Saturday, June 13, 2009

Salafism Spreads in Lebanon


Salafi Sunni gunmen loyal to Sa'd al-Hariri's Future Movement in the northern coastal city of Tripoli, a stronghold of the country's growing Salafi movement, part of the so-called "pro-Western" March 14 political alliance. (Is the guy on the right Pacino's brother?)


As I have written or mentioned in many previous posts, including HERE, HERE, and HERE, Sa'd "Junior" al-Hariri, Lebanon's most powerful Sunni politician, has been funding Salafi groups in the country for years in the hopes that he can create a credible Sunni counter-current to Hizbullah, the country's largest Shi'i political party. His attempts at forming a paramilitary wing of his Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Movement) party were shown to have been for naught in May 2008, when paramilitaries from Hizbullah and AMAL, the country's second largest Shi'i party, clashed with Hariri's militias on the streets of Beirut. Hariri's men, despite their equipment and rudimentary "training," paid for by Hariri and Saudi money and blessed by the United States, quickly collapsed, with most either fleeing in fear or surrendering. Hizbullah and AMAL quickly overran West Beirut, a traditional Sunni-majority area of the capital city, in an emasculating defeat for Hariri's Sunni constituents. Matters were not helped recently after Hizbullah leader al-Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah called the events of May 8, 2008, when Hariri's militias in Beirut disintegrated, a "glorious day" in a provocative and ill considered speech before the country's parliamentary elections of June 7.


View the ill considered section of the speech.

Hariri and the Salafis also planned and supported the protests of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that resulted in the sacking and burning of the Danish embassy in Lebanon in early February 2006. For photos, see HERE. Saudi flags and the black flags used by Salafis worldwide were on display that day.

A Hariri supporter in 2007 confronts Lebanese army soldiers with the flag of the Salafi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Lebanon's Salafi movement predates Junior Hariri's rise to power, which followed the assassination of his father, the multi-billionaire construction and business magnate and former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri on February 14, 2005. The origins of Lebanese Salafism can be traced to the 1950s and 1960s, when Salafi religious thought was introduced to the country by Shaykh Salem al-Shahal, who was influenced by the writings of prominent Salafi scholars such as Rashid Rida, Nasir al-Din al-Albani, and the prominent late Saudi Salafi jurist Shaykh Muhammad bin Salah al-'Uthaymin. Members of the al-Shahal family, including his son, Da'i al-Islam al-Shahal, and nephew, Hassan al-Shahal, continue to play a prominent role in Lebanese Salafism.

The Lebanese Salafi movement benefited from the weakening of the country's Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) and the increasing lawlessness and absence of a strong, centralized governing authority following the outbreak of the civil war in 1975. Radical offshoots of the Lebanese Brotherhood emerged in the north, with a strong base of support in the northern city of Tripoli in the Sunni heartland. [I have fond memories of a brief trip to Tripoli with my father in June 2003. I remember walking through the streets of the old city and spending time in an old mosque while my father went through the multi-stages of a nearby Turkish bath. I also remember buying some delicious grapes on the street before leaving the city in the late afternoon/early evening.] The city has been the scene of numerous clashes between pro-Hariri Sunni and Salafi militias and the minority Alawi community, a group which emerged from Shi'ism hundreds of years ago. Predictably, the Hariri-funded web site NOW Lebanon, and other Hariri media outlets, attempted to downplay the Salafis' role in Tripoli.

These militant movements, and the Salafi movement generally, greatly benefited from the economic deprivation of the 1970s and 1980s, and the influx of Sunni refugees from other areas of Lebanon. Similar economic conditions have fueled the growth of militant Salafism among segments of the country's Palestinian refugees, numbering over 400,000, who live in crowded and economically downtrodden refugee camps, and who face open discrimination and prejudice from the Lebanese state and society. (For more on the growth of militant Salafism among Palestinians in Lebanon, see Bernard Rougier's excellent study Everyday Jihad).

By the end of the civil war in 1990, the Salafi movement had become entrenched in and around Tripoli, including in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, the site of a nearly three-and-a-half month-long battle between Salafi jihadis and the Lebanese army between late May-early September 2007. Salafis also gained ground in the Sunni-majority coastal city of Sidon in the Shi'i-majority south of the country, particularly in the largest Palestinian refugee camp, 'Ain al-Hilwa (or "Hilwe"), the site of Rougier's fieldwork for his study.

