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