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The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon:

The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities By Robert G. Rabil.


"This is an important book that deals with a painful humanitarian question, which has social, economic, demographic and, of course, political effects on both Syria and Lebanon. It is a must-read book for anyone who is interested in the challenges facing Lebanon, how severe they are, what threats they portend, and what the possible ways of dealing with them are."

Review by Eyal Zisser. Tel Aviv University. May 29, 2017.

Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 53, Issue 6, 2017.

    The civil war that broke out in Syria in March 2011 brought about fundamental changes in the character and faces of that country. The damage and destruction brought upon the Syrian lands by the fighting was accompanied by a massive human tragedy, which changed dramatically the demographic composition of Syrian society. This development was abetted by deliberate acts of ethnic cleansing, aimed at the Sunni population in the rural areas and the periphery, initiated by the regime in Damascus.


    In the summer of 2010, before the outbreak of the crisis, the population of Syria numbered about 24 million persons. Since then, nearly one-third of the Syrian population, over eight million people, have fled or been forced to flee abroad, to neighboring Arab countries, Turkey and even to Europe. Most of the refugees came from the rural areas and the periphery that during the fighting had become centers of protest, and revolt against the Ba'th regime. Syria’s Christian minority must also be mentioned in regard to the refugee question. It took no direct part in the fighting and continued to support the regime. However, as the warfare intensified, it preferred to abandon its homeland, which had ceased to be a safe haven for its minorities.


    The Syrian civil war has had an impact not only on the Syrian state itself, but also on its neighbours, especially Lebanon and Jordan, which have absorbed a significant portion of the Syrian refugees.


    Lebanon is particularly interesting and important in this regard, especially since only three decades have passed since Lebanon itself experienced a destructive civil war similar to the current strife in Syria. Furthermore, the extent of the refugee problem in Lebanon caused by the Syrian fighting is greater than in any other country. As of the spring of 2017, about a quarter of Lebanon’s population consisted of refugees from Syria. Most of them were Sunnis, at a time when most of Lebanon’s large Shi’ite population tended to support the Syrian regime. Hizballah, Lebanon’s leading and most important Shi’ite organization, even took part in the fighting in Syria alongside the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. At the same time, Hizballah was engaged in an intense political struggle with its Sunni rivals inside Lebanon for hegemony and influence. Many Lebanese thus wondered whether the war in Syria, with all its horrors, was going to spill over into Lebanon and what would happen in the future with the one and a half million Syrian refugees who had found shelter for the time being in Lebanon.


    In light of the changes in the character of the Syrian state and society wrought by the fighting there, serious questions have arisen about the state’s ability to stand on its own again if and when the fighting ends. In addition, questions have arisen regarding the war’s origins and roots. Many students of Syria wonder in particular how it could happen that in a country like Syria, which was perceived over the years as having a strong, solid and stable regime, a bloody civil war broke out and led to the collapse of the state’s institutions and the disintegration of its social fabric.


The two books under review touch upon the war in Syria and its implications, even if only indirectly. The title of Robert G. Rabil’s book, The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon, the Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities, indicates clearly the bi-national issue it deals with, an issue that arose as a direct result of the war in Syria. By contrast, Esther Meininghaus’s book, Creating Consent in Ba’thist Syria: Women and Welfare in a Totalitarian State, deals with topics that have no obvious connection to the Syrian fighting. She investigates the Ba'th regime’s policies in regard to gender and society and its efforts and its evident success in enlisting broad support among the Syrian public. The regime’s success can be attributed to its policy of integrating various sectors, including women, in state-led social networks via institutions and organizations founded by the regime, such as the General Union of Syrian Women (founded in 1967). Despite her book’s seeming detachment from the current violent events in Syria, Meininghaus seeks to make a connection by raising an interesting, as well as controversial, insight. According to it, the regime’s success in surviving for as long as it has in the face of the challenges presented to it since the spring of 2011 can be explained by its success in anchoring itself among the Syrian public and mobilizing support through the social networks, organizations, and institutions it established.


    Rabil’s book about the Syrian refugees in Lebanon offers a thorough account of the entire issue. It presents the historical background of the situation in Lebanon on the eve of the war in Syria, including a review of the legal, social and economic status of the Palestinian refugees who preceded the Lebanese refugees by almost five decades.

    In addition, Rabil discusses the political tensions and struggles Lebanon is experiencing today. He portrays the lines of division between the country’s ethnic and religious communities, focusing mainly on the Shi’ite-Sunni rift. We note that Syria has basically the same religious and ethnic divisions. From these Rabil passes on to a discussion of the development of the Syrian refugee phenomenon in Lebanon, its scope and the distribution of the refugees in the country. He discusses the phenomenon’s implications for the Lebanese state and the way in which the Lebanese state and society are coping with it.

    This is an important book that deals with a painful humanitarian question, which has social, economic, demographic and, of course, political effects on both Syria and Lebanon. It is a must-read book for anyone who is interested in the challenges facing Lebanon, how severe they are, what threats they portend, and what the possible ways of dealing with them are, as explained by Rabil:


"How could a country, let alone one scarred by a horrific civil war and tormented by chronic socio-economic and political problems, face up to this daunting challenge? How has the international community, together with the government of Lebanon and humanitarian aid organizations, dealt with this unparalleled refugee crisis? What plans have been pursued as a response to the crisis and what accounts for their achievements and failures? Has the Syrian conflict had spillover effects into Lebanon, and if so, how has this affected the country’s political dynamics? How has Lebanon, on the institutional and popular levels, reacted to the socioeconomic and political implications of the massive influx of refugees into the country? How is the overall situation of the refugees in Lebanon? These are the questions with which this study is concerned" (page xii).

    Rabil adds:


    "Certainly, the massive influx of refugees into Lebanon by 2015 and the spillover effects of the Syrian conflict into Beirut have clearly affected both refugees and host communities alike. Ominously, I sensed in my daily interactions with refugees and Lebanese during my recent visit the morbid feeling permeating their charged environment, which could potentially lead to emotionally-driven backlashes" (page xiii).

    Rabil emphasizes in particular the threat of extremism and terrorism facing Lebanon as a result of the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon and notes that:


"Consequently, the Syrian crisis spilled over into Lebanon, Salaf-Jihadist organizations, led by the Islamic state (also known as ISIS) and al-Nusra front, waged a campaign of terror across Lebanon, implicating Palestinian and Syrian refugees. This has led to a dramatic shift in attitudes towards refugees on the popular and institutional levels, potentially leading to social conflict. Put simply, the refugee crisis has had a devastating effect on Lebanon, creating a new tragedy afflicting the vulnerable Lebanese and deepening the tragedy of Syrian and Palestinian refugees… Significantly, this double tragedy could cause not only social instability but also disruptive and deadly massive population movements. The Syrian refugee crisis has become a serious threat to regional and international peace and security, whose first victims are going to be a mass of vulnerable individuals across nationalities." (page xiv).

    Rabil’s conclusions regarding the future are not rosy, for his insight is that:


"The ongoing Syrian conflict created a tragedy like no other in the modern history of the world…" 


"Significantly, the refugee crisis has created in neighborly Lebanon another tragedy manifesting itself in an upsurge of poverty and unemployment, disruption of social services, concerns about terrorism and security, growing frustration and lack of confidence in central authorities, and real and/or imaginary feelings of displacement on the local and national levels. No doubt, the crisis has also hardened the sectarian divides that tormented the country into virtually a state of paralysis." 

"Yet, Lebanon, unlike any other country in the world, and despite its economic and socio-political woes, has welcomed more Syrians than any country could sustain." (page 109)


    Telling about his own travels to Lebanon and the spread of the endemic of radicalism he points out that:


"Absent a settlement of the crisis, complete funding of LCRP, and/or an internationally sanctioned safe haven within Syria to relocate most refugees, a bigger tragedy is looming as the backlash of pent-up frustration and grievances of both Lebanon’s marginalized and Syria’s dispossessed has become almost inevitable. In this case, civil strife and a perilous quest for Europe are the most likely outcomes." (page 112).

    Nonetheless, it should still be noted that despite the scope of the Syrian refugee phenomenon and the challenges it poses to Lebanon, the country has until now remained relatively calm and stable. It has managed to block both radical Islamist terrorism and the warfare in neighbouring Syria from spilling over into its territory.

    We may suppose that much of the reason for this lies in the fact that Lebanon experienced its own civil war just three decades ago, and the trauma of that episode still resonates. Probably no one has any desire to return to the horrors of such fighting, which have not yet been forgotten.

    Another reason can be sought in the circumstance that the Sunni community in Lebanon, which is attentive, naturally, to the tragedy befalling its brethren in Syria, is not by character militant or radical. The Sunnis mainly live in the big cities, and are an important part of the middle class and the elites in Beirut and other Lebanese cities. Like the Sunni urban population in Syria, the Lebanese Sunnis have no spirit of militancy, and they have nothing in common, certainly nothing socially and economically, with the refugees from Syria, most of whom come from the countryside and the periphery. During the Lebanese civil war, the Sunnis also constituted a non-militant element, while others – Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Druze and Shi’ite fighters, and, of course, certain external forces – fought on their behalf and for them against their Christian adversaries.

    Ultimately, apart from all this, everyone in Lebanon understands that the country’s future is closely connected with the outcome in neighbouring Syria. If Bashar al-Assad comes out on top, he will maintain good relations with his ally, Hizballah. If the Syrian fighting ends with a compromise or even a rebel victory, the Sunnis in Lebanon will benefit. We must, therefore, wait patiently for the end of the conflict in Syria in order to see what will happen in Lebanon.


    From all this, we can also understand how the Lebanese managed to contain the increasingly radical Salafi-Jihadi terror that threatened to spill over into Lebanon, and how they managed to deal with the political impasse prevailing in their country from the beginning of the war in Syria, an impasse that stemmed from the struggle between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites for hegemony in Lebanon. Thus, for example, in October 2016, after two years during which the office of president had not been filled, the Lebanese parliament managed to hold elections and choose the Maronite Christian Michel Aoun as president. A new government was soon formed, headed by the Sunni leader Sac d al-Din al-Hariri, and preparations were begun to hold parliamentary elections, which had been repeatedly postponed since 2013.


    Meanwhile, the refugee issue continued to hover over Lebanon and add a dimension of uncertainty and instability. The big open question remains, what will be the refugees’ fate in the long term? No answer is available at present, but it is clear that the book under review deserves to be consulted in any future discussion of this issue.

The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities By Robert G. Rabil. 

"Dr. Robert G. Rabil has succeeded in using simple language to describe and explain a very complex phenomenon. He captures the essence of the current Syrian and Palestinian refugee crisis in Lebanon, and presents a lucid understanding of the human misery and political repercussion. His analysis and conclusions may be used effectively for better decision making, and if not, for the cleaner records of history."—Chahine A. Ghais, Notre Dame University, Lebanon

"Roughly one in four persons in Lebanon today is a Syrian refugee, giving the country the highest proportion of refugees in the world. Professor Rabil takes careful stock of what this means for Lebanon, the refugees it hosts, the region, and the international community. He does so with a rare ability to combine excellent scholarly analysis, personal anecdotes from his fieldwork in Lebanon, and clear, accessible language. Anyone wishing to better understand Lebanon or the complex ways in which the Syrian civil war impacts people and neighboring states will very much appreciate Professor Rabil's work."—David Romano, Missouri State University

"The refugee crisis in the Middle East has become part of the mythos of the US presidential campaign, the British exit from the EU, and at the core of exploding conflicts all over the West and the Middle East. Professor Robert Rabil has, in this exceptionally important and seminal work, given the refugee situation a face and a voice. This book should be required reading for presidential candidates to prime ministers and all the talking heads commenting on the refugee situation without any understanding of its reality on CNN, MSNBC, the BBC and other media. Professor Rabil has captured the tortured physical and legal existence of the refugees from Syria and Iraq in Lebanon and their impact on the Lebanese economy, political structure, and society. In short, this book is a most critical read for anyone trying to get a grasp of the refugee crisis confronting us today."—Samuel M. Edelman, Academic Council for Israel; University of Miami; CSUC, Emeritus

The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities By Robert G. Rabil.

