Lebanon’s new mufti in testing times: Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian

Derian’s biggest challenges today will be acting as a legitimate representative of the Sunni population in Lebanon

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Lebanon has currently been ensnarled in a number of political and security issues that have threatened the relative stability enjoyed by a country whose neighbors have been significantly active militarily.

This week though Lebanon was boosted by the election of a new Sunni mufti. Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian will fill the seat vacated by his predecessor, Mohammad Rasheed Qabbani. Derian is considered to be close to Qabbani and is likely to bring continuity to his predecessor’s policies.

“He is close to Mufti Qabbani,” Dr. Haytham Mouzahem, a Lebanese political analyst and expert on Islamist movements, told Al Arabiya News.

“He can play a moderate role with [former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s] Future party,” he said.

Hariri returned to Lebanon earlier this week in a move that caught the entire nation by surprise.

Qabbani had been close to the Future Movement in the past though the relationship soured significantly nearing the end of the mufti’s term leading to a rift. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, however, reportedly brokered a deal between Qabbani and the Future Movement.

Derian’s role in Lebanon will be of a figurehead in the Sunni community and is expected to bridge sectarian gaps and increase tolerance and coexistence.

“Our religion is a religion of moderation, tolerance and coexistence,” Derian said in a speech addressing his election as mufti.

He spoke about moderation in light of a battle taking place in the Lebanese border village of Arsal where the Lebanese Army is combating Islamist militants aligned with the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (the latter now often referred to as simply the Islamic State).

Derian’s biggest challenges today will be acting as a legitimate representative of the Sunni population in Lebanon. Lebanon’s Sunnis have a reputation for being more moderate than others in the region but small pockets in some areas like the northern city of Tripoli have started to call for an “Islamic State” and expressed solidarity with militant groups fighting the Lebanese Army.

Open to militancy

The groups in these areas are often crippled by poverty and have little education or prospects for a viable future, rendering them open to the lure of militants promising a better future.

“We need today to fight poverty. Today, we need to fight militancy, extremism and violence in the name of religion in our circles,” Derian said, noting a correlation between the listed characteristics and support for radical Islamist groups in Lebanon.

Derian’s role in the country will be given a boost by Hariri’s return and subsequent donations to rebuild Arsal and parts of Tripoli. It will be interesting to see if Hariri can win back areas where he has lost support for his three-year absence. A lack of a leader in the Sunni community has often been credited for a rise in radicalization among some pockets of certain neighborhoods or towns.

Derian added that Christian-Muslim and inter-Muslim relations need to be improved and based on mutual understanding.

Addressing regional events, he asked: “How can the Christian in Mosul [in Iraq] and other areas be forced to leave his religion and his home, and how can his life and his family be threatened by this or that group?”

Derian said he would show support with Christian communities oppressed by radical Muslims.

On his election, Derian said: “What happened today is an expression of the strong will of all Muslims in Lebanon, to face the problems and reiterate the role of Dar al-Fatwa.”

“It is a blessed day in which we are gathering united as Muslims in Lebanon,” he added.

“I am determined to come back to the track of unity and cooperation with the Higher Islamic Council,” he said addressing tension between his predecessor and Future Movement.

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