The modern state of Yemen is located on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, just a plank-walk across the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea from Africa
Until 1990, Yemen was divided into two independent states: North Yemen and South Yemen. Both states were established in the late 1960s...before that, North Yemen had been an independent kingdom, until it was upended by a Nasser-led civil war that began in the 1960s. South Yemen, formerly known (in part) as the protectorate of Aden, had been under the control of the United Kingdom (it was one of the last, flickering lights of the glory that used to be the British Empire).
Now that we've differentiated between the two Yemens, forget all about the South. North Yemen is the setting for our story.
Although this is a vast oversimplification, Sunnis and Shias trace their split back to different ideas on who should have succeeded Muhammad as the leader of Islam in the 7th century. Sunnis hold that the Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet, should have been the Caliph (the socio-political leader of the Muslim community). Shias believe that Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, was the rightful successor. After the majority of the Muslim community in the 7th century chose to follow Abu Bakr, Ali submitted to his authority as well. This continued even after Abu Bakr's death, as two other Caliphs (Umar and Uthman) followed before finally Ali was given the role. Today, Sunnis honor the line of succession from Abu Bakr to Ali by giving them the title of the "Rightly Guided Caliphs," while Shias retroactively reject the authority of the three Caliphs before Ali.
Somehow, it gets even more complicated from there. After Ali and his son Hussein were killed in separate battles between competing Muslim forces, the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims widened. Sunnis continued to follow the idea that a Caliph could, theoretically, be any Muslim who had earned the proper respect of the community. Shias, however, believed that leadership belonged to a divinely-appointed, infallible Imam, who had to be a descendant of Muhammad through the line of Ali.
Most Shias are Twelvers, a name which comes from their belief that there have been only twelve Imams. They claim that the twelfth Imam was hidden by God in the 9th century, and that this twelfth Imam (who is not dead) will return one day to restore true Islam to the world. Since no Imam is visible on Earth at the present moment, the leadership role goes to religious scholars (called Ayatollahs) who are to represent the hidden Imam until his return. This is why the Ayatollahs of Iran hold so much power.
The Zaydis of Yemen, however, have a different conception of the role of the Imam. For Zaydis, the Imam is not infallible or specifically chosen by God and is not necessarily the “most excellent” person of his generation, as the Twelvers believe. The Zaydis also do not believe that there is a hidden Imam who will one day return to restore true Islam. Instead, the Zaydi Imam must simply be a descendant of the Prophet who proves his leadership by the way he contends for the faith. As for their name, it comes from the fact that Zaydis believe that the rightful fifth Imam was Zayd, while other Shias claim that Muhammad ibn Ali was the legitimate fifth Imam.
Perhaps that's too much background information, but it comes into play in our story in Yemen. From 1948 until 1962 North Yemen was ruled by a Zaydi Imam named Ahmed, who was part of the ruling Hamid-al-Din family. The al-Din family gained international recognition of an independent North Yemen kingdom in the 1920s, and they developed a conservative, reactionary reputation in the post-World War II world. Ahmed, like the Zaydi Imams before him, had an absolutist regime in which he held political AND religious authority in Yemen, but this was tempered by the presence of Shafi'i Sunnis and the local autonomy of many Yemeni tribes.
Ahmed's rule coincided with the rise of Arab Nationalism, which took human form in the person of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser was a Sunni Muslim, but his vision of a unified Arab state was not driven by religious ideology. Instead, anti-imperialism and ethno-nationalism was the force behind his pan-Arabism. Nasser claimed to represent the Arab people, and his populist rhetoric included support for socialist government programs. After Nasser successfully stared down the imperialist French and British regimes in the Suez Crisis of 1956, his star rose dramatically in the Arab world. The alarmed absolutist monarchies of the Arab world (including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Yemen) took note, particularly when Nasser forged a political union with Syria known as the United Arab Republic.
Ahmed's control of Yemen was tenuous at best throughout the 1950s. To the West and to the Arab nationalists Ahmed was seen as backward and oppressive, out of touch with modern times. A base of Shafi’i merchants and intellectuals and Zaydi military officers challenged his authority throughout the 1950s, seeking to bring about reforms. Feeling that his hand was forced, Ahmed appeased some of his reform-minded constituents by joining Nasser and the United Arab Republic in 1958 as part of a new federation called the United Arab States.
Unfortunately, Ahmed's religious conservatism would prove to be incompatible with Nasser's futuristic Arab nationalist vision. At the same time that many in the United States were decrying "godless communism" and remaining ever-vigilant for creeping socialism, Ahmed exercised his role as religious leader and penned a poem critical of socialism.
“Onwards to a unity founded on true principles, a unity whose law is the Sharia of Islam…free from the defect of innovations prohibited by Islam…such as taking away the property of the people, and the things they have rightfully earned, on the pretext of nationalization and of equalization.”The overarching question posed by Ahmed was indeed an important one. Was Nasser truly representing Islamic principles in his attempts at Arab unity? Nasser struck back on religious grounds of his own. "Islam is a socialist religion," he claimed, and he argued further that the living conditions under Imam Ahmed in Yemen were "contrary to the law of justice and the law of God."
Within two weeks, the short-lived federation between Nasser's Egypt and Imam Ahmed's Yemen was over. Less than a year later, Nasser's revolutionaries launched a rebellion that last throughout the 60's. The war became a proxy battleground in the Arab Cold War between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Nasser's campaign in support of the revolutionaries in Yemen (a war which he called "My Vietnam") proved to be a failure for Nasser, although the royalist regime represented by Ahmed (and supported by Saudi Arabia) was toppled and remained out of power when the war finally came to an end in 1970.
Today, of course, Arab nationalism is mostly dead. It has been replaced in some respects by the Islamist movement, which promotes Islamic unity (in the form of a unified Islamic state) and conservative Islamic principles. Like Nasser's pan-Arabism, the Islamists of today are seeking to upend the monarchies and absolutist regimes that have held power in the Middle East for the past decades. But their aims are very different. Nasser's movement was progressive, secular, and nationalistic, while the Islamists of today (represented especially by the Muslim Brotherhood, a group considered illegal in Egypt during Nasser's time) are conservative and theocratic.
Although it proved (despite Kennedy's best efforts) to be an undesired threat to the U.S. in the 1960s, it's plausible to argue, given the current fears, that Nasser's socialism would be quite welcome in the Middle East by the United States today. Then again, maybe not...after all, Nasser could variously be described as (1) socialist, (2) Muslim, and (3) progressive, which are three rather derisive terms in the U.S. today. Like Nasser's vision of an Arab state, though, the vision of a large unified Islamic state is likely a pipe dream. As the split between Imam Ahmed and Nasser over socialism's role within Islam reveals, the Islamic religion is made up of too many different ideologies, sects, and interpretations to lend itself easily to the acceptance of one state-sponsored model of Islam.