Saturday, December 15, 2012

Another May 7, 2008 in Lebanon?

The Syrian conflict seems to be nearing a clear end- the collapse of the Assad regime. In Lebanon there is talk that the Hizbullah is looking to reach some compromises with the March 14 coalition. These arrangements are sought to lessen the repercussions of the Syrian developments on the political situation in Lebanon.

There is no doubt that the demise of the Assad regime is the biggest challenge faced by the Hizbullah ever- a bigger challenge than it's war with Amal in the 1980s, any of the Israeli wars fought, or the classification of the group as a terrorist organization.

There is talk that the Hizbullah, in order to force concessions, will resort to another May 7, 2008- type operation. This is the operation were Hizbullah and its supporters used force, mainly against the Sunni-led Future Movement and its supporters, in order to force concessions from the March 14th Movement. The use of force worked- it resulted in the Doha Agreement with a veto power for Hizbullah and its lesser allies. However, it resulted in a deep chasm between the Shia and Sunnis in Lebanon that has only been deepening. It also resulted in a change of perception of the group in the Arab and Muslim world- from that of a resistance group to that of an Iranian proxy- a sectarian group intent on harming Sunnis and their interests.

Lebanon today- December 15, 2012, is not Lebanon on the eve of May 7, 2008. It's a transformed country- and not in a good way. Such a gamble by the Hizbullah and its allies will exact huge costs on the Lebanese. The Hizbullah would not be facing poorly- armed security guards with little to no motivation to fight. It will be facing opponents who have been emboldened by the Syrian conflict and the near demise of the Syrian regime. Hizbullah will be facing a Sunni community who, with marginal exceptions, feels threatened, marginalized and humiliated by the Hizbullah. Most importantly, those in the Sunni community who seem eager for a military confrontation with the Hizbullah, a group they see as nothing more than an Iranian proxy, are the highly religious Sunnis, who would be motivated by a sense of sectarian grievance against the group. They would be led by what MP Jumblatt referred to- those with the closely trimmed mustaches and the long beards. These are fighters who are as motivated or even more motivated than the Hizbullah fighters. It will not be a pretty picture.

A decision by the Hizbullah to use its weapons internally, again, for domestic leverage, to force concessions will have disastrous consequences- primarily for the Hizbullah and its supporters. It is possible that  Hizbullah would attempt that but I think it's unlikely because the group has proved itself to be pragmatic and showed a good understanding of Lebanese politics and reality . But if the unlikely happens it will be one of the worst conflicts seen in Lebanon ever- even by the Civil War's standards.   
The Shia Hizbullah would be fighting the Sunni Hizbullah with both sides deeply confident in the validity of their cause and equally confident that dying for it is good for them in this life and in the afterlife. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Walbridge's Dearborn book

Without Forgetting the Imam: Lebanese Shi'is in an American Community (1997) by Linda Walbridge is an excellent book on the Shia of Dearborn. One hopes that those who want to learn about that community do read her book- particularly federal law enforcement who have a special interest in that area of the world. The insights and the depth of knowledge she has are remarkable. She was able to attain them because she was trusted by the community who opened their homes to her.

One hopes that those interested in that community read Walbridge and not the drivel that is written about the community by Zionist Christians and Zionist Jews who see attacking and defaming that community as somehow helping Israel. In the alternative they see the defaming and demonizing as payback for the Shia Lebanese group Hizbullah fighting Israel and succeeding in removing it from the South of Lebanon.

 However, there are two errors in the book I want to mention. First- On page 35 she writes that "Minority groups have been able to persist in Lebanon because of its inaccessible mountainous area." The Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi years ago- in 1988- debunked that myth. Is it possible the Muslim armies who invaded and destroyed empires, near and far, were not able to reach to the mountainous area? This is Salibi's question. And his answer is highly unlikely. Second- On page 36 she writes that "Lebanon is unique among the Middle Eastern countries in that it is home to a very large Christian population." Egypt has more Christians than all the other Arab countries combined.

Defendant Michel Samaha and the dominant (anti -) Sunni Muslim narrative

Michel Samaha is a high profile defendant charged with serious crimes in Lebanon. He is charged with being a part of an armed criminal syndicate that planned bombings with the intention of fomenting sectarian strife in Lebanon.