"Few scholars can adequately handle such a broad issue by gathering humanitarian, economic, and political aspects of a current crisis into one book. Almost defiantly Rabil is one those few and he successfully combines his impressive knowledge of Lebanon’s history and politics with the rich experience he gained from working in the Red Cross during Lebanon’s civil war to produce a book that is both concise and extensive. It is a fluent read and even the technical chapters dealing with economy and intervention plans are easily accessible."

Review by Guy Nathaniel Ma’ayan, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, Bar Ilan University. The Journal for Interdisciplinary Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 1, Fall 2017.

    The main argument presented in this book is that the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon is a tragedy for both sides: for those driven out of their homes and for the communities which absorbed them. For Lebanon this has not been their first experience with refugees since in 1948 it had to deal with approximately 100,000 Palestinians who entered the country and are still there. One cannot deny the striking resemblance between the two cases since both occurred as the result of a civil war in a neighboring country which eventually spilled over into Lebanon, negatively affected its fragile domestic demographic balance, placed a heavy burden on its economy, empowered movements with extreme ideologies and thus transformed the refugees from being a mere humanitarian problem to becoming a security threat which jeopardized the republic.


    Indeed, the first two chapters of the book deal with the multifaceted, even existential, threat which the Syrian crisis is posing for Lebanon. The massive influx of refugees has not only affected the demography but also the geographical and public space in Lebanon. Up till March 2015 Lebanon absorbed approximately a million and a half registered, unregistered and illegal Syrian refugees making, together with the Palestinians, the total number of refugees living in Lebanon more or less two million. Since the number of Lebanese is 4.3 million, the refugee population now constitutes almost half of the country’s population and this massive refugee presence has made Lebanon the country with the highest concentration of refugees per capita in the world.

    Rabil presents the issue of 53,000 Palestinians who were forced to leave their former refugee camps in Syria to live mostly around or in Lebanese refugee camps. Yet, the vast majority of refugees are Syrian citizens who, in most cases, are living in poorly accessible and serviced areas, in insecure shelters such as tents, shacks, unfinished buildings, overcrowded apartments and substandard housing in 1,700 localities throughout Lebanon (mostly in the north and the east), many of which are communities that are the poorest in the country.

    Lebanon refers to the Syrians legalistically as “displaced”, rather than “refugees” and has steadfastly refused to consider establishing formal refugee camps since many Lebanese are convinced that their living in camps will inevitably lead to permanent settlement in the country. In the meantime, the Syrians enjoy the status of being residents and those who have been officially registered are able to participate in the local labor market, although they are restricted to physical work and sales. In contrast to them, the attender rules of the “open door” policy do not apply to the original Palestinian refugees because, Rabil claims, that Lebanon’s 70 years of experience with the Palestinians “has left deep scars in the collective consciousness of the nation” (p. 18)

   The assertion above is somehow simplistic as Palestinian refugees in both Syria and Lebanon are categorically treated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA while the agency in charge of the Syrians in Lebanon is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNRWA has no mandate to settle Palestinians in their host country and Lebanon’s laws bar them from both owning property and having access to the domestic welfare system. While the Syrian refugees are therefore neither dependent on UNRWA nor suffer from the “apartheid” laws they can access the social and health systems of Lebanon, conditional only upon registration and a small fee.

   In the following chapters the author focuses on the socioeconomic implications of the crisis and the unique intervention plans that address the problem of protecting refugees while, at the same time, help build the resilience of veteran host communities. He claims that, by helping the masses of helpless individuals, Lebanon has welcomed more Syrians than the country can economically sustain. The Syrian crisis has placed tremendous pressure on the state and society of Lebanon and has seriously downgraded the capacity to maintain the services it provides on the local and national levels while destabilizing tensions between the Lebanese and Syrian populations. Indeed, Lebanon’s GDP growth has fallen by 2.85 percent each year since 2014, has generated estimated losses of $7.5 billion and has increased the level of poverty and unemployment. Being a cheap labor force, the refugees competed intensively with the local poor population over jobs and there were many incidents of Syrian child labor recorded. Consequently, many poor Lebanese felt that they were being negatively affected by the crisis and, regardless of Lebanon’s own political and communal divisions, they began to blame the Syrians for their precarious situation and this resentment became violent. The governments of Lebanon and humanitarian aid partners have laid the foundation of a structure that has already helped many individuals but this structure is under the risk of collapsing due to financial difficulties.

   The last chapter reviews the political and ideological developments that have taken place in Lebanon during the recent decades. The author argues that the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 increased polarization and radicalism within Lebanon which was a double collision between two political movements fighting over the nature of the political order that emerged after the Syrian withdrawal. This took place between the state and a growing Salaf-Jihadist movement that was emerging from the Palestinian refugee camps and the author’s brilliant analysis provides us with a picture of the background against which the Syrian crisis spilled over into Lebanon.

   In spite of the deep divisions between President Assad’s supporters and his opponents in Lebanon, the senior Lebanese politicians unanimously opposed the capture of territories in the east by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and the campaign of car bombings across the country carried out by the local Salafi-Jihadist movements. The final liberation of these territories took place during the writing of this review but has left 1.5 million tragedies throughout the Land of Cedars yet to be solved. Rabil concludes with the following sobering forecast: 

"Without a settlement of the crisis, complete funding for Lebanon, a crisis response plan, and/or an internationally sanctioned safe haven within Syria to relocate most refugees, a bigger tragedy is looming as the backlash of the pent-up frustration and grievances of both Lebanon’s marginalized and Syria’s dispossessed people has become almost inevitable. In this case, civil strife and a perilous quest for Europe are the most likely outcomes." (p. 112).

    Few scholars can adequately handle such a broad issue by gathering humanitarian, economic, and political aspects of a current crisis into one book. Almost defiantly Rabil is one those few and he successfully combines his impressive knowledge of Lebanon’s history and politics with the rich experience he gained from working in the Red Cross during Lebanon’s civil war to produce a book that is both concise and extensive. It is a fluent read and even the technical chapters dealing with economy and intervention plans are easily accessible.

    Students, scholars, humanitarian aid workers and decision makers will find The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon useful. Two years after its publication, the book’s insights have made it possible to understand the many events that have been taking place lately such as the Lebanese politicians’ adoption of the roadmap for a new political order in the country delineated in The Document of Ba’abdeh (June 2017) and the reluctance of the Lebanese government to repatriate thousands of Syrian refugees from Arsal (August 2017), even by force, soon after its liberation from Jabhat al-Nusra including the harsh criticism levelled at the scope of Hizbullah’s involvement in the fight to retrieve it.

Robert G. Rabil, Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism  reviewed by Joshua Sinai, Perspectives on Terrorism Vol. 10, No. 6 (2016) (a project of The Terrorism Research Initiative and University of Leiden in Netherlands)

This is a detailed and authoritative account of the evolution of Salafism as an important player in Lebanon’s Sunni confessional community in terms of its “theology, religio-political ideologies, political programs, visions, and outreach initiatives (infitah)…” (p. 4). Three schools of Salafism in Lebanon are identified: the “quietest Salafists, haraki (activist) Salafists, and Salafi jihadists. Also examined is the impact of the interaction between Salafists and the overall Sunni community on one hand, as well as the conflict between the Salafists and the multi-confessional state (including the Shi’ite Hizballah), and their implications for regional and international security on the other hand The impact of these interactions is examined through the author’s hypothesis that “Hezbollah’s ascendency in Lebanon, coupled with the Syrian rebellion, has generated new sociopolitical dynamics in both Lebanon and Syria, creating immediate and long-term political uncertainties and challenge to Salafists. In response, Salafists, gripped by feelings of discontent and revanchist impulses, have been compelled to address political matters that go beyond their theology and religio-political ideologies, forcing them to consider rationales for political strategies.” (p. 14). The factors underlying these rationales are then examined “in relation to (1) the different schools of Salafism and the emergence of charismatic preachers, (2) the Sunni community and transnational networks of Salafists, (3) the intracommunal and intercommunal relations in Lebanon, and (4) the Syrian conflict.” (p. 14). The author concludes that “Salafism, as a fundamentalist ideology separating the believers from unbelievers, poses an ideological and practical threat to Lebanon’s plural society and to the region,” (p. 244) and that it has “emerged as a prominent ideological and political driver of the Sunni community…” (p. 245). By addressing these important issues, this book is invaluable in explaining some of the drivers that are crucial to address in attempts to understand Lebanon’s current political turmoil, particularly the Sunni-Hizballah conflict. The author is professor, Department of Political Science, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida.

Salafism in Lebanon From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism By Robert G. Rabil.


"Scholarship on political Islam in Lebanon has tended to focus on Hezbollah with little or no regard to Sunni forms of Islamism. Robert Rabil offers us a comprehensive study that brings to the discussion Sunni expressions of radical Islam and demonstrates its many shades and forms. Rabil also places Salafism in Lebanon in the context of Hezbollah's ideology and political action, as well as in a broader regional context. This work is timely as it provides an excellent historical analysis of Islamist streams of thought that operate in Lebanon and that play a major role in the political struggle in the country as well as in the civil war in Syria."—Asher Kaufman, professor of history and peace studies and director of doctoral studies, Notre Dame University

"Robert Rabil's new book, Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism, is a major achievement. This important book underscores the dramatic implications Salafism has for regional and international security. It is an absolutely essential historical and contemporary analysis of Salafism in the Arab world in general and Lebanon in particular. Rabil's in-depth knowledge of the subject and his extensive research provide readers with a clear understanding of the development of Salafism as theology, religious-political ideology, political programing, and as a motivating factor potentially leading to violence."—Ralph Nurnberger, adjunct professor of liberal studies, Georgetown University

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, Rabil cogently demonstrates that the ideological lines among various Salafists become easily blurred in relation to Jihad as a means to claim the right to defend the Sunni community from internal and external foes. This is a must read book, which is by far the only, and most detailed and up-to-date study on Salafism in Lebanon, shedding the layers of confusion, and sometimes deliberate 'ignorance' wrapping this relatively new prominent religious movement."—Joseph Alagha , professor of Islamic Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen

"The most comprehensive, timely and firsthand account available of the origins, rise and radicalization of Salafism in Lebanon and beyond. This book is indispensable for a better understanding of the Islamist phenomenon and its roots."—Sadek J. al-Azm, Visiting Scholar Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University

"This is a provocative, timely, and engaging book. Robert Rabil has taken the veneer from the Salafist ideology by showing how Lebanon, a "land of secularism, decadence, and pluralism," became a fertile ground for this puritanical movement. This is essential reading for understanding the crisis of Lebanon, and of the modern world."—Robert Allison, History Department Chair, Suffolk University

"The Salafi movement amongst Lebanese Sunnis has never received much attention in English-language publications. With the Syrian civil war's aggravation of Sunni-Shi'a tensions in Lebanon, Professor Rabil's book could not be more well-timed to fill this gap in the literature. He explains the complex Salafi tendencies and movements in Lebanon in clear, lucid detail. Anyone wishing to understand more about Lebanon and the impact of the Syrian civil war on the region as a whole needs to read this book."—David Romano, Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics, Missouri State University

"Robert Rabil tackles the timely topic of Salafism in Lebanon, the true elephant in the room nowadays amongst the country's myriad challenges. While scholarly concentration of late has been devoted to the dissection of Lebanon's Hezbollah, precious little has been done to investigate radical Sunni counterpart movements with a penchant for violent self-fulfillment. Rabil's work remedies this gap magnificently, as it takes the reader methodically from Salafism's hub in Tripoli with its nascent Saudi influences, through the embracing environment of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, and on to the intolerant Takfiri variety of Salafism. Most insightful is Rabil's sobering analysis of the shortsighted weakness of Lebanon's moderate Sunni leadership in misreading and underestimating both the durability and potential potency of transnational Salafism in their midst."—Habib Malik, Associate Professor of History, Lebanese American University (Byblos campus)

Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism To Transnational Jihadism, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 28:3, 506-508, Reviewed by Joseph Alagha

Robert Rabil has written a groundbreaking book on Salafism in Lebanon. Drawing on field research, personal interviews and a vast repertoire of primary sources, he traces the emergence and development of Salafism, underscoring the major ideological and political transformations that helped shape its various schools in Lebanon.

