Lebanon: the unlucky country

lebanese civil war
It is 40 years since the start of the Lebanese Civil War, which left 150,000 dead and tore the country apart. We remember all those who were killed during the 15-year span of bloodshed.

Flooded with refugees, without even a President in charge, Lebanon is a country divided. Will it survive?

THIS is not much of a town. A hushed higgle of neat streets and dusty whitewashed shuttered windows, gardens and bright winter flowers.

A mosque, a church, a little cafe, a sleeping cat, an old woman shaded at an upstairs window. A rural town that’s too quiet, with bated breath. There’s a vegetable market at the weekend. We’re surrounded by vineyards and claggy fields of rich brown tilth that stretch away to a ridge of hills that simmer in the milky sunlight. On the further side is the Syrian border. The mayor of Al-Marj, Nazem Saleh, sits behind his heavy ornate desk, a sarcophagus of civic good intentions. There is a flatscreen TV that plays silent news and another that shows silent football, there are basketball trophies on the shelf and a sidekick on a low chair. All Middle Eastern mayors come with a straight man. Saleh laughs as he waits for us to be served coffee: Nescafé and then thick Arabic in little cups. He laughs, not because anything is funny, but to put us at our ease. Nothing here is funny.

Lebanon Bekaa Valley
Desperate: a camp of Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

“We need help urgently.” He runs his fingers through his purple-black hair and strokes his moustache. “We need money and resources from government, from outside, from charities. The situation is critical.” Al-Marj has a particular and pressing problem that is repeated up and down the border: that the indigenous population will be out­numbered by the other – incomers, refugees. The inhabitants are now a minority in their own home. It’s the same terror always evoked by fist-waving politicians. “We can’t cope,” he says and tugs a cuff. “It’s not safe. I want a curfew. We need police, soldiers.”

“Have there been incidents?” I ask. He shrugs and waves a hand, indicating not yet. “But there are our women,” he says obliquely. “And they [refugees] break into the water pipes and they become ­polluted. There is no sewerage system. They steal electricity from the pylons. There is a danger of disease and wages are falling. Refugees will work for very little. There is no work for local men.” He talks of what the town once was. What does he think will happen to it now? Again, the laugh. “That is politics beyond my responsibility,” he says. He has opinions, of course, but they’re personal. OK, what sort of town does he think his son and daughter will inherit? The smile fades, his baggy eyes grow hard and angry. “They are already planning on leaving,” he says.

Lebanon has an indigenous population of about 4 million. There are now 1.5 million ­Syrian refugees; add that to 500,000 Palestinians who have been here for a generation and a size­able population of Iraqis and Sudanese. This gives it the highest proportion of refugees of any country on the globe. If refugees were valuable, Lebanon would be the richest nation in the world. But they’re not. The largest industry was once tourism. They’ve swapped holidays for disaster relief – and the World Food Program, which is feeding most of these incomers, has announced it is going to have to cut rations because the First World has reneged on its promises to support.

A refugee prepares bread for cooking over a garbage fueled fire

Winter is coming and this little nation is floundering and sinking into something dire, and here’s the punchline: Lebanon has no ­government. There is no one on the bridge. Its reaction to the crisis has been to agree to disagree. There hasn’t been a president since May last year. The nation bobs in the swell of the most turbulent politics in the world, surrounded by ­enemies, anarchy and draconian fundamentalism, not just without a Plan B, but with no Plan A to begin with. But maybe a non-administration is preferable to any of the practical alternatives in a region where a century of hardline conviction has spread the misery thick as hummus.

On the edge of a fallow field, a child reclines on a pile of rubbish. His mother, aunts and sisters are sifting through the stinking garbage. They pull apart remnants of cotton and spools of lace trim. It might, for a moment, be a mad bridal ­fitting, but they’re looking for things to burn. There are no trees. Tiny bundles of kindling are prohibitively expensive. They need to heat their plastic-sheeting huts and cook their potatoes. A woman sits in the thick mud of a ruined onion factory and makes flatbread on a tiny rubble oven. The gagging aroma of burning plastic masks the comforting smell of baking.

Syrians have always come to these fields. They arrived as agricultural workers and built seasonal huts, to pick grapes. The civil war has sent them back with their families, their neighbours, whole towns. The shanties have taken over the fields. They pay a little rent to the farmers, who now make more money from growing humans than they did from the onions. The camps are squalid affairs, built from borrowed, begged and found materials. Sheets of corrugated iron and plastic, billboards held down with old tyres. Here is one made from a Bentley advertisement, another from a poster for dream flats. Here is the mascaraed, blonde, provocatively vacuous face of a Lebanese soap star ­sheltering a family from Homs.

A Syrian refugee boy outside a tent made out of a billboard with an image of a Lebanese pop star. Picture: Rena Effendi / Institute Source: News Corp Australia

The tiny alleys between the shelters are slimy quagmires of muddy sewerage. Children’s feet are boluses of sticky mire. Their faces are rimed with snot and filth. A little girl sits on a chair of ­detritus watching an empty TV without a screen, describing imaginary programs to her muck-dressed doll. Her fantasy game is to imagine peace, home and normality.

These camps are unofficial and vulnerable, rudimentarily tended by NGOs and the UNHCR. Lebanon won’t allow official camps, wary of what has happened in Jordan – where the huge Zaatari camp has become an unpoliced city of gangs, anger and despair – and its own experience with the Palestinian camps, which precipitated its civil war in the ’70s. Large concentrations of refugees have political momentum, power and gravity. These small, insecure pockets salted into the population keep their heads down to avoid problems.

Lebanon has had a left hand, right hand attitude to the refugees: officially it has been strident and tough, offering little help or consolation, but the Lebanese individually have been astonishingly generous. A million and a half displaced souls have been given shelter. There has been ­little open hostility to them. Almost everyone I ask says locals have been personally kind.

Nasreen is 35. Her husband, a carpenter, is still in Syria. She found refuge in a small shop front in Saida, the third largest city. The war has been bad for business, so, like the farmers, landlords now stock people instead of frocks and tourist tat. In one small room, she lives with a pile of mattresses, her three daughters – aged 15, 13 and eight – and a toddler. Nasreen was gassed while pregnant, her health is bad, she worries about the effect on her sleeping child. She also has two boys, 10 and nine. She is given food vouchers every month; she spends it all on biscuits and the boys sell the biscuits on the road. She has to make $150 a month in rent. She’s quiet, close to tears. The girls sit like silent owls in their tight hijabs, close like buffers against a wind of sorrow. She worries about the boys. ­People shout at them for begging and the roads are dangerous. Just imagine being a nine-year-old lad and knowing that every morning you’re responsible for the lives of a family of seven.

