Lebanon: A movement makes itself heard

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The more active Salafis in the new Arab political order threatens to deepen the Sunni-Shia divide

The more active involvement of Salafis in the new Arab political order threatens to deepen the divide between Sunni and Shia Islam. Nowhere is this more visible than in Lebanon, where a once muted movement is making itself heard and trying to challenge Hizbollah, the Shia militant group allied to Iran.

Lebanon’s Salafists range from moderates working in social outreach to extremist militants. They were suppressed by occupying Syrian forces between 1976 and 2005. But the uprising shaking Syria, and Lebanese Sunnis’ growing anger at a security establishment seen as under the influence of Damascus-allied Hizbollah, have given them a new platform.

When a member of a prominent Islamist family said to be sympathetic to the Syrian opposition was arrested in May for associating with an alleged “terrorist” group, Salafists played a prominent role in a protest in the main square in the conservative north Lebanese city of Tripoli. They were also involved in fatal clashes between pro and anti-Assad neighbourhoods.

The revolt against Syria’s Alawite regime (a Shia offshoot), in which several Lebanese Sunni fighters were recently reported to have been killed, has further polarised Lebanon and emboldened the Sunnis. The Salafists are well placed to take advantage.

Their appeal seems to have grown as that of the Future Movement, the main Sunni party, has waned. Saad Hariri, the leader, has been abroad for more than a year, and some Sunnis in the working-class areas that used to support him say he has not done enough to defend the sect.

Analysts say that even a resurgent Salafist movement is unlikely to become a significant operator in Lebanon, where Hizbollah has so much more military power than anyone else, politics is dominated by an entrenched elite, and the Sunnis are pragmatic and moderate. But Salafist boldness has the potential to disrupt informal understandings that have kept sectarian tensions in check since the country’s civil war ended in 1990.

This was in evidence in November when supporters of Ahmad Assir, a firebrand cleric who claims not to be Salafi but whose pronouncements place him within the Salafist doctrinal spectrum, tore down a Hizbollah poster in the mixed town of Sidon ahead of the Shia festival of Ashoura. A firefight followed in which three people were killed.

Financial Times

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