Rabil provides an excellent introduction to the history of Salafism in which he explains the doctrine as well as its disputes with Shi‘a Islam. He also provides key historical background that helps explain what made the northern city of Tripoli the citadel of Salafism in Lebanon. In the first chapter, Rabil chronicles Salafist ideology and socio-political changes in order to contextualize the major developments and transformations that shape this transnational movement. He elucidates, in excellent detail, Salafism’s three schools: quietist, Haraki (activist) and Salafi-Jihadi, as embraced, respectively, by Sheikh Sa‘d al-Din al- Kibbi, Sheikh Zakariya al-Masri and ‘Usbat al-Ansar. Though they share in common the principle of creating a society grounded in the emulation of the methodology (manhaj) of the pious ancestors (al-salaf al-salih), these schools disagree over how to bring about the ideal society or the best political order. In exposing the ideological underpinnings of the three schools, Rabil meticulously underscores the basic principles of Salafism as well as the tensions, incongruities and divergences inherent in the movement, especially in regard to its approach to politics. His insights into the intellectual fusion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political culture and Wahhabist doctrine that occurred in Saudi Arabia’s universities underscores the politicization of Wahhabi-Salafists. 

Rabil aptly connects the emergence and development of Salafism in Lebanon to various domestic and regional factors. Initially, Salafism was brought to the northern city of Tripoli in the 1940s by Salem al-Shahal. An autodidactic sheikh who furthered his education in Medina, al-Shahal embraced Nasir al-Din al- Albani’s quietist school, which focused on Islamic propagation (da‘wa). Significantly, al-Shahal’s quietist Salafism was affected by the ideology and praxis of the Islamic Association, whose co-founder and ideologue paved the way for Salafists to redefine their approach to the state. Meanwhile, the rise and fall of the Islamic Unity Movement in Tripoli in the 1980s at the hands of the Syrian regime and its Lebanese allies underscored to the Salafists the importance of adjusting their da‘wa to the political conditions of the country. Paradoxically, Salafist organizations operating during the period of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon proliferated because they were largely apolitical and did not pose a threat to the Syrian-imposed order. 

Rabil then takes the reader on a journey exploring the nuts and bolts of Lebanon’s confessional and labyrinthine politics before and after the Syrian troops’ withdrawal from Beirut in 2005. He goes on to meticulously examine the development of Salafism in relation to the following critical junctures: the penetration of al-Qaeda affiliates and members into north Lebanon, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination in 2005 and Hezbollah’s takeover of Beirut in 2008. Rabil acknowledges the efforts of the quietist Salafists to open up (infitah) to the country’s communal groups, in particular the Shi‘a community, as led by Hezbollah. Yet, Rabil concedes the deep concerns and resentments that persist amongst many in the Sunni community towards Hezbollah, which they pejoratively label the ‘Party of Satan’ or ‘Party of Allat’ (in reference to a pre- Islamic pagan god). 

This aggrieved attitude towards Hezbollah becomes more salient with the gradual but steady involvement of the Party of God in the Syrian Civil War (2012 onwards). On close scrutiny, Rabil correlates this attitude to the crisis engulfing the Sunni community in Lebanon and to the Salafists’ own involvement in Syria’s civil war. Specifically, he emphasizes the weakness of the leadership of the Future Movement and their lack of vision. According to Rabil, this ambivalent attitude towards the Salafists is due to the Future Movement’s oversight in taking proper account of the Salafists political and jihadi character. Moreover, he argues that the Future Movement and its allies have been mistaken in their ‘naı¨ve belief’ that Salafists can be controlled (239). Rabil adds that the weakness of the Future Movement is partly related to its inability to construct a national identity superseding the Sunnis’ historic attachment to Arab nationalism. He argues that Salafists have benefited from this ambivalent policy and ‘naı¨ve belief’ and the policies that have come as a result (240). Furthermore, he adds that Salafists have exploited sectarian tension to enhance their standing, relying on expansive formal and informal networks, spanning the gamut from interpersonal relations, to patronage networks, to institutes and mosques. 

Rabil convincingly argues that Salafism will keep accumulating power and capital so long as sectarian tensions plague Lebanon and Syria. He adds that Salafism’s selling point is its ‘appeal to the Sunni downtrodden and oppressed in Lebanon on account of its authenticity and individual and collective empowerment’ (239). Rabil concludes the book on a cautionary note, underscoring that ‘although Salafists share basic principles but have divergent and even contradictory ideologies and tendencies, they share a collective identity based on creed and a mission to purge Islam from foreign accretions and to create an ideal Islamic community. Regardless as to whether they are quietist, activist or Salafi-Jihadi, they have collectively consolidated a Salafi identity, increasing the emotional distance between them and the rest of the population’ (244). As such, the book demonstrates why Salafism poses an ideological as well as a concrete threat to both Lebanon’s plural society and the rest of the region. 

This is a must-read book. It is the most detailed and up-to-date study on Salafism in Lebanon. The book’s merit lies not only in its division of Salafism into three distinct schools: quietist, Haraki and Salafi-Jihadi, but also in the elegant way in which it sheds the layers of confusion canopying this relatively new but prominent religious movement. 

Salafism in Lebanon; From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism, Robert G. Rabil; Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, The journal of Levantine Review, 2014. 272 pp.Reviewed by Franck Salameh

In a field where studies of Lebanon’s Islamists often come in many shades of panegyrics, hagiographies, or excoriations, Robert Rabil’s Salafism in Lebanon brings a refreshing, lucid, and much needed seasoned research-based analysis. The book covers the rise and evolution of Salafism in Lebanon, places Lebanon’s Islamists and their politicization in their appropriate historical and cultural contexts—paying due attention to Lebanon’s uniqueness among Middle Eastern nations and among places dealing with Islamist resurgence—and delves into the complex relationships of Islamism with Lebanon’s ethnic, religious, and cultural pluralism. All this is done with clarity, lucidity, and attention to detail that few have succeeded in marshaling in a field often long on “experts” and short on “expertise” and substance.

Salafism in Lebanon is a fascinating, well researched, well documented, and well written book. It is powerful, topical, compelling, persuasive, and dispassionate history that still at times reads like a novel—not to say a thriller. But this is a thriller that draws heavily on skilled analyses of the history, the rituals, the theology, the epistemology, and the politics of Lebanon and its Salafists.

In Robert Rabil’s telling, the Lebanese “branch” of Salafism has achieved a level of influence nearly unimaginable, specially that in a place like Lebanon, where with vying tendencies and ethno-religious claims and narratives, Muslims themselves, at least until the early 1970s, have traditionally constituted a minority. Today Muslims, Sunnis and Shias alike, are deemed a majority, outweighing the traditionally more preponderant Christians, and therefore making demands for wider and more relevant participation in Lebanese political and cultural life. But the implications of this newfound relevance and rising power of the Muslims (and Islamists) appear to reflect negatively on the future of democracy, consosciatonalism, power-sharing, coexistence, peace, and stability in Lebanon—a country, which, arguably an uneasy mosaic of ethno-religious communities sitting atop a powder-keg of ethnic and religious resentments, still managed to regulate its diversity and contrive a number of power-sharing devices, often successfully, in ways Lebanon’s neighbors could only dream of

In an 1844 dispatch to his ambassador in Istanbul, Prince Metternich is reported to have written that “only when peace and security will prevail on Mount-Lebanon, so shall they also prevail in the neighboring countries.” This mid-nineteenth century axiom could very well apply to modern Lebanon today, where regional struggles and international rivalries continue to be played out, and where colliding creeds and ideologies continue to find fertile ground. It is in this context that Salafism in Lebanon is perhaps best read: in the context of Lebanon as “Alpha and Omega,” as a “small country,” to borrow words from Lebanese Druze politician Kamal Jumblat, that “has the task of intercepting the life ripples of the […] universe, in order to cast them and retransmit them […] to the nations of the hinterland, to this realm of sands and mosques and sun.” Such is an element of an “Eternal Truth” forewarned Jumblat. That is why perhaps why, as some have recently said, small countries like Lebanon do matter, and what happens in Lebanon may realistically serve as template and barometer for things to come elsewhere in the Middle East. It is in this sense that Salafism in Lebanon and the future of Transnational Jihadism ought to be gauged and read in Robert Rabil’s book.

Drawing on extensive fieldwork, dozens of in-depth interviews, and a wealth of Arabic-language sources not previously accessed by Western researchers, Robert Rabil traces the evolution of Salafism in Lebanon from its birth roughly around the date of Lebanon’s independence in 1946, to the present. Furthermore, Professor Rabil examines the Salafists’ trajectory in Lebanon in light of their work and movements elsewhere, revealing variances in behavioral patterns, methods, and goals reflecting Lebanon’s unique circumstances.

Rabil highlights Lebanon’s own social and political divisions, and consequently the internal divisions the Salafis themselves confront within Lebanon. He demonstrates that while other groups inside Lebanon, Maronites and other Christians for instance, were leaning toward greater moderation, the Lebanese Salfists themselves were tending toward increased radicalization, marking rising tensions, fractiousness, and ultimately a repudiation of the Lebanese political system and the pluralist elements of Lebanese society; in sum, a rejection of Lebanon’s time-honored democratic trappings and the adoption of such illiberal concepts as Sharia Islamic law. Highlighting elements of Salafism’s fluidity, continuity, heterogeneity, and change, and demonstrating that shifts in the Salafists’ (and in general the Islamists’) strategies are not the result of a single impetus, Rabil provides a systematic, subtle, and nuanced account of the growth and evolution of Islamism in Lebanon, and the wider Middle East.

The rise of Salafism in Lebanon seems to be where the fault-lines of the larger Sunni-Shi’ite divide—perhaps even a showdown—are coming into view. Whereas much has been made in the past decade of a rising Shi’ite crescent extending from Iran and Iraq and crossing into the Levant, that scenario has been at once embraced and dismissed by a bevy of area specialists. However, in this book’s treatment of Salafism in Lebanon, the conversation about a Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry—and perhaps an impending collision—is reconsidered, reevaluated, and elevated beyond the frenzies of some and the outright denigrations of others. Granted, sociopolitical considerations must never be discounted when examining Shi’a-Sunni tensions—or for that matter any of the Middle East’s or Lebanon’s hot-button issues. But to valorize sociopolitical considerations without reckoning with history, or without taking heed of the historical foundations to this region’s old rivalries is unscrupulous, foolhardy, and may indeed prove dangerous. This, in my view, is one of the main values of Salafism in Lebanon, and this is what will render this book an important and much needed addition to the scholarship on Lebanon, Islamism, and the Sunni-Shi’ite rivalries in the region at large.

Robert Rabil’s magisterial work does a fine job validating history in evaluating his subject matter. Rabil also brings a world of references to his inquiry and his appraisal of his topic; from interviews with actors and avatars of Salfism (and their rivals) in Lebanon, to marshaling a wealth of Arabic, English, and French primary and secondary sources, to skillfully parsing and perlustrating Arabic-language Salafist websites—with, if I may add, the subtlety and perspicacity of vintage detective work—this book is a veritable treasure trove of information and a rich inventory of authoritative data, engaging, compelling, and suitable to the specialist, the student, and the general reader alike.