Wind of sorrow: Nasreen and her family. Picture: Rena Effendi / Institute Source: News Corp Australia

The milk of human kindness is growing sour in Lebanon, tired out by the huge weight of the refugees and the horror of the war that’s leaching across the border with them. Isis and the al-Nusra Front have kidnapped Lebanese soldiers and are executing them. In the cafes there are comically grim comparisons between al-Nusra, who shoot their victims in the back of the head and tweet the death notices, and Isis, who saw their heads off and plaster the verities on YouTube. There is a palpable hardening of sympathies. The ­Lebanese were furious at how many Syrians went home to vote in the fixed, face-­saving election of President Assad. It seems an affront to their hospitality. And there’s ­Hezbollah, crossing the border to fight on behalf of the Syrian government, which has plainly helped to turn the tide and elongate this war. ­Lebanon’s relationship with Syria was ever abusive.

I ask refugees in huts, in fields, in alleys, in queues, squatting in underground car parks, where they thought they would be in 10 years’ time. No one, not one, had a hopeful answer. Mostly they shook their heads and shrugged and stared at their hands, and offered a doubting Insha’Allah that they’d be home. Very few wanted to stay here. Even fewer wanted to move to the West, and only then to glean an ­education for their children. “I would give everything to lie on the dirt my home and my business stood on,” says one man, close to tears.

Driving back from the Bekaa Valley, past the mountain villages, under the Shi’ite martyrs’ flags, past the wayside Madonnas and the snow-dusted mountains, Beirut appears as by a magician’s trick. Seen through the trees, surrounded by the mountains – Ta-da! It is a great shining city, wearing the veil of the pale Mediterranean, a miraculous place. In this region, there is no other like it. Homogeneous, sophisticated, amused, garrulous, epicurean, safe. Surrounded by an angry, hunched and increasingly fractious state.

Within an hour of sitting in onion fields with the despairing Bedouin who have been given the worst choice of the 21st century, I found myself in a soigné street party of boutiques where everything cost a thousand dollars and came with a knowing, chic irony. Where a band played and there was champagne and delicious things on sticks, and folk air-kissed and were as glamorous and interesting and studiedly starry and beautiful as any gaggle you’d find anywhere in the cordoned, red-­carpeted rest of the First World, except that these were better-looking. Beirut is a very handsome city: wide, knowing dark eyes, invitingly arched eyebrows and a discreet addict’s taste for plastic surgery. I’d see coveys of expensively animated women with hot, hot Semitic faces all looking down identical retroussé little oriental noses. “Look at her,” my Shi’ite ­Hezbollah-supporting driver says at a blonde with cleavage popping in a tiny, bum-clutching dress and vertiginous nude heels as she sashays past. “Can you tell if she’s Christian or Muslim?”

This is a city where everyone can tell and no one says. This is a city that was riven by religious divide in a civil war where the Palestinian refugees were massacred by the Christian Phalange and the Israelis, a war that cost this tiny country 150,000 lives, where the buildings are still ­shrapnel-dashed and everyone remembers a dead relative, a lost home. But it has managed to take a civilised breath and revert to being a liberal, ­sybaritic, separate but encompassing city, where mixed marriages are common and women can wear miniskirts next to their sisters in burqas.

“It has managed it by doing the opposite of the South Africans,” says a BBC reporter. Instead of a truth and reconciliation commission, where they talked about everything as therapy, here the Lebanese never talk about history. Like a fractious family, they maintain a fragile peace by ­pretending there’s nothing the matter and never mentioning the war. It’s really very English of them. “What is the prognosis for Lebanon?” I ask an American analyst of Lebanese extraction. “Well,” he says guardedly, “it’s not looking good.”

The country’s politics is based on the principle of athree-legged stool: it doesn’t matter how uneven the ground is, the stool doesn’t rock. The three major religions are each guaranteed a lever of power. Lebanon’s president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister always a Sunni and the speaker always a Shi’ite.

The Christians lost a lot of their power after the civil war and no one really knows what their strength is because the last census was taken in 1932. The likelihood is the Shi’ites are the majority, but the influx of Palestinians, and now Syrians, increases the number of Sunnis in the country. The Sunnis are supported financially and politically by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, the Shi’ites by Iran, and the Shi’ites support the Assad government because he is a member of the ­Alawites, a Shi’ite sect. The Christians have traditional links with Israel and Europe. The minorities include the Druze, a Muslim sect who believe in reincarnation (their population is growing, which is ­difficult to explain theocratically), and a Salafist movement (extreme Sunnis with a bad look of short trousers and beards without moustaches. Hipsters with attitude.)

At the moment, no one can agree on a president and their differences are becoming stronger than the imperative of getting along. The country is staggering under the weight of the refugees and the neighbours from hell. So what’s the prognosis in 10 years, I ask the analyst. “If you force me, I’d have to say it looks unlikely that there will be a recognisable Lebanon in 10 years.”

“Where is Israel in all of this?” I ask the resident correspondent for a US newspaper. “Well, interestingly, Israel is almost irrelevant at the moment,” she says. “Driving the Israeli occupation out of Lebanon was seen as being down to Hezbollah. They are the only regional force that ever beat the Israelis and they gained a lot of military bravado from that. They have a reputation for supplying grassroots community support: food, medical attention, setting up schools.”

All the religious factions do this. Lebanon has virtually no civic infrastructure; it’s all run piecemeal, by interested groups. “But did you know that when the LGBT community held its first ever press conference and rally in Beirut, Hezbollah supported the brothers and sisters. That wouldn’t have happened anywhere else in the Middle East,” she points out.

So where does she think Lebanon will be in 10 years? “Oh, I don’t think there will be a ­Lebanon in 10 years, not as we know it.

