The Long War Comes to Lebanon

salafist babeUntil 1975 Lebanon was one of the few prosperous places in the eastern Mediterranean. Its various ethnic and religious groups lived side by side in tolerance if not harmony. Then came the civil war, which lasted until 1990, and the country has been in decline, sometimes chaos, ever since.

The central contention of Robert G. Rabil’s Salafism in Lebanon is that Salafism (or Islamic fundamentalism) has “now emerged as a prominent ideological and political driver of the Sunni community” in Tripoli and surrounding rural districts of northern Lebanon. The power of today’s Sunni political and religious leaders “lies not only in their ability to mobilise their community and face off Hezbollah but also the identity, political authority and religious crisis engulfing Sunnism in Lebanon”. Critically, traditional Lebanese sectarianism, the civil war, the Palestinian camps, Syrian interventionism, a local version of Khomeinism (Hezbollah) and the Syrian Civil War have all contributed to the rise and rise of Salafism in Lebanon, and yet in themselves they do not constitute a sufficient explanation for the growth of Islamic revivalism.


Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism
by Robert G. Rabil
Georgetown University Press, 2014, 304 pages, US$29.95

Rabil maintains that Tripoli’s main square, formerly known as Karami Square, is emblematic of Lebanon’s Sunni political-religious transformation. It was once named after Abdul Hamid Karami, a Sunni political figure who played no small part in the establishment of the independent Lebanese Republic in 1943. Modern Lebanon’s “Confessional” politics has always been a complex arrangement, with constitutional power traditionally divided along lines of religious affiliation—Maronite Catholic (presidency), Sunni Muslim (prime ministership) and Shiite Muslim (parliamentary speaker). Nevertheless, there was once a commitment by most of Lebanon’s four million inhabitants to the nation-state and some kind of functional inter-communal cohabitation.

The story of the Karami dynasty tells us much about Sunni history in Lebanon. Karami, as the Grand Mufti of Tripoli, was a dominant religious political figure amongst the Sunnis (approximately a quarter of the population) at the time of Lebanon’s independence, and helped forge an alliance with the country’s Maronite Catholic majority. The Sunnis, according to Rabil, wanted to “Arabise” the Christian locals while the Maronites were intent on “Lebanonising” the Muslim populace with their notion of “Phoenicia”. The slogan at the time, “No East, No West”, encapsulated the aspiration of many who hoped Lebanon would find its own way in the world. Karami himself was only briefly Lebanon’s prime minister (in 1945) but his son, Rashid Karami (1927–87), occupied the post at least ten times before he was assassinated. Rashid was not beyond sectarian manoeuvring, and threw his weight behind the Nasser-inspired unrest of 1958, but he had a number of redeeming qualities.

Rabil writes about the Tripoli of his own childhood and the city of his father’s memory: “My late father loved the mouthwatering sweets of Tripoli and the city’s historical landmarks and promenades that blended smoothly with its modernity.” It is in this evocative context that Rashid Karami, with his extensive collection of rare birds and beloved fruit orchard, strikes one as an almost Chekhovian figure from a pre-revolutionary world. Rashid, similar to his younger brother Omar Karami, can be criticised for his pro-Syrian sympathies; nevertheless, at the time of Rashid’s death many acknowledged that as premier he often shored up the office of the (Maronite) presidency. Known as el effendi (“the gentleman”), the eloquent Rashid Karami never contributed to a sectarian militia and retained the hope that Christian–Muslim enmity would be overcome.

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Omar Karami, who died in January this year, was just as much an Arab nationalist as Rashid, and his (regrettable) proclivity for the al-Assad family no less pronounced. During his premiership Omar sought to develop the Lebanese army along cross-sectarian lines and had some success decommissioning the various militias that plagued the country in the shadow of the civil war, though clearly he failed to deactivate Hezbollah. For all their shortcomings, the Karamis remained—at least in their own minds—faithful to the original parliamentary and consociationalist concept of the Lebanese Republic. Pointedly, the statue of Abdul Hamid Karami in Tripoli’s prominent Nour Square was blown up in the early days of the civil war and replaced in the 1980s by the Islamic Unity Movement’s gigantic silver sculpture of the word Allah:

Underneath it an inscription reads, “Tripoli the Fortress of Muslims Welcomes You.” Significantly, two black Salafi flags flutter behind the sculpture. This square has become some sort of vocal outlet of Salafists, where they gather after Friday prayers to air their grievances. Neither the city nor political leaders have been able to restore Karami’s statue or the square’s original name, or even remove the flags, despite repeated requests by many in the city to do so.

According to Rabil, the defiance of the local Salafists and their interpretation of tawhid Allah means they see themselves as “saved” and “victorious” and everybody else as the “others”. Karami-style Arab nationalism, for these zealots, has been superseded by Islamist supremacism.