 The leaked information from the secretly taped conversations reveal that he was part of a plot to assassinate the Maronite patriarch during his visit to the North- an area of Lebanon that is majority Sunni Lebanese- many of whom are struggling to survive in an area of the country that lacks the infrastructure and opportunities that other parts of the country have. The North has never received the attention it deserved because it did not border Israel, the world did not care for it- and it did not have advocates and supporters to lobby for its interests. It now gets a lot of negative attention- hardly any positive attention- even though the Prime Minister is from that part of the country. The attention the North gets now is undesirable, defamatory and contrived- the hyped and insidious cries about the "Salafist threat." The Samnaha terrorist plot was preceded with a coordinated campaign of various personalities and media outlets hyping up the Sunni "Salafist threat" in Tripoli. The media outlets involved in this campaign included al- Akhbar newspaper ( a "newspaper" whose editor Al Amin stated with zero concern about professionalism and credibility, that all it takes is for Sayed Hassan Nasrallah to whisper in his ear about something for him to do do without any thinking or reservations). So far there is nothing new in this. So what's the issue here? What is really surprising is the fact that an important part of the Samaha plot has been papered over and not given any attention by analysts and observers of the Lebanese situation.

 Simply put Samaha's involvement in the criminal plot was motivated in big part by his hatred of Sunnni Muslims. Nothing new in this hate. This is the same man who, when asked in the Aljazeera documentary interview about the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, looked straight at the camera and with the cold demeanor of an assassin justified the crime and showed zero concern for the victims of the massacre. As to the terrorist plot- This man basically said in the secretly taped conversations that if the Sunni mufti were killed and other Sunnis were killed that's fine- because "yesterday they [Sunni Muslim rebels] attacked the Christians in Aleppo."

 If Samaha's plot was targeting any other religious community in Lebanon, other than the Sunnis, we would not have heard the end of it. But because he was motivated by hatred and vindictiveness against the Sunni Muslims that somehow evaded the media and the analysts. There is a dominant narrative about the Muslim Sunnis and their being victims of vicious sectarian and confessional hatred is not allowed to be part of it. Why?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Syrian Christians and the Assad Regime

I just finished reading Neil Mcfarquhar’s small and highly readable book, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah wishes you a happy birthday. Neil is the former New York Times reporter in the Middle East. I met him and had dinner with him one time when he was writing a story on American Muslim charities. I was at the Middle East Studies Association meeting in Denver last month. I was talking to a colleague when the topic of Syria came up. My colleague said things that almost everyone else that I talked to in the US usually says when the topic of Syria comes up- Syrian Christians: “Assad is good to the Christians” and “what would happen to the Christians if Assad is removed.” This common reaction is testament to the very effective propaganda work of the Assad regime and its supporters. Who cares about the tens of thousands of people killed and the excessive use of force against the civilian population? Syria is not a country with a bloody history of sectarian relations. There are historical incidents of tensions and violence but they are the rare exception rather than the rule. There is no better response to the question about the Christians in Syria than this quote on page 335 from Neil’s book regarding the Christian Syrian Anwar al-Bunni [ I am familiar with Al Bunni from my readings on the Middle East- I did not know he is a Christian until I read Neil's book] and his encounter with the regime: “In 1982, Bunni was a recent college graduate living in Hama, where the government began rooting out supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The old Muslim quarter was their stronghold and the army eventually turned the entire district into a parking lot. Bunni, a Christian, resided in an adjacent neighborhood, but security agents nabbed him because he sported a beard- often the trademark of a devout Muslim male. Even as they were beating him, he refused to tell them whether he was a Christian or a Muslim. His wife quoted him as saying to them, “I have lived here for twenty years and nobody has ever asked me that question so I won’t answer.” Finally a neighbor emerged from his house and vouched that Bunni was a Christian. The officers let him go, but first set his beard alight.”

Al Assir: A Muslim Brother or a Salafist?

