Salafism in Lebanon and Syria; ideology, roots and the future
The Arab Uprising led to the emergence of many Salafi groups in the political arena of both Lebanon and Syria. In Lebanon the roots of Salafism differ from Syria, it’s a result of socio-economic conditions and the growth of Hizbulla’s power. While, in Syria Salafism flourished in the current crisis due to crackdown of the uprising which led to the radicalization of the popular rebellion. In 2007 the Salafi Jihadist group, Fateh al-Islam in Lebanon was crushed, though this event didn’t prevent the emergence of reformist Salafi groups in the north. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem that the Syrian regime is able to suppress Salafist Jihadi groups by using hard power. Thus, in both countries government and non-state actors should engage in dialogue with these movements, co-opt them, bring them into political arena and keep them in check. In this paper I will introduce some possible ways to contain them based on the initiatives that took place in Kazakhstan, Egypt and Tunisia.
The developments of the Arab Uprisings have generated the emergence of radical Salafi Jihadist movements both in Lebanon and Syria. Some of these movements have a history of few decades such as in Lebanon and others are recently established due to the current events in Syria. For the Lebanese, the word Salafism remind them bad memories of 2007 when the Lebanese Army sieged the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, eventually succeeding in destroying a jihadi group founded there. These memories, and the growing fear of the spreading influence of Sunni extremism in the wake of the “Arab Spring”, have come to the fore recently with the sudden appearance of Salafi clerics on the Lebanese political stage. These Salafi clerics started to challenge Hizbulla’s position in the political arena, thus creating a Sunni-Shiite balance. While Syria, a society which is unfamiliar which such trends, has witnessed emergence of radical Salafi groups; Jubhat al Nusra which not only challenged the state but also the opposition and minorities. Therefore, who are these Salafis, what are the factors that lead to the flourish of such movements in both countries, and what are the possible means that we can contain them?
What is Salafism? Salafism insists on the literal truth of the Quran and abide a conservative version of Sharia or Islamic law. They tend to reject democracy since it puts Islam to the votes rather than imposes it. Therefore, most of them reject the concept of statehood and seek to establish an Islamic Caliphate which will unite the Umma; Islamic community. They also reject granting equal rights both for women and minorities. But it is wrong to say that Salafism is a unified trend. Since within Salafism there is division of two camps; the Reformed Salafis and the Jihadi Salafis. Reformed Salafis believe that they should work within the current political system and through democracy achieve their goal, implement the Islamic law and establish an Islamic state. Many already participated in local elections and entered the parliament such as in Egypt. Hence, they try to change the society through religious preaching and education. On the other hand, Jihadi Salafis believe in the idea of militant Jihad, and they deny the legitimacy of the existing political system. They reject Western style of democracy and man-made laws, since power derived from man-made laws rather than Allah’s (God) laws is a kufr (heresy). Hence, their political goals can only be achieved through the use of violence.
III. Rise of Salafism in Lebanon
The history of Salafism in Lebanon goes back to decades, but from the late 1990s till now two factors contributed in the radicalization of Salafism in Lebanon; socio-economic problems and growth of Hizbullah’s power.
a. Socio-economic factors
Lebanese Salafis are mainly located in Tripoli, Akkar and Denniyeh areas. These areas lack any public services and are ignored by the government for years. A minimum monthly wages are often low as $170, compared to the average Lebanese wage $330; with a young unemployment rate of 45%. In Tripoli the poverty line has reached to 57%, while the annual capital expenditure in the city is $1,700 compared to $4,700 in Beirut. Furthermore Beirut receives 83% of Lebanon’s total banking credit compared to Tripoli’s 2%. Bab al-Tabbanah is one of the largest salafi strongholds in Tripoli; not surprisingly it’s the poorest and most depressing neighborhood. The demographic reality of Bab al Tabbaneh reflect the cultural and developmental decline in Tripoli: males and females of Bab al Tabbaneh, respectively have 27% and 37% illiteracy rates; only 3% of its population are college enrolled male students and 6% female students; more than 27% of 7-member families in Bab al Tabbaneh live with incomes of less than $200/month; and the neighborhood has the highest child death rate in North. The latest study of ESCWA reveals that 70 percent of residents drink from the public water supply because they cannot afford to buy bottled water. Furthermore, the current government includes five members from the Tripoli city, including Prime Minister Najib Mikati. However, Tripoli’s residents are skeptical of their public representatives. “Tripoli is a city that has been treated unjustly as the interest of officials is somewhere else … matters are heading toward the worst. You might see thousands of young men standing at the doors of MPs’ offices seeking jobs or joining armed groups at night in order to make a living,” one resident said. Meanwhile, the government has repeatedly said that $100 million has been allocated for development projects in Tripoli but on the ground nothing tangible has yet been accomplished, and it is giving the opposite result and more radical groups are emerging. Attempting to fill the gap left by the Lebanese state over the years, Salafis in Tripoli worked on providing employment opportunities and social services to the poor families. With donations from local individuals, and Saudi Arabian charitable organizations, Salafis managed to create their own public space and spheres of influence by building mosques and religious institutions. Therefore, due to the absence of public investment and growth of socio-economic problems, Salafi movements flourished in North Lebanon.