Robert G. Rabil distinguishes between three types of Salafism in Lebanon—quietist, activist (haraki), and violent jihadist. The link between the three is a rejection of modernity (and the “moderns”) by “loving the Prophet and emulating the first three generations in Islam” or the “pious ancestors” (al-Salaf al-Salih). While all three versions of Salafism share medieval-tribal notions of healing a world torn by division and unifying the ummah (Islamic community), Lebanese Salafists are often at odds with each other when it comes to political action. Assisted by Wahhabi scholarship and Saudi scholarships, Salem al-Shahal and Lebanon’s quietist Salafi school officially shunned politics. While the influential twentieth-century exponent of quietist Salafism, Muhammed Nasir al-Din al-Albani, was sometimes in conflict with official Saudi-sanctioned scholars, his purportedly apolitical Salafism did not have to be inimical to the interests of the Saudi rulers: “two currents emerged among their ranks, one of which advocated an active rejection of the state and its institutions, while the other sponsored unconditional support for the ruler”. Al-Albani’s insistence that parliamentary democracy was “a Western technique made by the Jews and the Christians, who cannot be legally emulated” drove an anti-modernity wedge between Islamic piety and enlightened constitutional responsibility.

These days quietist Salafists of northern Lebanon often bristle at the fact that their religiosity and beards make them targets for anti-militant sentiment. One Tripoli Salafist, Fawaz Zouq, recently reported to Lebanon’s Daily Star that though a “peaceful man”, he fears for the safety of his family and is treated by local security forces at checkpoints with “suspicion”. Quietist Salafists can claim they have, traditionally, emphasised persuasion or Islamic dissemination (da’wa) over violence (jihad), and avoided the militant tactic of charging opponents with unbelief and apostasy (takfir). Quietist Salafists have reason to complain that Salafi jihadism tarnishes their reputation—and yet any grief on their part does not automatically draw a line under the matter.

The quietist Salafist school might employ techniques different from the methodology (manhaj) of the ferocious al-Nusra Front or the even more psychotic Islamic State group but, nevertheless, it does retain anti-modernity Islamic supremacism at its core. Rabil provides an invaluable insight into the movement’s ideology in the chapter on Sheikh Sa’d al-Din Muhammad al-Kibbi, founder and director of the Salafi al-Bukhari Institute in Akkar. Sheikh Kibbi, like all Salafists, has a theological vision of tawhid (unity/oneness of God), which involves the creation of a “true Islamic community” that dispenses with all manner of heresy and false tales that emerged after Mohammad’s death. Hopeful that Islamic rule—faithful to seventh-century strictures—will one day extend to the four corners of the world, Sheikh Kibbi is just as millennialist as activist or violent Salafists. The difference is that he takes his cue from the early stages of Mohammad’s da’wa in Mecca when, “recognising his military weaknesses”, the Prophet preferred dealing with his enemies—“pagans and polytheists”—through persuasion rather than “waging jihad against them”.

Sheikh Kibbi takes a shot at the “ignorance, zeal and stupidity” of the takfiri fighters, although we might hope for even stronger language to describe psychotic killers. One of the characteristics of Sheikh Kibbi’s quietist Salafism, in the opinion of Rabil, is to place the “interest of the ummah before the interest of a nation/state”. To give his due, Sheikh Kibbi never denigrates Shi’ites as rawafid (rejectionists) or impugns Christians or Christian authority in Lebanon, and sees education a means to reduce the political influence of Salafi-jihadi organisations in the country. Even so, his political vision for Lebanon involves little outreach beyond his own Sunni community (ahl al-Sunna) and goes not much further than the concept of “the exemplary Islamic village”. The latter idea, according to Rabil, has become a reality in part with the transformation of Tripoli “into a virtual rural city” and the creation of “an uninterrupted link between Sunni-majority villages, Akkar and Tripoli”.

Haraki (activist) Salafi ideology, as outlined by Rabil, is a kind of halfway house between quietist Salafism and Salafi jihadism. The differences, in the main, concern the best methodology (manhaj) for achieving tawhid al-ummah (the unity of the Muslim community). Rabil scrutinises the religio-political ideology of Sheikh Zakariya ‘Abd al-Razaq al-Masri to illustrate the character of activist or haraki Salafism in Lebanon. Sheikh Masri’s “nearly ethereal belief” in the urgency and nobility of realising tawhid al-ummah through jihad overshadows all other concerns:

For example, for the sake of tawhid al-ummah, he supports a virtually almost impossible cooperation between al-Qaeda and Saudi rulers, since both of them aspire to impose shari’a as a foundation for Islamic rule. Clearly he neither considers Salafi-Jihadi organisations as terrorist ones nor idolatrous states as un-Islamic and therefore legitimate targets of attack.

There is, in other words, an overlap between the creedal tenets of quietist and haraki Salafism on the one hand, and the methodology of haraki Salafism and Salafi jihadism on the other.

