The Lebanese army has detained two men in connection with an attack on Shi’ite mourners at the funeral of a Hezbollah commander where at least two people were killed, as stated by a security source reported by Reuters. The funeral took place in the Lebanese town of Khaldeh for the Hezbollah commander who was killed a day earlier, Hezbollah said. According to Al Jazeera, Hezbollah asserted that the killings were a planned ambush and urged security forces to restore security in the coastal town.
The Lebanese media reported that the conflict stemmed from a personal vendetta. A man who is a part of one of Khaldeh’s Sunni tribes was responsible for killing a Hezbollah fighter, Ali Chebli, at a wedding party. The Iranian-backed group termed the attack a “great aggression” and warned the government to arrest the culprits in order to avoid any civil unrest. Reuters reports that tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in Khaldeh have been growing, which may foreshadow a sectarian conflict that could result in Lebanon undergoing further financial and political turmoil.
The ancient religious divide between Sunni and Shia groups has contributed to the resurgence of tensions and conflicts in the Middle East. The origins of the Sunni-Shia strife can be dated back to 610, when the Prophet Muhammed introduced a new monotheistic faith to the people of Mecca, known as Islam. After the Prophet Muhammed’s death in 632, there was a debate within the Meccan community as to who should take on his authoritative role. According to NPR, the majority of the Prophet Muhammed’s followers were in favor of the community of Muslims determining who would succeed him. On the other hand, a smaller group insisted that the only legitimate ruler must be an individual who is a part of the Prophet Muhammed’s bloodline. In particular, they favoured Ali, who was the husband of the Prophet Muhammed’s daughter Fatimah. On the contrary, as noted by Gregory Gause, professor of Middle East Politics at the University of Vermont, “Sunnis believed that leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community.” The Sunnis prevailed and elected Abu Bakr, a companion of the Prophet Muhammed, to be the first caliph (leader of the Muslim community) over Ali ibn Abi Talib, his cousin and son-in-law. It was fundamentally this debate that began the Sunni-Shia split.
The Sunni-Shia conflict in Lebanon and elsewhere also stems from modern events such as Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, according to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had the chance to implement his vision of an Islamic government ruled by the guardianship of the Islamist jurist. This theory, which is rooted in Shia Islam, justifies the rule of the clergy over the state. Guardianship of the Islamist jurist or “velayat-e-faqih” is opposed by Sunni Muslims, who have historically separated political rule from religious authority.
As a part of the revolution, Khomeini advocated for Muslim unity, yet also supported Shia groups in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain, and Pakistan. As of today, in the Arab world, Shia groups that are backed by Iran have made significant political gains. For instance, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia and political movement, is Lebanon’s most powerful armed group. This has led to Iran, a majority Shia country, gaining more regional influence as the Shia groups it aids in other countries garner political power. The Council on Foreign Relations states that Hezbollah has defined its movements in sectarian terms, and adopted anti-imperialist, anti-American, and anti-Zionist ideologies as a part of its platform. Hezbollah’s attacks have shifted from having anti-West and anti-Zionist motives to those on other Muslims, like al-Qaeda’s killing of Shia civilians in Iraq as well as their overt participation in the Syrian Civil War.
According to Reuters, Sunni tribes claimed responsibility for the attack and asserted that it was done in revenge for the killing of one of their members in Khaldeh the previous year. Lebanese army intelligence stormed the homes of numerous suspects and detained an individual involved in the funeral killing, the army states. A second suspect was also detained, the security source states. Hezbollah has affirmed that it is striving to maintain peace and order, but it was not able to monitor everyone triggered by the funeral attack. “You don’t want strife, then come and surrender those killers to the state,” Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah MP, told Al Jadeed TV on Sunday, August 1st, 2021.
Apart from the sectarian strife, Lebanon is already enduring the greatest threat to its stability since its 15-year-long civil war from 1975-1990 because of the debilitating financial situation that has caused the currency to plummet by more than 90%. According to the World Bank, Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis is likely to be one of the top three most severe crises globally since the mid-nineteenth century. After the civil war, one of Lebanon’s most reliable sources of funds was remittances from Lebanese people who worked abroad. According to Reuters, remittances began to decrease in 2011 with the rise of sectarian conflict. Sunni Gulf states halted aid because of the increasing power of Iran in Lebanon through Hezbollah.
As reported by Reuters, Fouad Makhzoumi, an independent Sunni MP tweeted, “What happened in Khaldeh confirms the blatant absence of the logic of the state and that the language of uncontrolled and illegitimate arms is the one prevailing,” He further added, “we are afraid of the country being dragged to strife.”
The future of the Middle East and the political balance between Sunnis and Shia, especially in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen, is largely dependent on how the Sunni-Shia rivalry is settled. In terms of humanitarian implications, Hezbollah’s support for the Ba’ath government in Syria has prolonged the country’s civil war, which has forced the influx of more than four million refugees into countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the influx of more than one million majority Sunni Syrians into Lebanon, a country already having endured a fifteen-year-long civil war, has added further financial pressure on the government. Not to mention, the Syrian Civil War could possibly result in the redrawing of the map of the Middle East. The Assad regime has control over Syria’s Mediterranean coast, Damascus, and Homs, which make up a rump state that neighbors Hezbollah’s strongholds in Lebanon, posing a threat to Lebanon’s territorial integrity. Not to mention, Kurdish groups located in northern Syria have continued to advocate for rights they have been deprived of under Assad’s Ba’athist regime and are close to gaining de facto independence. Yet, with this being said, while most politicians and activists in Lebanon disagree with the possibility of redrawing the map of the Middle East, they acknowledge that the emergence of new areas of influence on the basis of sectarian identities and claims is a rising issue.
According to Marwan Kabalan, a contributor to Al Jazeera and a Syrian academic, the main way to overcome sectarian conflict involves state-building. According to the Media Line, state-building helps create centralized and democratic nation-states which would be more effective at preserving the rule of law. Additionally, stronger democratic states would also help enhance national identity and security, as well as the quality of public services, which can help mitigate sectarianism. So, while it is commonly believed that solely religious doctrine contributes to the Sunni-Shia divide, the government, the collapse of states, and social media have all helped to mobilize this divide. In conclusion, the end of Iran’s aid to Shia groups in other countries and interfering with their political spheres as well as working towards combatting the unequal distribution of wealth across the Middle East can surely help reduce Sunni-Shia sectarianism and avoid the polarization of their identities.
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