Playing With Fire
What does it mean when Lebanese politicians warn of a fitna?
Yesterday as I was watching what happened with the two sheikhs and the rapid scurrying by politicians of all sides to contain the situation, it occurred to me that many people didn’t exactly grasp why the situation was so serious and how things could have gone out of control. This post is an attempt to explain the background and the potential danger of yesterday’s events.
Three powder kegs
The common explanation for the fear is that there is tension between Sunnis and Shiaas, due to past events and due to Hezbollah’s alliance with the Syrian regime. But that tension, although real and significant, is just one of three powder kegs on which yesterday’s events stood: The Sunni/Shiaa Tension, the Sunni/Sunni tension, and the Islamists/minorities tension.
Many Lebanese watched with apprehension as Islamists took over Egypt and as hardline Islamists gained power in the Syrian revolution. Christians, Shiaas and even Druze are dreading a potential spread of such an ideology to Lebanon, and are growing resentful of bearded Sunni zealots who call for the rule of Shariaa. Yesterday’s humiliation of one of the sheikhs by shaving his beard might as well have been carried out by a Christian worried about his future.
Similar to that dynamic is the Sunni/Sunni tension, which was the result of the vacuum that Hariri has left when he left Lebanon. The Mufti is in a middle of a power struggle and hardliners like Ahmed el Assir are trying to gain political power by using a rhetoric of victimization and violence that appeals to the Sunni poor. What makes the situation worse is that Mr. Hariri is being lukewarm in standing up to the Islamists, inviting speculation that he wants to scare the Lebanese of the alternatives to his moderate movement. If that strategy sounded familiar, it’s because it’s the same one being employed by Arab dictators.
Because attacking the sheikhs could have been perpetrated by three kinds of suspects (Angry pro-Hezbollah Shiaas, fearful minorities or opportunistic Sunnis), each potential instigator will believe that he can gain from the attack and get away with it at the same time. The most obvious suspects (angry Shiaas), could very well have been framed for this.
Now imagine the unimaginable: An act of “revenge” to “restore dignity” where an explosion tears through a majority Shiaa area and kills many people, perhaps perpetrated by outsiders who want to destabilize Lebanon. Such an attack would be devastating and could start a real civil war. After that, it will no longer matter who really attacked the sheikhs, and people will start referring to them as the second Ain el Rimmeneh bus.
So one more time: We have to all do our best to prevent the fitna.