In the cafes of Beirut, couples smooch on dates, girls sit writing novels on computers, gangs of men watch football. Everyone still talks about politics, but only in the present tense. It’s a perennial obsession. Listening to this is like being pitched contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare: all the tragedies, histories and comedies are mirrored in Lebanese life. There are Caesars and Henrys, Shylocks and Romeos and Juliets, there are Lears and any number of Hamlets. It’s as if 400 years of European history was edited into a single lifetime in Lebanon.

“Look at this city, look at it.” A Lebanese journalist waves his hand across a cafe table. “What keeps it going? What keeps the boutiques, the restaurants, the beautiful apartments? What do you think keeps all of this aloft? Lebanon makes nothing. Do you drive a Lebanese car? Have you a Lebanese computer? No. Is there oil? No. Or gas? No. There is barely any water.

“What keeps this city bright and bustling? It is the diaspora. There are 10 million Lebanese abroad. We are the Phoenicians. We have always travelled and done business. West Africa, Latin America, Asia, Australia, you find Lebanese businessmen everywhere. They send money home.

“Have you heard of Lebanese banks? No? That’s because no one wants you to know about Lebanese banks. They are the most discreet and trustworthy in this part of the world. All the Saudi money, the backhanders, the gifts, the skimming, comes here. It is laid to rest in Lebanese banks, no questions asked. All the graft from the Gulf ends up here, all the opium money from Afghanistan comes here. The business of Beirut is a giant money laundry. We take in dirty laundry and hand you back clean sheets. That is why property prices are as high as New York.”

The table falls silent and another voice says, angrily: “You, from the west of the Mediterranean. You see refugees as the problem. They aren’t. They are a symptom. You see them in our fields as weeds, invasive species, but you never ask, ‘What is a weed, but a flower in the wrong garden?’ That is the real problem with Lebanon, and the whole Middle East: we are all flowers in the wrong garden. You English should understand this; this is the garden you planted.”

And I realise that around this table there is me, a Brit, Rena the photographer, who is ­Azerbaijani, my travelling companion from the UNHCR, who’s a Croat, a visiting aid worker, who’s an Afghan, a Shi’ite Lebanese, a Christian Lebanese, a Sunni Lebanese and an American, and we’re all perfectly at home in this place, with each other. “What would you have said,” I ask of the journalist, “if I had asked you the question 10 years ago: ‘What will happen to Lebanon?’ ”

“Ah!” he laughs and throws his hands in the air. “The same thing, of course. Lebanon can’t possibly survive.”

by AA Gill


One thought on “Lebanon: the unlucky country

  1. Fanaticism, Wahhabism and Salafism says:

    [Publishers note: I asked a muslim scholar whom I respect why has Lebanon ended up with the contradiction of Shias teaching Christians how to resist Sunnis in a village in the Bekaa Valley? He replied that neither ISIS or Al Nusra have anything to do with Islam, that they are funded by the US. He also sent this information pamphlet prepared in the wake of the Danny Nalliah* VCAT case to inform Muslims and interested people on this aspect of Islam.
    *Nalliah is the founder of the Rise up Australia Party which is a racist anti-gay anti-islam nationalist party that has candidates in state and federal elections. Ian Curr Feb 2015]

    The Poverty of Fanaticism
    “The Islamic movement risks ceasing to form an authentic summons to cultural and spiritual renewal, and existing as little more than a splintered array of maniacal factions. The prospect of such an appalling and humiliating end to the story of a religion which once surpassed all others in its capacity for tolerating debate and dissent is now a real possibility.”
    By British convert to Islam, Abdal-Hakim Murad.

    I used to know, quite well, a leader of the radical ‘Islamic’ group, the Jama’at Islamiya, at the Egyptian university of Assiut. His name was Hamdi. He grew a luxuriant beard, was constantly scrubbing his teeth with his miswak, and spent his time preaching hatred of the Coptic Christians, a number of whom were actually attacked and beaten up as a result of his khutbas. He had hundreds of followers; in fact, Assiut today remains a citadel of hardline, Wahhabi-style activism.

    The moral of the story is that some five years after this acquaintance, providence again brought me face to face with Shaikh Hamdi. This time, chancing to see him on a Cairo street, I almost failed to recognise him. The beard was gone. He was in trousers and a sweater. More astonishing still was that he was walking with a young Western girl who turned out to be an Australian, whom, as he sheepishly explained to me, he was intending to marry. I talked to him, and it became clear that he was no longer even a minimally observant Muslim, no longer prayed, and that his ambition in life was to leave Egypt, live in Australia, and make money. What was extraordinary was that his experiences in Islamic activism had made no impression on him – he was once again the same distracted, ordinary Egyptian youth he had been before his conversion to ‘radical Islam’.

    This phenomenon, which we might label ‘salafi burnout’, is a recognised feature of many modern Muslim cultures. An initial enthusiasm, gained usually in one’s early twenties, loses steam some seven to ten years later. Prison and torture – the frequent lot of the Islamic radical – may serve to prolong commitment, but ultimately, a majority of these neo-Muslims relapse, seemingly no better or worse for their experience in the cult-like universe of the salafi mindset.

    This ephemerality of extremist activism should be as suspicious as its content. Authentic Muslim faith is simply not supposed to be this fragile; as the Qur’an says, its root is meant to be ‘set firm’. One has to conclude that of the two trees depicted in the Quranic image, salafi extremism resembles the second rather than the first. After all, the Sahaba were not known for a transient commitment: their devotion and piety remained incomparably pure until they died.

    What attracts young Muslims to this type of ephemeral but ferocious activism? One does not have to subscribe to determinist social theories to realise the importance of the almost universal condition of insecurity which Muslim societies are now experiencing. The Islamic world is passing through a most devastating period of transition. A history of economic and scientific change which in Europe took five hundred years, is, in the Muslim world, being squeezed into a couple of generations. For instance, only thirty-five years ago the capital of Saudi Arabia was a cluster of mud huts, as it had been for thousands of years. Today’s Riyadh is a hi-tech megacity of glass towers, Coke machines, and gliding Cadillacs. This is an extreme case, but to some extent the dislocations of modernity are common to every Muslim society, excepting, perhaps, a handful of the most remote tribal peoples.