In Salafism in Lebanon, Robert Rabil’s storyteller’s gift and his historian’s masterstroke bring to modern audiences the sad prophecy of another discerning Robert, summoning the Lebanese from behind the mists of the early twentieth century to take stock of their tattered creation. Already in 1918, Robert DeCaix— secretary to French High Commissioner Henri Gouraud—was cautioning Lebanon’s Christians about the looming dismantlement of their spawn; a Lebanese entity then still under construction. But Maronite hubris in 1920 was confident their nascent republic’s Sunni-Arab element would in time be “Lebanonized,” smitten (so they thought) by Christian innovation and cosmopolitanism and charm. Sunnis, on the other hand, could not have been less enthralled with the trifle notion of a “Lebanese nation.” A “Lebanese nation”? “What nonsense!” The Arab nation was their lodestar.

Alas, that was then! This is now! Today it is the Umma (Muslim nation) that is within reach; no longer a relatively benign “Arabism”! And so Robert DeCaix’s prophecy might have come to pass. In Robert Rabil’s telling, the Arab nationalism that Lebanon’s Christians (by hook and by crook) had kept at bay for close to a century is not only back in force; it is back on steroids; with a vengeance; a bitter, irredentist, rapacious Islamism resolved to gobble up Lebanon and its specificity, and commit them both to oblivion. But do not despair, history can be merciful to those not blessed with forgetfulness, and the jury may still be out on Lebanon’s future and the future of Salafism in Lebanon. Read Robert Rabil. You will see why! 

Salafism in Lebanon; From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism, Robert G. Rabil;The Long War Comes to Lebanon, Quadrant Online, April 17th 2015; By Daryl McCann 

Saudi Arabia is building a 1000-kilometre wall to protect itself from the Islamic State -- a bricks-and-mortar exercise in irony, as it is the Saudis who nurtured, financed and encouraged the same firebrands and zealots they are now frantic to exclude salafist babeUntil 1975 Lebanon was one of the few prosperous places in the eastern Mediterranean. Its various ethnic and religious groups lived side by side in tolerance if not harmony. Then came the civil war, which lasted until 1990, and the country has been in decline, sometimes chaos, ever since.

The central contention of Robert G. Rabil’s Salafism in Lebanon is that Salafism (or Islamic fundamentalism) has “now emerged as a prominent ideological and political driver of the Sunni community” in Tripoli and surrounding rural districts of northern Lebanon. The power of today’s Sunni political and religious leaders “lies not only in their ability to mobilise their community and face off Hezbollah but also the identity, political authority and religious crisis engulfing Sunnism in Lebanon”. Critically, traditional Lebanese sectarianism, the civil war, the Palestinian camps, Syrian interventionism, a local version of Khomeinism (Hezbollah) and the Syrian Civil War have all contributed to the rise and rise of Salafism in Lebanon, and yet in themselves they do not constitute a sufficient explanation for the growth of Islamic revivalism. 

Rabil maintains that Tripoli’s main square, formerly known as Karami Square, is emblematic of Lebanon’s Sunni political-religious transformation. It was once named after Abdul Hamid Karami, a Sunni political figure who played no small part in the establishment of the independent Lebanese Republic in 1943. Modern Lebanon’s “Confessional” politics has always been a complex arrangement, with constitutional power traditionally divided along lines of religious affiliation—Maronite Catholic (presidency), Sunni Muslim (prime ministership) and Shiite Muslim (parliamentary speaker). Nevertheless, there was once a commitment by most of Lebanon’s four million inhabitants to the nation-state and some kind of functional inter-communal cohabitation.

The story of the Karami dynasty tells us much about Sunni history in Lebanon. Karami, as the Grand Mufti of Tripoli, was a dominant religious political figure amongst the Sunnis (approximately a quarter of the population) at the time of Lebanon’s independence, and helped forge an alliance with the country’s Maronite Catholic majority. The Sunnis, according to Rabil, wanted to “Arabise” the Christian locals while the Maronites were intent on “Lebanonising” the Muslim populace with their notion of “Phoenicia”. The slogan at the time, “No East, No West”, encapsulated the aspiration of many who hoped Lebanon would find its own way in the world. Karami himself was only briefly Lebanon’s prime minister (in 1945) but his son, Rashid Karami (1927–87), occupied the post at least ten times before he was assassinated. Rashid was not beyond sectarian manoeuvring, and threw his weight behind the Nasser-inspired unrest of 1958, but he had a number of redeeming qualities. 

Rabil writes about the Tripoli of his own childhood and the city of his father’s memory: “My late father loved the mouthwatering sweets of Tripoli and the city’s historical landmarks and promenades that blended smoothly with its modernity.” It is in this evocative context that Rashid Karami, with his extensive collection of rare birds and beloved fruit orchard, strikes one as an almost Chekhovian figure from a pre-revolutionary world. Rashid, similar to his younger brother Omar Karami, can be criticised for his pro-Syrian sympathies; nevertheless, at the time of Rashid’s death many acknowledged that as premier he often shored up the office of the (Maronite) presidency. Known as el effendi (“the gentleman”), the eloquent Rashid Karami never contributed to a sectarian militia and retained the hope that Christian–Muslim enmity would be overcome. 

Omar Karami, who died in January this year, was just as much an Arab nationalist as Rashid, and his (regrettable) proclivity for the al-Assad family no less pronounced. During his premiership Omar sought to develop the Lebanese army along cross-sectarian lines and had some success decommissioning the various militias that plagued the country in the shadow of the civil war, though clearly he failed to deactivate Hezbollah. For all their shortcomings, the Karamis remained—at least in their own minds—faithful to the original parliamentary and consociationalist concept of the Lebanese Republic. Pointedly, the statue of Abdul Hamid Karami in Tripoli’s prominent Nour Square was blown up in the early days of the civil war and replaced in the 1980s by the Islamic Unity Movement’s gigantic silver sculpture of the word Allah:


Underneath it an inscription reads, “Tripoli the Fortress of Muslims Welcomes You.” Significantly, two black Salafi flags flutter behind the sculpture. This square has become some sort of vocal outlet of Salafists, where they gather after Friday prayers to air their grievances. Neither the city nor political leaders have been able to restore Karami’s statue or the square’s original name, or even remove the flags, despite repeated requests by many in the city to do so.

According to Rabil, the defiance of the local Salafists and their interpretation of tawhid Allah means they see themselves as “saved” and “victorious” and everybody else as the “others”. Karami-style Arab nationalism, for these zealots, has been superseded by Islamist supremacism.

Robert G. Rabil distinguishes between three types of Salafism in Lebanon—quietist, activist (haraki), and violent jihadist. The link between the three is a rejection of modernity (and the “moderns”) by “loving the Prophet and emulating the first three generations in Islam” or the “pious ancestors” (al-Salaf al-Salih). While all three versions of Salafism share medieval-tribal notions of healing a world torn by division and unifying the ummah (Islamic community), Lebanese Salafists are often at odds with each other when it comes to political action. Assisted by Wahhabi scholarship and Saudi scholarships, Salem al-Shahal and Lebanon’s quietist Salafi school officially shunned politics. While the influential twentieth-century exponent of quietist Salafism, Muhammed Nasir al-Din al-Albani, was sometimes in conflict with official Saudi-sanctioned scholars, his purportedly apolitical Salafism did not have to be inimical to the interests of the Saudi rulers: “two currents emerged among their ranks, one of which advocated an active rejection of the state and its institutions, while the other sponsored unconditional support for the ruler”. Al-Albani’s insistence that parliamentary democracy was “a Western technique made by the Jews and the Christians, who cannot be legally emulated” drove an anti-modernity wedge between Islamic piety and enlightened constitutional responsibility.

These days quietist Salafists of northern Lebanon often bristle at the fact that their religiosity and beards make them targets for anti-militant sentiment. One Tripoli Salafist, Fawaz Zouq, recently reported to Lebanon’s Daily Star that though a “peaceful man”, he fears for the safety of his family and is treated by local security forces at checkpoints with “suspicion”. Quietist Salafists can claim they have, traditionally, emphasised persuasion or Islamic dissemination (da’wa) over violence (jihad), and avoided the militant tactic of charging opponents with unbelief and apostasy (takfir). Quietist Salafists have reason to complain that Salafi jihadism tarnishes their reputation—and yet any grief on their part does not automatically draw a line under the matter.

The quietist Salafist school might employ techniques different from the methodology (manhaj) of the ferocious al-Nusra Front or the even more psychotic Islamic State group but, nevertheless, it does retain anti-modernity Islamic supremacism at its core. Rabil provides an invaluable insight into the movement’s ideology in the chapter on Sheikh Sa’d al-Din Muhammad al-Kibbi, founder and director of the Salafi al-Bukhari Institute in Akkar. Sheikh Kibbi, like all Salafists, has a theological vision of tawhid (unity/oneness of God), which involves the creation of a “true Islamic community” that dispenses with all manner of heresy and false tales that emerged after Mohammad’s death. Hopeful that Islamic rule—faithful to seventh-century strictures—will one day extend to the four corners of the world, Sheikh Kibbi is just as millennialist as activist or violent Salafists. The difference is that he takes his cue from the early stages of Mohammad’s da’wa in Mecca when, “recognising his military weaknesses”, the Prophet preferred dealing with his enemies—“pagans and polytheists”—through persuasion rather than “waging jihad against them”.

Sheikh Kibbi takes a shot at the “ignorance, zeal and stupidity” of the takfiri fighters, although we might hope for even stronger language to describe psychotic killers. One of the characteristics of Sheikh Kibbi’s quietist Salafism, in the opinion of Rabil, is to place the “interest of the ummah before the interest of a nation/state”. To give his due, Sheikh Kibbi never denigrates Shi’ites as rawafid (rejectionists) or impugns Christians or Christian authority in Lebanon, and sees education a means to reduce the political influence of Salafi-jihadi organisations in the country. Even so, his political vision for Lebanon involves little outreach beyond his own Sunni community (ahl al-Sunna) and goes not much further than the concept of “the exemplary Islamic village”. The latter idea, according to Rabil, has become a reality in part with the transformation of Tripoli “into a virtual rural city” and the creation of “an uninterrupted link between Sunni-majority villages, Akkar and Tripoli”.

Haraki (activist) Salafi ideology, as outlined by Rabil, is a kind of halfway house between quietist Salafism and Salafi jihadism. The differences, in the main, concern the best methodology (manhaj) for achieving tawhid al-ummah (the unity of the Muslim community). Rabil scrutinises the religio-political ideology of Sheikh Zakariya ‘Abd al-Razaq al-Masri to illustrate the character of activist or haraki Salafism in Lebanon. Sheikh Masri’s “nearly ethereal belief” in the urgency and nobility of realising tawhid al-ummah through jihad overshadows all other concerns:


For example, for the sake of tawhid al-ummah, he supports a virtually almost impossible cooperation between al-Qaeda and Saudi rulers, since both of them aspire to impose shari’a as a foundation for Islamic rule. Clearly he neither considers Salafi-Jihadi organisations as terrorist ones nor idolatrous states as un-Islamic and therefore legitimate targets of attack.

There is, in other words, an overlap between the creedal tenets of quietist and haraki Salafism on the one hand, and the methodology of haraki Salafism and Salafi jihadism on the other.

Haraki Salafism is like a supercharged version of its quietist namesake. There is the same obsession with securing the unity of the elect—the true believers—but a more heightened sense of a pressing fateful battle between Belief and Unbelief. Sheikh Masri’s sensibility is not only millennialist; it is apocalyptic as well. The kuffars (unbelievers) and their nefarious wiles are everywhere and need to be outsmarted and defeated if a new golden age of tawhid al-ummah is to materialise. The “devout”, conversely, must be whipped into shape (so to speak) and kept on the straight and narrow with punishments dispensed for everything from minor prohibitions (saghair) to apostasy, which must incur—naturally—the death penalty. In the long haul, Jews and Christians will be protected as People of the Book, as long as they pay a head tax (jizya) and accept their “protected” status as ahl al-dhimma. The future prospects of polytheists, atheists and secularists—deemed by Sheikh Masri to be “like contagious deadly diseases that need to be excised”—do not look promising after the restoration of Allah’s rule on earth.