b. Challenge to Hizbulla’s growing power
Following the assassination of PM Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 and the withdrawal of the occupying Syrian armed forces from Lebanon, many Salafis who fled Lebanon, due to Syria’s harassment, returned to Tripoli. Thus Salafi organizations and schools were reopened, including Shahhal’s Institute of Guidance and Charity. However many Salafis witnessed another kind of intimidations, but this time from the army intelligence units. In 2007 a Salafi Jihadist group Fateh al-Islam set up its headquarters in Palestinian refugee camp Naher al-Bared and declared its tendency to establish Islamic Emirate in Tripoli, and Jihad against the Shiites and slaughtered Lebanese soldiers around the camp. The Lebanese army sieged the camp and bombed it for months and cleaned the area from members of Fateh al-Islam. As a result many Salafi members were detained and imprisoned by the army and security forces without any trial. In May 2008, heavy clashes occurred between Hizbulla and its allies on one side and Future Movement and its allies on the other side in Beirut as a result Hizbulla captured West Beirut, mainly a Sunni stronghold, in less than few days. Salafis saw that this was an embarrassment to the Sunnis and believed that they should also arm themselves for self-defense. To overcome on this tension, in August 18, 2008 a memorandum was signed between Hizbulla and the some Salafi movements. The most important article within this memorandum was the article 4 which declares: “we will exert all possible efforts to eliminate the Takfiri ideology of the Sunnis and the Shia, since accusing all Shia of being infidels is rejected by the Salafists, and accusing all Sunnis of being infidels is rejected by Hezbollah.” In January 2011, the Saad Hariri government was overthrown by a “constitutional coup” after the resignation of March 8 ministers, many Sunnis saw that Hariri’s moderate Future Movement is incapable to defend their cause against Hizbulla and joined Salafi movements. After the Syrian uprising broke up and Syrian refugees came to the north, Salafi clerics helped them and provided aid, at the same time they armed and supported the Free Syrian Army, by providing Lebanese volunteers, to launch operations from Lebanon against the Syrian regime, something that violates the Taef agreement.
In addition, heavy clashes occur on weekly basis in the north between Bab al-Tebbaneh (mainly Sunni area) and Jabal al-Muhsin (mainly Alawite area). Under these circumstances, a moderate Salafi preacher came to arena from Sidon, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. He has promoted himself as the “guardian of Sunni interests” and has become a regular commentator on Lebanese television, frequently engaging in fiery rhetoric against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran, Hizbolla and the Shiite Amal movement. But interestingly his tone differs from other radical Salafi clerics; he claims that he supports the coexistence between Christians and Muslims and between Sunnis and Shiites as long as any group does not impose its will over the others by force. But what is disturbing is that Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir’s actions, combined with that of other Salafi clerics in Lebanon, could lead to a complete breakdown in dialogue between the sectarian groups. “The Sheikh is magnifying feelings of injustice among the Sunni community while simultaneously challenging the core ideology behind Hezbollah’s existence. As an emerging leader, for political rather than religious reasons, al-Assir is setting a tone that will further distance both communities from one another, with dangerous consequences” Foreign Policy magazine reported.
IV. Roots of Salafism in Syria
Given Syria’s geopolitical position and its borders with unstable countries, the breakdown of the Syrian state could result regional conflicts that would allow the growth of the Salafi Jihadi groups. Thus the longer the conflict continues, it’s more likely these groups will solidify their presence in the country.
a. Frustration and radicalization
Syria’s homegrown Salafi Jihadist movement is called the Jubhat al-Nusra, which recently declared the establishment of an Islamic state in Aleppo. What are the reasons that lead to the growth of such groups in Syria? The main two reasons behind the flourish of this movement is the role of Salafi clerics and the frustration from opposition after its failure to stop the crackdown of the protests. Salafi clerics played an important role in inciting sectarian hatred; one of these famous clerics is the radical Salafi cleric Adnan al-Arour. Al-Arour is a Syrian Salafi preacher who fled to Saudi Arabia, after the regime’s suppression of the Hama rebellion in 1982. He repeatedly characterizes the uprising as a “Sunni struggle against Shiites and Alawite oppression”, something that contradicts the spirit and the nature of the uprising. Though he has supporters within the Syrian Salafi ranks but most opposition members reject his sectarian radical ideas. The second reason is the inability if FSA (Free Syrian Army) to protect the protestors as the death toll increases day by day. Moreover, a turning point occurred in February 2012, where the leader of al-Qaida Ayman al-Zawahiri called Muslims to declare Jihad in Syria, few weeks later the U.S. intelligence officials publicly blamed the Damascus and Aleppo bombings on groups linked to al-Qaida that infiltrated from Iraq. According to some, this group was the militant Salafi Jihadist Jubhat al-Nusra.