    The Place of Tolerance in Islam
    By Khalid Abou El Fadl. Originally Published in December 2001/January 2002 issue of the Boston Review.
    Published in book form. Edited by Joshua Cohen and Ian Lague. Beacon Press, Boston. 2002

    Extremism in Islamic History

    Perhaps all firmly held systems of belief, especially those founded on religious conviction, are in some way supremacist: believers are understood to have some special virtue that distinguishes them from adherents of other faiths. But the supremacist creed of the puritan groups is distinctive and uniquely dangerous. The supremacist thinking of Muslim puritans has a powerful nationalist component, which is strongly oriented towards cultural and political dominance. These groups are not satisfied with living according to their own dictates, but are actively dissatisfied with all alternative ways of life. They do not merely seek self-empowerment, but aggressively seek to disempower, dominate, or destroy others. The crux of the matter is that all lives lived outside the law are considered an offense against God that must be actively resisted and fought.

    The existence of Muslim puritanism is hardly surprising. Most religious systems have suffered at one time or another from absolutist extremism, and Islam is no exception. Within the first century of Islam, religious extremists known as the Khawarij (literally, the secessionists) slaughtered a large number of Muslims and non-Muslims, and were even responsible for the assassination of the Prophet’s cousin and companion, the Caliph Ali b. Abi Talib. The descendants of the Khawarij exist today in Oman and Algeria, but after centuries of bloodshed, they became moderates if not pacifists. Similarly, the Qaramites and Assassins, for whom terror became a raison d’etre, earned unmitigated infamy in the writings of Muslim historians, theologians, and jurists. Again, after centuries of bloodshed, these two groups learned moderation, and they continue to exist in small numbers in North Africa and Iraq. The essential lesson taught by Islamic history is that extremist groups are ejected from the mainstream of Islam; they are marginalized, and eventually treated as heretical aberrations to the Islamic message.

    But Islam is now living through a major shift, unlike any it has experienced in the past. The Islamic civilization has crumbled, and the traditional institutions that once sustained and propagated Islamic orthodoxy-and marginalized Islamic extremism-have been dismantled. Traditionally, Islamic epistemology tolerated and even celebrated divergent opinions and schools of thought. The guardians of the Islamic tradition were the jurists (fuqaha), whose legitimacy rested largely on their semi-independence from a decentralized political system, and their dual function of representing the interests of the state to the laity and the interests of the laity to the state.

    But in Muslim countries today, the state has grown extremely powerful and meddlesome, and is centralized in ways that were inconceivable two centuries ago. In the vast majority of Muslim countries, the state now controls the private religious endowments (awqaf ) that once sustained the juristic class. Moreover, the state has co-opted the clergy, and transformed them into its salaried employees. This transformation has reduced the clergy’s legitimacy, and produced a profound vacuum in religious authority. Hence, there is a state of virtual anarchy in modern Islam: it is not clear who speaks with authority on religious issues. Such a state of virtual religious anarchy is perhaps not problematic in secular societies where religion is essentially reduced to a private matter. But where religion remains central to the dynamics of public legitimacy and cultural meaning, the question of who represents the voice of God is of central significance.

    Puritanism and Modern Islam

    It would be wrong to say that fanatic supremacist groups such as the al-Qa’ida or al-Jihad organizations now fill the vacuum of authority in contemporary Islam. Though they are obviously able to commit highly visible acts of violence that command the public stage, fanatic groups remain sociologically and intellectually marginal in Islam. Still, they are extreme manifestations of more prevalent intellectual and theological currents in modern Islam. Fanatic groups derive their theological premises from the intolerant puritanism of the Wahhabi and Salafi creeds.

    In the late eighteenth century, the Al Sa’ud family united with the Wahhabi movement and rebelled against Ottoman rule in Arabia. The rebellions were very bloody because the Wahhabis indiscriminately slaughtered and terrorized Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Interestingly, mainstream jurists writing at the time, such as the Hanafi Ibn ‘Abidin and the Maliki al-Sawi, branded the Wahhabis the modern day Khawarij of Islam, and condemned their fanaticism and intolerance. In 1818, Egyptian forces under the leadership of Muhammad Ali defeated this rebellion, and Wahhabism seemed destined to become another fringe historical experience with no lasting impact on Islamic theology.

    But the Wahhabi creed was resuscitated in the early twentieth century under the leadership of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Sa’ud, who allied himself with Wahhabi militant rebels known as the Ikhwan, in the beginnings of what would become Saudi Arabia. Even with the formation of the Saudi state, Wahhabism remained a creed of limited influence until the mid-1970s when the sharp rise in oil prices, together with aggressive Saudi proselytizing, dramatically contributed to its wide dissemination in the Muslim world.

    Islam and the Theology of Power
    “Supremacist puritanism in contemporary Islam is dismissive of all moral norms or ethical values.”
    By Khaled Abou El Fadl, UCLA School of Law. Middle East Report 221, Winter 2001

    While national liberation movements — such as the Palestinian or Algerian resistance — resorted to guerrilla or non-conventional warfare, modern day terrorism of the variety promoted by Osama bin Laden is rooted in a different ideological paradigm. There is little doubt that organizations such as the Jihad, al-Qaeda, Hizb al-Tahrir and Jama’at al-Muslimin were influenced by national liberation and anti-colonialist ideologies, but they have anchored themselves in a theology that can be described as puritan, supremacist and thoroughly opportunistic. This theology is the byproduct of the emergence and eventual dominance of Wahhabism, Salafism and apologetic discourses in modern Islam.


    But Wahhabism did not spread in the modern Muslim world under its own banner. Even the term “Wahhabism” is considered derogatory by its adherents, since Wahhabis prefer to see themselves as the representatives of Islamic orthodoxy. To them, Wahhabism is not a school of thought within Islam, but is Islam. The fact that Wahhabism rejected a label gave it a diffuse quality, making many of its doctrines and methodologies eminently transferable. Wahhabi thought exercised its greatest influence not under its own label, but under the rubric of Salafism. In their literature, Wahhabi clerics have consistently described themselves as Salafis, and not Wahhabis.

    Beset with Contradictions
    Salafism is a creed founded in the late nineteenth century by Muslim reformers such as Muhammad ‘Abduh, al-Afghani and Rashid Rida. Salafism appealed to a very basic concept in Islam: Muslims ought to follow the precedent of the Prophet and his companions (al-salaf al-salih). Methodologically, Salafism was nearly identical to Wahhabism except that Wahhabism is far less tolerant of diversity and differences of opinion. The founders of Salafism maintained that on all issues Muslims ought to return to the Qur’an and the sunna (precedent) of the Prophet. In doing so, Muslims ought to reinterpret the original sources in light of modern needs and demands, without being slavishly bound to the interpretations of earlier Muslim generations.

