Gloves Come Off in Lebanon
by FRANKLIN LAMB
Mohammad Hussein Fadallah, Husseiniya, South Beirut
Historically, the term "religious war" (Bellum Sacrum) was used to describe various European wars among Christian denominations spanning mainly the 16th to the 18th centuries, bloodlettings such as the Seven Year's War (1756-1763), a conflict which spread widely throughout Europe and on to North and Central America and also to the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. There were dozens of other intra-Christian wars, the seeds of which began to sprout shortly after the death of Jesus Christ.
The Encyclopedia of Wars, by authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, estimate that only 7 percent of the 1,783 wars they chronicle involve religion. But Lebanon is one of these. Tragically the country is still mired in a cold war phase of its 15 year (1975-90) civil war, from which it has yet to recover. Religious differences are one of the major causes of Lebanon's many problems today, and it is within this context that the mushrooming intra-Muslim war between Sunni and Shia is spreading and intensifying. Sunnis comprise approximately 90 percent of the followers of Islam, while their increasingly vilified coreligionists, Shia Muslims, make up about 10 percent. This month, Lebanon's Shia are commemorating Ashoura and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali at the battle of Karbala in 680, and they are doing so under increased security, with additional checkpoints manned by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah forces, this because Da'ish and al Nursa have announced their intent to target the Shia worshipers.
Many among Lebanon's older generation, both Sunni and Shia, report that as youngsters they were not aware of the internecine antagonisms, nor did they harbor animosity with their neighbors. Sometimes members of the different sects intermarried, shared holidays, and always there was the developing of strong friendships with each other.
"That is all changed now, perhaps until End Times," says an employee at Beirut's Dar al Fatwa in the mixed neighborhood of Aisha Bikar, near the American University of Beirut.
The gentleman and a colleague he was with elaborated:
"Everyone alive today in Lebanon and for many generations to come will have their family's lives negatively affected by the rapidly spreading sectarian hostility. The Sunni-Shia hatred is poisonous--it's the new political Ebola virus! Can it be eradicated? How can we stop it from engulfing the Middle East or has it already done so?"
His friend added, "And forget about the Christians! In a few years' time there will probably not be enough of them left in the Middle East to matter."
To this observer, the spiraling sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia in Lebanon appears to be coming mainly from Sunni groups and militia who vent a laundry list of complaints against their fellow Muslims, many, but not all, stemming from Hezbollah's involvement in the civil war still raging across the anti-Lebanon mountain range to the east.
Co-existence, which held sway for centuries, included the sharing of many fundamental beliefs and practices, but there are differences in doctrine, ritual, law, theology, and religious organization, and these are based in part over a political dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over who should lead the Muslim community. Sunni Muslims regard themselves as the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam, and they adhere to traditions and practices based on precedent or reports of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and those close to him. Sunnis venerate all the prophets mentioned in the Koran, but particularly Muhammad as the final prophet. In early Islamic history, the Shia were a political faction--literally "Shiat Ali," or the party of Ali--and they claimed the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and his descendants to lead the Islamic community.
In Sunni-ruled countries, for hundreds of years Shias made up the poorest sections of society, and today many view themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression as some extremist Sunni doctrines continue to preach hatred of Shia. Some argue that the Shia-Sunni Bellum Sacrum is more political than religious. If true, the mutually destructive conflict now intensifying in Lebanon would share much in common with other religious wars which were basically political conflicts justified in the name of religion. Iran, which supports some Shia militias beyond its borders, is in conflict with some Sunni countries, especially regional neighbors who support Sunni militia. In Lebanon, both Sunni and Shia have been put in a difficult situation, caught up in spill-over from the Syrian civil war. Teheran's policy of supporting Shia militias and parties beyond its borders is essentially matched by the Sunni Gulf states, with Shia and Sunni leaders often seeming in competition as the latter continue to strengthen their links to Sunni governments and movements abroad.
And Lebanon is paying a big price. On 10/29/14, lawmakers failed for the fifteenth time to elect a new president due to a lack of quorum at parliament; they will "try again" on 11/19/14 with likely the same result because those holding power seem to want a deadlock. Only 54 members out of the 128 in Parliament showed up, well short of a quorum. The others were instructed by their parties to boycott, including the pro-Hezbollah Change and Reform and Loyalty to the Resistance blocs of the March 8 alliance. Their motives, their opponents in the pro-Saudi March 14 alliance claim, are purely political. The latest failed session was also boycotted by Speaker Nabih Berri, the Shia leader of the pro-Syrian Amal militia, with the parliamentarian insisting he is simply trying to encourage 'dialogue".
"It has never been this bad" explains the proprietor of a neighborhood grocery store, agreeing with ever more of his fellow countrymen, who seem now to be openly cursing both sides in public.