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Slurring Sectarianism: Sunni-Shi‘i Discourse in Lebanon

[Folio depicting Battle of Siffin (657 AD) from a fourteenth-century Tarikhnama (Book of History) by Balami. Cropped image by Underlying Ik] [Folio depicting Battle of Siffin (657 AD) from a fourteenth-century Tarikhnama (Book of History) by Balami. Cropped image by Underlying Ik]

Lebanon has a history of inter-sectarian strife. Due to recent regional developments, namely the war in Syria, this strife now features new anti-Shi‘i and anti-Sunni slurs. Such slurs fan the flames of the Sunni- Shi‘i conflict that has emerged in the past decade, and are particularly effective when they employ tropes from Islamic collective memory.

Anti-Shi‘i Discourse

Lebanese Sunni resentment against Hizballah, especially among followers of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and among the majority of Sunni Islamists, is currently potent after almost a decade of perceived persecution by the group. Tensions started to come to a head with the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, for which a group of Hizballah members are now facing prosecution at the Hague. They continued to grow with the 2008 clashes in the predominantly Sunni areas of  “West Beirut.”Although less publicized, clashes also erupted in the northern areas of Tripoli and Akkar, which are also majority Sunni areas. Following the May political agreement in Doha, Hizballah came to hold effective veto rights in the country’s government later that same year.  The conflict further escalated with Hizballah’s participation in the Syrian civil war on the side of the regime of Bashar al-Asad.

Many Lebanese Sunnis, especially Islamists and youths resenting perceived Hizballah control over the Lebanese state, have engaged in a war of words. They have resuscitating older terms such as rafidi (rejecting the legitimate Islamic authority of the first caliphs) to describe the Shi‘a, as well as majousi (fire worshipper), and zindiq (heretic). In addition, they have used newer expressions such as masoni (mason) and Zionist. These Sunni actors have also begun to refuse to call the Hizballah (“Party of God” in Arabic) by its chosen name, instead demonizing it with the term Hizb al-Shaytan (“Party of Satan”) or Hizb al-Lat (Party of Lat, a pre-Islamic goddess worshiped in Mecca around the time of Muhammad’s life), thereby stripping it of its Islamic credentials.

This invented terminology is used not only to talk about Hizballah, but also to express rancour toward Iran, Hizballah’s patron, and the Shi‘a more generally. As Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and other Shi‘i leaders in Lebanon have sought to link Sunnis to ISIS, a counter-narrative has emerged that sarcastically describes an aspirational “Hizballah State of Lebanon and Syria” (HALESH), which purportedly follows the orders of its Iranian master, Ayatollah Khamenei. These criticisms are meant to suggest that Hizballah is alien to Lebanon, and to the values of religious coexistence and pluralism supposedly characterizing Lebanon. Hizballah, and especially its fighters opposing ISIS in Syria, are portrayed as the spearhead of the Safavid (an early modern Persian empire) army of the Iranian republic.

The term “Safavid” has been used in a disparaging manner by Sunnis in the region since the rise of the Shi‘i regime in Iraq after 2003. It is a reminder of historical events that are ever-present in collective memory, referencing the long conflict between the Ottoman Empire (representing the Sunnis) and the Safavid Empire of Persia (representing the Shi‘a). By calling pro-Iranian Shi‘a “Safavid,” these Sunni protagonists accuse them of seeking a return to the imperialism and hegemonic ambitions of the bygone Persian empire. These disparaging outlooks are grounded in centuries-old narratives on the part of Sunnis that Shi‘i Arabs answer to Tehran and that they are a fifth column—who might be ethnically and linguistically Arab, but whose real political loyalties are not Arab but rather Persian. 

In their criticisms of the Shi‘a, some Sunnis actors have also begun to refer to the rise of “Shu‘ubiyya.” This divisive concept refers to Persian Muslims in the ninth and tenth centuries who viewed their culture as superior—and who were in turn vilified by Arabs, who associated the Shu‘ubi with an inadequate commitment to Islam. In this rhetoric, the purported Shi‘i Shu‘ubi are assumed to want the destruction of the Arab state, the death of all Arab leaders, and the rollback of Islam. They are viewed as being behind the assassination of important historical Arab-Muslim leaders such as the caliphs ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab and ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan.