    As originally conceived, Salafism was not necessarily anti-intellectual, but like Wahhabism, it did tend to be uninterested in history. By emphasizing a presumed golden age in Islam, the adherents of Salafism idealized the time of the Prophet and his companions, and ignored or demonized the balance of Islamic history. By rejecting juristic precedents and undervaluing tradition, Salafism adopted a form of egalitarianism that deconstructed any notions of established authority within Islam. Effectively, anyone was considered qualified to return to the original sources and speak for the divine will. By liberating Muslims from the tradition of the jurists, Salafism contributed to a real vacuum of authority in contemporary Islam. Importantly, Salafism was founded by Muslim nationalists who were eager to read the values of modernism into the original sources of Islam. Hence, Salafism was not necessarily anti-Western. In fact, its founders strove to project contemporary institutions such as democracy, constitutions or socialism into the foundational texts, and to justify the modern nation-state within Islam.

    The liberal age of Salafism came to an end in the 1960s. After 1975, Wahhabism was able to rid itself of its extreme intolerance, and proceeded to coopt Salafism until the two became practically indistinguishable. Both theologies imagined a golden age within Islam, entailing a belief in a historical utopia that can be reproduced in contemporary Islam. Both remained uninterested in critical historical inquiry and responded to the challenge of modernity by escaping to the secure haven of the text. Both advocated a form of egalitarianism and anti-elitism to the point that they came to consider intellectualism and rational moral insight to be inaccessible and, thus, corruptions of the purity of the Islamic message. Wahhabism and Salafism were beset with contradictions that made them simultaneously idealistic and pragmatic and infested both creeds (especially in the 1980s and 1990s) with a kind of supremacist thinking that prevails until today.

    Post-1970s Salafism adopted many of the premises of the apologetic discourse, but it also took these premises to their logical extreme. Instead of simple apologetics, Salafism responded to feelings of powerlessness and defeat with uncompromising and arrogant symbolic displays of power, not only against non-Muslims, but also against Muslim women. Fundamentally, Salafism, which by the 1970s had become a virulent puritan theology, further anchored itself in the confident security of texts. Nonetheless, contrary to the assertions of its proponents, Salafism did not necessarily pursue objective or balanced interpretations of Islamic texts, but primarily projected its own frustrations and aspirations upon the text. Its proponents no longer concerned themselves with coopting or claiming Western institutions as their own, but defined Islam as the exact antithesis of the West, under the guise of reclaiming the true and real Islam. Whatever the West was perceived to be, Islam was understood to be the exact opposite.

    The Orphans of Modernity and the Clash of Civilisations
    Global Dialogue, Vol 4, No 2, Spring 2002, pp. 1-16

    Khaled Abou El Fadl. The Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law, UCLA School of Law. His book Reasoning with God: Islam and Rationality will be published by Oneworld Press in 2003.

    A Siege Mentality

    The real challenge that confronts Muslim intellectuals is that political interests have come to dominate public discourse to the point that moral investigation and thinking have been marginalised in modern Islam. In the age of post-colonialism, Muslims have become preoccupied with the attempt to remedy a collective feeling of powerlessness and a frustrating sense of political defeat, often by engaging in sensational acts of power symbolism. The normative imperatives and intellectual subtleties of the Islamic moral tradition are not treated with the analytic and critical rigour they rightly deserve, but are rendered subservient to political expedience and symbolic displays of power. Elsewhere, I have described this contemporary doctrinal dynamic as the predominance of the theology of power in modern Islam, and it is this theology that is a direct contributor to the emergence of highly radicalised Islamic groups such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Far from being authentic expressions of inherited Islamic paradigms, or a natural outgrowth of the classical tradition, these are thoroughly a by-product of colonialism and modernity. Such groups ignore the Islamic civilisational experience, with all its richness and diversity, and reduce Islam to a single dynamic-that of power. They tend to define Islam as an ideology of nationalistic defiance of the other, a rather vulgar form of obstructionism vis-a-vis the hegemony of the Western world. Therefore, instead of Islam being a moral vision given to humanity, it becomes constructed into the antithesis of the West. In the world constructed by these groups, there is no Islam; there is only opposition to the West.

    This type of Islam that the radicalised groups offer is akin to a perpetual state of emergency in which expedience trumps principle, and illegitimate means are consistently justified by invoking higher ends. In essence, what prevails is an aggravated siege mentality that suspends the moral principles of the religion in pursuit of the vindications of political power. In this siege mentality, there is no room for analytical or critical thought, and there is no room for seriously engaging the Islamic intellectual heritage. There is only room for bombastic dogma and a stark functionalism that ultimately impoverishes the Islamic heritage.

    While national liberation movements such as that of the Palestinian or Algerian resistance resorted to guerrilla or non-conventional warfare, modern-day terrorism of the variety promoted by bin Laden is rooted in a different ideological paradigm, a theology that can be described as puritan, supremacist and thoroughly opportunistic in nature. This theology is the by-product of the emergence and eventual primacy of a syncretistic orientation that unites Wahhabism and Salafism in modern Islam.


    The foundations of Wahhabi theology were set in place by the eighteenth-century evangelist Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792). With a puritanical zeal, Abd al-Wahhab sought to rid Islam of all the corruptions that he believed had crept into the religion-corruptions that included mysticism and rationalism. Wahhabism resisted the indeterminacy of the modern age by escaping to a strict literalism in which the text became the sole source of legitimacy.


