[A-List] In Lebanon, Puritanical Sunnis and a Reputed Playboy Team Up in Politics

Yoshie Furuhashi critical.montages at gmail.com
Tue Nov 18 03:25:43 MST 2008

Cf. <http://occident.blogspot.com/search?q=hariri+salafi> and

In Lebanon, puritanical Sunnis and a reputed playboy team up in politics

Salafists, accused of being terrorists in other parts of the Arab
world, are moving into the mainstream with the help of leading
politician Saad Hariri in exchange for bolstering his religious base.

By Borzou Daragahi
November 17, 2008

Reporting from Tripoli, Lebanon -- When it comes to strange Middle
East bedfellows, Lebanon's latest political partnership may be the
most unlikely: The leader of one party has a reputation as a playboy
with ties to neoconservatives in the Bush administration. The other
group is widely viewed as a community of extremists whose puritanical
strain of Sunni Islam inspired Osama bin Laden.

Lebanon's Salafists, often equated with terrorists in much of the Arab
world, have teamed with Saad Hariri and his mainstream Future Movement
to become part of the country's political order.

"They used to be very marginal," Benedetta Berti, a terrorism
specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts
University in Massachusetts, said of the Salafists. "Now, they have to
be taken into account by any political movement. They have become a
significant political force. Not by number, but in terms of the
political impact they could have."

The curious experiment, in one of the Arab world's most democratic
political systems, could have implications for the rest of the region.
In Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Algeria, Salafists are often tossed into

"One of the main reasons Salafists join the jihadist . . . and
terrorist groups is because of alienation and marginalization," said
Mustafa Allouch, a Future Movement lawmaker from Tripoli. "They don't
find any hope for expressing their ideas. It's better to accept all
types of ideas and put them under the light so they don't grow in the

But some wonder whether the Salafists are evolving into a democratic
political bloc or gaming the system to expand their reach and achieve
their extreme goals, which include the radicalization of Sunni Muslims
throughout the Middle East.

Salafists are rooted in a 12th century movement within Sunni Islam
that argues for a strict interpretation of the Koran. Funded in part
by conservative Sunni religious organizations in the Persian Gulf,
Salafist mosques and teachings have spread quickly across the Muslim

While most other preachers around the Middle East discreetly espouse
their puritanical Salafist version of Islam at mosques or prayer
groups, adherents in Lebanon are slipping into the mainstream. Sheik
Mazan Mohammed openly proselytizes and rails against the political
order as he sells spare auto parts out of his small shop in the Bab al
Tabbaneh district of this northern port city.

"Politicians are ready to burn down the whole region to satisfy their
own needs," Mohammed said. "Our role is to lead the community, to
provide them with religion and spiritual support."

Like most of Lebanon's Sunnis, Salafists are largely staunch
supporters of parliamentary leader Hariri, whose Future Movement is
part of the U.S.-backed March 14 coalition of Sunni, Christian and
Druze political organizations opposed to a mostly Shiite Muslim and
Christian alliance backed by Syria and Iran.

Hariri has tapped the Salafists' grass-roots social and religious
network and strong community ties as a means to build up his base for
parliamentary elections in May.

But Hariri, son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, makes for
an awkward fit for Lebanon's increasingly pious Sunni public. Although
Salafists dream of reviving a medieval caliphate, the 38-year-old
Hariri appears to be a liberal democrat.

"He doesn't really have any religious values they share," said Sheik
Bilal Said Chabaan, one of the few Sunni clerics in Tripoli aligned
with Hariri's opponents. "But they're getting money and benefits."

One cleric likened the alliance to the marriage of convenience between
pro-business Republicans and the Christian right in America.

"It's the same here," said Khaled Daher, a leader of the Islamic
Gathering, a Salafist political group that strongly backs Hariri. "We
see Hariri and the Future Movement as the best political movement on
the ground for now."

Salafists have long been a factor in Lebanon, but were cowed into
silence during Syria's military occupation of the country, which ended
in 2005 in the weeks after the assassination of the elder Hariri.

Rafik Hariri was considered the leader of Lebanon's political
community, and in the jostling that followed the Syrian withdrawal,
Sunnis clung to the political machine that son Saad inherited. Despite
doubts about the younger Hariri's capacity to lead them, Salafists
became a pillar of his political organization.

"There's no doubt that Rafik Hariri was a very distinguished person
who had long experience in politics," Daher said. "I think that Saad
Hariri cannot match his father's relations, experience and competence.
At the same time, he has shown a lot of resilience."

In other countries, especially Bahrain and Kuwait, critics say, the
Salafists are used by Sunni monarchies as proxies to keep down the
aspirations of those countries' large Shiite populations. In Lebanon,
Sunnis and Shiites are also locked in a political struggle, and fear
of the powerful Shiite militia Hezbollah may have driven the Hariri
camp closer to the Salafists.

But Hariri supporters say it's unfair to judge the Salafists based on
their reputation as would-be terrorists or political tools in other

"The Salafists we have in Tripoli have voiced their interests in being
part of the republic, part of the state, which is unlike the Salafists
in other places," the Future Movement's Allouch said. "As long as they
accept to be part of the state and work peacefully in partnership with
others, there's no problem with forming a coalition."

Daragahi is a Times staff writer.

daragahi at latimes.com

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