The media insist on describing the Shaykh of Masjid Bilal Bin Rabah Ahmad Al-Assir as a Salafist. Al Assir looks like a Salafist with his long beard and closely trimmed moustache. But al Assir himself has refused to self- identify as a Salafist. His background is involvement with the Al Jamaa al Islamiyya of Lebanon- the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood. He said he left the Jamaa because he wanted to work independently- which he did, keeping a low profile for a number of years. In a number of interviews he gave to the Lebanese and international media Al Assir denied affiliation with any group-Islamist or secular. His field of work was Da'awa- the call on the non observant Muslims to return to being practicing Muslims. It was the Syrian Revolution, Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and Hezbollah’s practices in Lebanon that turned him to speaking out on political issues- according to him.His perception that there is a lack of balance in Lebanon- that there is hegemony of Hezbollah on Lebanese political life [a theme also echoed by the clean-shaven cool and modern 14th of March Lebanese political grouping- including Samir Geagea the head of the Lebanese Forces party] and that all sects are suffering from this hegemony but none as much as the Sunni sect of Lebanon. He gave numerous examples to back his evaluation of Lebanese politics and devoted one whole sermon to explaining the causes of increase in Sunni-Shia tension and another whole sermon on the topic of how he sees the Sunni sect is being persecuted by the "Iran Party". A more accurate description of Al Assir is he is a Tablighi Jamaa- the group that focuses on the Daawa and much less on politics. His pragmatism, acceptance of the Lebanese confessional political system, respect for and acknowledgement of differences as an accepted fact, make him, intellectually at least, Muslim Brotherhood than anything else. The media’s fixation on his looks makes it very hard to undo this myth that he is a Salafist.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Shaykh Al Assir: The consociational salafist

                                               A Marginal Phenomenon?

In a country of 4 million people the Al Assir Youtube channel has 959,205 views and his Masjidbilalbinrabah channel has 299, 390 views. Not a marginal phenomenon even though his detractors and political opponents within his faith group would like to paint him as such. Why is his message being heard? Because his message is not a revolutionary one. He is a status quo player. How? 

                                                Good Sunni/Bad Sunni Dichotomy

The dominant theme in the media reporting on the man is that he is a "radical" Sunni- the un- Mustaqbal/Future Movement if you will. That there you have the good Sunnis- the modern Sunnis with the shaved beards or the trimmed goatees represented by Saad Hariri and then you have the scary bunch- the long beards- Shaykh al-Assir and his supporters who are lumped together with the Who's Who of a long list of scary Sunni Islamists. But the record does not support this conclusion. The record is the man's words and deeds. The Lebanese democracy is a consociational democracy built on power sharing among the different sects of Lebanon- 16 of them with the three biggest being the Maronites, the Sunnis and the Shia.

                                                    List of Political Grievances

The Shaykh al-Assir as to Lebanon has put forth the following positions numerous times: 1. Lebanon is a a country to be shared by all its sects. He supports that. 2. He complains about the lack of balance in the political system. His chief grievance is that "the Iran party"/the Hezbollah has used the conflict with Israel to monopolize massive arms outside the state control and basically took over the state in all but name- a state that all the Lebanese are supposed to share. He gave numerous examples of Hezbollah not respecting the rules of the Lebanese consociational democracy. One of them is the marginalizing of Saad Hariri when he represents the biggest bloc of Sunni voters and supporters. the influence of the Hezbollah on the judiciary, the army, etc. 3. His demand is that there should be a restoration of the balance and a road map for the the state taking over the weapons of Hezbollah so that the state that represents all the Lebanese can make the decisions of war and peace. He accuses the Hezbollah of using its weapons to advance the Iranian agenda.

                                                      Restatement of  "Unique" Grievances?

 The above are all complaints that have been voiced by different players in Lebanese politics from all sects- the Maronite owner of ad diyar alluded to this reality in his paper- leader of the Lebanese Forces the Maronite Samir Geagea also made comments along the same lines. The shaykh, despite his Salafist looks accepts the Lebanese political system, accepts power sharing and his complaint is that his community is being marginalized by the Hezbollah.

                                                      The Consociational Salafist

 This is a political complaint not a religious complaint that has been echoed by other Sunnis, leaders and ordinary folks, as well. His call is not to restore the Caliphate and Islamic rule. His call is the return of balance in the power sharing arrangement. The Shaykh is an interesting kind of "salafist." A consociational "salafist."