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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

Aug 04th
Home arrow News Content arrow Blog arrow Blog Items arrow Extremism In Lebanon arrow Salafism: a small movement making big waves in Lebanon
Salafism: a small movement making big waves in Lebanon PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dalila Mahdawi, Daily Star staff   
Tuesday, 19 August 2008


Various Islamist groups claim to adhere to what they call 'the true face of Islam'

BEIRUT: Hizbullah's signature of a Memorandum of Understanding on Monday with Salafist groups raised questions about the origin, the doctrine and the spread of the Sunni ideological movement, whose influence is more and more tangible on the Lebanese political scene.

Salafism, which follows a radical school of Sunni Islamic thought, was established in Lebanon in the 1960s by Sheikh Salem al-Shahhal. It came into being at Egypt's prominent Islamic school Al-Azhar University in the 19th century, where it was initially propagated as an intellectual movement by Jamal al-Deen al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida. Today, the Salafist movement in Lebanon enjoys strongest support in the North, particularly in Tripoli's Abu Samra area.

Salafists are thought to comprise less than five percent of the world's Muslim population and have splintered into about 50 different branches. Each of these groups claims to represent true Salafism, leading to much confusion over the use of the term.

Even though all branches espouse charitable and social work, some of these movements aspire to change society through scholastic activity and daa'wa, or preaching, while others employ violence. After Shahhal's death, his two sons, especially the elder Dai al-Islam, have continued to lead the more mainstream of Salafist organizations in Lebanon.

According to the report, "Lebanon's Sunni Islamists-A Growing Force" by Omayma Abdel-Latif of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "Today one of the leading Salafist figures in the North, Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal identifies the Salafist movement as 'the true face of Islam.'"

"Our goal is a call to go back to the basics of Islam," the report quoted him as saying.

Salafists are strictly monotheistic and largely hostile to other forms of Islam, such as Shiism or Sufism. The word Salafi is derived from the Arabic term salaf, given to the third generation of the Prophet Muhammad's followers whose religious ideals Salafists try to emulate.

According to Fidaa Itani, a journalist at the Beirut newspaper Al-Akhbar and an expert in Islamist movements, "Salafists are characterized by their tendencies towards jihad," or holy war. Many jihadist movements, like Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, are indeed ideologically rooted in Salafism, which for many years remained politically aloof. A number of the Salafist groups operating in Lebanon have used or continue to employ violence, such as the Jund al-Sham, Osbat al-Ansar, and Fatah al-Islam groups.

Although they had been active for decades, Lebanon's Salafist groups gained international prominence in 2007 following the outbreak of bloody clashes between the Salafi group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Armed Forces at the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr al-Bared, near Tripoli.

Osbat al-Ansar and breakaway group Jund al-Sham both operate out of the Palestinian refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh in Sidon, and have used violence, often against each other, to further their goal of overthrowing the government and establishing Islamic rule.

Many Salafist groups are particularly hostile to the Shiite group Hizbullah, whose political and military strength Salafists fear is aimed at undermining Sunnis. Following Hizbullah's armed takeover of West Beirut and Mount Lebanon in May, hundreds of armed Salafists declared jihad on the group.

Salafists are politically linked, claimed Itani, to "Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait." 

According to the Carnegie report, Lebanese Salafist movements have also been associated, since 2005, with the Future Movement.

However, according to Abdel-Latif, "Salafist leaders deny categorically that they get funding from Hariri, insisting that the funds mainly come from sympathetic individuals and associations in the Gulf."


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