Why Sunni moderates can do much more
Michael Young| The Daily Star
The decision of Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi to take legal action against young people in Ashrafieh who burned the flag of ISIS was inept. In claiming to want to protect the Quranic texts on the ISIS flag, all Rifi did was open himself up to the charge that he was currying favor among the ISIS sympathizers in his own community. Rifi erred in several ways. First, he will have only reinforced a growing, if erroneous, belief that many Sunnis are of two minds about ISIS. Second, his argument that he was only protecting the Quranic inscriptions on the flag will sound absurd to many people. The flag was not burned for what it said, but for what it represents. Third, Rifi’s action came at a particularly sensitive moment when ISIS said that it had killed a Lebanese soldier taken hostage by the group.
And fourth, and perhaps most damaging, it put Rifi on a collision course with Christians, who burned the flag. But the justice minister is not alone among moderate Sunnis in failing to grasp what ISIS means to Christians, as well as to Shiites and Druze. For all three communities it is an existential menace, while there are many who feel, rightly or wrongly, that there is a sense of schadenfreude in the Sunni community, a feeling of pleasure at the alarm ISIS provokes, particularly among Shiites.
This is a debatable point, but it happens to be circulating freely among Lebanon’s non-Sunni communities. It was remarkable, for instance, that when television journalists went to predominantly Sunni Fnaydek last week to interview people on the beheading of a soldier from the town, almost none condemned the killers in ISIS. Instead, they turned their anger against the state and politicians. The state can be blamed for many things, but it did not senselessly murder Ali al-Sayyed.
On Sunday the former prime minister, Fouad Siniora, made a speech to a gathering of Christians at the Saydet al-Jabal monastery. Siniora, who personifies the “moderate Sunni” made many reassuring points, but somehow did not say what many Christians wanted to hear: that ISIS is, ideologically, an aberration worthy of condemnation, and that the Future Movement in particular and Lebanon’s Sunnis in general will do everything in their power to oppose it and the threat it poses to the region and to Lebanese sectarian coexistence.
There is a view that the moderate Sunni leadership in Lebanon does not want to alienate its popular base by focusing too much on ISIS and its evils. That has to be verified, but if it’s true then it is very worrisome, and Rifi’s reaction did little to dispel the doubts. In Sunni communities that are poor and downtrodden, and where ISIS may have some appeal, the moderates have to impose themselves. Of the $1 billion grant Saad Hariri brought from Saudi Arabia, a sizable portion must be poured into such areas, helping to contain the possibility of radicalization. This is even more important for Sunnis than for Lebanon’s other communities. The reason is that we are fast moving toward a moment when Sunnis may find themselves isolated nationally, which would only benefit the radicals’ agenda.
Whenever Sunnis express their dissatisfaction, they do so by highlighting the abuses committed by Hezbollah. That’s understandable, as the party has violated virtually every rule of Lebanese coexistence. Hezbollah humiliated Sunnis repeatedly between 2005 and 2011; it entered the Syrian war against the Sunnis at Iran’s urging, indifferent to what this might mean for sectarian relations at home; and it continues to exacerbate sectarian divisions to rally other Lebanese communities against the Sunnis, all because it is caught up in a quagmire in Syria, which it is not winning. Hezbollah’s hubris has been disastrous for Lebanon. With the fighting in Qalamoun continuing, it has been trying to enroll the Army in the fight against the rebels and jihadists opposed to Bashar Assad’s regime. But there are limits to this perilous game, as a substantial number of soldiers are Sunni. Dividing the Army to save Hezbollah is simply a mad idea. The Sunni moderates have much work to do. For starters, they must use their influence in the Arab countries to secure funds and invest in vulnerable Sunni communities, where the appeal of radicalism may be strongest. The mainstream clergy, under a new mufti, has a major role to play in combating extremism. Outreach by Sunni leaders to other communities is necessary to help find mechanisms for alleviating sectarian tension where and when it occurs. By the same token, politicians and clergy in the other communities must ensure that irrational suspicion doesn’t build up against the Sunnis. If Rifi manipulated the burning of the ISIS flag for political gain, parliamentarians from the Free Patriotic Movement, in proposing to defend the flag burners, did the same. No one has an interest in seeing sectarian relations relegated to the level of partisan political disputation. Today much more is needed to neutralize the foul sectarian mood in the country. Most Lebanese Sunnis are not responsible for ISIS, but that doesn’t mean they can sit by and do nothing. Speaking about Sunni moderation is not the same as giving moderates all the means to prevail against extremism. And whether Sunnis realize it or not, they are at the center of national attentions, and anxieties, today. How they respond will determine how all other Lebanese communities react to them.
Why Sunni moderates can do much more