The ideology of Salafi jihadism, as delineated by Rabil, is obsessed with the purity and unity of the ummah no less than its Salafi counterparts. Usbat al-Ansar, a jihadist movement that grew out of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, is keen to see the State of Israel eradicated but not to be replaced by an Islamist Republic of Palestine. That would constitute some form of patriotism, which implies the “the love of and belonging to a fatherland, meaning the interest of the fatherland precedes religion and divine law”. This is kufr, since “Islam enjoins the love and support of believers, regardless of their fatherlands”.

Salafism in Lebanon studiously and methodically builds the case that the three branches of Lebanese Salafism are something more than distant relatives. A fixation with ahl al-Sunna and tawhid al-Ummah sooner or later puts Salafism of every shade and form on a collision course with “the moderns”, and that includes modern-minded Muslims and secular Lebanese. The extra tragedy for Lebanon, however, is that the fires of politicised Salafism have been fuelled by Hezbollah’s Shi’a version of jihadism, aided and abetted by Iranian money and arms.

A Lebanese anti-Iranian (but nonetheless Shi’a) scholar, Muhammad Ali al-Husseini, has argued recently—at some risk to his personal safety—that “religious texts must be historically contextualised rather than used to incite perpetual violence”. This strikes at the heart of Islamic revivalism. In stark contrast to the vast majority of Shi’a scholars in Lebanon, Husseini is not only anti-Iranian but has also sent his felicitations to the citizens of Israel—“our cousins, the children of Isaac son of Abraham”.

Rabil is not indisposed to blaming Damascus for ultimately encouraging the rise of Salafism in Lebanon. Both Hafiz al-Assad and his son, Bashar, used the guise of “Ba’athist nationalist discourse” to “win over the majority Sunni community” in Syria. Almost every initiative on the part of the Assads, from entering Lebanon in 1976 “on the side of the Christian camp and the National Movement camp and its PLO foot soldiers” to supporting Tehran in the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, was in the interests of regime security or, to put it another way, “Alawi hegemony over the state”. Syria’s days as a unitary state now seemingly over, the same fate could well be in store for Lebanon if Sunni and Shi’a Islamists engage in an existentialist war.

Saudi Arabia is currently in the process of building a 1000-kilometre “Great Wall” to protect itself from the Islamic State to the north. Raymond Ibrahim has noted the bitter irony of the Saudis trying to keep off their turf “the very same Muslims most nurtured and influenced by a Saudi—or Wahhabi or Salafi—worldview”. There are those who will argue that Ibrahim is oversimplifying matters, but can we really avow—as some do—that quietist Salafism has, on balance, impeded the evolution of violent jihadism in the region? Saudi Arabia is often described as a “strategic ally” of the West, and yet I would argue that Raef Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to ten years in jail and 1000 lashes for “insulting Islam”, is our—and liberty’s—real strategic ally in Saudi Arabia. Badawi’s “crime”, as it happens, was promoting secular democracy and freedom of conscience in the kingdom. To be blunt, the Salafist project, as Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi intimated in his 2015 New Year’s Day speech, requires scuppering: “You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it, and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.”

Only days after the terrorist attacks in Paris left seventeen dead came news that Taha al-Khayal, a twenty-year-old Salafi jihadist, had killed nine people in a suicide bombing at the popular Omran Café in Tripoli. Taha al-Khayal, it turns out, was the nephew of Saeed Khayal, a resident of south-west Sydney. Moreover, Saeed Khayal—like the victims of the murderous assault—is an Alawite Muslim, whereas his miscreant relative was Sunni. An agonised and grief-struck Mr Khayal wondered “how the deadly hand of international terrorism came to reach inside his family”. A good place to start looking for an answer would be Robert G. Rabil’s Salafism in Lebanon.

Salafism in Lebanon; From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism, Robert G. Rabil; From Fanatical to Tranquil: The Many Faces of Salafist Thought, Robert G. Rabil; Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, October 2014, 304 pp. ISBN: 9781626161160 Reviewed by Sarah Ireland

In light of the recent attacks at Charlie Hebdo and a synagogue in Copenhagen, conversations about violence inspired by religious movements, particularly Islam, have saturated Western news outlets and changed the way many people throughout the world perceive adherents of the Islamic faith. Major media outlets frequently reference radical Islamist and Salafist interchangeably, sparking fear of a burgeoning threat of Salafist violence throughout Europe and the US. Salafism is seen as so inherently threatening that it obscures fundamental questions: What exactly is Salafism, why do we keep hearing about it, and why is it threatening? 

Dr. Robert Rabil, professor of Middle East studies at Florida Atlantic University, offers a refreshing and candid analysis of the origin and rise of Salafism in his timely new book, Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism. Rabil poses the questions above and answers them in detail. He begins with, and frequently reiterates, the need to differentiate between three schools of Salafism—quietest, haraki, and takfiri (whom the West calls Salafi jihadists). The three schools of thought distinguish themselves based on how much, and what kind of, political activism should be used to promote the societal changes they seek. One of these schools, quietest Salafism does not advocate any sort of political activity, and adamantly opposes efforts by the other schools of Salafism to either act as a political organization or invoke violence as a means to an end. In light of these beliefs, Rabil argues, the answer to whether Salafism is synonymous with radical, violent, oppressive, or insurgent is clearly “no.” 

Rabil also provides the reader with extensive historical and political context for the emergence and growth of Salafism. An atmosphere of unstable political systems, identity crises, Syrian massacres of civilians, abject institutionalized poverty, civil war, oppression, and marginalization of thousands of civilians help explain the mass appeal of any organization taking concrete action. Lebanon’s historical context is also addressed, setting the scene for the emergence of new ideas and providing explanations for why some ideas gain traction while others go unsupported. Rabil guides the reader through the personal belief systems of many prominent leaders within the schools of Salafism in the context of their individual biographies. In so doing, Salafism in Lebanon gracefully and coherently emphasizes the diversity of views present even within a single movement in Islam, and that this diversity—and no individual set of beliefs—is representative of the broader Islamic population. 
In an era of increasing Islamophobia in the West, Rabil reminds the reader that most victims of Islamic extremists are Muslims. He takes great care to use language that his audience will respond to favorably when discussing the philosophical and religious discourse that permeated the region during the founding of Salafism. He not only creates a well-crafted analysis of the movement’s founding, but also humanizes Salafists by emphasizing beliefs common to all three schools—the importance of serving God and community, protecting the weak and disabled from harm, and educating children. 

In seeking to explain the motivations of Salafism’s key actors, Rabil reveals a complex atmosphere of colonialist grievances, scarce resources, conflict and its aftermath, and an ever-changing social and political environment. Within the pages of Salafism in Lebanon, one finds not a single explanation, but hundreds of different voices with hundreds of different ideas, and watches as they all intersect to form the Salafism the world seeks to understand today. 

Robert G. Rabil: Salafism in Lebanon From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism Georgetown UP, 2014 304 pp. سمير ناصيف

لعله من أصعب المواضيع للمعالجة من جانب علماء السياسة والاجتماع المتخصّصين في قضايا الشرق الأوسط والإسلام هو موضوع السلفية، لأنه لا توجد سلفية واحدة بل سلفيات. وكثيرون يظنون أن السلفية تعني بالحصر السلفية الجهادية التي تعتنقها المنظمات الإسلامية الجهاديه المسلّحة في الشرق الأوسط. روبرت رايبل، باحث وكاتب عاش في أمريكا ودَرَسَ وحاضَرَ في جامعاتها، وخصوصا في جامعة فلوريدا، ولكنه عاش أيضا في فترات من حياته في لبنان وهو من أصل لبناني وقد خدم في الصليب الأحمر اللبناني خلال الحرب الأهلية اللبنانية الأخيرة.

اختار رايبل معالجة موضوع «السلفية في لبنان» في كتاب حمل هذا العنوان لاعتباره ان الموضوع شديد الأهمية ولم يُعالج كافيًا في وقت يتطور فيه دور السلفيين اللبنانيين على الساحة السياسية والاجتماعية اللبنانية بشكل سريع ولافت، وخصوصا في مناطق كطرابلس وعكار في شمال لبنان، وعرسال وجوارها والمناطق السنّية في شرق البقاع، وبعض المخيمات الفلسطينية وجوارها في جنوب لبنان كمخيم عين الحلوة، بعدما انطلق في فترة سابقة في مخيم نهر البارد في الشمال.

ويحاول رايبل معالجة هذا الموضوع بالتفصيل لكونه يعتقد بانه سيأتي اليوم الذي قد يسيطر فيه السلفيون اللبنانيون على الساحة السياسية اللبنانية (السنّية خصوصًا) وقد يتجاوزون في نفوذهم حليفهم الأساسي تيار المستقبل اللبناني، بقيادة سعد رفيق الحريري.

فبعد التفسير النظري لمعنى مفهوم السلفية المنبثق من ضرورة ممارسة واعتناق الدين الإسلامي كما مارسه أهل السَلَف الصالح الذين كانوا أول من تبعوا النبي ونفّذوا أقواله وأفعاله في الفترة الأولى لنشوء الإسلام، يشير الكاتب إلى ان السلفية تمحورت في نظريات مختلفة حاولت الاستئثار بهذا المذهب وبينها نظريات تقي الدين أبن تيمية (1328م) وأحمد أبن حنبل (855م) ومحمد أبن عبد الوهاب (1792م) مما أدى إلى غموض في توجهها، علما ان عبد الوهاب أسس مذهب «الوهابية» واعتَبَر هو وأبن تيمية أن الذين لا يعتنقون فكرة توحيد الله هم من الكفار ومن الضروري ممارسة الجهاد ضدهم. السلفية الجهادية، يقول رايبل، تدعو إلى ممارسة العنف لتحقيق التغيير في المجتمعات المسلمة والتوصل إلى انشاء الخلافة الإسلامية الصحيحة، وتنتمي منظمة «القاعدة» والمنظمات المنبثقة عنها إلى هذا التوجه.

ويؤكد المؤلف ان السلفية في لبنان مبعثرة التوجهات أكثر مما هي عليه في أمكنة أخرى، ولذا تطَّلب اجراء دراسة أكاديمية عنها وتوضيح دورها السياسي. وبالتالي، يقسم رابيل سلفيي لبنان إلى السلفيين (الحركيين) والسلفيين (الجهاديين). المجموعه الأولى أسسها الشيخ سالم الشهال في طرابلس (لبنان) الذي كرّس حركته لمواجهة البدع في الإسلام، وكان مقربًا من الشيخ عبد العزيز عبد الله أبن باز، رجل الدين السعودي البارز. وقد أرسل الشهال نجليه داعي الإسلام وراضي الإسلام للدراسة الدينية في جامعات السعودية (بالتحديد جامعة المدينة المنورة) وأسس مؤسسات خيرية ودينية أخرى بدعم سعودي. ولم تنتقل حركته إلى السياسة إلاّ بعد اغتيال الرئيس رفيق الحريري، رئيس وزراء لبنان في عام 2005.

ولم يكن اغتيال الرئيس رفيق الحريري وحده العامل الذي نقل بعض الحركات السلفية الدينية إلى السياسة، بل أضيف إلى ذلك انسحاب القوات العسكرية السورية من لبنان في العام نفسه، وتحرُّر هذه الحركات من القبضة السورية. وفي فترات قصيرة، انفتحت بعض الحركات السلفية اللبنانية على حزب الله اللبناني، حسب المؤلف، ولكن علاقتها الحالية به سيئة، نظرا للظروف الاقليمية.

