The Rise of the Salafis in Lebanon

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  • The crisis in Syria has turned into a civil war where the two main contenders are fighting for supremacy: the Sunni majority is trying to gain back power from the Alawite minority that has ruled Syria since the late 1960s.
  • The direct involvement of the Lebanese Shiite Hizbullah militia on the side of the Syrian regime against the Sunni rebels has ignited a sense of solidarity among the Sunni community in Lebanon that has translated into their active involvement in the fighting in Syria as well. The Sunni community in Lebanon is assisting the rebels by sending weapons and fighters and by providing a safe haven in Lebanese territory.
  • In the wake of former prime minister Saad Hariri’s self-appointed exile to Paris, the absence of moderate political leadership to act as a counterweight to the Shiite movement has provided an opening for Salafi leaders such as Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. Unlike in the past, the Sunni community is being led by a new breed of leaders who do not belong to the traditional political families.
  • Assir’s confrontational rhetoric and his loud hostility toward Hizbullah is new for Lebanon, where after decades of conflict among the country’s multiple sects, the Lebanese settled on speaking delicately in euphemisms. For the first time in decades, Shiites and Sunnis speak openly about their mistrust for one another.

Shock Waves from the Syrian Civil War

Since the beginning of the rebellion against Bashar Assad, Lebanon has been absorbing the shock waves resulting from the disintegration of the Alawite regime in Syria. As the Syrian war has evolved into an ongoing war and becomes a Sunni-Shiite conflict, there is little doubt that Lebanon could be the first in a series of countries in the region to find sectarianism once again at its doorstep. Indeed, the crisis in Syria has turned into a civil war where the two main contenders are fighting for supremacy: the Sunni majority is trying to gain back power from the Alawite minority that has ruled Syria since the late 1960s.

The rebellion in Syria and the direct involvement of the Lebanese Shiite Hizbullah militia on the side of the regime against the Sunni rebels has ignited a sense of solidarity among the Sunni community in Lebanon that has translated into their active involvement in the fighting in Syria.

The Sunnis Openly Challenge Hizbullah

The Sunnis in Lebanon have been exasperated by years of marginalization in Lebanon, ever since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri by Hizbullah operatives on behalf of the Syrian regime on February 14, 2005. The Sunnis feel that Hizbullah has hijacked their victory against the Syrian occupying forces in Lebanon. Indeed, the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005 was a direct result of Hariri’s assassination. Still, instead of gaining influence in Lebanese politics, the Sunnis lost power to Hizbullah, particularly since the 2006 war with Israel. Hizbullah claimed to be the victor in that war and thus became the leading political force in Lebanon.

Hizbullah’s reluctance to hand over to the International Tribunal in The Hague four of its members indicted by the prosecutor as responsible for the Hariri assassination added insult to injury to the Sunni community, which was unable to force Hizbullah to comply with the tribunal.

Moreover, the Sunni community in Lebanon could not accept the humiliation of its political defeat that resulted in being pushed to the bottom of the Lebanese power pyramid in 2008 when Hizbullah succeeded in toppling the government of Saad Hariri (son of the late Rafik Hariri) and installing a new government dependent on Hizbullah parliamentary and political support.

Finally, the Sunnis could not remain aloof from what seemed to be an open provocation by Hizbullah, which had decided at the directive of Tehran to side with Bashar Assad and join forces with the Syrian regime and Iran in order to quell a rebellion whose participants are mainly Sunnis.

As a result, the Sunni community in Lebanon is both openly and covertly assisting the rebels in Syria by sending weapons and fighters and by providing shelter and a safe haven in Lebanese territory. Tripoli in northern Lebanon has become the Peshawar of Syria. The Sunnis in Lebanon have become the facilitators of the rebels by transforming their territory into a transit area through which fighters and weapons from Libya and other Arab and non-Arab countries are crossing before entering Syria. More interesting is the fact that the events in Syria and Hizbullah’s involvement in the fighting have created a serious crack in the Lebanese body-politic: The Sunnis are openly challenging the authority and power of Hizbullah.

