Meet the Lebanese Press: Syria and the Salafis

Lebanese-Syrian relations witnessed a turnaround this month. The visit by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to Damascus culminated in a declaration to establish full diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time. Promises were made to intensify efforts to resolve long-standing disputes around delineating the borders and uncovering the fate of dozens of Lebanese who disappeared during the civil war and are believed to be imprisoned in Syria.

Relations are far from returning to what they were prior to the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, but stronger ties with Lebanon could further break attempts at isolating Syria by the US, Israel and the “moderate” Arab regimes, in particular Saudi Arabia. Mending fences with the Lebanese political elites coincided with Syrian efforts to strengthen military ties with Russia in the wake of the Georgian conflict and revelations that Israel made a major contribution to the training and arming of Georgian forces. They also come at an unprecedented campaign by Israel to warn of the mounting “threat” of Hizballah due to its growing military power that has raised fears of imminent military confrontation. Elie Shalhoub of Al-Akhbar ponders the possibility of strong relations between Lebanon and Syria that could avoid the pitfalls of the past.

Meanwhile, an unexpected memorandum of understanding (MOU), translated below, was signed between Hizballah and some Sunni Salafi groups. The memorandum triggered a wave of protest among mainstream Sunni political parties, namely the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, Member of Parliament and son of the assassinated former Prime Minster, whose alliance with the Salafis has suffered from setbacks following the 2006 battle at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp and the takeover of Hariri offices by Hizballah in Beirut last May. Mounting political pressure led to its suspension by the Salafi groups.

Khaled Saghieh of Al-Akhbar explains Hizballah’s motives for signing the MOU and questions the validity of objections to it, while Sateh Noureddine of As-Safir criticizes the pact and calls it a sectarian trap.

Al-Akhbar, 6 August 2008, Elie Shalhoub, “Half-Brothers … But”:

Lebanese-Syrian relations have been re-aligned back on a track they departed from more than three years ago during which tension between the two countries reached unprecedented levels. This is an occasion that requires rising above the wounds of the past while working towards resolving issues that are still standing. Top among these issues: finding the fate of the disappeared, delineating the borders between the two countries, the Shebaa farms, and the framework governing bilateral relations. The aim is not to hold Syria responsible for what happened. But as the “older sister” that governed Lebanon for decades … Syria bears the heavier burden, and is required to answer a number of questions if a return to relations is to be strengthened:

Why did so many of her “allies” fall apart and cross the floor after the withdrawal of the last Syrian soldier from Lebanon? Why did Syria fail, during three decades of direct presence in Lebanon, to create a state of pubic sympathy that would express “gratitude” for her “sacrifices”? Moreover, how does Syria explain that one of the two political currents that secured this honorable return to normalized relations, the Free Patriotic Movement, had remained her number one enemy for two decades, while the second force, Hizballah, suffered tremendously at the hands of her Lebanese crew until its replacement in 2002?

There is no doubt that the undeclared role of Syria during the 2006 Israeli aggression … overshadowed many of the mistakes of the past. There is also no doubt that this role as well as Syrian efforts to improve the capabilities of the resistance and ensuring that the Doha Accord is a success played a role. Lastly, one hopes that those in charge realize that strengthening relations does not happen without fulfilling the mutual interests of both sides outside mafia-style arrangements and within a clear agenda and effective mechanisms.

Al-Akhbar, 20 August 2008, Khaled Saghieh, “Salafis in the Spotlight”:

Certain objections to the memorandum of understanding between Hizballah and some Salafi groups hold unhealthy connotations. For if objections raised by Salafis who were not included in the understanding are understandable, objections raised by the Future Movement and some Hizballah allies deserve scrutiny. For a long time the Future Movement threatened a Sunni-Shiite schism. And implicit in their discourse was the following: that if Hizballah did not acquiesce to their demands, then “evil” forces will take care of the response, and that tended to be a reference to Salafi groups.

Therefore, if the memorandum has a role, it is to place certain Salafis outside the circle of blackmail. It is an attempt to liberate the dialogue between Hizballah and the Sunni leadership [Hariri’s Future Movement] from this blackmail.

