“If you have a beard and are a Shiite in Lebanon, you are an honest resister; but if you have a beard and are a Sunni, then you are a fundamentalist terrorist.”
This remark made by a secular Sunni political activist, summarizes how the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon is perceived by the Sunnis. The catalyst for the current crisis, long expected and finally realized last week, is recent events in Syria. The majority of the Shiite population, represented administratively and in the political landscape by Hezbollah and Amel, supports the Assad regime. Hezbollah in particular, being politically and financially dependent on Iran and Syria, supplies not only discursive but also military and strategic support for the Syrian regime. In Lebanon, where there is not a single refugee camp for Syrian refugees, the local Sunnis host those who have fled their country.
Last week’s clashes in Tripoli, a city on the Syrian border two-and-a-half hours from Beirut, in which nine people died and some 50 were wounded, came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the dynamics of the region. There is growing concern and fear that the clashes may become more severe in areas where Sunnis and Shiites cohabit as a result of escalating political tension.
The polarization of Shiite and Sunni communities and animosity between them is not new. However, conflict regarding Syria, an issue at the heart of any perspective of the new order in the Middle East, has escalated existing tensions and ultimately led to clashes. Sunnis believe the Shiites are misusing their power in the state apparatus and on the political stage, and that this power enables the arrest of political activists on false charges of terrorism. Moreover, they are provoked by staunch Shiite support for the Assad regime. Conversely, the Shiites believe Lebanese Sunnis are being manipulated by Gulf policies seeking to promote Salafism in the country. The Syrian opposition, Shiites argue, wants to create a fundamentalist Sunni regime that will fall under Gulf influence; Shiites further claim that Lebanese Sunnis support this project.
Movements toward political polarization of Shiite-Sunni division
In Lebanon, which has had to deal with many sectarian and religious conflicts in the past, there have been gradual movements toward political polarization of the Shiite-Sunni division for a long time. It was obvious that the dispute in Syria would have serious repercussions in exacerbating sectarian division and disagreement.
Lebanese Sunnis believe Lebanese politics is controlled by actors with disproportionate power, and that in this equilibrium the Sunnis are the weakest and most vulnerable group. The statement “They killed our prime minister in 2005, they occupied our capital city in 2008 and they staged a coup against our government in 2011” is how an “ordinary” Sunni would summarize Lebanese politics. According to Sunnis, the Shiites are acting as proxies of Iran, which sees Lebanon as a stronghold in the leadership race in the region. For a long time Hezbollah has been viewed as representative of Shiite identity, not of Lebanon. Finally pushing the ideological tension of the Sunnis to breaking point is the Shiite stance vis-à-vis the Syrian issue.
The Shiite front has different anxieties. The Shiites are strongly united, and the belief that they have been subjected to Sunni attacks and attempts to annihilate them since the early days of Islam influences their mindset. Shiite organizations rely on the solidarity of the members of their minority group. Names are being changed in the writing of Shiite history, the actors are being diversified, but the plot remains the same: Shiites are always resisting brutal oppression. For Shiites, the Yazids of the present time -- Yazid being a Muslim ruler believed to have oppressed Shiites -- are Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel. It should also be noted that Turkey and Qatar have recently been added to this list.
This is a crude summary of the current political landscape in Lebanon. Needless to say, as with any generalization, this account is not immune to counterevidence; yet it is safe to argue that this dichotomy is presently shaping Lebanese politics. As the issues around Syria become more intricate and complex, things will get worse and become uglier for all. The history of the region teaches us that even victims of the most heinous crimes can turn into bloody repressors themselves in times of conflict. When the first bullet is fired, the discussion about whose position is the right one, who is more the victim, will be of secondary importance. In fact, this debate will only serve as a tool to justify violence to the consciences of its perpetrators.
If the bloody stalemate in Syria continues, if Assad stays in power and the international community maintains its fatal silence on this issue, political structures built upon fragile balances will eventually face a bloody collapse.
I would love to be mistaken on this matter, but this whole state of affairs suggests the road will be rough for Lebanon. Unfortunately, Lebanon, the Biblical land of milk and honey, may have to deal with further conflicts and war in the days to come.
*Ceren Kenar is a columnist with the Taraf daily, where this column was originally published in Turkish on May 21.