According to the Jubhat al-Nusra non-Sunnis should either leave the country or stay, and if they stay they have three choices; to convert to Muslim, to pay tax (Islamic term of Jiza) or to be killed. The group is also responsible of many bombing that killed innocent civilians and executing war prisoners. Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of Greater Syria) is another slightly more moderate Salafist militant group, operating mainly in the north-west province of Idleb. Like Jubhat al-Nusra, it wants to establish an Islamic state and sees the fight in Syria as a sectarian battle of Sunni Muslims versus Alawites. As a reaction of these events, in late July 2012, the current head of FSA Supreme Military Council General Mustafa al-Sheikh warned about the growth of Salafism and declared: “They are getting bigger and bigger. And day by day they have more powerful positions inside the country. The situation is very dangerous”. As the crackdown increases, the local protestors’ and fighters’ sense of abandonment by the outside increases, therefore it’s normal that people will become more religious and the voices for Jihad will get louder, thus radicalization will be something inevitable. As Western countries are hesitating to arm the FSA, due to fear that these weapons may pass in the hands of radicals, actually this issue is creating radicalism by itself. Thus the Syrian rebel movements felt betrayed by the international community. Therefore, the abandonment by the outside world mainly the West and its inability to support the opposition by diplomatic, political and military mean and the prolongation of the crackdown by the regime are planting the seeds of fundamentalism in Syria. Thus groups like Jubhat al Nusra will become the largest challenge to the future stability of Syria.
V. How to contain them?
In order to contain Salafism, from economical point of view the Lebanese government must increase its investments in the north so that it decreases the influence of Salafi organizations and the Saudi Arabian financing to them. In addition it should increase the number of public institutions, health care programs and try to control the radical clerics by co-opting them and faster the trial process of the Salafi detainees and release the innocents. The Lebanese government must take the examples of Kazakhstan, Egypt and Tunisia in order to deal with this issue, that is using soft powers rather than hard power which lead to the events of Naher al-Bared in 2007.
Kazakhstan has taken some steps to counter Salafism. The Kazakh approach recognizes the role of the intelligentsia, religious leaders, NGOs, public organizations and the mass media in preventing isolated Salafist groups from becoming a large-scale problem in the country. Thus, the government sought to prevent youth from being recruited into extremist Salafi organizations, through educational initiatives that promote love and tolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities. In Egypt, Salafis generally stayed out of politics under Mubarak’s rule. After the Uprising of January 25, most Salafi parties accepted the democratic game and participated in elections. As a result, the Salafi Nour Party won nearly a quarter of seats in Egypt’s parliament. Nader Bakkarthe party spokesmanjustified his party’s participation in politics by saying; “to express our own point of view, to have pressure power, and to participate in the next government.” The party also wants to have influence in Egypt’s new constitution, by trying to keep the article 6 of the Egyptian constitution that makes principles of sharia the main source of legislation. Moreover, in Tunisia, the newly formed Salafi Reform Party hopes to play similar role, says its president, Mohamed Khoja. Today his party tries to emerge the Salafis into politics and is attracting young Salafis. In addition to all these, on non-state level it’s the responsibility of Shiite political parties such as Amal and Hizbulla to engage in honest dialogue with the Salafis and its leaders. Such initiative may decrease the emergence of militant Salafism and its anti-Shiite slogans on the ground.
In Syria, the regime’s use of hard power doomed to failure to contain Salafism, the crackdown of the opposition and the bombing of villages is giving more power to Salafi Jihadist groups. Thus it’s the interest of regional and global powers to act and contain these movements. If the West hopes to contain the Salafi Jihadi threat in Syria and within the opposition ranks, then it should cooperate with the secular and moderate Islamist groups so that they increase their influence on the ground and undermine Salafi Jihadism in Syria. While Russia and Iran, the main allies of the Syrian regime, should persuade Assad to compromise and find a political solution of the conflict and end the military solution. On the other hand, Russia and U.S. the main key holders of the Syrian conflict should come to an agreement for a peaceful transition for power so that the military conflict in Syria stops. Furthermore it will be the responsibility of the Syrian state to bring these groups under state or political umbrella, like in Egypt and Tunisia, so that the legitimacy of the state is recognized by the Salafi movements and avoid any challenge to the new Syrian state.