Haraki Salafism is like a supercharged version of its quietist namesake. There is the same obsession with securing the unity of the elect—the true believers—but a more heightened sense of a pressing fateful battle between Belief and Unbelief. Sheikh Masri’s sensibility is not only millennialist; it is apocalyptic as well. The kuffars (unbelievers) and their nefarious wiles are everywhere and need to be outsmarted and defeated if a new golden age of tawhid al-ummah is to materialise. The “devout”, conversely, must be whipped into shape (so to speak) and kept on the straight and narrow with punishments dispensed for everything from minor prohibitions (saghair) to apostasy, which must incur—naturally—the death penalty. In the long haul, Jews and Christians will be protected as People of the Book, as long as they pay a head tax (jizya) and accept their “protected” status as ahl al-dhimma. The future prospects of polytheists, atheists and secularists—deemed by Sheikh Masri to be “like contagious deadly diseases that need to be excised”—do not look promising after the restoration of Allah’s rule on earth.

The ideology of Salafi jihadism, as delineated by Rabil, is obsessed with the purity and unity of the ummah no less than its Salafi counterparts. Usbat al-Ansar, a jihadist movement that grew out of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, is keen to see the State of Israel eradicated but not to be replaced by an Islamist Republic of Palestine. That would constitute some form of patriotism, which implies the “the love of and belonging to a fatherland, meaning the interest of the fatherland precedes religion and divine law”. This is kufr, since “Islam enjoins the love and support of believers, regardless of their fatherlands”.

Salafism in Lebanon studiously and methodically builds the case that the three branches of Lebanese Salafism are something more than distant relatives. A fixation with ahl al-Sunna and tawhid al-Ummah sooner or later puts Salafism of every shade and form on a collision course with “the moderns”, and that includes modern-minded Muslims and secular Lebanese. The extra tragedy for Lebanon, however, is that the fires of politicised Salafism have been fuelled by Hezbollah’s Shi’a version of jihadism, aided and abetted by Iranian money and arms.

A Lebanese anti-Iranian (but nonetheless Shi’a) scholar, Muhammad Ali al-Husseini, has argued recently—at some risk to his personal safety—that “religious texts must be historically contextualised rather than used to incite perpetual violence”. This strikes at the heart of Islamic revivalism. In stark contrast to the vast majority of Shi’a scholars in Lebanon, Husseini is not only anti-Iranian but has also sent his felicitations to the citizens of Israel—“our cousins, the children of Isaac son of Abraham”.

Rabil is not indisposed to blaming Damascus for ultimately encouraging the rise of Salafism in Lebanon. Both Hafiz al-Assad and his son, Bashar, used the guise of “Ba’athist nationalist discourse” to “win over the majority Sunni community” in Syria. Almost every initiative on the part of the Assads, from entering Lebanon in 1976 “on the side of the Christian camp and the National Movement camp and its PLO foot soldiers” to supporting Tehran in the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, was in the interests of regime security or, to put it another way, “Alawi hegemony over the state”. Syria’s days as a unitary state now seemingly over, the same fate could well be in store for Lebanon if Sunni and Shi’a Islamists engage in an existentialist war.

Saudi Arabia is currently in the process of building a 1000-kilometre “Great Wall” to protect itself from the Islamic State to the north. Raymond Ibrahim has noted the bitter irony of the Saudis trying to keep off their turf “the very same Muslims most nurtured and influenced by a Saudi—or Wahhabi or Salafi—worldview”. There are those who will argue that Ibrahim is oversimplifying matters, but can we really avow—as some do—that quietist Salafism has, on balance, impeded the evolution of violent jihadism in the region? Saudi Arabia is often described as a “strategic ally” of the West, and yet I would argue that Raef Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to ten years in jail and 1000 lashes for “insulting Islam”, is our—and liberty’s—real strategic ally in Saudi Arabia. Badawi’s “crime”, as it happens, was promoting secular democracy and freedom of conscience in the kingdom. To be blunt, the Salafist project, as Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi intimated in his 2015 New Year’s Day speech, requires scuppering: “You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it, and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.”

Only days after the terrorist attacks in Paris left seventeen dead came news that Taha al-Khayal, a twenty-year-old Salafi jihadist, had killed nine people in a suicide bombing at the popular Omran Café in Tripoli. Taha al-Khayal, it turns out, was the nephew of Saeed Khayal, a resident of south-west Sydney. Moreover, Saeed Khayal—like the victims of the murderous assault—is an Alawite Muslim, whereas his miscreant relative was Sunni. An agonised and grief-struck Mr Khayal wondered “how the deadly hand of international terrorism came to reach inside his family”. A good place to start looking for an answer would be Robert G. Rabil’s Salafism in Lebanon.

Daryl McCann has a blog at

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