Tripoli's Image Problem

More Lebanese are associating Tripoli with salafists and Islamists. This is having an effect on national politics.

A picture spreading on twitter comparing Tripoli to Beirut

It must be very difficult to be a member of the Lebanese Forces nowadays. With all the bearded men and the black flags gaining visibility in Tripoli, it is becoming more and more difficult for them to defend their political alliance with the “terrorists”.

Scary People

Tripoli’s image problem is unfair, but it is real. It is unfair because it is based on an association of bearded religious men with terrorists. But it’s also real because that stereotype is so deep-seated and visceral that even I, a Liberal Sunni, am nervous when I’m around them. How can I blame Christians who find them scary?

The bearded religious Muslim is the Lebanese equivalent of America’s black teenager in a hoodie in a dark alleyway: He is more scary than harmful.

Hug a Salafist

Many Lebanese can’t see Salafists as people with real grievances and rights, but they are. The Salafists are constantly subject to human right abuses, from illegal detentions to random arrests and torture, sometimes solely based on the way they look. Worse, they are often deprived of legal due course. In Salafist eyes the Lebanese government is no better than other Arab governments: A heavy-handed police state.

Members of the middle class in tripoli are shocked to see those men and to realize that they share a city with them. The Salafists, they believe, are tarnishing the image of the entire city. This is why they keep telling everyone who will listen that what they see on TV is not the “real” Tripoli, that Tripoli is not Kandahar, That the Tripoli Marathon will take place and show the real face of the city.

Tripoli, in that sense, is similar to Egypt; the Cairo elite woke up one day and found out that a quarter of the population has voted for scary-looking Salafists.

Assad’s Scarecrow

The Syrian regime is a master at exploiting the fear of bearded men to offer itself as bulwark against them. At a moment of high exposure for the Salafists in Tripoli, they have provoked armed clashes to further strengthen the association in people’s minds between beards and terrorism.

It was a trap for Tripoli, a devilishly effective tactic that plays on people’s fears and gets people to demand the return of the Syrian Army to crush the “terrorists”. Tripoli would do well to avoid falling in that trap, and the rest of the Lebanese should try to look at the situation without judging the city based on some of its inhabitants’ looks.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter
  • Ali Sleeq

    As a Liberal Sunni, I too nervous when I’m around them.

    The way I see it, is while the extremist Islamists/Salafists are anti-Syria, they also operate their own agenda which does not match the loose ideology of March 14.

    Salafists run their own way and I don’t see them as a good supporter of the March 14 cause.

  • Antidisestablishmentarianism

    They scare the shit out of me, and I don’t trust them, grievances or not. I don’t trust Islamists, lest we forget fatah al-Islam. they tend to say one thing but plan for another. what do they want? why do they have weapons? why should we endanger our cities and streets by having them send arms to syria (the equivalent of hezbollah bringing harm to lebanon by fighting a fight it cannot win).

  • wsmlk

    if anyone to blame for this mess it’s non-other than the so-called “liberal sunnis” or “moderate” muslims. to say the “middle class” are shocked to find out salfais among them is a big joke.

    how long would the moderates remain silent and complacent and let few radicalized nutcases hijack and tarnish the image of their city and their religion? what have the majority of muslims in tripoli done to counter the fear of these radicals elements? sadly nothing!

  • Dania

    TO answer yr question WSMLK: never! mainstream sunnis have been doing it since the war started. They kept silent in beirut during mourabitoun and the 7araka watania days who hardly represented beirutis but suffered the bad rep nonetheless. When asked why dont you react or disown these militias they always said it doesnt concern us, we wont fight them or pick up arms its not who we are. Same is happening in Tripoli now, by keeping quiet, the tripolitains got the bad image just by affiliation. A defect which the aounis have successfully played on to the max to portray the sunnis as radical islamists oppressive of other religions and prone to violence.

  • OH

    Tripoli does have an image problem, but I think the association with Salafist is a symptom of the problem, not its cause.

    Tripoli is big enough to be self-contained (a luxury that Tyre and Sidon don’t have) and far enough from Beirut to be somewhat disconnected. Other than my Aunt’s husband who was from Tripoli but grew up in Beirut, I never actually met anyone from Tripoli until I went to university in the US!

