need to fight the holy war” in Afghanistan.[4]

The madrassas inPakistancatered for both Pakistani political groups and the Afghan refugees from the Soviet invasion. Free lodgings and food obviously made them even more popular.

Hoodbhoy claims that there could be up to 22,000 madrassa’s in Pakistanchurning out 1.5 million students. While Ahmed Rashid in his popular book on the Taliban claims that there were 25,000 unregistered madrassas in Pakistanalone by the late 1980’s.[5]

Another country where madrassas played a role in defeating the left and other secular ideologies isNorth Yemen. Here, the madrassas, were called ‘Scientific Institutes’. Like the madrassas that served the Pakistanis and Afghans, these ‘Scientific Institutes’ ran parallel with North Yemen’s official state education.

They were initially established in the mid-1970’s with Saudi Arabian finance. The person that was overall responsible or ‘guide’ for this Islamist educational operation was Abd al-Majid al-Zindani. In 1983, al-Zindani was appointed education minister in North Yemen.[6]

Abd al-Majid al-Zindani also eventually served as a co-leader of the North Yemeni initiated Islamist, Islah Party alongside the tribal Sheikh Abdulla al-Ahmar.

Also in 1983, a ‘Scientific Institute’ was parachuted intoBirmingham,England’s second major city by the then North Yemeni cultural attaché, Abdulla al-Shamahi.

The ‘Scientific Institute’ was initially based at 517 Moseley Road, in the Balsall Heath region of Birminghambefore finally moving to the Bordesley Centre, in the Sparkbrook region of Birmingham. I was informed that Mr. al-Shamahi put forward £17k towards the purchase of 517 Moseley Road, a converted church.[7]The purchase of the Bordesley Centre was largely financed by the Yemeni entrepreneur, Hayel Saeed.

There is a small Yemeni sub-community inBirminghamwhich originally arrived here in the late 1950’s and 1960’s for the same reasons that Caribbean, Indian and Pakistanis came to theUK: to fill the gap of the post world war labour shortage. Many Yemeni’s were fromSouth Yemen(which was then a British protectorate) but there was a good proportion of North Yemenis. It maybe, because of this that Mr. al-Shamahi based himself inBirmingham.

al-Shamahi like Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemen-American alleged to be behind the Christmas day bomber, is a son of the Yemeni political establishment. al-Shamahi’s father was said to be a ‘political advisor’ to the North Yemeni President in the late 70’s, while al-Awlaki’s father served as Agricultural Minister in North Yemen.[8]  

The curriculum of the ‘Scientific Institute’ was devised to make North Yemenis and whoever came into contact with it more than receptive to extreme Islamism. One British-American academic even goes as far as saying that the educational methods eventually utilised at the ‘Scientific Institutes’, were first used in Afghanistan “to indoctrinate young men against the Soviets.”[9]

Although it was a dubbed an ‘ArabicSchool’ by young adults who were compelled to attend, the emphasis in the curriculum was religious instruction. Arabic was taught to facilitate the imbibing of Islamist indoctrination. The ‘Scientific Institute’ taught Arabic within an Islamist ‘indoctrination’ framework.

The ‘Scientific Institute’ operated largely on a daily basis. Young Yemenis were bussed in fromBirmingham’s inner city and the surroundingBlack Country, at the Scientific Institute’s expense, to receive their daily dose of North Yemeni scientifically institutionalised “education”. Anecdotally, I would say about 65-70% of young second generation Yemenis in the West Midlands passed through, at some stage, this ‘ArabicSchool’ in the 1980’s.

In North Yemen, like Afghanistan, one of the major functions of the ‘Scientific Institute’ was to help the North Yemeni government in its war against left wing rebels, known as the National Democratic Front, in the southern part of North Yemenin the 1980’s. As one academic study put it, “they provided a useful bulwark against the rising leftist challenge from the…NDF.”[10]

With the implementation of the curriculum in 1983 inBirmingham, teachers eventually arrived fromNorth Yemen. For instance, Yahya Rassam, Ahmad Nu’man, Ahmad al-Rowny, Abdullah al-Himyairy, Faisal al-Za’za’y and Dtarash Abdullah all arrived during this period. They were later to be joined by home grown teachers such as Adnan Saif.

These teachers were not here to guide young second generation adults to meet the challenges of institutional racism, educational under-achievement or even maintaining one’s cultural heritage.

In sharp socio-political contrast to the vast majority of Yemenis inBirmingham, these teachers arrived here to implement the North Yemeni socio-political agenda, that is to ‘indoctrinate’ second generation Yemenis.

The question is how were these teachers sourced? Who selected them to be teachers? Were these teachers paid? If so, how much and since Abdulla al-Shamahi was the cultural attaché of the North Yemeni embassy, was it he that paid them?

