A recent memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed Aug. 18 between the Shiite party Hezbollah and certain Salafist clerics from Tripoli in North Lebanon reveals the emergence of a new brand of Salafism, more independent of the local political scene and less focused on an exacerbated confessional discourse.
The MOU stands in contract with the process of radicalization of confessional identities in Lebanon after the 2006 Israeli war on Hezbollah. From Hezbollah’s point of view, the move is quite clear: establish new channels of influence inside the Sunni community in a context of hardening relations with its Islamic Sunni counterpart, the Jamaa Islamiyya. The situation is highly different for the Salafist groups, who are closely connected to the Future Current, Saudi Arabia’s and America’s ally, and who interact with a radicalized Sunni constituency still traumatized by the West Beirut takeover at the beginning of May by Hezbollah’s fighters.
This MOU has to be understood as the result of two processes: the crisis between this movement and the Future Current and the diversification of the Salafist movement in Lebanon. The relation between the Future and the Salafist leaders is suffering from two major points of tension. The first one is the incapacity of the Future Current to deliver, due to its weak influence on some of the security bodies in charge of the surveillance of radical Islamic groups, as promised in an informal deal during the parliamentary elections of 2005.
Secondly, despite its informal political alliance, the Future Current works to undermine Salafist groups’ influence by relying on clerical networks close to the Egyptian Islamic University of al-Azhar and by preparing to reinforce their alliance with the Islamic counterweight to the Salafist movement: the Jamaa Islamiyya, which is close to the Muslim Brother school of thought. This context of discontent about the ties between Salafists and the Future Current increased the internal polarization of the Salafist groups.
If the dominant trend, represented by the leadership of the al-Shahâl family, is still the key player among Lebanese Salafists, it is facing the expansion of a serious challenger: the Kuwait-supported Jama’iyya alIhiyya al-Turâth al-Islâmiy headed by Safwan al-Zoabi, a young dynamic religious entrepreneur who wants to reform the Salafist experience. His goals are twofold: to go beyond mere teaching of religious principles and develop a new presence in the social field through expanding development-oriented local initiatives.
This new Salafist current was able to capitalize on the internal divisions and conflicts inside the historical wing directed by Dai Islam alShahal. It disagrees with its radical confessional orientation and believes in the necessity of dialogue with its Shiite counterparts— with Hezbollah not least among them. The memorandum was quickly frozen after heavy Saudi pressure. Still, it is a new blow to the Future Current’s domination of the Sunni community a few months before the parliamentary elections of 2009, where the formal domination on the political system might switch from Sunni to Shiite hands, a first in Lebanon’s history.
— By Patrick Haenni