The significance of Sunnis in Lebanon does not lie in their numbers, as all groups claim to be the largest, but in their position to refrain from being an armed group, especially in a country where most factions have been confined to their own political and military structures. As for Shiites, they were a civil society with the presence of several civilian leaders up to the Israeli invasion in 1982. Since formation of the Hezbollah, almost all major Shiite houses were marginalized and their role was taken over by clergy and leaders of militias loyal to Hezbollah. This has eventually the group hostage of these militias and their political leadership.
Since Hezbollah’s launching of attack on Sunni regions in Beirut six years ago, there were calls from some Sunnis, who want to allow Hezbollah wield powers on the pretext of protecting their regions and interests, to set up militias and hand over the society’s leadership to their clergy. But these calls triggered response only in some regions of Tripoli where Sunnis are the majority and Shiite Alawites are a minority. And nowadays this Shiite sect can easily be ignited with a simple rumor.
Here, the irony was that those who tried to establish extremist religious groups among Sunnis were not the GCC states, as somebody claims, but it was Iran. These were always the antics of Iran, which believes that it can forge alliance with Islamic religious groups against some other groups.
Late Sheikh Saeed Shaaban was one among the extremist Sunni clerics who virtually acted as a representative of Iran in north Lebanon. I have the perception that Iran had wanted — through him and al-Tawheed movement — to change the traditional power centers in Lebanon, and demolish the major Sunni houses in Lebanon, such as Sulh, Karami and Hariri like the demolition of the ruling Shiite houses such as al-Asaad, al-Khalil, Zain and Marwa earlier.
As in the case of Sunnis, Shiites also belonged to various nationalist, left and secular parties, and this was the case before the penetration of Iran. Even though Hezbollah is a quasi-governmental foundation, it provides aid, in addition to supporting the rights of the Lebanese Shiites. However, this gesture is at the expense of the Shiites’ identity and freedom to take their own course. Thus the Shiite militias and the clergy loyal to Hezbollah were able to take over the leadership of the Shiite community, and eventually it could even erase the identity of the Shiite civilian society.
Its subsequent result was that the Shiite society was mortgaged in exchange for foreign aid, in addition to yielding to Hezbollah. Just like what happened to other major secret organizations, corruption was rampant in Hezbollah also, and the outfit has become a tool for repression. Apart from this, Israel was successful in managing infiltration into the ranks of Hezbollah through recruiting spies and agents.
Nobody who wants to live in a free civilian society, which was a feature of the Lebanese people for decades, would be happier with this scenario. But it is not easy to overcome this. Anyhow it would be essential to surpass it after the changes that are likely to happen in Syria and Iran over the coming five years. Sunnis are scared that the developments in Syria would lead to militarization of their society and changing its civilian religious authority. It was no longer a secret that the extreme Sunni groups that emerged during the last 10 years were born together with the surge of Jihadi Salafism in almost all Arab societies. Now, some of these societies such as Egypt and Tunisia are passing through a test of democracy with elections in the post-revolution era.
The incident of kidnapping of Shiite Haj pilgrims in Syria revealed that sectarian extremism has no borders and it could drag the society into an all-out war, and the Sunni extremism is not at all an exception in this respect. However, Sunnis in Lebanon were successful in overcoming years of confrontation following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri despite the consolidation of ground by Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.
They are now facing a quite different test, with both political and psychological pressures vis-à-vis the developments in Syria, and because of the biased attitude, being pursued by most of those in the Lebanese official leadership, in addition to Hezbollah, toward the Syrian regime. When the Lebanese leaders and the Syrians complain about the presence of Sunni extremists in north Lebanon, they seem not listen to themselves.
Otherwise, we can call Hezbollah only as armed extremist religious outfit.
I hope that those Sunnis, who are outraged at the ongoing repression and injustice meted out to them in Syria as well as at the hands of the Lebanese forces loyal to the Syrian regime, would not drift off toward destruction of their society by arming themselves, establishing militias and providing a cover of religious leadership to such acts. This would harm none else other than Sunnis themselves after leading of decades of normal civilian life. The militia regime had harmed Shiite groups, while weapons had not benefited the Christian groups. Moreover, the Syrian crisis would end with the collapse of the regime irrespective of whatever may be the position of Lebanon toward it.
The writer is the General Manager of Al Arabiya. The article was published in the Saudi-based Arab News on May 26, 2012