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Syrian presence in Lebanon was not merely on the political and security levels. When Syria fell to pieces in Lebanon, the most damage was caused to these realms; however, other areas such as culture, media and business have also suffered.

Other spheres of Syrian influence are present in Lebanon. One feature of Syrian dominance that would seem far from politics is religion. Here, I refer to the elections of the Supreme Islamic Council in Lebanon, which represents an official association of the Sunni scholars. These elections provoked heated debates and discussions in Lebanon.

Some observers perceived these elections, which were conducted for the first time in 40 years under the authority of the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Rashid Kabbani, a feature of the pro-Hariri Sunni current to restrain the lengthy Syrian influence upon Lebanese Sunnis. The first of these attempts of limitation was represented by the exclusion of the pro-Syrian Islamic Sunni group, ‘Al-Ahbash’, from the Council’s elections.

As many are aware, Al-Ahbash is a pro-Syrian, Sunni religious organization that opposes the traditional Sunni frame of reference from an Asharite Sufi position arguing that the local Sunni tradition has been affected greatly by Salafism. The strong connection between Al-Ahbash and Syria was highlighted recently when the Mehlis report indicated the pro-Syrian group in the Hariri assassination.

Despite that, traditional, social and religious structures are not usually created by official decrees or presidential orders but are rather the results of historical events and otherwise extraordinary conditions. The Syrian regime may have succeeded due to the exceptional Lebanese situation and undermined the traditional Lebanese religious structures, replacing them with new currents. These new currents still exist despite the departure of their Syrian creator. They will remain, just as many religious schools and movements that came out of the Hashemite-Ummayad conflict continue to exist throughout Islamic history. The exceptional governance is successful in influencing traditional organizations especially when government has been long established, brutal and totalitarian and especially if the counterbalance of opposition is absent.

There are clear examples of this scenario in Iraq. The deposed president Saddam Hussein changed a number of Iraq’s features as he meddled with the demographic fabric whether to arabize the Kurds or to manipulate the clans depending on the political situation at the time. Among the tactics used by Saddam and the Baath Party was the weakening of the sheikh of a certain tribe and replacing him with another leader. The Baath Party has used this tactic since its early days through the foundation of what it called the ‘Farmers Societies’ in the early seventies. Ezzat Al-Douri and Saddam himself would personally see to the societies that would take over the responsibilities of the heads of the tribes. The governor of certain areas would appoint the head of the farming societies in that region without considering the opinion of tribe’s sheikh who would stand and watch as the new authority took his place.

The role of the tribal sheiks diminished gradually but did not disappear. With the decaying of Saddam’s regime, the leader quickly returned to embracing the tribal sheikhs and supplying them with weapons. He then turned against his self-presumed “development” program, as he would once describe himself as a revolutionist against tribalism. At least this is what the old Baathist writers such as Fouad A-Rakabi would argue.

The Syrian Baath party was very similar as it also influenced the Sunni traditional structure in Lebanon. The clearest example is the creation of Al-Ahbash that has been harmed greatly following its exclusion from the elections of the Sunni Supreme Islamic Council of Lebanon.

Nevertheless, the elections caused much controversy because of what some Sunni parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, regarded as unjust strictness in the voting conditions. Many observers believe that the severity by Mufti Rashid Kabbani and the Prime Minister who supports him, aims to undermine Al-Ahbash’. The secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood in Lebanon, Faisal Malawy, highlighted this as he agreed to the necessity of weakening Al-Ahbash, nevertheless he objected to the exclusion of other scholars from the election (probably those of the Muslim Brotherhood) due to the severity.

Thus, it is clear that traditional Sunni religious and political leadership is attempting to regain control over the Sunnis and to get rid of Syrian religious influences that are represented mainly by Al-Ahbash. In this context, the traditionalists do not use political Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood) to counterbalance Al-Ahbash, but rather depend on their own means.

To maintain a certain form of religious culture and a certain group of particular symbols is an integral part of the political conflicts in our Arab World, especially between government and religious opposition. Due to the deep religiosity of our societies, many secular politicians will continuously focus on traditional religious structures. Thus, one could easily find a politician who had once repressed and persecuted Islamists, suddenly embracing them or another who had excluded religious scholars and marginalized their influence, suddenly using religious discourse. An appropriate example is that of Saddam Hussein who during his trial reprimanded the court officials for not adjourning for prayers. He read poorly some verses of the Quran with which he began his defense. The very fact that many have been impressed by the religious language of Saddam, the “mujahid”, reveals that there exists almost no gap in peoples minds between religion and politics. This almost non-existent gap is a vast area where numerous outrageous politicians build illusions that conceal manipulative politics behind the prayer carpets.

It is of course too difficult to reveal completely the alternating usage of the religious and the political in our Arab World. A well-known image is the employment of the religious by the political as represented in a famous remark attributed to Gamal Abdel Nasser mocking a religious clergyman saying, “Give him a chicken and he will provide you with the fatwa you need.” A less apparent image however is employment of the political by the religious as both the religious and the political are aware of their interchangeability and interdependency. Thus, some observers now speak of the implicit coalition between the Mufti (Sheikh Kabbani) and the Hariri political current in particular out of all other Sunni political currents.

Such an interchangeable relationship and its complications are not restricted to a specific religion or faction. As long as religious influence remains strong, the employment of politics to religion will continue. As long as religion is not all encompassing in all aspects of life, religious figures will seek coalition with politicians. If we look at this intense presence of the opinions of religious figures in an area such as the Gulf, we will realize the extent of political power of this class for this juncture. The crisis of fatwas and the contradictions between them only represents one aspect of the complicated relationship of politics and religion in our region.

Let us look at history to lighten this diverse and explosive issue. The prominent Abbasid poet Ali Bin Jibla Al Anbari was said to have opposed the caliph Mamoun. He once eulogized one of Al Mamoun’s opponents angering the caliph who called for Ali to be brought to him. After discovering the wit of the poet, the caliph stated that he would have the poet killed not for the eulogy of his opponent but rather as he claimed, for a blasphemous verse in which the poet attributes divine characteristics to Mamoun’s opponent. The caliph ordered the poet’s tongue to be removed from the back of the neck. This took place in Baghdad, in the Hijri year, 213.

The political respect for religion is not the problem, nor is the religious support for politics. However, the problem lies in political exploitation of the power of religion and vise versa. Politics is no longer rational when it is used by religion. Similarly, religion does not become any more sublime when it incorporates politics, as it would not be safe from political controversies.

I am unsure whether we can truly keep politics away from religion or if we can protect religion from politicians who want to eradicate it under the pretense of employing it. Until we are sure however, this will remain the major challenge.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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