    Wahhabi ideology was resuscitated in the early twentieth century under the leadership of Abd al-Azis ibn Sa’ud, who adopted the puritanical theology of the Wahhabis and allied himself with the tribes of Najd, thereby establishing the nascent beginnings of what would become Saudi Arabia. Importantly, the Wahhabi rebellions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were very bloody because the Wahhabis indiscriminately slaughtered Muslims, especially those belonging to the Shi’ite sect. This led several mainstream jurists to describe the Wahhabis as a fanatic fringe group. Interestingly, the Wahhabis introduced practices into Islam that were quite unprecedented and which considerably expanded the intrusive powers of the state. For instance, the Wahhabis introduced the first reported precedent of taking roll call at prayers. They prepared lists of the inhabitants of a city and called off the names during the five daily prayers in the mosque. Anyone absent without a sufficient excuse was flogged. Perhaps the most extreme form of Wahhabi fanaticism took place recently, on 11 March 2002, when the mutawwa’in (religious police) prevented schoolgirls from exiting a burning school in Mecca, or from being rescued by their parents or firemen, because they were not “properly covered”. At least fifteen girls are reported to have burned to death as a result.

    Saudi Arabia aggressively promoted Wahhabi thought around the Muslim world, especially after 1975, with the sharp rise in oil prices. In the 1950s and 60s, Saudi Arabia was coming under considerable pressure from republican and Arab nationalist regimes, which tended to consider the Saudi system archaic and reactionary. In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia finally possessed the financial means to address its legitimacy concerns. The Wahhabis either had to alter their own system of belief to make it more consistent with the convictions of other Muslims, or they had to spread aggressively their convictions to the rest of the Muslim world. They chose the latter option.


    Wahhabism, however, did not spread in the modern Muslim world under its own banner, but under that of Salafism. It is important to note that even the term “Wahhabism” is considered derogatory to the followers of Abd al-Wahhab since Wahhabis prefer to see themselves as the representatives of Islamic orthodoxy. According to its adherents, Wahhabism is not a school of thought within Islam, but is Islam itself, and the only possible Islam. The fact that Wahhabism rejected the use of a school label gave it a rather diffuse quality and made many of its doctrines and methodologies eminently transferable. Salafism was a far more credible paradigm in Islam than Wahhabism; in many ways, it was an ideal vehicle for Wahhabism. Therefore, in their literature, Wahhabi clerics have consistently described themselves as Salafis (adherents of Salafism), and not Wahhabis.


    Wahhabism proceeded to co-opt the language and symbolisms of Salafism in the 1970s until the two had become practically indistinguishable. Both theologies imagined a golden age in Islam; this entailed belief in a historical utopia that is entirely retrievable and reproducible in contemporary Islam. Both remained uninterested in critical historical inquiry and responded to the challenge of modernity by escaping to the secure haven of the text. And both advocated a form of egalitarianism and anti-elitism to the point that they came to consider intellectualism and rational moral insight to be inaccessible, and thus corruptions of the purity of the Islamic message. These similarities facilitated the Wahhabi co-optation of Salafism. Wahhabism, from its very inception, and Salafism, especially after it entered its apologetic phase, were infested with a kind of supremacist thinking that prevails until today. To simplify matters, I will call this unity of Wahhabism with the worst that is in Salafism, “Salafabism”.

    Salafabism took things to their logical extreme. The bonding of the theologies of Wahhabism and Salafism produced a contemporary orientation that is anchored in profound feelings of defeatism and frustration. The syncretistic product of these two theologies is one of profound alienation, not only from the institutions of power in the modern world, but also from the Islamic heritage and tradition. The consistent characteristic of Salafabism is a supremacist puritanism that compensates for feelings of defeatism, disempowerment and alienation with a distinct sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-a-vis the nondescript “other”-whether the “other” is the West, non-believers in general, or even Muslim women. Instead of simple apologetics, Salafabism responds to the feelings of powerlessness and defeat with uncompromising and arrogant symbolic displays of power, not only against non-Muslims, but even more so against fellow Muslims.

    Salafabists insist that only the mechanics and technicalities of Islamic law define morality. This legalistic way of life is considered inherently superior to all others, and the followers of any other way are regarded as infidels (kuffar), hypocrites (munafiqun) or iniquitous (fasiqun). Lives that are lived outside the divine law are inherently unlawful and therefore an offence against God that must be actively fought or punished.

    Osama bin Laden

    Bin Laden, like most extremist Muslims, belongs to the orientation I have called Salafabist. Although raised in a Wahhabi environment, bin Laden is not strictly speaking part of that creed. Wahhabism is distinctly introverted: it primarily asserts power over other Muslims. This reflects its obsession with orthodoxy and correct ritualistic practice. Militant puritan groups, however, are both introverted and extroverted: they attempt to assert power over both Muslims and non-Muslims. As populist movements, they are a reaction to the disempowerment most Muslims have suffered in the modern age at the hands of harshly despotic governments and interventionist foreign powers. Fuelled by the supremacist and puritan creed of Salafabism, these groups’ symbolic acts of power become uncompromisingly fanatical and violent.

    The existence of this puritan orientation in Islam is hardly surprising. All religious systems have suffered at one time or another from absolutist extremism, and Islam is no exception. …….. The essential lesson taught by Islamic history is that extremist groups are ejected from the mainstream of Islam; they are marginalised and eventually treated as a heretical aberration from the Islamic message.

    Advice for the Wahhabi
    Huseyn Hilmi Isik
    Isik Kitabevi. Istanbul 1976

    The book Advice for the Wahhabis consists of two parts. In the first part, the corrupt statements from the books Fath al-majid and Jawab-I Nu’man are quoted, and answers from the books of Islamic savants are given in thirty-five articles.
    The second part deals with how the Wahhabis came forth, how they spread out, how they massacred Moslems and destroyed their possessions, how they brutally attacked the Moslem countries, how they were punished by the Ottoman government, and how they established a new state after the First World War.
    Page 18: …the great scholar Sulaiman ibn Abd al-Wahhab an-Najdi, the author of “As-sawa’iq al-ilahiyya fi’r-raddi ‘ala ‘l-Wahhabiyya,” was the brother of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. He proved with documents that the path opened as Wahhabism by his brother was heretical. He wrote on page 44 of his book:

    “One of the documents that show the path’s heresy is the hadith written in Sahihain, two genuine hadith books one by al-Bukhari and the other by Muslim. Hadrat ‘Uqba ibn Amir, the relater of the hadith, said, ‘Rasulullah, may Allah bless and save him, went up into the pulpit. This was the last time I saw him at the pulpit. He declared: I do not fear whether you would become polytheists after I die. I fear that you, because of worldly interests, would kill one another and thus be destroyed like ancient tribes. Rasulullah foretold what will happen upon his umma till the Resurrection. This hadith states that his umma will never worship idols, that he was assured of this. This hadith demolishes Wahhabism by the roots.”