In conclusion, the Salafi reemergence should not be looked as a treat in Lebanon as long as the government keeps them in check. In order to contain and decrease their influence the public and the private sector should increase its investment in the north, thus by securing the area from armed clashes foreign investment will flow in the region. On the other hand it’s the time where Salafis express their opinion in the Lebanese parliament and not within mosques or streets. This factor will make them to deal with other political parties from different religious and ideological backgrounds. Coming to Syria, which is the most difficult and dangerous task, it’s the responsibility of both the government and opposition to contain the emergence of Jihadist Salafism. It’s clear that even if the regime falls or not Salafi groups will challenge the legitimacy of the Syrian state. Thus it’s the interest of regional and global powers to stop the military conflict in Syria and persuade the both sides to put down their arms and start a dialogue that will aim to peaceful transition of power. Therefore the West should try to support the secular elements within the opposition and Russia and Iran should try to persuade the regime to give up its military solution. Taking lessons from Egypt, Tunisia and even Kazakhstan is the best examples to contain and co-opt Salafism in the region and bring them under state umbrella.
-Ahmad Moussalli, “Wahabism, Salafism, and Islamism: Who is the Enemy?”, Conflicts Forum: Beirut- London-Washington, January 2009
-Alexander Corbeil, “Lebanon’s Salafists Challenge Hezbollah Dominance”, November 11, 2012, http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2012/11/11/lebanons-salafist-challenge-hezbollah-dominance/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=lebanons-salafist-challenge-hezbollah-dominance
-Elizabeth O’Bagy, “Jihad in Syria”, Institute for the Study of War, Middle East Security Report 6, September 2011
-Makram Sader, The Development of the banking sector 1990-2012, Association of Banks in Lebanon, Beirut, December 2010
-Matteo Tomasisni, The Salafi Jihadist Threat in Lebanon, The Fletcher School Online Journal for issues related to Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization, spring 2010
-Jacob Zenn, “Kazakhstan Struggles to Contain Salafist-Inspired Terrorism”, Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 17, September 13, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=39839&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=26&cHash=69d4e633b4e36170dcc6e532ba1f2bc5
-John Thorne , In Egypt and Tunisia, Salafis move from prisons to parliaments, http://news.yahoo.com/egypt-tunisia-salafis-move-prisons-parliaments-161256728.html,
-Syria’s Salafis Getting Stronger?”, October 20, 2012, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21564912-salafists-are-rise-have-not-dominated-opposition%E2%80%94so-far
-“Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition”, ICJ, Middle East Report N. 131, October 12, 2012.
-“The Hezbollah-Salafist memorandum of understanding”, www.nowlebanon.com
 Elizabeth O’Bagy, Jihad in Syria, Institute for the Study of War, Middle East Security Report 6, September 2011, p. 17
 Elizabeth O’Bagy, Jihad in Syria, Institute for the Study of War, Middle East Security Report 6, September 2011, p. 17
 Matteo Tomasisni, The Salafi Jihadist Threat in Lebanon, The Fletcher School Online Journal for issues related to Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization, spring 2010
 Ahmad Moussalli, “Wahabism, Salafism, and Islamism: Who is the Enemy?”, Conflicts Forum: Beirut-London-Washington, January 2009, p. 22
 Makram Sader, The Development of the banking sector 1990-2012, Association of Banks in Lebanon, Beirut, December 2010
 Bilal Y. Saab and Magnus Ranstorp, Securing Lebanon from the Threat of Salafist Jihadism, Studies in Conflict & Terrorosim, 2007, p. 830
 Misbal al-Ali, Study shows evidence of severe Tripoli poverty, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2012/Nov-10/194583-study-shows-evidence-of-severe-tripoli-poverty.ashx#ixzz2E8VoEIuh , November 10, 2012
 Alexander Corbeil, “Lebanon’s Salafists Challenge Hezbollah Dominance”, November 11, 2012, http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2012/11/11/lebanons-salafist-challenge-hezbollah-dominance/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=lebanons-salafist-challenge-hezbollah-dominance
 “Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition”, ICJ, Middle East Report N. 131, October 12, 2012. p.29
 Ibid. p.3
 This information is from Lebanese OTV channel where it broadcasted a video shows a western journalist interviewing with members of Jubhat al-Nusra at 9/12/2012
 Syria’s Salafis Getting Stronger?”, October 20, 2012, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21564912-salafists-are-rise-have-not-dominated-opposition%E2%80%94so-far
 “Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition”, ICJ, Middle East Report N. 131, October 12, 2012. p.5
 Jacob Zenn, “Kazakhstan Struggles to Contain Salafist-Inspired Terrorism”, Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 17, September 13, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=39839&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=26&cHash=69d4e633b4e36170dcc6e532ba1f2bc5
 John Thorne , In Egypt and Tunisia, Salafis move from prisons to parliaments, http://news.yahoo.com/egypt-tunisia-salafis-move-prisons-parliaments-161256728.html, 9/12/2012