Lebanon’s Salafists poised for parliamentary polls?
Beirut - Shunning the quietest tendencies of their predecessors, contemporary Salafi movements in Lebanon have emerged as visible and vocal actors in the public sphere, leading some to question whether they might seek to broaden their political clout by entering electoral politics.
While they enjoy a substantial popular base and powerful ties to foreign countries, Lebanon’s Salafi movements do not seem poised to pursue political office, however.
Although relatively new in scope and scale, the country’s Salafi groups are historically rooted actors. The orthodox religious movement, which seeks to emulate the Prophet Mohammad and his earliest followers, was founded in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in 1946 by cleric Sheikh Salem al-Shahal. Since those humble beginnings, Salafi movements gained notable popularity over the years.
Statistical data concerning the number of Salafis in Lebanon is not available but Zoltan Pall, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore and a specialist on Lebanese Salafi movements, attempted to quantify the groups in his 2013 book Lebanese Salafis between the Gulf and Europe: Development, Fractionalization and Transnational Networks of Salafism in Lebanon.
His 2009 survey of Tripoli’s mosques revealed that 40 out of 110 are governed by the state-endorsed authority of Dar al-Fatwa. Salafis control 40 of the remaining mosques and the other 30 are run by various Islamic groups. This implies that the movement possesses significant religious sway over the city.
Beyond this noteworthy presence in the north, Salafi movements have gained popularity in parts of southern Lebanon, namely the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp and the village of Abra east of Sidon. These groups are even marking an increased presence in the Beirut neighbourhood of Tariq al-Jadideh, Pall said in a Skype interview.
He said the movements have “succeeded in situating themselves in the centre of the religious field” as evidenced by the increasing number of people praying in Salafi mosques and attending sermons delivered by Salafi figures. Pall predicted that Salafis would play an important role in influencing Sunni religious identity and redefining what it means to be a Sunni in Lebanon.
Beyond a rising support base, Salafi movements have strong ties with the Gulf countries, namely Qatar and Kuwait, which have financed the groups through charity networks such as Qatar’s Sheikh Eid charity organisation and Kuwait’s Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage. These financial flows, Pall said, allowed these groups to carry out small-scale initiatives, such as building clinics, mosques and religious institutes in underdeveloped north Lebanon districts, which contribute to their popularity among residents.
Considering their historical roots, increasing popularity and transnational financial ties, it would make strategic sense for these groups to strive for political participation, especially considering the Sunni street’s growing disenchantment with its traditional political leadership. However, it does not seem as though this path will be pursued.
“Salafi movements in Lebanon are not yet ready to participate in institutional politics,” Sheikh Salem al-Rafei, the imam of the al-Taqwa mosque in Tripoli and an influential Lebanese Salafi figure, said. He noted that Salafi groups in Lebanon lack organisational structure and are connected instead by loose social networks that would not be amenable to organised political work.
Although he said it would be beneficial for Salafis to coalesce under a unified political party, Rafei cautioned that “this move would undoubtedly create rifts among Salafi ranks and could isolate the movement’s popular base”. This internal opposition, he clarified, stems from the fact that many Salafis ideologically refuse political organisation and label it bid’ah — a harmful religious innovation.
Ideological differences aside, there are political reasons in the way of participation in government. Rafei, a well-known critic of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, noted that the evolving situation precludes serious political involvement.
“We are feeling, day by day, that Lebanon is falling under the grip of the Iranian project,” he said. “What would be the point of elections? What would be the point of me being elected as a deputy or me nominating three candidates when in the end Hezbollah decides everything?” he asked.
Although it is unlikely that Salafis will coalesce into an organised political force, this does not mean that they will be absent from parliamentary elections scheduled for 2017.
Historically speaking, Salafi leaders have seen some success in elections. In Lebanon’s 1996 parliamentary polls, Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Shahal, son of the founding father of Salafism in Lebanon, received about 9,000 votes in Tripoli.
Considering the rift between the Sunni street and the sect’s traditional political leaders, Rafei predicted that certain Salafi figures will pursue standing in elections, especially because “the interest of the Sunni sect is at stake”.