    Tripoli also has a problem similar to other cities in Lebanon: there isn’t much to do other than seeing a few historical sites (this is also true of Sidon, Baalbeck, Tyre…). People seem to entertain and be entertained privately, and so it is difficult for outsiders to get a feel of the place unless you are visiting local friends. Historical sites are fine to see once, maybe twice, but how many times would you want to walk through the souks of Tripoli or contemplate the Citadel? I only visit Tripoli when I am taking European or American friends around Lebanon, but I’ve have never been there with Lebanese friends to “hang out.” (Hint: if you invite me for lunch, that might change)

    All of this is to say that many Lebanese don’t know Tripoli. If it makes the news only when a surly bearded bunch are threatening one thing or another, it is not surprising that the rest of the country associates Tripoli with the Salafists. Middle class people from Tripoli would do a lot more to fix the image of the city by investing in more restaurants and cafes, than by affirming that it is not Kandahar.

  • Mustapha

    Many people like wsmlk are accusing the “moderate” Sunnis of doing nothing. It’s a idea so widespread that even people like Dania are buying it.

    Actually, yes, we have done something about it. In the entire history of tripoli none of these extremists was ever voted to parliament.

    What are we supposed to do? Seek them out on the streets and scream at them? On what basis? That we don’t like the way they look? That we don’t approve of their ideas?

  • Dania

    Mustapha am not “buying into it” I’ve lived it in Beirut. Its not an accusation or a condemnation, am just describing the state of mind of the average sunnis. True tripolitains never voted for an extremist(though yakan was once an MP???) but lets not kid oursevles sunnis are lazy when it comes to taking a clear stand against whats being said and done in their name.

    • Passingby

      “Sunis” are lazy? Hmm, maybe you could expose here some exemplary activity in self/kin critique on the part of the “non sunis” in Lebanon?

  • bach

    Tripoli, as a city and its demographics has completely changed in the past 50 years. And yes it scares the hell out of Christians, and yes it is one of the reasons why Christians have all but abandonned the city. In the past, Christians and Sunnis lived peacefully as true neighbors in this city. We sold all that we had in the city and moved out precisely because the silent majority of moderate Sunnis said and did nothing when the Salafists started arriving.

  • Alan (from Ireland)

    Dear Mustapha
    In understanding Lebanon or in at least trying to understand a little of the complexity I do find your blog informative and enjoyable, but I would like to take issue with this post especially the comments regarding the Syrian regimes ability to exploit the fear of “bearded men”. Frankly I don’t think that regime needs to try very hard right now to “exploit” his fear as it has become real especially to the Christian community of Homs who were expelled en masse from that place by armed Islamic extremists, beards or no beards.

  • Salma

    I live in Tripoli. I am Christian but all my friends are moderate Sunnis. In Tripoli we forget about “the bearded men” when the situation is calm and lead a normal life. See the crowds in Sa7Sa7 and other cafes on a quiet day.

    But when tension occurs “normal” people stay home and the salafist image of the city fill tv screens.

    Guess the problem is political(bab el tebbaneh suffered a lot during from syrian behaviour and let us not forget the wicked role played by syrian allies from jabal mo7sen or other parties) and social at the same time. It is easy to exploit people when they are poor and feel that nobody cares for them.

    It is up to the moderate sunni leaders to do something about it. Tropoli needs a “renaissance” in all domains.

  • Wael

    I guess we’re all falling for the Syrian/Hezbollah trap of showcasing the city as a haven of Al-Qaeda.

    What is the problem if someone grows a beard and is religious? Did they ever manage to get one MP voted? Are they armed militias that attack and kill Lebanese every while? Did they do an armed coup and cancelled the election results and took over governement? Do they receive money and weapons from another country?

    Wake up people. See where the real terrorists in Lebanon are.

  • Posh

    I agree with Oussama.

  • Observer

    The racism and hatred on the Tayyar forum is mind boggling.

    How it is that nobody has yet publicly complained about what goes on there is even stranger.