ويشير الكاتب إلى ان الكثير من إسلاميي طرابلس (لبنان) الذين غادروا مناطقهم ولبنان في فترة الوجود العسكري السوري في البلد، عادوا إلى مناطق سكنهم وعملهم عام 2005 بعد خروج السوريين من البلد وانتقموا سياسيا من خصومهم. وبين هؤلاء الشيخ سالم الرافعي الذي يقود الحملة السلفية الحركية حاليا في لبنان (في طرابلس بالتحديد) ويُعتَبر عدو حزب الله اللبناني رقم واحد في لبنان، ويقال انه يلعب دورا في محاولة افراج «جبهة النصرة التابعة لـ»القاعدة» عن المحتجزين العسكريين اللبنانيين في جرود عرسال (على الجانب السوري)، بعد اختطافهم.

ويفسّر رايبل تعاطف بعض سكان طرابلس والشمال في لبنان مع منظمة «القاعدة» والمنظمات الجهادية الإسلامية الأخرى (داعش والنصرة) بانه نتيجة لحرمانهم الاقتصادي والضغوط التي مورست عليهم ولتهميشهم في فترة الوجود السوري في لبنان بالإضافة إلى خضوعهم لغسل الأدمغة من جانب دعاة دينيين «كارزماتيين» متعصبين وجهّوهم نحو الإسلام العنيف وجعلوهم من المسلمين الجهاديين، وخصوصا أبناء الجيل الجديد منهم.

وقد تصاعد دور هذه المجموعات، حسب المؤلف، بعد انطلاق الانتفاضة ضد النظام السوري في سوريا عام 2011. وبالتالي، لم تؤيد هذه المجموعات الحراك السوري ضد النظام فقط بل ساهمت في تسليحه وإنشاء هيكلية للعناية بجرحاه في طرابلس وعكار وفي مناطق لم يكن نفوذ الدولة اللبنانية فاعلاً فيها. كما حوَلت هذه المجموعات نفسها إلى وحدات للدفاع عن أبناء الطائفة السنية المسلمة في لبنان، وعززت حملاتها ضد حزب الله اللبناني وإيران وضد نظام الرئيس بشار الأسد في سوريا. وطبعا عزز الشيخ سالم الرافعي دوره كقيادي في هذا المجال، حسب الكتاب.

وقد قابل المؤلف الشيخ الرافعي وأكد له الأخير خلال المقابلة انه مستعد لتقديم مليوني شهيد قبل إعادة النظر في سياسة حركته ضد نظام بشار الأسد في سوريا، كما عبّر له عن خيبة أمله إزاء مواقف حليفه حزب المستقبل، في هذا المجال، وعن أمله في انشاء حزب يحقق تطلعات السلفية اللبنانية السنّية في مجال تحسين أوضاع سنّة لبنان.

ويعتبر الكاتب انه من الضروري أخذ تطلعات الرافعي، وغيره من الدعاة الذين يعتنقون هذه السياسات، على محمل الجّد وخصوصا بالنسبة إلى أي مواجهة يمكن ان تحدث بينهم وبين حزب المستقبل في الزمن المقبل. السلفية في لبنان، حسب المؤلف، متأثرة إلى درجة كبيرة بالايديولوحيات الإسلامية المنتشرة في أقاليم الشرق الأوسط والعالم العربي المختلفة، مع انه لها خصوصيتها. ويعتبر رايبل ان فشل القومية العربية اتاح المجال لصعود السلفية الإسلامية عمومًا، وفي لبنان في قالبها الخاص الذي يشمل التطرف والبراغماتية في الوقت عينه. فالسلفية اللبنانية تعادي اعداء الإسلام ولكنها تأخذ في الاعتبار وضع لبنان الخاص من حيث تنوع خلفيات سكانه الدينية والعقائدية.

ويرى رابيل ان تيار المستقبل تأثر في البداية بالتيار القومي العربي وتبع ذلك توجهه في مشروع لبنان أولاً والتناغم مع السياسة الخارجية للمملكة العربية السعودية، وخصوصا ان الحرب الأهلية اللبنانية اثرت سلبًا على أوضاع السنّة في لبنان في شتى المجالات. وفَاقّم هذا الأمر اغتيال الرئيس رفيق الحريري، ولكن تيار المستقبل، بعد مقتل الحريري لم ينجح حتى الساعة في خلق هوية وطنية محددة شاملة تحلّ مكان القومية العربية، وبالتالي، اضطر للمحافظة على شعبيته في الشارع السني، إلى أن يركب الموجة التي تركز على مواجهة حزب الله والنظام السوري، وبالتالي تتناغم مع مواقف السلفيين اللبنانيين. وهذا أمر ناسَبَ السلفيين، واستفادوا منه، ولكن رايبل يتساءل إلى أي مدى سيكون بامكان تيار المستقبل احتواء التوجّه السلفي في لبنان، وخصوصا في شمال لبنان. وموقف تيار المستقبل من السلفيين، حسب الكاتب، متضارب وغير واضح. وقادة هذا التيار الحريري متفائلون في قدرتهم على احتواء حلفائهم السلفيين عندما يشاؤون، وهذا أمر لا يشاركهم فيه المؤلف، كما لا يشاركهم في تركيزهم فقط على أن الخطر الحقيقي الوحيد على لبنان هو حزب الله، وليس السلفيين، المنبثق من اعتقادهم الخاطىء بانه بامكانهم ضبط السلفيين اللبنانيين عندما يريدون. والكاتب يعتقد بان السلفيين اللبنانيين استفادوا من هذا الموقف المبسّط للأمور من جانب تيار المستقبل في وقت كان فيه الشيخ سالم الرافعي يشدّد على ان اتباعه ليسوا غنمًا يتبعون تيار المستقبل بشكل أعمى، وفي مرحلة كان فيها بعض حلفاء الرافعي يطالب بقيادة جديدة للسنّة في لبنان بدلا من تيار المستقبل.

والسلفيون اللبنانيون يعتبرون لبنان وسوريا جزءًا من كيان واحد ويرون بان المقاومة العسكرية للنظام السوري ومحاولة قلبه تعني الانتفاض ضد حلفائه حزب الله وايران والنظام السياسي في لبنان. وتدعم هذا التوجه، حسب الكاتب، دول عربية خليجية، وتركيا وهي تؤيد ضرب سوريا عسكريا، أملا في احتواء الانتشار والتوسع الإيراني وحلفاء إيران في المنطقة. وحتى لو انتهى الصراع في سوريا (يعتقد رايبل) فان هذه الأنظمة الخليجية وتركيا ستستمر في دعم السلفيين الحركيين في لبنان لموازاة نفوذهم وقوتهم بنفوذ وقوة حزب الله اللبناني.

ويستشهد رايبل بالخطب النارية للشيخ سالم الرافعي والشيخ زكريا المصري في المساجد المتعاطفة مع السلفيين في طرابلس التي استقطبت الكثير من الشباب المتحمس إلى العمليات الجهادية.

ويشير رايبل إلى تعاون وثيق بين السلفيين الحركيين في شمال لبنان وحلفائهم في مخيم عين الحلوة قرب صيدا وفي جنوبه، ومع المجموعات الجهادية المتحالفة مع «القاعدة» في سوريا وخصوصا جبهة النصرة (في عين الحلوة يذكر الكاتب جند الشام وعصبة الانصار المنظمتين اللتين تحالفتا مع جبهة النصرة والدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام).

وكلما استمر الصراع الطائفي في لبنان، فان نفوذ السلفيين الجهاديين في هذا البلد سيتعزز، حسب المؤلف، ومن الخطأ الاعتقاد ان السلفيين المعتدلين نسبيا يختلفون كثيرًا عن السلفيين الحركيين الجهاديين، مع ان الأوائل في الماضي عقدوا اتفاقات ومواثيق تشير إلى ذلك. ففي النهاية، جميع السلفيين متشددون ضد حزب الله والنظام السوري. كما ان المجموعات السنّية في لبنان عرضة للتأثر بهذه المجموعات وايديولوجيتها خصوصا ان سنّة لبنان (وغيرهم) تأثروا سلبًا باخراج قوات «منظمة التحرير الفلسطينية» من لبنان بالقوة في عام 1982، وتقزيم الدور السني في السياسة اللبنانية واغتيال الرئيس رفيق الحريري، الزعيم الذي نجح في استعادتهم دورًا رئيسيا في الساحة اللبنانية. وبالتالي على قيادة حزب المستقبل ألا تفاجأ، حسب الكاتب، إذا حاولت السلفية اللبنانية انتزاع قيادة سنّة لبنان منها في المستقبل. وهذا الموقف المتشائم لمؤلف الكتاب لا يعني انه من مؤيدي خصوم حزب المستقبل أو خصوم السلفيين اللبنانيين بل انه ينتقد في مقاطع أخرى من الكتاب مواقف حزب الله وسوريا الاسد، ويتهم نظام الرئيس بشار الأسد بعدم الرغبة الفعليه في اصلاح النظام السوري وبالاعتماد على فئة طائفية محدّدة من الشعب السوري على حساب الفئة الأخرى، وبأنه لا يفهم سوى لغة العنف للتخاطب مع شعبه، اللغة التي استخدمها حزب البعث في المنطقة عموما كما يتهم الكاتب العلويين السوريين بالسعي إلى انشاء الدولة العلوية التي رغب بانشائها الزعيم سليمان مرشد (يسميه سليمان الأسد) في عام 1936 بالتفاوض مع فرنسا. ويرفض اعتبار نظام بشار الأسد نظامًا قوميًا أو قوميًا عربيًا ويخلط الوقائع التاريخية والأسماء في الصفحة (215) من الكتاب للتوصل إلى هذا الموقف كما يصف ردة فعل حزب الله العسكرية في ايار (مايو) 2008 في شوارع بيروت على محاولات خرق جهاز اتصالات المقاومة اللبنانية، باحتلال بيروت الغربية من جانب حزب الله، وبتصعيد الطائفية في لبنان وبانشاء نزاع سعودي- إيراني في لبنان. أي ان رايبل ليس من مؤيدي سياسات حزب الله عموما على حساب نقده للسلفيين اللبنانيين بل يسعى إلى موقف موضوعي ازاء الجميع، وينجح في ذلك إلى حدّ ما.

وكذلك يظهر رايبل في موقفه من المحكمة الدولية بشأن اغتيال الرئيس الحريري، واغتيال العميد وسام الحسن، تعاطفه مع الحريرية، وتيار المستقبل (ص 217 و218).

ويتهم الكاتب الاستخبارات السورية وحلفاءها في لبنان باغتيال العميد وسام الحسن لدوره في تنسيق العمل الاستخباراتي لكشف هوية الذين اغتالوا الرئيس رفيق الحريري ولعلاقته الجيّدة بكل الجهات، بما في ذلك حزب الله. ويرى رايبل ان اغتيال العميد وسام الحسن، كان نتيجة تنافس الجهات الاقليمية والدولية والنزاع بين إيران والسعودية ومحاولة سوريا تصدير أزمتها إلى لبنان (ص 222).

ويتجلى عدم تعاطف رايبل مع مواقف حزب الله اللبناني عندما يفسّر الكاتب تدخل الحزب العسكري في منطة «القصير» بانه امتداد لنفوذ إيران وتعزيز لدور حزب الله في مواجهة إسرائيل ولتحول الحزب إلى قوة اقليمية، من دون الأخذ في الاعتبار ان قيادة حزب الله قالت ان هذا التدخل كان لمنع جهاديي سوريا وحلفائهم في لبنان من الدخول إلى لبنان وفرض سيطرتهم عليه. إذن، ليس بالامكان استخدام نظرية المؤامرة على هذا الكتاب وكاتبه لكونه حاول اعتماد الموضوعية واعتمد النقد في عرضه لمواقف شتى الجهات، واختار موضوعًا صعبًا جدًا وعالجه باقصى ما أمكنه من الحياد النسبي

Religion, National Identity, and Confessional Politics in Lebanon; The Challenge of Islamism. By Robert G. Rabil. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 213 pp.