The New Sunni Leadership Is Salafi

The absence of moderate political leadership to act as a counterweight to the Shiite movement, which is sponsored by both Syria and Iran, has provided an opening for Salafi leaders such as Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. Overall, Lebanon’s Sunni community has been paralyzed, not just due to their leader’s absence, but also by events that preceded former prime minister Saad Hariri’s self-appointed exile to Paris. As a result, unlike in the past, the Sunni community is being led by a new breed of leaders who do not belong to the traditional political families that have provided Sunnis with generations of politicians. They are leaders who identify themselves as being part and parcel of the Salafi movement in Lebanon. Since the Lebanese Sunni community finds no voice within the government or its traditional leadership, those who are now speaking on its behalf are Lebanon’s emerging Salafi groups, who by nature are more organized, more open to the media, and more assertive. In the absence of traditional Sunni leadership, they are becoming the voice of their community.

The last two turbulent years in the Arab world have shown that where traditional Sunni secular or traditional leaders have failed to lead, Salafis and other Islamic fundamentalist groups have emerged across the region and stepped in to fill the vacuum. While not in power in most Arab countries that have experienced the “Arab Spring,” the Salafis are present and impossible to circumvent in the local political arena since they dictate part of the national agenda that is based on the application of Sharia law.

In Lebanon, the Salafi movement is divided into multiple groupings, led by a variety of sheikhs in both the south and the north. Salafis have maintained a presence in northern Lebanon, most notably in the city of Tripoli and the surrounding areas of Akkar and Donniyeh, for at least 50 years. The movement, which is an extension of Arab Salafism, went almost underground during the period of Syrian occupation in Lebanon, and made a small comeback after Syrian troops left in 2005. It has enjoyed a major resurgence since the beginning of the anti-regime Syrian uprising in 2011.

Salafis spread their influence in Tripoli by opposing the supporters of the Assad regime, many of whom are Alawites living in the Jabal Mohsen area in the northern part of Tripoli, adjacent to the main entrance to the harbor. The detention of anti-Assad Islamist activist Shadi al-Mawlawi in May 2012, and the Lebanese security forces’ killing of Sheikh Ahmed Abdel Wahed in Akkar later that month, further mobilized the Salafis in north Lebanon. Sheikhs such as Salem al-Rafei, Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, Zakariya al-Masri and Raed Halayhel dominate the new Salafi scene. Their mosques continue to be the main mobilization centers, through their Friday sermons and weekly religious lessons.1

Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir

Ahmad al-Assir, 44, a Sidon-born Lebanese Salafi preacher from Rafik Hariri’s birthplace, has become a lightning rod after he claimed he would be the guardian of “Sunni interests” in Lebanon. Assir, a self-proclaimed religious authority, is openly and loudly hostile toward Hizbullah, accusing it of following the Iranian agenda of Ayatollah Khomeini and supporting the Syrian government.Assir’s confrontational rhetoric is new even for Lebanon, where after decades of conflict among the country’s multiple sects, the Lebanese settled on speaking delicately in euphemisms, calling their sectarian feeling “fitna,” the word in Arabic for social disorder.3

Assir openly accuses Hizbullah of crossing the border into Syria to kill Sunnis involved in the uprising against Assad. “For years, the Shias have been controlling and insulting us (the Sunnis),” Assir told a reporter. “They control security, the government, and politics. They pay Sunnis to back them to try to create fragmentation among us and they threaten us with a sectarian war….We support the Syrian rebels. Here in the Sidon mosque, we raise money for those who come to pray for the Syrian rebels….The Iranian project started all of this. Iran’s project is to establish the vilayet e-faqih (supreme clerical rule) in the region. I was with the resistance (the term he uses for Hizbullah), but now I am politically their enemy.”4

