While most of the Muslim world celebrates the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday as a religious holiday, the Houthi rebel group in Yemen, officially called Ansar Allah or  “Supporters of God,” exploits it every year as purely a political opportunity to consolidate its power or otherwise use the religious observance for political gain.

The anniversary is celebrated on the 12th day of the Islamic month of Rabi’ al-awwal. A few days ago, the Houthi Al-Masrah TV channel broadcast an announcement calling on Yemenis to rally in the streets of the capital to commemorate the occasion on November 20. The political overtones of the pronouncement were unmistakable as a call to war, not a call for reverent observation.

The announcement itself described Yemenis as a “great revolutionary” people and linked current political and military events to the religious commitment of jihad. The statement used religious speech to incite Yemenis to “fight enemies and purge the earth of their abomination,” a reference to joining the Houthi fronts in order to fight President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s forces and the UAE-Saudi-backed forces.

Troops loyal to the UAE have been escalating military operations for weeks to seize the last major ports under the control of the Houthis. The Houthi movement is now endeavoring to capitalize on the holiday by inviting new recruits to join their ranks, a move critically important after the deaths of many of their fighters in the coastal western province of Hodeidah this year.  

“The Houthi government imposed the need to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday in schools with the presence of Houthi authorities to deliver speeches. They used provocative words in addressing female students, such as, ‘would you accept the Emirati occupier raping you?,’” according to Yahya Mohammed, director of a private school, as quoted in the Yemen Monitor.

“For many days, the Houthi government has circulated instructions to all ministries and institutions in Sanaa to celebrate and hold the Prophet’s (PBUH) birth festival in their office buildings,” according to an Inside Arabia source who asked to remain anonymous.

Last year, the Houthis took advantage of the occasion to oust former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the group’s main ally since the Houthi’s takeover of the capital. After months of strained relations, the Houthis decided to hold the Prophet (PBUH)’s birthday celebration in the 70th Square, which was the last place controlled by Saleh’s forces inside the capital. The Houthis mobilized their supporters from all the provinces under their control and attacked the Mosque of Saleh, next to the square, under the pretext of securing the festival.

Their efforts accelerated at the end of December 2017, when the Houthis initiated an armed siege on “properties belonging to Saleh’s family members,” their homes, and the Mosque of Saleh. The escalation culminated with the Houthis killing Saleh on December 4, 2017, and confiscating his properties.

The Houthis have inundated the streets of the capital with green signs celebrating the Prophet’s birth. These signs carry political and religious statements by the founder of the group, Hussein al-Houthi and his brother Abdulmalik, the current leader of the group.

The Ansar Allah group presents the Prophet’s (PBUH) anniversary as a family occasion. Critics believe that the Houthis’ intellectual and religious leaders celebrate the occasion as if they are members of the Prophet’s family. This is intended to convey legitimacy for them in celebrating the birth of their “grandfather,” as if they are the true successors of the Prophet’s (PBUH) family, according to Dr. Mohammed Mustafa, an academic researcher.

“On the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, we must celebrate the rejection of injustice and resist superstitions and falsehoods; we celebrate the rejection of tyranny and people who are misleading,” political activist Hamza al-Maqaleh told Inside Arabia.

Arab and Islamic countries celebrate the occasion in various ways, most as a day of religious observance punctuated with a celebratory feast. In Yemen, however, the occasion has become purely political, especially since the Houthis took control of the capital of Sanaa in September 2014.

Before the Houthis seized power, the celebration of the Prophet (PBUH)’s birthday was limited to Sufis, who belong to a Sunni sect that was prevalent in many areas in Yemen. However, Sufism has been on the decline in recent decades due to the spread of Salafism, which prohibits the physical manifestations of celebrating of this occasion.

On the anniversary of the Prophet’s (PBUH) birth in 2016, not only did the Houthis take advantage of this religious occasion to raise funds and donations, but they even imposed unlimited taxes on merchants, businessmen, as well as government institutions and private companies under the pretext of collecting the “costs” of the celebrations.  

Given the success of the Houthi’s strategy so far, there is no reason to think the practice will be any different on today’s celebration of the anniversary of the Prophet.