    Pages 133: Nowadays, the number of people who do not believe ijtihad has been on the increase. They say:

    “What is the use of madhabs? Madhabs disunited Moslems. They made the religion difficult. Allah orders ease of religion. There is no such thing as ‘madhabs’ in Islam. They have been made up later. I follow the path of as-Sahaba and do not realize another path.”

    Page 134: Such words are made up by the Wahhabis who now disseminate them among Moslems cleverly. After quoting correct statements from the books of Ahl as-Sunna savants, they add in their lies as if they continue quoting. The people who see the correct statements consider all what they write as correct, and are thus taken in. The above statement “I follow the path of as-Sahaba”, is certainly justified for the way to salvation is the path of as-Sahaba. The hadith narrated by al-Baihaki and written in Kunuz ad-daqa’iq declares, “My companions are like the stars in the sky. If you follow any one of them you will find the right path.” This hadith shows that anyone who follows any one of the sahabis will attain bliss in both worlds. The hadith related by ad-Dailami declares, “My companions are good human beings. May Allahu ta’ala always bestow goodness upon them.” Two hadiths again related by ad-Dailami, declare, “Do not talk about the faults of my companions!” and “Muawiya will certainly become a ruler.”

    From which sources will those who claim that they follow the path of as-Sahaba learn this path? Will they learn from the Wahhabis who came about a thousand years after as-Sahaba? Or will they learn it from the books of those savants who lived in the time of and were trained by as-Sahaba? The savants educated by as-Sahaba and the students of those savants formed the body of Ahl as-Sunnat wa ‘l-Jamaa savants. Madhab means path. The Ahl as-Sunnat wa ‘l-Jamaa means the Moslems who follow the path of Rasulullah and his jamaa-his companions. Its blessed savants wrote exactly what they learned from as-Sahaba. They did not write their personal opinions. There is no word in their books for which they do not give documents and proofs. The faith, or belief, of all the four madhab imams are the same. There is no disagreement between them on belief. The path of as-Sahaba can only be learned from the books of Ahl as-Sunna savants.

    Those who want to be in the path of as-Sahaba have to belong to the Ahl as-Sunna and should avoid upstart corrupt movements such as Wahhabism.

    Page 200: Raslulullah declared: “A time will come when the ayats descended about kafirs will be used as documents to slander Moslems,” and “What I fear most is that some people will come to use the ayats for purposes which Allah ta’ala does not approve.” These two hadiths, which were related by Hadrat Abdullah ibn Umar, foretold that the Wahhabis and non-madhabite people would appear and ascribe the ayats descended about kafirs to Moslems and calumniate the Quran.


    Page 203: Hadrat Sayyid Abd ar-Rahman, the late mufti of Zabid, in the Yemen, wrote that it would suffice to quote nothing but the following hadith to show that the Wahhabis are in aberration: “Some people will appear in eastern Arabia. They will read the Quran. But the Quran will not go down their throats. They will leave Islam as the arrow leaves the bow. Their faces are always shaved.” Their faces being shaved openly indicates that those people told to be in heresy are the Wahhabis. There is no need to read other books after seeing this hadith to understand that the Wahhabis are corrupt and aberrant. It is ordered in Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s books that the Wahhabis should shave the scalp and sides of the face. There was no such order in any of the seventy-two aberrant groups.


    Pages 203: The Wahhabis destroyed the shrines of as-Sahaba, Ahl al-Bait, awliya and martyrs, except that of Rasulullah, when they attacked Mecca and Medina. They made graves indistinct. Although they attempted to pull down Rasulullah’s shrine too, those who took hold of pickaxes either went mad or suffered paralysis and they were not able to commit that murder. When they captured Medina, Ibn Saud the wicked assembled Moslems and made an ill speech about Moslems: “Your religion is now completed by Wahhabism, and Allah is pleased with you. Your fathers were kafirs and mushriks. Do not follow their religion! Tell everybody that they were kafirs! It is forbidden to stand and beg in front of Rasulullah’s shrine. You may only say ‘As-salamu ala Muhammad’ when passing by the shrine. He is not to be asked for intercession.”

    Page 220: When the tortures of Moslems by the Wahhabis and their insults towards Islam reached an unbearable severity in 1226 AH, [1811] the Caliph of Moslems, Sultan Mahmud Khan II sent a written order to the Governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, to punish the Wahhabis.

    Both Medina then Mecca were liberated from the Wahhabis.

    Page 221: The wicked chief of the Wahhabis, Saud ibn Abd al-Aziz, had turned back to his den of mischief, Dar’iyya, in 1227, after the pilgrimage and a visit to Taif where much Moslem blood had been shed. He was astonished to learn that the blessed cities of Medina and then Mecca were taken by the Ottomans when he arrived at Dar’iyya. Just in those days, the Ottoman soldiers attacked Taif but met no resistance… The good news was presented to the Caliph of Moslems in Istanbul…He sent his thanks and gifts to Muhammad Ali Pasha and ordered him to go to the Hijaz again to inspect and control the Wahhabite bandits.

    After unsuccessfully trying to be recognized as Governor of Dariyya and being arrested by the army of the Caliph…….
    Page 222: Abdullah ibn Saud was sent to Egypt with his ferocious Wahhabite looters after being arrested. They were all taken to Cairo before the eyes of innumerable people in Muharram of 1234.

    Page 223: After this …. Abdullah ibn Saud was sent to Istanbul with his accomplices. These ferocious bandits were hung in front of the gate of Topkapi Palace for the murder of thousands of Moslems.
    Ibrahim Pasha demolished the castle of Dar’iyya and returned to Egypt in Muharram of 1235 AH [1818]. And Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s son, whose father founded the heretical path of Wahhabism and caused thousands of Moslems to go astray, was brought to and imprisoned in Egypt until he died.

    Page 225: In 17 June 1336 (1918), Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, with the encouragement of the British, published a declaration telling that Sharif Husain, the Amir of Mecca, and those with him in Mecca were kafirs and he was performing jihad against them; he assaulted upon Mecca and Taif but could not capture these two cities from Sharif Husain Pasha. Later, the British soldiers seized Sharif Husain ibn Ali Pasha and took him to Cyprus in 1342 (1924). The Pasha died in the hotel where he was imprisoned in 1349 (1931). Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud easily captured Mecca and Taif in 1924.