Benedetta Berti 
Institute for National Security Studies 


Robert Rabil's latest study. Religion, National Identity, and Confessional Politics in Lebanon, tracks the historical evolution and political interactions of both Sunni and Shi'i Islamist movements in Lebanon. Rabil provides an in-depth description of Lebanon's identity quest and contemporary political history—from the National Pact of 1943 to Hezbollah's temporary take-over of West Beirut in 2008. This analysis of the Lebanese political context and of the impact of confessionalism on the nation-building country's political development serves as a framework to describe the birth and evolution of Islamism as a cross-sectarian phenomenon. Specifically, Islamism is analyzed by describing the organizational, ideological, and political development of both the Shi'i Hezbollah and the Sunni al-Jama'a al-Islamiyah (the Islamic Association). The work contributes to the existing literature on Lebanon and its political history by conducting a focused comparative study of the country's main Islamist organizations. In addition to this innovative approach to the subject, the book also contributes to the understanding of Islamism in Lebanon by carefully situating it within Lebanon's complex political history and fragmented yet resilient identity.

The main important contribution of Rabil's work—in line with his numerous previous manuscripts and articles on the political history of Lebanon—is to provide an in-depth historical contextualization of the rise of Islamism within Lebanon. This phenomenon is explained in relation to the role that identity and sectarian politics have played in the Lebanese Republic since its independence. Looking back to the French mandate period and carefully describing the social and political milieu that led to the 1943 National Pact, Rabil explicates Lebanese confessional politics' while outlining Lebanon's competing political, cultural, and religious identities and how they have affected the country's political life. Throughout the book, the rise of Islamist groups is related to the broader social and political dynamics taking place in the country, and more specifically to Lebanon's struggle to find a common denominator and forge a national identity to bring together all the different sectarian communities and competing visions of the country.

1) Confessionalism is a word generally employed to describe the Lebanese sectarian political system. It refers to the fact that all the sectarian communities officially recognized within Lebanon have a pre-allocated number of seats within the Lebanese Parliament. The country's highest political offices are also allocated along sectarian lines, with the Lebanese President belonging to the Maronite Christian community, the Prime Minister coming from the Sunni community, and the Speaker of the House being a Shi'a.

In addressing the political ascent of the Shi'i Hezbollah, Rabil highlights the group's historical evolution, focusing in particular on Hezbollah's gradual participation in the political system in the aftermath of the civil war and the 1989 Taif Agreement that put an end to the war and ¿ought to normalize Lebanese political life. Here Rabil correctly underscores the groups evolving and adapting political discourse, its capacity to create cross-sectarian alliances of convenience, and its gradual shift from marginal militia to mainstream political party. Drawing on both the existing literature on the organization as well as primary sources (including a detailed description of Hezbollah's 1009 ideological "Manifesto"), the study questions the notion of Hezbollah's "Lebanonization" in the 1990s, arguing that the group—despite becoming increasingly powerful and embedded in the political system—did not give up its "resistance" nor did it show significant signs of "moderation." At the same time, the book defacto rejects simplistic characterizations of Hezbollah as merely an armed or terrorist organization and instead addresses the group's political apparatus, while also mentioning its wide and complex social network. While this is certainly not the first time Hezbollah's political development has been analyzed in these terms, the author's contribution is still valuable as it presents a concise, clear, and informative account of Hezbollah's role as a political actor.

In parallel to this analytical description of the Shi'i Hezbollah, the book also examines the political evolution of the Sunni Islamist movement through the lens of the Islamic Association, from its founding in 1964 as a Muslim Brotherhood- inspired organization to its role in the civil war fighting in support of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The study also describes the organization's post-civil war political evolution. Here, the Islamic Association's struggle to find its place in the period following the Taif Agreement and its subsequent marginal political role stand in sharp contrast with Hezbollah's political ascent in the years of Syrian "tutelage." The years of Syrian presence in Lebanon in fact kept the Sunni Islamists at bay, preventing them from gaining national prominence and relegating them to marginal players mostly active in the north of the country. With the end of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 1005, there has been a resurgence of Sunni Islamist groups, an important trend that Rabil examines in his study. However, the focus of the book rests mainly on the Islamic Association and its evolution, while the rise and multiplication of other Islamist groups—especially the proliferation of Salafist groups in post-2005 Lebanon—is only treated marginally.

Rabil's analysis of the political evolution of the two most representative historic Islamist organizations within Lebanon is particularly interesting because Rabil draws historical, ideological and political similarities between the Shi'i and Sunni Islamists within Lebanon, framing the rise of Islamism at the national level in the context of Lebanon as a "society of resistance." In making this claim, the study meticulously analyzes the convergent themes of both Hezbollah and the Islamic Association's ideology: Both groups are deeply influenced by an internal ethos of "resistance," characterized by pledging to fight against Israel as well as by supporting and elevating the Palestinian cause to ideological inspiration and call to action. Similarities can also be found in the groups' political discourse and their early rejection of confessional politics, as well as in their continuous balancing between political ideology and accommodation-seeking strategies dictated by pragmatism and an interest in political power.

However, these commonalties should not be over-emphasized, as the historical and political differences between the Sunni and Shi'i Islamists are incredibly meaningful. First, the relations between the Sunni Islamic association and the Shi'i Hezbollah and their respective sectarian communities is radically different, as is their political power and influence within Lebanon. While Hezbollah's political evolution is marked by increasing political power and legitimacy, the Sunni Islamist movement's evolution has been more gradual, resulting in far less influence and a marginal position, both within the Sunni community as well as within the Lebanese political arena. Even though Sunni Islamists have gained traction in post-2005 Lebanon, and especially since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the difference in power and status between these groups and Hezbollah is highly significant.

Second, while both Sunni and Shi'i Islamists have had important relations with foreign powers—a defining characteristic of virtually all political movements within Lebanon—the strategic core relations between Iran and Hezbollah transcends, in saliency and magnitude, any type of alliance entered into by their Sunni counterparts. In the book, the relations between the Sunni community at large and the Sunni Islamists in particular and foreign allies, including Saudi Arabia, is only marginally addressed.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the relationship between Sunni and Shi'i Islamists is one characterized by tensions and sporadic clashes, as a result of both ideological and political differences. This trend has become increasingly clearer in the post-2005 years, in parallel with the growing inter-sectarian and political tensions between the Sunni and the Shi'i communities and the March 14 and March 8 political blocs. More recently, the bloody internal war raging in Syria has further deepened the cleavages between the two sectarian communities within Lebanon, as well as heightened existing political rivalry and tensions between Sunni and Shi'i Islamists. In sum, while the book does indeed recognize these contextual differences and acknowledges past strains in the relations between Sunni and Shi'i Islamists, it could at times be constructed as somewhat downplaying them.

Overall, Robert Rabil's work confirms his role as a prominent scholar and insightful reader of Lebanese political realities. The study offers an important and well-researched comparison of two extremely relevant political players within Lebanon, and serves as an analytical tool to grasp the origins and development of Islamism in the country. In addition, the analysis of Lebanese confessional politics and of the role identity politics play in the local political arena allows the reader to better situate and contextualize the Islamist movement within Lebanon. 

Religion, National Identity, and Confessional Politics in Lebanon; The Challenge of Islamism. By Robert G. Rabil. Reviewed by Franck Salameh. The Levantine Review Volume 1 Number 1 (Spring 2012)

In a universe where serious studies of Lebanon’s Islamists often border on uncritical hagiographies and naïf panegyrics, Professor Robert Rabil brings a refreshing, much needed work of profound, wide-ranging, and incisive analysis. Religion, National Identity, and Confessional Politics in Lebanon covers the rise and evolution of Islamism in Lebanon, places Lebanese Islamists and their movements in their appropriate historical, cultural, and theological contexts, and parses their problematic relationship with a congenitally diverse and pluralistic Lebanese polity. Professor Rabil does all of that with polish, aplomb, scholarly integrity, and courage that very few academics have managed to muster when dealing with a topic such as this.

Drawing on his intimacy with, and access to Arabic, dialectal Lebanese, French, and English sources, Rabil brings a lucid and clearly structured analysis of the history, scriptures, thought, rituals, epistemology, and politics of Lebanon’s Islamists.

Far from integrating the State, and far from adjusting to Lebanon’s complex ethno-religious makeup and sprightly political culture—that is to say, far from “Lebanonizing” their Weltanschauung, to use the favored terminology of those who have defined the canon of Islamist scholarship in Lebanon today—Rabil suggests that Lebanon’s Islamists have sought to dismantle the “Lebanese experiment” and cast off its constitutive diversity. To wit, Rabil demonstrates that those who have been for many years sounding the happy clarion of Hezbollah’s “Lebanonization”—and over-exaggerating the party’s “Lebanese” credentials—have also been misleading the field and dissimulating Hezbollah’s toxic totalistic role in Lebanon’s pluralist social and political order.

Earlier, Hafiz al-Asad, unlike Saddam Husayn, had subordinated pan-Arab nationalism, and thus the Palestinian question, to the Syrian raison d'etat. In his foreign policy he violated Ba'thist principles in various instances. Now ironically, after the destruction of Iraqi Ba'thism, Syria is in the position of being the sole pan-Arab mouthpiece. President Bashar al-Asad has exploited this unexpected role to build support and sympathy far beyond public opinion in Syria. By choosing this ideological path he gambled high and burnt the bridges to Washington.

Indeed, Rabil’s work calls to task those embellishers of Hezbollah’s absolutism, challenges their fantasies, and revises—and deflates—the rosy paradigms that they have normalized, by marshaling a wealth of documents, personal testimonies, and primary sources that point to “another,” less than benign, Hezbollah.

But this is a book not only about Hezbollah. It is about both Shia and Sunni Islamism in Lebanon and about the growing conflict and incompatibility between Islamism and Lebanese pluralism. Lebanon’s experience with Islamism is a distinct case study, specific to Lebanon; but it is also an archetype and evidence that theology and epistemology do matter when it comes to political Islam—in spite of those who would argue otherwise—that not all Islamisms are created equal, and that the empirical data on the emergence, life, and death of Islamism often flies in the face of received wisdom and accepted textual assumptions.

To my sense, rare are those who are suited to write on this topic with Rabil’s depth, poise, and authority. A polyglot academic socialized in both Lebanon and the United States, Rabil benefits from the scientific, cultural, and intellectual tools of both worlds, and is able to negotiate both their linguistic and idiomatic intricacies with rare intimacy and finesse.

In sum, Religion, National Identity, and Confessional Politics in Lebanon is essential reading for specialists and non-specialists alike: it is wise, literate, insightful and honest; written with conviction, rigor, and clarity; supported with evidence and a wealth of sources—namely, albeit not exclusively, Arabic sources—which Rabil avails to Anglophone readers with exquisite accuracy and discernment.

Syria, the United States, and the War on Terror in the Middle East.

Mark Moyar

Prior to the Syrian civil war, little scholarly research focused directly on Syria’s relevance to U.S. national interests, although the topic did receive considerable coverage in broader accounts of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The best book-length history of U.S.-Syrian relations is Robert G. Rabil’sSyria, the United States, and the War on Terror in the Middle East(Praeger, 2006). Barry Rubin’s The Truth About Syria (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) provides an accessible recounting of Syria since independence, with limited coverage of the U.S. perspective. The outbreak of the civil in 2011 has sparked a flurry of writing on Syria and its strategic importance, of which the most insightful is Fouad Ajami’s The Syrian Rebellion (Hoover Institution Press, 2012).

(Book review). Carsten Wieland.
The Middle East Journal 60.4 (Autumn 2006): p813(3).


Robert Rabil's latest book is much more than an overview of US-Syrian relations. It sketches the most important developments in the Levant and its surroundings from the middle of the 20th century up to today. Thus the book also deals with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Nevertheless, Rabil keeps a clear, systematic focus on the complex linkages between regional developments and Syria's foreign policy.

