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Islamic State flag burning ignites controversy in Lebanon

The burning of Islamic State (IS) flags in Lebanon has stirred controversy among the public and politicians, with some condemning the act, considering it an attack on religion, while others contend that IS has nothing to do with Islam.
Lebanese Sunni Islamist shouts slogans and wave flags as they march during a protest in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, August 4, 2014, condemning the Lebanese army for bombarding Arsal. The Lebanese army advanced on Monday into a border town attacked by Islamists at the weekend in the most serious spillover of the three-year-old Syrian civil war into Lebanon, and the Beirut government said the deadly assault would not go unpunished. REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim  (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR417HT

TRIPOLI, Lebanon - After meteoric advances in Iraq in June, the Islamic State (IS) became the center of radio debates, TV talk shows and newspaper op-eds in Lebanon. Conversations among residents in coffee shops, taxis and diners quickly turned to the violent conflicts raging in the region. The violence has not spared Lebanon.

Deadly confrontations in early August erupted in Arsal, bordering Syria, with security forces battling fighters from IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate also operating in Syria. More than 100 extremists and 19 Lebanese army soldiers were killed. Forty-four security personnel were captured by the armed groups, and three of them have thus far been executed by IS.

Although Lebanon is not a solid base for IS, according to the Economist, at least 890 Lebanese citizens have joined the organization. There have been reports of IS suicide attacks carried out by Lebanese citizens, and the army said that two Lebanese men were present at or involved in the execution of two of the captured Lebanese soldiers. Although there is widespread condemnation of the Islamic State's actions, public protests against the group in the form of flag burning have proven to be controversial.

In mid-August, three young men burned an IS flag in broad daylight in Beirut and posted a photo of the event on social media. It went viral and sparked debate. Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi released a highly critical statement in which he demanded punishment for the young men. Rifi said the act constituted “an insult to the religious slogans [on the flag] … and could stir up sectarian conflicts.” The IS flag contains the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith, on a black background along with other religious insignia.

Other Lebanese politicians called for restraint and to avoid taking political stances. “We are going through a very delicate situation that has been deteriorating for many years,” said Nadim Gemayel, a parliamentarian for the Beirut district. Gemayel believes that Lebanon “cannot allow any communitarian, confessional or political problem to become a national issue” that could ignite the country.

Many young Lebanese, however, think it is necessary to take a stance. “Mohamad,” a 27-year-old sales manager who requested anonymity, burned a printed IS flag, and the 22-second video that he posted on YouTube in late August went viral, with more than 142,000 hits. “It's a type of media resistance,” Mohamad said. “We all should condemn IS with what's in our hands. I burned the IS flag, not Islam’s flag,” referring to Rifi's comments.

Others followed Mohamad's call. Reine Wahab was outraged by Rifi's call to prosecute the young men and posted a photo of a burning IS flag on Twitter. “I couldn't but support them by doing the same,” the 22-year-old undergraduate said. “To burn a flag from a terrorist group who killed our people and soldiers doesn't have anything to do with religion.”

Some Lebanese have also voiced their opposition to the flag burnings. Pro-ISIS graffiti such as “The Islamic State is coming” and “The Islamic State will break the cross” was scrawled on some churches, marking the first direct threat against Christians in Lebanon in years. City officials called the vandals “childish” and “stupid” and asserted the need to prosecute them.

The elements of the IS flag are commonly used by other groups and appear on other flags. Islamic experts say it is a mistake to only associate these religious symbols with IS, as they have been important to the Islamic community since the advent of Islam. Some have criticized decisions to ban the flag's display, such as in Germany and the United Kingdom. “I don't know how banning the flag does any good without taking steps against the literalistic Islamic ideology which the flag represents,” said Timothy Furnish, an Islamic historian and consultant who worked as an Arabic linguist for the US Army.

The army increases security

The port city of Tripoli, Lebanon's second-most populous city with half a million inhabitants, lies 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Beirut. It still suffers from decades of economic collapse, and spillover from the Syrian conflict has plunged the metropolis into regular outbreaks of violence.

The main entrance to the city from the south is the crowded, chaotic Noor Square. This roundabout is also a rallying point for demonstrations, as could be seen Sept. 19 by the half dozen black flags with the shahada planted in the grassy center.

Banners demanding the release of Islamists detained in Lebanese prisons have been removed from the center of the square, but they still hang on an abandoned building at the perimeter. One of them shows a middle-aged man in profile, seated and with a rifle resting on his shoulder. A copy of the IS flag appears printed at the lower left of the poster.

“This one is not IS, but Tawhid,” said Tufi al-Amudi, 60, a coffee seller on the square. Tawhid is an armed group whose origins go back to the civil war. Its fighters have taken part in clashes with other Islamist groups for political leadership in the past, but no relation with IS has been proven. “IS doesn't have a base here,” Amudi said.

Two kilometers (1.25 miles) from Noor is the city's other big roundabout, Abu Ali Square. It too is filled with political banners. Abu Ali serves as one of the entrances to the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, which has been the site of regular outbreaks of violence. Hundreds of its walls have been pierced by gunfire. Last week, 200 men paraded around Abu Ali.

“They were chanting slogans in favor of IS,” said Tarek, the owner of a patisserie close to the roundabout. “IS fighters are not in Tripoli,” Tarek stated while waiting for customers. As he sees it, the problem lies first at the socioeconomic level. High unemployment and low wages are conditions that benefit the radical groups. Tarek said lately he has spoken to a number of people who support IS.

Charles Saba, a former political analyst for the Issam Fares Center, acknowledged the possibility of IS establishing a foothold in Lebanon, but also said it is remote. Lebanon's northern border with Syria is now controlled by the Lebanese and Syrian armies. Although local groups might be preparing attacks, Saba thinks they do not have the “operational or economic capacity” to confront the army, which earlier this year received a mandate to crack down on Islamist groups in Tripoli. A number of commanders have been detained, and agreements for imposing cease-fires have been made between the armed groups and the army.

One top military official who requested anonymity thinks now is not the time for a dialogue. “The army should not negotiate with the groups they are fighting,” he said in regard to Arsal, Tripoli and other areas. “IS is not a reality [here]. It is just an idea, but the military should strike hard.”

Back on the streets adjacent to Noor Square, Ahmad, a Tripoli resident, sips coffee on an improvised terrace while chatting with his friends. “I didn't like seeing those flags burned, but by no means will IS come here.”

More from Nicolas Lupo (Lebanon Pulse)