    Page 226: Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud attacked Medina many times. He even bombed Rasulullah’s blessed shrine in an attack in 1926 but, fortunately, could not capture the city. The following news was reported in the paper Son Sa’at Gazetesi in Istanbul on September 9, 1926:

    MEDINA BOMBARDED – We have previously reported that the Moslems of India were agitated by the bombardment of Medina. The Times of India, published in India says:

    “The recent news that Medina was assaulted and the Qabr an-Nabawi was bombarded caused such great agitation among Indian Muslims that no other event has ever caused before. The Muslims living all over India showed how much they respected that sacred place. This serious grief in India and Iran will certainly influence Ibn as-Saud and prevent him from such vile actions so that he may not incur the hatred of all Muslim countries against him. The Indian Muslims have openly expressed this to Ibn as-Saud.”

    The Caliphate, The Hejaz and the Saud-Wahhabi Nation-State
    Imran N. Hosein.
    Masjid Dar al-Quran. New York 1997

    Page 13-14: The British, realizing the paramount importance of the Hejaz and the Haramain for the legitimacy and even the survival of the Ottoman Caliphate, concentrated their diplomacy in the First World War on wresting the Hijaz from the control of the Ottoman Caliph. This was achieved when Shareef Husain, the Ottoman appointed Shareef of Makkah, and the great grandfather of the present King Husain of Jordan, was successfully induced by the British to rebel against the Ottoman Caliph and to establish his own authority over the Hejaz under benign British alliance and protection.

    The British also successfully concluded a Treaty of Friendship in 1916 with Abd al-Azeez Ibn Saud. That Treaty further destabilized Ottoman rule over the Hejaz.

    By 1916, and in the very midst of the first world war, the Ottoman Caliph had lost control over Makkah and Jeddah, i.e. the lower Hejaz. His control over Madina was maintained throughout the war and only came to an end in 1919 when certain Ottoman troops within the city of Madina were induced to rebel against their heroic leader, Fakhri Pasha.

    Page 14: After the Ottoman Caliph had lost control over the Hejaz, the Caliphate was so crippled that it lingered on in Istanbul for just a few more years before it collapsed completely. And this was a truly outstanding success for British diplomacy. The weakening of the Caliphate destabilized the entire structure of the Ottoman Islamic Empire. It eventually collapsed. In 1919 British troops under the leadership of General Allenby, captured Jerusalem. It is significant that the British General, upon entering the Holy City, proclaimed that the crusades were finally over. If there was any doubt whatsoever of the extreme danger to Islam posed by British diplomacy in the Arabian peninsula, this statement of Allenby should have put those doubts to rest.

    On 3 March 1924 the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished.

    Page 15: On 7 March 1924 Shareef Husain pre-emptively claimed the caliphate for himself. His most important credential was that he exercised de facto local control over the Hejaz. He also boasted of being Hashimite i.e. belonging to the same clan – Banu Hashim, of the tribe of Quraish, to which the Prophet (s) himself belonged.


    In claiming the Caliphate for himself however, Shareef Husain committed the monstrous blunder of not first seeking the permission of the British to act as he did. It is the essence of the client-State status that freedom is effectively curtailed. Shareef Husain had violated the basic rule of conduct for client-States.

    Pages 16-17: The claim to the caliphate by the Hashimite British client, Shareef Husain, was incompatible with British diplomatic objectives. It was always possible that the claim could have succeeded. Shareef al-Husain could then have mobilized the world of Islam to such an extent as to re-establish the Islamic Public Order and Pax Islamica in the symbolically powerful heartland of Islam, and so pose a threat to Britain’s influence and control over large parts of Dar al-Islam. A revitalized world of Islam would also have made Jewish control over Palestine and Jerusalem quite impossible.

    Britain responded to the claim to the Caliphate by Shareef Husain by giving her blessings to the other British client in the peninsula, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, to move against Husain, and to wrest control of the Hejaz from him. This was the perfection of the art of double crossing and of hypocrisy. One British client was used to eliminate another (British) client.

    Pages 18-19: By supporting Ibn Saud the British were now ensuring that so long as the Saudi-Wahhabis ruled over the Hejaz, the Caliphate could never be revived. The British further calculated that without the caliphate the Islamic Public Order could not survive and the world of Islam would then be so weakened that it could never be mobilized to prevent the creation of the Jewish State of Israel. Britain also knew that the Wahhabis, themselves, could never claim the Caliphate, firstly because they knew that if they did so they would meet the same fate as Shareef Husain, and secondly because they had the good sense to know that a Wahhabi Caliph would always be totally unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Muslims the world over. And so, by withdrawing support from Husain and supporting Ibn Saud, Britain was in fact pursuing her relentless attack on the institution of the Caliphate and the theo-centric Islamic Public Order.

    Pages 20-22: Al Azhar University proposed to convene an International Islamic Caliphate Congress (Mu’tamar al-Khilafah) in Cairo which would, among other things, attempt to appoint a new Caliph over the world of Islam.
    Had the Wahhabis been genuinely devoted to Islam they would have welcomed this Al-Azhar effort to achieve conformity with the essential requirements of the shariah i.e the establishment of a genuine Caliphate.

    But the Wahhabis had no such sincere devotion to Islam. Their attitude was essentially one of selective religiosity, expediency, opportunism and parochialism. The Wahhabis knew that the world of Islam would never have accepted a Wahhabi Caliph and, as a consequence, they found it expedient to repudiate an essential requirement of the Islamic Public Order. They marshaled all their energies to sabotage the Cairo Caliphate Congress. Their strategy was to organize a rival congress in Makkah at the time of the Hajj of 1926. That meant that the Makkah Congress would take place within a month of the Cairo Congress, making it difficult for delegates to attend both conferences. Since the Makkah Conference was timed to coincide with the Hajj, and since it had the active support of the British, it had a clear advantage over the Cairo Conference.

    Secondly they specifically excluded from the agenda of the Makkah Congress the question of the Caliphate. This transparent attempt to sabotage the Cairo Conference and to bury the Caliphate was more than ample evidence to expose the hollow credentials of the Wahhabis as so-called champions of the shariah of Islam.

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