The book starts out with a background discussion of Syrian collective consciousness, i.e., Syria's nationalist struggle for independence and the emergence of modern Syria under the Ba'thist regime and Hafiz al-Asad. Subsequently, the author explores US-Syrian relations during the Cold War and throughout the Israeli-Palestinian confrontations. Further chapters tackle the bilateral relations during the peace process (1991-2000) and after 9/11. Rabil analyzes the factors that have contributed to the collision course between the US and Syria. Two chapters scrutinize the Lebanese scenario, in which Syria finally lost important leverage in the region and which reshuffled the stakes in Damascus' domestic theatre. The book concludes with Syrian and US policy options.

One of Rabil's original observations is that Syria's current foreign policy rhetoric is based to a growing extent on the claim of a "clash of civilizations." One of the most eloquent champions of this view is Syrian Minister of Expatriates, Buthaina Shaaban. She points out that Western anti-Semitism is taking a new form, i.e., anti-Arabism, which manifests itself by unsanctioned Israeli killings of Palestinian civilians and US soldiers' torturing of Iraqi prisoners. Shaaban is convinced that this treatment stems from a racist, condescending view of Arabs. Thus protecting Arabism becomes synonymous with protecting the sole champion of this cause left: Syria and its regime. Even the Syrian opposition is stuck between their demands for more sweeping reforms and their nationalist stance.

Earlier, Hafiz al-Asad, unlike Saddam Husayn, had subordinated pan-Arab nationalism, and thus the Palestinian question, to the Syrian raison d'etat. In his foreign policy he violated Ba'thist principles in various instances. Now ironically, after the destruction of Iraqi Ba'thism, Syria is in the position of being the sole pan-Arab mouthpiece. President Bashar al-Asad has exploited this unexpected role to build support and sympathy far beyond public opinion in Syria. By choosing this ideological path he gambled high and burnt the bridges to Washington.

As the author points out, US-Syrian relations have experienced many ups and downs. After World War II, the US had an equally good relationship with Syria as with Israel. The rivalry began with the Cold War and the Arab nationalist perception of Israel as a colonial entity. The turning point came in 1967, when the US crystallized as Israel's most faithful ally and the Soviet Union became the main arms supplier for Syria and Egypt. In the mid-1970s, after US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had mediated the disengagement plan on the Golan Heights, the atmosphere between the United States and Syria became friendlier again. In 1975, Syria's foreign minister 'Abdul Halim Khaddam even was received at the White House, and the United States granted loans and aid to Syria. The Ford and Carter administrations were the champions of this approach, which gave Washington leverage to influence both sides of the conflict.

This changed when Syria appeared on the US State Department's "terrorism list" in 1979, leading to economic sanctions. But US policymakers believed that Syria played a pivotal role in the region. This led to an ambivalent US attitude toward Syria. As Rabil shows, whereas the US Executive branch often sympathized with Syria, Congress tended to pass laws to punish Syria.

Terrorism drove the countries apart and at the same time brought them together: Syria helped the US to broker several deals to free US hostages from Lebanese Shi'a and Palestinian terrorists in the 1980s and early 1990s. The US terrorism reports of the mid-1990s found Syria innocent of terrorism and a moderating force on Palestinian organizations and Hizbullah, although they stated that Syria allowed Iran to deliver arms to Hizbullah. In 2002, the US State Department conceded that Syria was not directly involved in international terrorist attacks since 1986. But Congress remained unimpressed as long as Syria harbored Palestinian organizations on its soil. The relationship remained contradictory: "[...] inasmuch as the United States wanted to punish Syria for its involvement in terrorism, the United States needed Syria's help in dealing with terrorism," writes Rabil (p. 77). This continued after 9/11, when Syrian intelligence shared valuable information about al-Qa'ida members and helped to save American lives.

Rabil notes an interesting shift in the US' definition of terrorism. In 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker shared Syria's notion. Accordingly, any acts of violence outside the Israeli occupied territories were considered terrorism, whereas acts of violence within these territories were considered resistance to Israeli occupation. By contrast, President George W. Bush's Administration has adopted Israel's definition, especially after 9/11, which does not make this distinction. This prevented Syria--an experienced and staunch fighter against Islamist terrorism--from profiting from 9/11 as a pro-American anti-terrorist protagonist like, for example, President Pervez Musharraf did despite Pakistan's ambivalent record in this respect.

After the death of Hafiz al-Asad, the 9/ 11 attacks, and Syria's staunch opposition to the Iraq war the dynamics of US-Syrian relations changed considerably and Syria became part of the extended "axis of evil." Rabil writes: "Ironically, where the senior al-Asad had sacrificed Arab nationalism at the altar of Syria's national interest in general and regime security in particular, the Syrian leadership today has been advancing Arab nationalism with the objective of countering US plans in the region" (p. 135).

Rabil far-sightedly points out that Syria's weak point will turn out to be Lebanon. He describes the fatal mistakes of the Syrian regime in late 2004. This culminated in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and the withdrawal of Syrian troops after almost 30 years of occupation. Thus Syria fulfilled part of the France and US-sponsored UN Resolution 1559 that had become the main tool to clip Syria's wings. Only a minority in the US intelligence establishment warned against a vacuum in Lebanon that would unleash Islamist terrorist forces and leave behind Hizbullah unrestrained.

Against the background of the Israel-Hizbullah war of July 2006, Rabil's book reads as a good preparation to understand the present dynamics. However, the author's optimism with regard to Lebanon's domestic political development seems a bit overstretched in light of the new events. The envisaged US model of democracy in the Middle East may have to go through the tough or almost suicidal process of disarming Hizbullah under aggravated circumstances. This conflict, however, could bring Syria back into the limelight. After having kicked Syria out of Lebanon, Western states could reach out to Syria to play a constructive role in defusing tensions there. This leads to yet another well-taken conclusion in Rabil's book: The future of the region and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process depend a lot on how Washington and Damascus deal with each other.

Rabil holds that "Washington needs to articulate a Syrian strategy" (p. 198). He speaks of a "dying regime" in Damascus but also warns against a "miscalculated or hubris-laden" campaign against Syria, which could lead to anarchy in the country and promote a new fertile ground for terrorism. This would once more torpedo Washington's anti-terrorism agenda in the Middle East.

Rabil has written a dispassionate and scrupulously researched account of the Middle Eastern dynamics that lie at the center of today's most urgent challenges. Unlike other books that have been written about Syria and US foreign policy, this work stands out in its in-depth treatment of ideological and socio-political conditions in the region. To his credit, Rabil does not view the Levant simply through the lens of US policy; consequently, the title of the book is narrower than the author's actual perspective.

Dr. Carsten Wieland, Research Fellow at Georgetown University, is the author of Syria--Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism and Secularism in the Levant (Curie Press, 2006).

Although Rabil completed this book in March 2005, he was prescient in analyzing the politics of Syria, Lebanon, and Hezbollah. Rabil suggested conditions could lead to war, which did occur in July-August 2006. He cites reasons for the US government's growing frustration with Syria's support for resistance forces in Iraq, Hamas, and Islamic jihad. Rabil contends the Asad regime's policy of liberalizing the economy is accompanied by even more authoritarian measures to contain dissent. One such policy is to encourage Pan-Arabism as well as Islamist ideologies. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Refik Hariri in 2005, which resulted in a popular revolt compelling the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, encouraged the author to think that Lebanon might yet be able to foster a viable Lebanese state. But the war between Hezbollah and Israel jeopardized this possibility. Indeed, the war may well result in another prediction of the author's coming true: "Syria is set to clash with the United States over the future of the Middle East."...Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through practitioners. 
—Choice January 2007

Rabil has written a dispassionate and scrupulously researched account of the Middle Eastern dynamics that stand at the centre of today's most urgent challenges. Unlike other books that have been written about Syria and US foreign policy, this work stands out in its in-depth treatment of ideological and socio-political realities in the region. 
—Orient 2006

[M]uch more than an overview of United States-Syrian relations. It sketches the most important developments in the Levant and its surroundings from the mid-20th century to today. Thus it also deals with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, while keeping a clear and systematic focus on how their complex interconnections link to Syria's foreign policy....Against the background of the Israel-Hizbollah war of July 2006, Rabil's book is ideally placed to aid understanding of the latest dynamics....[a] dispassionate and scrupulously researched account of middle-eastern political dynamics. Those who have made or might consider a trip to Syria and the region could benefit from reading it. 
—Open Democracy April 2007

Embattled Neighbors—Syria, Israel and Lebanon (Book review). Eyal Zisser.
Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish StudiesVolume 23, Number 3, Spring 2005, pp. 202-203.

This book deals with the fabric of relations between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, three neighboring countries whose destiny has been combined ever since they emerged as independent states and even before that. Their joint history is a history of conflict and struggle. The book focuses on this conflict, its roots and its development along the years. At the same time, it gives special emphasis to the futile efforts during the 1990s to bring this conflict to an end. The last part of the book thus raises the question of why the three states failed to overcome the difficulties and bridge the wide gap of hostility and animosity that separated them.

Rabil's decision to start his book with this quote is not accidental and does reflect one of the main and central arguments of his research. Indeed, according to Rabil the Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese conflict should be looked at as a deep and ideological conflict with historical background that should not be ignored. It is not merely a conflict between two states, but one between two ideological concepts. After all, Syria emerged from Arabism and still considered itself Arab before being Syrian. This is an important and significant argument especially against the background of the arguments that were heard often after the collapse of the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations in early 2000, according to which this collapse was a result of a disagreement about a small piece of land of about ten meters along the northern part of the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In Rabil's eyes this is to ignore the essence of the conflict and its deep roots and diversity of dimensions.

The last part of the book focuses on the futile efforts to achieve peace between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon during the 1990s. This is an accurate, full, and updated account of a kind that has not been written before. It is also an account that deals with the substance and raises the right questions. Rabil's main argument is that a peace agreement was not achieved between the sides not because of disagreements about this or that technical detail, but because of the lack of readiness or ripeness in the two sides to make the jump, not to say the mental jump, that was needed for peace against the background of the depth of the conflict. The blame for this failure belongs to all sides: the leaders, the governments but also the publics, the Israeli as well as the Syrian public. The Israeli public refused to accept the idea of territorial withdrawals and to give up the territorial achievements that Israel gained in the Golan Heights during the Six Day war, while the Syrian public refused to accept that time had come to end the historical conflict with Israel. There is no doubt that Rabil's deep understanding of the dimensions of the conflict is due to his deep knowledge of the history of conflict from its early beginning.

There is no doubt that the book is detailed and draws for the reader a full picture of the relations between the different states based on a close examination of each of them—their structures, the ideological concepts that ruled and influenced in each of the countries, and, finally, the conduct of the different regimes through the years. A useful feature of the book is that alongside its discussion of the bilateral relations it explores the internal dynamics of each of the states. It is worthwhile mentioning that apart from being deep and well rooted and full of facts the book can be read easily and flows. In writing a book about a conflict it is easy to take sides, showing empathy and even sympathy for one of the contenders. This writer, to his credit, does not fall into this trap. The book brings us an honest and full account and objective presentation of the narratives of the two sides, which may well anger both of them. The list of Lebanese and the Syrian sources is impressive.

This book is obligatory for everybody interested in Israel's relations with its northern neighbors. It would especially be mandatory reading for the negotiation teams of all sides if and when the peace process is resumed. The book starts with a quote from a book written in 1905 by one of the founders and the first thinkers of the Arab national movement, Najib Azory. The quote deals with the unavoidable conflict, according to the writer, between Jews and Arabs in Palestine that might even spread all over the entire region. In his book Le Reveil de la Nation Arabe dans l'Asie Turque, which should be considered as a prophecy, Azory writes: "Two important phenomena, of the same nature but opposed, are emerging at this moment in Asiatic Turkey. They are the awakening of the Arab nation and the latent effort of the Jews to reconstitute on a very large scale the ancient kingdom of Israel. These two movements are destined to confront each other continuously, until one prevails over the other. The final outcome of this struggle, between two peoples that represent two contradictory principles, may shape the destiny of the whole world."

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