Whatever differences exist between the Salafi movement and the Lebanese people — and that difference is huge — reducing Salafism to fear and terrorism is a form of intellectual terror. We are willing to tolerate terror when its source is Western, and tolerate hunger and impoverishment when it springs from neo-liberal ideas, but our sensitivities are suddenly scratched if we are faced with a group skeptical of prevailing norms of modernity.

As-Safir, 20 August 2008, Sateh Noureddine, “The Sectarian Trap”:

Because it was an incomplete step, it had a negative outcome and will only serve to further highlight the giant gap between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Lebanon. The memorandum of understanding, that was signed yesterday between the Shi’ite Hizballah and Sunni Salafi groups, reflects a healthy and mutual anxiety towards the future of disturbed relations between the two confessions after the deterioration of these relations following the attack by Hizballah on Beirut last May. It also reflects a serious effort to mend these relations and prevent them from descending into outright confrontation, something that was about to happen more than once in the past three years.

But the title of the memorandum, its content, and the signatures that it bore did not serve this declared goal.

The text does not suggest that Hizballah is ready to pay the price to avoid a fall-out with the Sunnis. The opposite is true. One of the aims of the understanding is to stand in the face of the American Zionist project that was and remains one of the main points of internal conflict. The same applies to the alliance with Syria and Iran … that had its role in drawing up the lines of sectarian divisions between the Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims centuries before the creation of either the US or Israel.

Hizballah went too far in avoiding the Sunni party [presumably the Hariri faction] favored by the Shi’ite and other confessional groups because it is the one that is the most ready to deal with Hizballah in its political capacity rather than sectarian one, the latter having been invoked with or without reason in the memorandum.

Memorandum of understanding between Hizballah and some Salafi groups:

In light of the grave challenges facing our Arabic and Islamic nation, the most dangerous of these challenges being the incitement of sectarian and confessional animosities in order to take possession of the region’s wealth and resources for the benefit of Israel and the United States,

In light of the negative fallout this incitement brings onto the Lebanese arena which benefits the Israeli enemy,
And because Israel wants to wrest from the Lebanese what it was unable to grab by force, especially after the July war,
And in abidance to Islamic duty,
We keenly sought to limit the disagreement between Sunnis and Shi’ites within a scientific and ideological framework to be handled by scholars from both sects. Members of the public are barred from broaching the subject of disagreement or beating its drum.

One of the most important elements of managing this disagreement is to preserve the peculiarity of each sect, respect it principles and symbols, and to fully abide by the precepts of calm rational discourse. Fiery expressions of political disagreements between all parties have a negative influence on the general public and the Muslim one in particular.

Based on the above, leaders from Hizballah and Salafi forces met and agreed to the following:

First, given the sanctity of Muslim blood, we forbid and condemn any assault by any Muslim group against another Muslim group. And in the case that any such group is subject to an assault, it has the right to resort to permissible means to defend itself.

Second, to abstain from incitement of the public which fuels the fire of discord and removes the power of decision-making from the hands of the reasonable and into the hands of the enemies of the Muslim nation.

Third, to stand in the face of the American Zionist project whose major weapon is to raise tension, partition the partitioned, and divide the divided.

Fourth, to seriously seek the elimination of ideologies present among Sunni and Shiite schools of thought that judge the validity of the faith of one Muslim group. This is because declaring Shiites in general as infidels or Sunnis in general as infidels is unacceptable.

Fifth, if Hizballah or the Salafis are subject to any apparent and clear injustice from local or foreign sources, the unaffected group is required to stand by the affected one firmly and all its capabilities.

Sixth, to form a committee composed of top clerics from the Salafi movement and Hizballah to look into the points of disagreement about Sunnis and Shiites, in order to limit disagreements to this committee and prevent its from spilling over into the public sphere.

Seventh, each side is entitled to its beliefs, and no side has the right to impose its ideas and interpretations on the other side.

Eighth, both sides see that building an understanding prevents divisions among Muslims, and boosts peaceful co-existence among all the Lebanese.

Meet the Lebanese Press is The Electronic Intifada’s regular review of what is making the rounds in the Lebanese press and the pundits’ take on it. Hicham Safieddine is a Lebanese Canadian journalist.