The latest manifestation of this hostility was Assir’s call for the removal of Hizbullah banners from his home city of Sidon. Assir gave Hizbullah 48 hours to remove its posters commemorating the Ashura holiday from the outskirts of Sidon. Hizbullah had been putting up posters of their leader Hassan Nasrallah and other religiously-motivated works to mark the holiday of Ashoura on November 24. Ashoura highlights the divisions between Sunni and Shiite, as it commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad whom Shiites believe had his rights usurped while being the rightful heir to lead the nascent Muslim nation after Mohammed’s death.5

Growing Shiite-Sunni Mistrust

As the Syrian civil war has spilled across the Lebanese border, the public debate in Lebanon has become, unlike the past, open and often brutal. For the first time in decades, Shiites and Sunnis speak openly about their mistrust for one another.

The growing anti-Western, anti-Hizbullah, anti-Iran Salafi movement is flourishing in some mosques and in towns, particularly in northern Lebanon. Hizbullah is a particular target for its continuing support of Assad, as he orders the massacre of thousands of civilians. In Tripoli, now home to thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the fighting, another Salafi imam, Selim al-Rafei, is a rising power who many say is more influential than Assir. Yet there is no apparent connection between Assir and Rafei. And it is difficult to assess the size of their following and that of other Salafi imams.6

In fact, the division between Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon is the widest since the country’s civil war in the mid-1970s, characterized by near-monthly armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli. Salafi leaders have become a prominent voice in the anti-Hizbullah struggle and Salafi clerics have taken a hard-line stance against Hizbullah.

Sheikh Assir’s actions, combined with that of other Salafi clerics in Lebanon, could lead to a complete breakdown in the ongoing dialogue between the sectarian groups. The sheikh is magnifying feelings of injustice among the Sunni community while simultaneously challenging the core ideology behind Hizbullah’s existence (Assir has stressed the fact that instead of turning its weapons against Israel, Hizbullah has chosen to kill its Arab brothers. This is the reason behind his call to Hizbullah to hand over its weapons to the Lebanese state). As an emerging leader, for political rather than religious reasons, Assir is setting a tone that will further distance both communities from one another, with dire consequences.7

Finally, will Assir test his strength in the coming 2013 Lebanese parliamentary elections? Sidon is well-known as the Hariri family’s backyard, and a shift there would certainly shake up the broader Lebanese political landscape. It is hard to imagine that Saad Hariri would welcome the emergence of a Salafi cleric, a newcomer in Lebanese politics who lacks the proper political “pedigree,” and who will assuredly be trying to walk on Hariri’s traditional turf. However, with his prolonged absence and inability to exert pressure on Prime Minister Najib Miqati’s Hizbullah-backed government, Hariri risks increasing marginalization.

There could be a direct correlation between the decline in popularity and influence of Hariri and an increase in Assir’s stature. Both leaders are potentially vying for the same electorate, and Assir’s fortunes seem to be tied to the inability of the Sunnis’ traditional leaders to provide adequate leadership in times of crisis. Unless Assir is able to maintain momentum and build a real institutional base of support that reaches beyond Salafis, he will remain influential in Sidon, but nowhere else.8 But then, who could foresee that the Muslim Brother Mohammad Morsi could become President of Egypt and in a surprise move decapitate the whole Egyptian top military ruling brass?

*     *     *

 Notes

1. Nadine Elali, “NOW’s Guide to Lebanese Salafism,” Now Lebanon, July 11, 2012.

2. “The Rise of the Salafists in Lebanon,” Aspen Institute, May 27, 2012.

3. Geneive Abdo, “Lebanon’s Salafi Scare,” Middle East Institute, July 17, 2012.

4. Ibid.

5. Alexander Corbeil, “Lebanon’s Salafists Challenge Hizbullah Dominance, Foreign Policy Association, November 11, 2012.

6. Geneive Abdo.

7. Corbeil. Robert Fisk, “The Rebel Sheikh Defying Hizbullah to Take Aim at Assad,” Independent (UK), July 9, 2012.

8. Daniel Harris, “Ahmed Al-Assir and Salafism in Lebanon,” Near East Quarterly, June 26, 2012.

 

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