In addition, in their attempts to distance themselves from ISIS and present an alternative vision of a fanatical Shi‘i empire, these Sunni actors sometimes fall into the realm of outlandish conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic tropes. Hence, for the average Lebanese Sunni, the supposed Shi‘i Shu‘ubi are at times associated with the alleged influence of Iranian Jews, intent on world domination, while ISIS is portrayed as a joint creation of not only Israel and the CIA, but also Iran. The three countries are said to underwrite the jihadis as a means of discrediting Sunni Islam.

Anti-Sunni Discourse

The Shi‘a of Lebanon have traditionally perceived themselves as oppressed by the two communities that established Greater Lebanon, namely the Sunnis and the Maronites. They also rightly saw themselves as politically and economically deprived (mahrumin). This sense of victimization continues today despite progress made by the community on all levels. While Hizballah has for the longest time called for taqrib (rapprochement) with the Sunnis, the war in Syria has partially changed the party’s calculations. Hizballah has been using the new term takfiris (accusers of unbelief) to label the anti-Asad rebels it is fighting in Syria. In this way, the Shi‘i group seeks to dehumanize the Salafi jihadis and portray them as false Muslims. Hence Hizballah  speaks of takfiris as “terrorists” and “criminals,” arguing that they distort Islam.Hizballah also associates takfiris with the Zionist enemy by alleging cooperation between Israel and the takfiris. This distaste for the activities of takfiris and the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) has become co-opted into broader sectarian politics. Among many Shi‘i Muslims as well as Christians in Lebanon, as among Sunnis in the rest of the region, the acronym ISIS (of Da‘ish, the transliteration of the Arabic acronym of the group) has become something of a generic derogatory term that can be lobbed with good effect at anyone who fails to share one’s outlook or religious affiliation. In September 2014, France joined the bandwagon, refusing to call ISIS by its chosen name, doing so “blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists.” In December 2014, the United States followed suit when Secretary of State John Kerry started calling the organization by the name they loathe, Da‘ish.

Historically negative terms are also re-emerging among some Shi‘a circles, such as ‘amma or nawasib (enemies of Ali), to talk about the Sunnis. Some Shi‘i tradition tend toward reviling the two caliphs ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab and ‘Uthman Ibn ‘Affan, who in many Sunni traditions are claimed to have been assassinated by partisans of the eventual caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Shi‘i ritual insulting of these two caliphs was put in place in Iran in the sixteenth century by a cleric from Jabal ‘Amel, in what is south Lebanon today. Further, they may insult the Prophet’s wife ‘A’isha (also the daughter of the first caliph Abu Bakr), who they perceive as having incited hatred toward Ahl al-Bayt (who in Shi‘i tradition only include the descendants of the Prophet, and as having actively participated in challenging Ali’s legitimacy during the Battle of the Camel). Such insults to ‘A’isha, considered one of the Mothers of the Believers by Sunnis, adds fuel to the fire.

Conclusion: Escalating and Exporting Tensions

History is important, as is the way it is interpreted and translated to the masses in articles, sermons, and speeches. By cherry-picking toxic and loaded terms from the history of the development of Islam and the Muslim polity, Sunni and Shi‘i intellectuals and preachers are reinventing the present in a manner that appeals to particular kinds of collective memories—and particular kinds of contemporary politics. They are fighting with words, but these words have repercussions, and ones that will remain for some time. 

Indeed, these words have been used to escalate tensions, increase sectarian cleavages, and provide a repertoire of hatred for youths on both sides, who are indoctrinated by religious and political entrepreneurs. Of particular concern is the effectiveness with which this language has been used to persuade disaffected Sunni youths from northern Lebanon to join the fighting in Syria. These youths are still a minority—only around 120 went to Syria in the past four months—but their alienation from the Lebanese state, which they perceive as controlled by Hizballah, opens the door for the further development of a Salafi jihadi Sunni infrastructure in Lebanon.

The ramifications of this war of words also extend beyond Lebanon and Syria, where this perceived covert Saudi-Iranian war has come to shape regional Sunni-Shi'i relations. These fighting words, if anchored in collective memories and consciousness, will travel far and can be expected to enable and exacerbate local problems.

 

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