Radicalisation in the Sunni community: a problem within

Tripoli, the capital of the Lebanese Sunnis and Lebanon’s second largest city after Beirut, became a battleground for sectarian strife between different groups (Alewites and Sunnis); a conflict exacerbated by the spillover of the Syrian civil war in Lebanon. The “Capital of the North” (Tripoli) has not fully recovered from the on-going battle between its two neighborhoods:  ‘Jabal-Mohsen’ (predominantly Alewite) and ‘Bab-Al-Tebeneh’ (predominantly Sunni).  Now a new party has joined the war: the Lebanese state. From kidnappings to beheadings, the Lebanese army has lost many of its soldiers whilst trying to fight the militants of “Daesh” and other radical Islamic affiliations in the Northern part of the country (Tripoli and Arsal).

This phenomenon of extreme Islamic fanaticism, highlighted by a series of horrific beheadings of foreigners and massacres of minorities in the cities of Syria and Iraq, triggered some serious concern on both the international and local scenes. The rampant threat of Islamic extremism from Iraq and Syria finally knocked on the doors of Northern Lebanon, petrifying other sects in the country including Shias, Christians and Druze.  In fact, everyone has been so greatly concerned about the communal security and the future of other sectarian groups in Lebanon vis-à-vis the threat of Sunni radicalisation, that one important aspect of the issue has been left out of the debate- the reaction within the Sunni sect itself to this threat of radicalisation. The emergence of Islamic extremism has affected the Sunni sect more than any other group over the years, particularly in Lebanon.

What are the reasons behind this wave of radicalisation within the Sunni sect? How can the Moderate Sunnis of Lebanon tackle the problem from inside their own community?

The absence of a strong Sunni Leadership

Sunni power began to diminish following the assassination of the Sunni Prime Minister Rafic El Hariri in 2005 and the events that took place afterwards. Although Hariri’s son “Saad” took over, he failed to replace his father’s strong character or carry out the same achievements of the former leader for the community.   What the sect has really lacked is the presence of a charismatic leader to voice the demands and interests of the Lebanese Sunnis and maintain their political status on the Lebanese scene.

The intra-communal dimension

Not only is the Lebanese society divided along inter-communal sectarian lines, but the challenge is also the power struggle within the sectarian group itself, which is referred to as the intra-communal aspect (Oren Barak wrote a solid piece on the intra-communal divide in the Lebanese society). For instance, the Sunni community, just like the rest of the Lebanese counterparts, is enduring a political struggle between the community’s most powerful families (The Hariri, The Karami and The Mikati etc.) on the leadership of the sect.

The Shia resurgence

Before the Ta’if agreement of 1989 (A national reconciliation accord which ended the civil war and reestablished the power distribution between Lebanon’s different sects), the main Sunni concern was the impairment of power portrayed by the Maronite predominance on the political Lebanese scene. However, the rise of the Shias in power has become more threatening to the Sunni community than the old Maronite dominion, with Hezbollah becoming the strongest militia and political party operating on the ground. The Sunni-Shia division is both historical and theological and its exacerbation was triggered by the revival of the Shia identity both in Lebanon and the region in the post 1979 Iranian Revolution. However, the Lebanese Sunnis cannot overlook the demographic and political realities: the Shias are outnumbering the Sunnis and have already been moving from southern Lebanon to settle in the suburbs of Beirut. As a matter of fact, most of the formerly Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut have become predominantly Shi’a areas.

Good Sunni, bad Sunni

The logic of political categorisation classified the Sunnis between moderates or terrorists.   This classification stems from the perception of the Sunnis in Lebanon as either high class citizens of Beirut or as future jihadists on route to militancy. As a matter of fact, poverty, oppression and illiteracy enhanced the risk of radicalisation amongst young Sunnis and widened the rich and poor gap within the community. On the one hand, state failure is partially blamed for the wave of radicalisation, but on the other hand the problem stems from within the Sunni Lebanese community itself. The inability of moderate and rich Sunnis to lift up their community politically and economically rendered a number of its members susceptible to radical ideologies. Power and economic polarisation inside the community were the primary factors for the rising phenomena of radicalisation.

In conclusion, the Sunni community has been mistrusted by its allies as much as its enemies as a result of the uncontrolled emergence of extremism and the latest attacks on the Lebanese army. For instance, although only a minority is carrying out terrorist activities, the blame has fallen on the Sunni sect and its leaders as a whole.  The inability of the community to control and help its members by tightening the prevalent socio-economic gap inside the sect has created this reality of bad Sunni and Good Sunni. Not only has the impairment of wealth within the Sunni sect incited the radicalisation of a number of its members, but also the corruption and incompetence of the Sunni leaders in domestic politics. Many reasons for radicalisation have been presented, including regional powers like Saudi Arabia, American assistance in financing Sunni groups, and the emergence of a strong Shia ideology spearheaded by Iran. However, the real issue must be tackled from inside the group itself. The Sunni community should rethink its political and economic strategies to save the sect from losing more of its members to the threat of radicalisation. In reality, political Islam itself is not the problem. Instead, to diminish violence in the future, each Islamic sect should be responsible for its politics and the behavior of its communities.

By Amanda Libbos

Master of Arts in International Relations

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Middle East

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