Once considered rising political players in Lebanese politics, the Salafists who were active in aiding the Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime are now in retreat.
After three years of monitoring their activities, a recent visit to their mosques and homes showed clearly that the weight and power of Hezbollah and its cooperation with the Lebanese intelligence and Armed Forces, and the changing dynamics in the Syrian war that have kept Assad in power, have all led to the Salafists’ decline.
The Salafists began to play a more public role in Lebanon after the Arab uprisings beganGeneive Abdo
In 2012 and 2013, the Salafists in Lebanon, like many across the region, took unprecedented steps and entered the public debate to condemn Assad and Hezbollah’s atrocities in the war, which have left hundreds of thousands dead. In many countries in the region – with Egypt and Kuwait as the exceptions – Salafists were fiercely opposed to becoming involved in politics and believed it was against the practices of their faith. They focused primarily on dawa, encouraging other Muslims to follow their Islamic school of thought, which centers around promoting Islam as it was practiced during the first three generations of Muslims after the Prophet Mohammad’s death.
In Lebanon, some reluctantly became politically active because they believed aiding their Sunni Syrian brethren was an urgent cause. The days a few years ago when they preached impassioned sermons in their mosques against the Shiite, who they consider their enemy – so much so that two of their mosques were bombed during Friday prayers –- have ended. They have abandoned their short-lived desire to form a political party; they have ceased their activities that encouraged cross-border fighting with the Sunni rebels in Syria, and they realized that their diverse beliefs with Salafists in neighboring countries did not offer a coherent political agenda.
“Unfortunately, the activities among the Salafists in Lebanon had declined,” said Nabil Rahim a Salafist leader in the Tripoli area, who is on trial and accused of aiding extremists. “The reason is that people are occupied with their daily lives and the other is fear. We are afraid from the Lebanese security and, of course, from Hezbollah.”
Rahim also warned that the crackdown on the Salafists and other Sunni Islamists is leading young Sunni men to become more sympathetic with extremists, such as ISIS. “There was a video showing how the authorities treat Sunni Islamists in Lebanese jails and this is triggering young men to become violent. Some of them join radical groups due to their beliefs, but others are depressed and they feel this (extremism) is the best way to express themselves.”
Bilal Baroudi, another Salafist sheikh in the Tripoli area whose mosque was bombed in 2013 agrees that the weakness of Sunni political leadership is driving some Sunni activists to look elsewhere in a more radical direction. He also defended the Salafists’ past activism in aiding the Syrian opposition. “We helped the Syrian revolution but we never wanted to revolt against the Lebanese authorities,” he said.
A formidable force in Lebanese politics
Apparently, that message has not been understood by Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces. Although there is a perception in the West that Hezbollah - which is militarily and financially stretched due to fighting in Syria to keep Assad in power - has lost influence, the party remains a formidable force in Lebanese politics. So much so, in fact, that Hezbollah has prevented a president from being elected because other political factions have opposed the party’s choice for the post.
The Salafists began to play a more public role in Lebanon after the Arab uprisings began, but particularly after the war in Syria turned into a conflict centered around Shiite and Sunni identity. In 2011, the Salafists provided shelter for Syrian refugees fleeing the war and entering northern Lebanon. This aid, combined with the absence of any significant Sunni political leadership in the Tripoli area as well as Beirut, allowed them to gain political support.
The decisive turn in the Salafists’ fortune may have been the battle of Arsal in the Balbeek district, when some Salafists who were connected to extremist Sunni fighters, battled the Lebanese armed forces and Hezbollah. Salem Rafei, one Salafist who participated in the fighting in Arsal, showed this author the portion of his leg that had been shot off in the battle. Unlike in previous years, he seemed depressed and resigned to the turn in the Syrian war and the negative impact it has meant for the Salafists in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s Salafists had benefited from the rise of Salafist clerics in other countries who gave the anti-Shiite campaign all over the region credibility. The Salafists and their followers united over the belief that Hezbollah and Iran, by extension, aimed to become the dominant power in the region.
But the gains Lebanon’s Salafists received by being part of a transnational anti-Iran and anti-Shiite campaign could not withstand the force of Hezbollah and the Lebanese security forces that Hezbollah supports. One Salafist, Ahmed Assir, who confronted Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces in June 2013, was arrested August 15, as he tried to leave the Beirut airport for Nigeria. Lebanon’s judiciary has accused him of involvement in the deaths of 17 Lebanese soldiers and sentenced him to death. Assir had become popular for speaking out against Hezbollah and demanding that the party disarm. His condemnation of Hezbollah in such a direct and confrontational manner was rare.
During the confrontation in 2013, Assir’s volunteer fighters reportedly fired on an army checkpoint, killing soldiers and turning Sidon, the town where his mosque was located, into a battleground.
The lesson that should be drawn from marginalizing the Salafists is that their activities might be curtailed, but there are unintended consequences. Their followers, not only in Lebanon but those who follow Salafists across the region, may turn to more radical Sunni groups. This does not serve the interests of Hezbollah or any other Shiite-led group in power.
Geneive Abdo is a fellow in the Middle East program at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.SHOW MORE