The State of Sunnis in Lebanon

The State of Sunnis in Lebanon

Abdullah Iskandar |

The crisis between the Future Movement, the largest political formation for Sunnis in Lebanon, and the country’s Higher Islamic Council may well represent much more than a mere dispute between the leadership of the movement and the person of the Grand Mufti of the Lebanese Republic, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani.


And regardless of the mutually exchanged personal and political accusations between the two sides, there are indications that such a dispute finds its roots in the role played by Sunnis in Lebanon and the role they might have the ambition to play, in their current situation and in the confusion prevailing among their ranks.


In practice, Lebanese Sunnis turned into another of Lebanon’s sects after the assassination of Grand Mufti of the Republic, Sheikh Hassan Khaled, when they started feeling that they were targeted, on the background of the conflict that was taking place in Lebanon back then, as a sect. They also felt that their Arab aspirations, whether towards Egypt or Saudi Arabia, were not longer suited to a phase in which they were required to become followers of Syria’s policy in Lebanon. And it was Grand Mufti Hassan Khaled who paid the price for this form of Arabism, which used to place Sunnis above the country’s sectarian conflicts and to drive them towards reaching settlements in such conflicts.


The Taif Agreement consecrated the transformation of the Sunnis into a sect, with feelings and concerns of its own, especially with Rafic Hariri assuming the position of Prime Minister, and with the total collapse of the traditional Sunni leaderships that used to provide cover for reaching settlements. Indeed, the late Prime Minister Hariri resorted to adhering completely to the stance taken by Syria in order to protect this new role, armed with executive powers that had been taken away from the Maronite President. Yet he discovered with experience that such adhesion did not serve the Sunnis as a sect, but rather served Syrian strategy – of which he discovered, with Bashar Al-Assad coming to power, the confessional nature, whether inside of Syria, in its alliance with Iran or in its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. It was perhaps the latter that made the Sunnis apprehensive of this strategy, something which was expressed in elections, first municipal and then legislative. This was followed by a nearly public dispute with Damascus, with UN Resolution 1559 being issued, a resolution which Rafic Hariri was accused of being behind, later reaching up to his assassination, which no one among the Sunnis doubts that Syria is behind, regardless of the means used to carry it out. This thus strengthened confessional fanaticism among them in such a way as to make of Hariri’s political heirs the leaders of the sect and its sole representatives. And that is what the legislative elections of 2005 consecrated.


Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s power was growing, and it started turning into the sole polarizing center for Shiites, as a result of the support it received from Iran and Syria. This further upset the Sunnis, who had come to feel, after the collapse of the role played by the Maronites, that the growth of Shiite power would take place at their expense as a sect, regardless of the slogans raised by Hezbollah.


In parallel to this, some Sunni youths, especially from the periphery, were being attracted by calls to Jihad and engaging in them. Some thus returned from the lands of Jihad, especially Iraq, to which they had gone with Syria’s security services turning a blind eye to if not facilitating their passage, within the framework of Iran and Syria confronting the Americans.


With the eruption of the Syrian crisis, which was understood within Sunni circles as the battle of their coreligionists in the face of a sectarian regime that had made use of every type of force to subjugate them, most of them sided with the opposition to the regime in Damascus, and some of them joined the fight in defense of those they considered to be their Sunni brethren. And with Hezbollah openly joining the battle alongside the Syrian regime, feelings of confessional persecution among Sunnis have increased, to such an extent that some groups among them are now expressing radical stances not just in the face of the Syrian regime, but also against other Lebanese parties, especially Shiite ones.


The outcome of this today is that the Sunnis find themselves between the Future Movement, which is suffering from a challenge to its exclusive leadership for numerous reasons, and the calls of fundamentalists, whose influence is growing and who are raising slogans that are both political and violent. This represents a rupture with the settlement-seeking heritage of the Sunnis and a turn towards confessional mobilization, at least at the level of Lebanon, which reflects in tremendous confusion within the sect that has lost its role, whether as a result of the challenge represented by Hezbollah, or as a result of losing the compass of the role it could play.