Shiite-Sunni relations in Lebanon are far from fine. Tensions have reached their peak and would have turned into an open conflict if it weren’t for the Future Movement and Hezbollah’s expedited attempts to heal wounds and meet. They are trying to alleviate the sectarian tension that surfaced after the assassination of Rafik Hariri [in 2005] — a politician who represented a safety valve for many. How have relations between Sunnis and Shiites evolved since the assassination?
First, it is noteworthy that when referring to Sunnis and Shiites we mean the two political camps that rely on the loyalty of the majority in either sect, in a region where major regional political projects are at the mercy of the different sects.
At first, the Sunni entity, in general, did not link the assassination to Hezbollah, and both sides maintained a reasonably steady relationship. The quadripartite alliance [between the Amal Movement, Hezbollah, the Progressive Socialist Party and the Future Movement] was the reason behind forming a government after the 2005 elections, according to the Islamic researcher and leader in the Future Movement Radwan al-Sayed.
Sayed said, “In 2006 and 2007 relations started to deteriorate as a result of Hezbollah’s behavior toward the government and presidency. This deterioration reached its peak with the May 7, 2008 incident. In the wake of these incidents, it appeared that five members of Hezbollah were accused of Hariri’s assassination. Relations kept worsening with Hezbollah’s successive ‘strikeouts.’
“With Hezbollah trying to occupy Beirut, the government failing and tensions escalating after the 2009 elections, the Hezbollah and [the Syrian] regime-affiliated Najib Mikati government was formed and groups dubbed ‘Resistance Brigades’ emerged in mostly Sunni cities and villages. The armed hotspots of Hezbollah, the Amal Party and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party were widely deployed.”
He noted that tensions escalated “when it appeared that Hezbollah was expanding and taking over the state completely, as well as targeting Sunnis because it considered them its main opponents.”
The Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, adding insult to injury between Sunnis and Shiites. Sayed said, "Iran and Hezbollah considered the Syrian revolution a huge threat to their influence, after they had been in control of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. They strongly fought the revolution, announced that they were fighting the infidels and were deployed all over the Syrian territories. The relations worsened as a result of the emergence of suicide bombers [in Lebanon] and the rampant tension. However, they have been toned down by two factors."
The first is the formation of a consensus government, which Saad Hariri said aimed at alleviating the tensions and solving the citizens' problems resulting from radicalism. The second is the Future Movement’s dialogue with Hezbollah, under the auspices of Nabih Berri, to alleviate the sectarian tensions. Sayed said, “The dialogue won’t bear significant fruits regarding the presidency and it won’t reduce the intensity of the economic, social and political crises in Lebanon. Iran will use its areas of influence to pressure the Americans and Arabs to get its way.”
Sayed said that the tensions will probably persist, “even though the Future Movement is always trying to tone them down.”
“Hezbollah’s implication in Hariri’s assassination is no longer a secret,” he said, adding that he was “convinced that Hezbollah assassinated Hariri, that an Iranian-Syrian decision was mainly behind Hariri’s assassination and the other assassinations [in the country] and that Hezbollah implemented the operation.”
Racism and tribal mentality
[Shiite religious leader] Jaafar Fadlallah said, “The purpose behind the assassination of Hariri was to put the Sunni-Shiite relationship in the context of a crisis of race.” However, the issue did not start with the assassination, according to Fadlallah, who said, “There had been incitement of racism in the region in general — such as the Arab-Persian racism that arose following the Iraq-Iran War, in addition to the crisis of racism that arose between Muslims and Christians.”
“The racist educational system in the East, which is somewhat related to the tribal mentality, means the context in which a person lives prevails over principles and values. The same mentality is used to create racism in the Sunni-Shiite relations,” said Fadlallah. “There is an educational crisis that teaches the individual on the basis that the context to which he or she belongs represents all values. However, there is no difference between Shiism and religiosity at the level of moral and spiritual values, but there are doctrinal details between the two sects that should not affect the person’s behavior.”
Fadlallah does not deny that “Hariri’s assassination was not a passing event; it was rather an earthquake-like incident that had serious repercussions on the entire region and not on Lebanon alone. It was perhaps a reflection of the tensions prevailing in the region and thus it worsened the sectarian situation. Provocative speeches and the lack of control over certain institutions had a role in it, such as the judiciary, which was supposed to work privately without stirring strife. However, the people began to realize that the issue of sectarianism will bring nothing but misfortunes for the nation. People became more receptive to the solutions that could lead to rapprochement. The dialogue taking place in Lebanon, whether it was direct or undeclared throughout the region, shows the understanding of a lot of parties of the size of the risk posed by sectarian tension. If we combine the efforts of the wise people, we can find a way to ease sectarian tension and we could witness a significant leap in the Arab and Islamic mentality.”
Has it become a fact that Hezbollah assassinated Hariri? “There is a problem in the international judiciary in a way that it cannot separate itself from the conflict in the region. This is why investigations start in one direction and end in another according to the policy adopted by international organizations to acquire powerful positions,” answered Fadlallah.
The youth want peace
Lebanon has not recovered from the repercussions of the civil war, and the presence of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had a certain value, and there is a problem in his absence. Sociology and political researcher Fahima Sharaf al-Din said, “With the death of Prime Minister Hariri, religious tensions turned into sectarian tensions. The ones who were behind the assassination of Hariri were well aware of what it would lead to.” She described the current relationship between Sunnis and Shiites as “very bad and the two perfectly understand that neither one of them will win, thus each party has its own motives to alleviate tensions.”
“We are relying on the presence of political figures as wise as Hariri to resolve the tensions, and we hope that his son can play the same role as his father who came from outside the war to lead Lebanon to peace,” said Sharaf al-Din. “The Lebanese youth are longing for peace. The youth do not leave the country due to lack of job opportunities alone, but also because the situation has become unbearable. [This is] in addition to the political and sectarian tensions and conflicts that prevail along with corruption.”