As the Shiite insurgent group known as the Houthis emerged as the preeminent power in Yemen, a slogan created by the group, one integral to their history, has come under scrutiny:
“Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews.”
Americans and Israelis are, understandably, a little put off by the motto. Yet the Houthis are downplaying its importance: The New York Times' Rod Nordland says that when he talked to a Houthi leader recently, he was told it was "just a slogan, we don't mean it literally."
Could that be true? “Death to America” and similar hateful mottoes have endured for more than 35 years, and -- given the attention drawn by the Houthis’ iteration -- they don't appear to have lost their power to shock.
"Death to America" has its origins in America's most consistent modern foe: The Islamic Republic of Iran. The slogan originated during street protests that led to Iran's 1979 revolution, when angry demonstrators railed against Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Iranian shah.
Mohsen Sazegara, once an aide to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a founder of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, claims to have been the one who sowed the seed for what would eventually become "Death to America." “I organized strikes and demonstrations," Sazegara told the Financial Times in 2009. "But what I really wanted to do was create a slogan for the revolution that everyone could rally around. So I hit upon ‘The Shah Must Go,’ which, when it filtered down to the streets, became ‘Death to the Shah.'”
Once that phrase had embedded itself in the popular mind, it soon mutated. No longer were the protesters calling only for the ousting of their own leader. Now, they also called for the destruction of an entire country: "Death to America."
The slogan's shift to anti-Americanism also reflected a broader change. While the United States was widely distrusted for supporting the shah (the CIA backed a coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953), and allowing him medical treatment in October 1979 after he had been deposed had made matters worse, Americans weren't initially seen as the revolution's main target.
In fact, as Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, an assistant professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University, wrote for the Monkey Cage blog last year, Iran's Islamists were initially willing to work with the West. Their shift to a populist anti-American line was, partly at least, a response to the success of their Communist rivals in the revolution. "They stole the anti-American torch from the patently anti-imperialist, and now stunned, left," Tabaar wrote.
That shift then resulted in the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, during which 52 Americans were held for 444 days after Islamist students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Ayatollah Khomeini embraced the siege, which ultimately ended formal diplomatic relations between the two countries. When the U.S. hostages were released, they were made to walk through the students, who shouted "Death to America" to their faces. Today, the former embassy sits as a mural-covered monument to anti-Americanism. Every year, protesters mark the siege of the embassy, chanting "Death to America" outside it.
America wasn't the only country singled out. "Death to the Soviet Union" and "Death to England" also became chants in the young Islamic Republic of Iran. On the annual Quds Day, set up by the nascent Islamist state in 1979 to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, "Death to Israel" became especially popular. Individuals were also added to the chant, such as Jimmy Carter and Saddam Hussein: According to Iranian journalist Mehrdad Khadir, at one point half a dozen out of favor revolutionaries had their names added to the list.
Soon, the slogans spread to other Shiite Islamist groups outside Iran. Supporters of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group and political party, are known to frequently chant "Death to America." As Philip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who studies Shiite militias, explains, the slogan is "extremely popular with Khomeinist groups" to this day and is used by the many pro-Iranian militias in Iraq today, though "Great Satan," another revolutionary phrase referring to the United States, seems to be more popular.
The phrase has also spread dramatically beyond its Shiite roots. When Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. troops in 2011, "Death to America" became a rallying cry: It was chanted by pro-Taliban groups in Pakistan and radical Sunni groups in Sudan. In Afghanistan, "Death to America" has became a recurrent chorus, chanted just last month after the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo put a caricature of the Islamic prophet Muhammad on its front page.
The Houthis first became associated with the phrase in 2003. Hussein al-Houthi, then a leader of a Zaydi Shiite group called Believing Youth, first began staging anti-American protests after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that year. His decision may have been pragmatic and based on domestic rivalries. "When the [regime of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh] endorsed the Bush administration’s war on terror and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003," Charles Schmitz, a professor at Towson University, explained, "Hussein al-Huthi saw an opportunity to broaden the appeal of the Shabab by attacking Saleh’s alliance with the United States."
Houthi became a vocal and popular critic of then-president Saleh, a strongman who had led the country for decades, prompting confrontations with Yemen's security forces. After Houthi was killed by Yemeni forces in 2004, the group he led was renamed after his family. The group had set out on the path that would eventually lead it to seize power in 2015.
A wider pan-Shiite movement may also have influenced the Houthis' use of "Death to America." While the Houthis are Zaydi Shiites -- a Shiite minority quite distinct from Iran's branch -- their fight against the Yemeni government does take on elements of sectarianism (Yemen is a majority Sunni nation). There are persistent allegations that the Houthis are funded by Iran, though they deny this.
Can America trust a group with the slogan "Death to America"? The Houthis' history and kinship with Iran show that the slogan didn't materialize out of nothing. However, it's worth considering that in the 35 years that Iran has used the threat, the United States has not been on the brink of destruction. As shocking as it is for Americans to hear "Death to America," the phrase simply doesn't invoke apocalyptic doom. (It's a different situation in Israel, where the threat of destruction from a neighbor suspected of seeking nuclear arms seems much more real.) "Death to America" brings little of the angst generated by threats from al-Qaeda and, more recently, the Islamic State.
Iran itself has had a complicated relationship with the phrase, at points trying to downplay it: For example, when it is officially translated to English, it is "Down with America" (an alternative translation of the Farsi original: مرگ بر آمریکا). Iranian clerics briefly canceled the use of the chant after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, though it returned with a vengeance after President George W. Bush listed Iran as part of an "axis of evil" in 2002.
As Tabaar noted in the Monkey Cage blog, some polls have shown anti-Americanism far lower among the Iranian public than officials would suggest. The Post's Jason Rezaian wrote in 2013 that there were official debates about whether to drop the "Death to ..." chants, though they didn't get very far. "The slogan still forms a pillar of the Islamic Republic's revolutionary values," Rezaian wrote.
Letta Tayler, a senior researcher on terrorism at Human Rights Watch who closely follows Yemen, recently told NPR that while the Houthis' words were scary, their actions had not yet been a major cause of concern. "Despite the slogan, the Houthis have not harmed Americans, nor have they harmed Israel. It's AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] in Yemen ... that is kidnapping and in some cases killing, foreigners," Tayler said. "It's not the Houthis."
Still, "Death to America" does seem ominous. Shortly after the Houthis took over Sanaa, the United States said it would close its embassy, citing security concerns. The Houthis themselves claimed to be confused.
“We really have no idea why these embassies are closing, and we don’t have a comment, except that these embassies know that they are safe here and under no threat," said Deif Allah al-Shami, a member of the Houthi political bureau.