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Lebanon: the changing role of sectarianism

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Clashes in Sidon demonstrate fragmentation within sects, as Sunni Sheikh Assir’s isolated battle against the Lebanese army has been roundly condemned by the majority of the Sunni population. 

Helen Mackreath
25 June 2013

Sectarian tensions are on a knife edge in Lebanon. Fierce clashes between supporters of the firebrand Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Assir and the Lebanese Army have led to the deaths of seventeen soldiers, twenty supporters of Assir, and at least two civilians in the southern city of Sidon, at the time of writing. Over fifty civilians have also been reported wounded, and unable to leave the city.

Fighting broke out on Sunday afternoon after Assir supporters, who are fiercely anti-Hezbollah and staunch supporters of rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Assad, attacked an Army checkpoint, killing three soldiers. The Army responded by storming the Abra mosque, where Assir is imam and had been directing the gunfire of his supporters. Pitched battles were fought throughout the night and into Monday morning. They extended into the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, where Assir militants extended the fight to the Lebanese army.

The violence follows on from the deaths of two people in Sidon last Tuesday as a result of clashes between supporters of Assir and a pro-Hezzbollah group. Residents of Sidon claimed that Assir was threatening to break into apartments in the city which he claims are owned by armed members of Hezbollah.

The escalation in tensions is a further sign that the country has become engulfed in the Syrian conflict. The Army says that the fighting in Sidon today is reminiscent of events preceding Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War, when the country was bloodily carved up along sectarian divisions.

Elsewhere in Lebanon, tensions in the north city of Tripoli, which is in a perpetual state of unrest, have reached their most intense in the past few weeks. On May 19, 31 were killed and 200 injured after fighting between the Sunni-dominated neighbourhood of Bab el Tabbaneh and the Alawite-dominated neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen. The city is, to all intents and purposes, a war zone. The border areas to the east of the country, particularly the town of Arsal in the Bekka, have seen various skirmishes and rocket attacks from Syrian helicopters. Areas around the southern suburbs of the capital Beirut are becoming increasingly tense along Sunni-Shi’a lines.

The upsurge in sectarian tensions should come as no surprise. This is a country which many argue is still locked in the conflict which began in 1975, and which has always been closely entwined with Syrian politics. The unparalleled strains on resources owing to an influx of over a million Syrian refugees, representing twenty-five per cent of the population (according to unofficial forecasts), is creating an even more potent cocktail for conflict.

Sectarianism as politics rather than religion

But it is too easy to confine the conflict to a sectarian framework. At face-value this is, undeniably, what it is. But the sectarian label is obscuring other political concerns which are fracturing not only along Sunni-Shia lines, but also politics within those groups.

In Sidon, the ‘sectarian’ battle is engaging inter-Sunni fighting as new power centres emerge from the sidelines to fight for the leadership of the Sunni people. Assir’s battle is as much about claiming the mantle of Sunni Leader as it is anti-Hezbollah; his actions have been widely condemned by fellow Sunni’s.

Meanwhile, Tripoli appears to be existing in a complete breakdown of any coherent sectarian authority, with an increase in the size and number of armed groups in the city dominating the power of politicians, and creating chaos. According to Al Jazeera newspaper, residents of the city have started looking to these armed groups for protection, faced with a vacuum of political leadership within the Sunni community. One fighter from Bab al Tabbaneh was quoted by the paper as saying, “we don’t answer to anyone and we don’t belong to anyone. We protect our own streets and neighbourhoods”.

A coherent sectarian unity is, therefore, something of a myth.

Actors

Fragmentations within and between sects are continuing to be carved out from above. While sectarian divides run deep across the population, sectarian fighting is incited by febrile rhetoric of anger, righteousness and entitlement from leaders on all sides and within the same sects.

The clashes in Sidon have been waged exclusively by Sunni Sheik Assir and his supporters. In the beginning of June the influential Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, speaking in Doha, called on Sunni Muslims with military training to support the Syrian uprising against Assad, effectively endorsing a jihad. This call to arms was a direct response to Hassan Nasrallah’s confirmation and pledge of continued Hezbollah support to Assad.

Religious leaders are trying to balance garnering the self-interest of their followers, with manoeuvres for a greater political foothold, couched in religious terms. Such tactics are exploiting people’s search for an identity of any kind. That these calls to arms will be met with a response is not to be doubted. But the motivation for responding to such calls may vary. Some, undoubtedly, are determinedly fighting a jihad, whilst others want nothing more than to secure a stable living, and to win the competition over resources that are fought out in sectarian terms. Sectarianism should thus not be reduced to solely a religious divide.

The nation state vs sectarianism

The politicised nature of sectarianism makes internal fractures increasingly likely.

In a study conducted in May 2012 by the Population Studies Centre, it was found that the differences in Lebanese value-orientations do not necessarily obey religious fault-lines. Although Christians and Muslims differed significantly in their attitudes toward gender relations and religious fundamentalism, the Shi’is and Sunnis, despite their political rivalries, appear to hold quite similar positions on many issues.

This goes some way to indicating that sectarianism pertains as much to issues of rights, identity, a political voice, and access to social and economic resources as it does to a religious identity.

And sectarian divisions will become even less about religion as the Lebanese state continues to fail functioning as a working political body. The hollowed-out state is now a playground for religious militias, secular militias, and the international community (who are bearing much of the brunt for assisting refugees).

And as the state becomes less equipped to provide basic services to its population, namely security, amenities, social welfare and economic stability, the nature of sectarian identity itself will become even more closely tied to issues external to religion. This will strengthen rather than diminish sectarian groupings, but also increasingly intensify competition within sectarian groupings.

Developments in Sidon demonstrate fragmentation within sects, as Assir’s every attempt to stoke sectarian tensions in a violent way has been roundly condemned by the majority of the Sunni population. Thanks to Assir, inter-sect battle lines have now been forged alongside the increasingly entrenched and faulty sectarian divisions. Whichever way it turns, Lebanon is becoming a shattered landscape.

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