While most Lebanese Salafis are not militant, the militant trend has grown in recent years. Fatah al-Islam, the Salafi jihadi group that fought the Lebanese army throughout the summer of 2007 in and around Nahr al-Bared, is the most famous example of one such militant Salafi group. However, there are larger ones operating in the country, including Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of "Sham," the historical name for Greater Syria) and 'Usbat al-Ansar (League of the Supporters/Partisans). It is known that some Lebanese and Palestinian-Lebanese Salafi jihadis have gone to fight in Iraq, where some have been killed or committed kamikaze (suicide) attacks. During the fighting in Nahr al-Bared, al-Qa'ida "Central's" (AQC) chief ideologue, Dr. Ayman al-Dhawahiri (Zawahiri), issued a statement supporting Fatah al-Islam. A year before, the Jordanian Salafi jihadi commander Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi vehemently criticized Hizbullah for preventing Salafi jihadis in Lebanon from attacking Israel. Al-Zarqawi's violent obsession with targeting Shi'is, as evidenced in the crazed, rambling letter he sent to al-Zawahiri in 2005 (see HERE), is now well known. Other AQC leaders, including al-Zawahiri, have also criticized Hizbullah.


View a video from AQC's media wing, al-Sahab (The Clouds), in which al-Zawahiri criticizes Hizbullah and describes its leader, al-Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, as a hypocrite.


Fatah al-Islam militants in Nahr al-Bared, 2007

Because of Fatah al-Islam's vicious battle against the Lebanese army, which is seen by many Lebanese as the sole non-sectarian official body in the country (though this is somewhat untrue; the army disintegrated during the civil war along party and sectarian lines), it lost any support it had, at least publicly, from the country's "mainstream" non-militant Salafi movement. Even 'Usbat al-Ansar and Jund al-Sham, with the exception of minor initial support from the latter, did not support Fatah al-Islam.

For more on the rise of Salafi jihadi trend in Lebanon, see Nir Rosen's article, "Al Qaeda in Lebanon."


Videos posted on YouTube praise the Salafi and "Sunni fighters" in Tripoli. One even uses well-known nasheeds (religiously-themed songs) used by Salafi jihadi groups. View several examples below:


Video: طرابلس السلفية ("Salafi Tripoli")

Other videos show Salafi Sunni fighters in Tripoli:


Video: المجاهدون السنة في طرابلس لبنان
("The Sunni Mujahideen in Tripoli, Lebanon")



Video 2: المجاهدين في باب التبانة
("The Mujahideen at Bab al-Tibanah" in Tripoli)

Both the non-militant and militant Salafi trends share a prejudice and bigotry against those Muslims who do not espouse their beliefs, including other Sunni Muslims. Particular vitriol is saved for Shi'i Muslims, whom Salafis view as either having become apostates due to some of their beliefs and practices or as being non-Muslims altogether. Many Salafis also state that violence against Shi'is is permissible, as is stealing their property and possessions, since they are "not Muslims." This view is held not just by Salafi jihadis but also by "mainstream" Salafi scholars, such as the late grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, 'Abd al-'Aziz bin Baz. A new prayer leader (imam) at the Great Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Adel al-Kalbani, recently said that all Shi'is are "heretics." He was the subject of a recent profile article, in which no mention is made of his bigoted statement, in The New York Times, whose reporting on the Middle East is generally mediocre and biased at best (and this article continues the trend.)

Shaykh Adel al-Kalbani

For more on Salafis' anti-Shi'i views, see HERE.

The most recent victory for the Lebanese Salafi movement was the election of Khalid Daher, a radical Salafi candidate and, now, a new incoming parliamentarian who was elected on Junior Hariri's ticket in the electoral district of 'Akkar in northern Lebanon. Prof. As'ad AbuKhalil alleges that Daher supported and recruited Lebanese to join Salafi jihadi groups in Iraq, including al-Qa'ida in the Land of the Two Rivers, the outfit commanded until his death in June 2006 by al-Zarqawi.
The "mainstream" Salafis of Lebanon, many of whom do not really like or support Junior Hariri, have formed an alliance of convenience. They are now part of the March 14 political faction that the majority of U.S., European, and Saudi media ridiculously call "pro-Western." The Lebanese Salafis themselves would vehemently contest this label.


Listen to some of Daher's rantings from May 2008.

For more on the continued suffering of the Palestinians from Nahr al-Bared due to the Lebanese government's neglect and discrimination against Palestinians, and to view a short but excellent documentary on how a father and son from the camp are trying to make a living for their family, see HERE.

1 comment:

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