Since these ‘Scientific Institutes’ were initially supported bySaudi Arabia, did they provide the funds for theBirminghamoperation as well? These are questions that Mr al-Shamahi, who still resides inBirmingham, does not answer.

More so, knowing what we now know about the collusion between US/UK and Islamism in foreign fields in this period, it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether al-Shamahi was given the green light to set up this educational operation by MI5 or MI6?[11]

Indeed, Margaret Thatcher was enthusiastic for the people of the Middle Eastto, “build on their own deep religious traditions” so as not to “succumb to the fraudulent appeal of imported Marxism.”[12] She even went onto claim that the mujahideen (holy warriors) fighting the Soviet occupation in the 1980’s were in “one of the most heroic resistance struggles known to history.”[13]

Osama bin Laden who was also inAfghanistanduring this period would have agreed, but probably now thinks the ‘War on Terror’ was “one of the most heroic resistance struggles known to history.”

In 1987, there were 1126 ‘Scientific Institutes’ inNorth Yemenchurning out ready-made, ‘indoctrinated’ graduates. It is not known how many there were by the time the Yemeni government (North andSouth Yemenunited in 1990) abolished them in the mid-1990’s. As such the Bordesley Centre ceased to offer this curriculum.

The teachers, on the other hand, remained in theUKrather than return toYemenwhere they could enjoy the fruits of their so-called ‘Scientific Institute’. I understand, some went on to work for the various Islamic charities but others continue to be garrisoned at the Bordesley Centre in teaching and non-teaching capacities. The Bordesly Centre has not responded to my questions about them.

Unlike other teachers, Adnan Saif, a teacher and former manager of the ‘Scientific Institute’ as well as trustee of the Muath Trust which runs the Bordesley Centre, was not parachuted in the mid-1980’s to specifically teach the Islamist curriculum. He had been in theUKsince arriving as the son of the late, Ahmad Ali Hasan al-Shamairy and is currently employed as Chief Executive of Urban Living for Birmingham City Council.

Furthermore, writing in a personal capacity, Mr. Saif positively compares the late co-leader of the Islamist, Islah party, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar with Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi. He claims that Abdulla al-Ahmar was to Yemenwhat, “Ghandi and Mandela were to their respective countries.”[14] Absolutely nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr.Saif draws this analogy because members of the al-Ahmar family were executed by the pre-revolution ruler ofNorth Yemen, the ‘Imam’. He seems to give the impression that by virtue of them being killed by a despotic Imam they therefore must have been struggling for a good cause.

Indeed, they were killed by the Imam but it was not “for opposing him and supporting the struggle for freedom.”

Abdulla al-Ahmar’s father and brother were executed by the Imam over a dispute in which the latter demanded the restitution of a tribute payment. Actually, the tribute was paid for assistance in quashing a perceived anti-Imam rebellion. When Abdulla al-Ahmar’s father and brother declined to return the payment, the Imam had them both summarily executed.[15]

Therefore, they were not killed “for supporting the struggle for freedom” as Mr. Saif would have us believe, but in support of holding onto their tribute.

Mr. Saif has hitherto not responded to my enquiries about the ‘Scientific Institute’ at the Bordesley Centre,Birmingham.

Concentrating on the supposed defeat of Arab Nationalism and other secular ideologies is all very well but it does not fully explain the phenomena of the rise of political Islamism in the Middle East, South Asia or Birmingham, UK. Other compelling factors such as the role of madrassas, charities, state sanctioned political-military cells and financial institutions need also to be taken into consideration.[16]

Today, Sheikh Abdulla al-Ahmar’s children are part of Yemeni economic and political elite. Indeed, one member of the al-Ahmar family is said to run “no less than 300 companies.”[17] While, Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, his former co-leader in the Islamist, Islah party and the overall guide for the ‘Scientific Institutes’, is an internationally wanted man.

According to a writer in Jane’s Defence Review, al-Zindani, “sent between 5,000-7,000 Arabs to Afghanistanand Pakistanvia Saudi Arabiafor military training and religious teaching under his guidance.”[18]Another political journalist claims that he was, “an important link in the chain of people engaged in steering both Yemeni and Saudi youth towards the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.”[19]

The American government alleges that al-Zindani supported designated terrorists and terrorist organisations. He is reported to have had a “long history of working with Osama bin Laden”.[20] The United Nations has added him to an INTERPOL list of individuals who belong to or are associated with al-Qaeda and therefore subject to UN sanctions. [21]

On the other hand, it seems that Bordesley Centre/Muath Trust has taken Margaret Thatcher’s oratory to heart, that is a “tide of self-confidence and self awareness in the Muslim world which preceded the Iranian revolution, and will outlive its resent excesses.”[22] The Bordesley Centre/Muath Trust certainly has outlived the excesses.

