Muslim Hunger Strikes as Secular Critique in Yemen

By W. Flagg Miller
Submitted to Session P6237 (Patronage, Resistance, and Representation in Yemen's War, 2020 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The internationalism of armed conflict in Yemen has presented challenges to pan-Islamic reformers. In this paper, I attend to the ethical dimensions of Muslim activism by exploring the use of hunger strikes to strengthen otherwise fractious political coalitions. Facing constant pressure from actors willing to evoke the most strident forms of religious sectarianism to explain, license and justify violence, Yemeni hunger strikers and their supporters draw attention to patient and disciplined bodily suffering in efforts to shore up solidarity. To explore the ethics of care involved in this work, I draw upon Khaled Furani’s (2016) concept of “the secular,” understood not as something opposed to, or outside of, religion but rather as a recognition of finitude whose sensory dimensions, magnified against frailties of certitude, knowledge or sovereignty, guide believers toward otherwise unavailable modes of religious worldliness. Yemenis are mobilizing new forms of protest and Islamic sociality by scheduling their activism in league with Islamic festivals, days on which, by convention, fasting is traditionally forbidden. By doing so, they signal solidarity with Muslims across the world who are seeking invest ritual convention with greater ethical as well as political import.
I focus my paper on hunger strike activism that has been organized by a coalition of Sunni and Zaydi political parties, non-government organizations, intellectual groups and ordinary citizens who are opposed to foreign military intervention even as they confront Yemen’s chronic problems. I attend especially to the work of Yemeni parliamentarian `Abdallah Hashed, founder of the “May 20th Movement” in 2017. While Mr. Hashed is a representative of the southern governorate of Lahej and could have served in Yemen’s southern, Sunni-majority government, he and his supporters have allied instead with the Houthi-controlled, Zaidi-majority government in the north for the principal reason that the southern government exists only through the support of Western-backed foreign powers. Emphasizing anti-imperialism and non-violence, the May 20th Movement has sought to build national unity against the militarism and perceived capitulations of wealthy Arab Gulf neighbors. Hunger strikes are productive insofar as they have a long history among Arab socialists, especially. By employing this method of protest, activists foreground anti-imperialism without compromising their critique of state power. The ethical leverage for activists comes from decrying state-sponsored religious extremism held to justify violence and human rights abuse. By formulating their critique through religious practice, especially Islamic fasting, hunger-strikers inaugurate new possibilities for mobilizing reform across sectarian fault-lines.