It no longer teaches the North Yemeni ‘Scientific Institute’ curriculum and it is very unlikely that it will host the likes of both President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the late Sheikh al-Ahmar again.

Indeed the Muath Trust seems to seek mainstream respectability. It is now applying to take advantage of the new Conservative led coalition government’s “free schools”.[23]

Oringinal


[1] Seamas Milne, “Religion is now a potential ally of radical social change”, Guardian, 27th March 2008 and also his “Terror is the price of support for despots and dictators”, Guardian, 7th January 2010. Chris Harman, ‘Prophet and the Proletariat’, (London: Larkham Printing and Publishing), 2002, pg.7. Jason Burke, al-Qaeda, (London: Penguin Books), pg.151: Burke is very forthright in this explanation, he also seems to possess posthumous access to Anwar al-Sadat’s thoughts: “Nasser died and Anwar al-Saadat, his replacement, recognised that his predecessor’s ideas had gone to the grave with him.” Michael Gove, the current Education Secretary skirts around this explanation in his ‘Celsius 7/7’, (London:Phoenix), 2006, pg.22-24.

[2] See my “Unpacking Imperial Britain’s Islamists” at, http://pulsemedia.org/2010/02/10/unpacking-imperial-britains-islamists/ (accessed 12th November 2010).

[3] Mark Curtis, ‘Secret Affairs:Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam’, (London: Serpent’s Tail), 2010 and Robert Dreyfus, ‘The Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam’, (New York: Metropolitan Books), 2005.

[4] Pervez Hoodbhoy, ‘The Saudi-isation of Pakistan’, Newsline, January 2009. Accessed at http://www.newsline.com.pk/NewsJan2009/cover2jan2009.htm (accessed5th August 2010).

[5] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban, (London:Pan Books), 2001, pg. 89

[6] Paul Dresch, A history of Modern Yemen, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2000, pg. 142 and g.173. Victoria Clark, “Yemen: dancing on the heads of snakes”, (Hampshire:Yale University Press), 2010, pg. 104.

[7] A meeting with Mr Saeed Abdillahi Abdi, a prominent member of the Yemeni community in Birmingham and former Labour councillor, on 3rd August 2009. Mr Abdi passed away in July 2010.

[8]For al-Shamahi’s father, Abdulla Abd al-Wahhab al-Mujjahid al-Shamahi, see, J. Peterson, Yemen, The Search for a Modern State, (London: Croom Helm), 1982, pg. 125.n46. For al-Awlaki see,BBC News, ‘Profile: Anwar al-Awlaki’, 3rd January 2010. Accessed at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/8438635.stm (accessed 23rd August 2010) or Arafat Madayash, ‘Anwar al-Awlaki: al-Qaeda’s New Pied Piper’, Asharq Alawsat (English edition), 17th January 2010. Accessed at, http://www.aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=3&id=19547, on 23rd August 2010.

[9] Sheila Carapico, Civil Society inYemen, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1998, pg124.

[10] Sharif Ismail, ‘Unification of Yemen – Dynamics of Political Integration, 1978-2000, MPil Thesis submitted to the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, ,undated, pg. 58.

[11] Curtis, op cit., and Dreyfus op cit.

[12] Quoted in Curtis op. cit., pg.136. Needless to say ‘Marxism’ here is a meant generically as that which is not compatible with British economic interests during the Cold War.

[13] Margaret Thatcher in Sandy Gall,Afghanistan: agony of a nation, (London: Bodley Head), 1988, Preface.

[14] Adnan Saif, ‘Shaikh Abdullah al-Ahmar: Embodiment of a Nation’, undated, accessed at Adnan Saif’s personal website, http://www.adnansaif.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=44&Itemid=26 (accessed 18th September 2009).

[15] J.Peterson,Yemen, The Search for aModernState, (London: Croom Helm), 1982, pg. 50 and R. Bidwell, The TwoYemens, (Harlow: Longman), 1983, pg. 124.

[16] For the cells created inEgypt by Sadat see Burke, op. cit, pg151, Curtis, op. cit, pg. 107-109 and Dreyfus, op. cit., Chapter 6, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and Chapter 7, “The Rise of Economic Islam”

[17] Dresch, op. cit., Pg201.

[18] James Bruce, “Arab Veterans of the Afghan War”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, Section:Middle East, Vol. 7, No. 4, pg. 175-179. There is discrepancy in the actual number of volunteers from Arab countries in the Afghan war of the 1980’s. I have stated the figures from Jane’s Defence Review because the journal is considered to be highly authoritative.

[19] Clark op cit., pg. 224.

[22] Quoted in Curtis op. cit., pg.136

[23] “New Muath Trust Secondary School at the Bordesley Centre”, www.muathtrust.com, accessed 20th October 2010.

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