Analysis: Lebanon murder deepens Shia rifts

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 9 Feb 2021

After years of trying to assert themselves in Middle East politics, Shia Arabs seem divided over Iran’s surging influence in the region

Lebanon murder deepens Shia rifts
A protester holds a picture of Slim during a rally in front of the Justice Palace in the capital Beirut (photo: AFP)

If there is one country in the Middle East where one should not be surprised to see political violence resulting in brutal murders, it is Lebanon.

With presidents, prime ministers, religious leaders, key political leaders and journalists all having been killed since the country’s independence in 1943, Lebanon is not new to political assassinations.

But last week’s vicious assassination of a prominent Lebanese Shia intellectual could be a turning point not only for the deeply divided Arab country but also for the future of sectarianism in the Middle East. 

Lokman Slim, a prolific writer, editor, publisher, filmmaker and political activist, was murdered after he disappeared for several hours with his rented car while on a trip through Shia-dominated southern Lebanon.  

Slim, a fierce opponent of the Shia group Hizbullah, was found dead hours after he was kidnapped. The local media reported that bruises were found on his face, suggesting that he may have been tortured or interrogated.

The death of Slim, a prominent critic of Iran’s regional policies, has sent a shock wave across Lebanon, which faces multiple political, communal and economic problems, along with the Covid-19 pandemic, which have combined to push it to the brink of collapse. 

Significantly, however, Slim’s assassination is expected to rip open the wounds of Shias in Lebanon and beyond over ties with Iran and the Islamic Republic’s increasing influence within Shia communities in several Arab countries.

Depending on the outcome of the investigation into Slim’s murder and the heated debate surrounded it, the Shia split could fundamentally alter the region’s balance of power between Iran and the Sunni Arab nations in the years to come.  

The Lebanese authorities said that 58-year-old Slim had been shot with six bullets, four in the head, one in the chest and one in the back. They believe the brazen murder could be a message by his killers to Hizbullah’s critics in Lebanon.

Slim had long been an outspoken opponent of Hizbullah, which, with its Shia ally the Amal Movement, holds the most power in Lebanon and effectively operates as a state within a state.

Slim, from a well-known Shia family, had also denounced the political monopoly of the two Shia groups within the community, the corruption of their leaders and their close ties with Iran.

He had claimed that he had been threatened with death on several occasions in the past. Media close to Hizbullah, which used to label him and his colleagues as “the Shias of the embassies,” had published diplomatic cables released in 2010 and 2011 by WikiLeaks that revealed Slim’s contacts with US diplomats. 

The documents show that US diplomats often sought out Slim for his views on developments in the Shia community and provided funding for some of his cultural initiatives. They also arranged high-level meetings for him during visits to Washington.

Hizbullah and its Shia ally the Amal Movement condemned Slim’s murder and called on the Lebanese security forces and judiciary to quickly discover the identity of the perpetrators.

But many Hizbullah supporters hailed the murder on social media as retribution for Slim’s “treason”. Jawad Nasrallah, the son of the party’s chief, described his death in a tweet as “a gain and an unexpected blessing” before quickly deleting the posting.

Criticism of Hizbullah by Lebanese Shia is nothing new. Former party chief Subhi Al-Tufayli has been a vocal critic of current leader Hassan Nasrallah and has held him responsible for “the destruction of Lebanon.”

Other Shia community leaders, intellectuals and activists have also distanced themselves from Hizbullah and Amal and have slammed what they consider to be their “mafia-style” politics. 

Hizbullah was widely accused of being behind the assassinations of two prominent leftist Lebanese Shia writers, Hussein Mroue and Mahdi Amil in 1987. But like many other political murders in Lebanon, the two crimes went unpunished. 

Both men had been promoting an anti-sectarian discourse and a civic state in Lebanon. Amid a wave of kidnappings of foreigners in Lebanon blamed on Hizbullah, their targeted killing forced critics to keep a low profile or to remain silent.  

In recent years, however, criticism of Hizbullah has mounted and has centred primarily on the party’s determination to keep a firm grip on power and act as a proxy for Iran in Lebanon and across the region.

Hizbullah first emerged as a militant group to resist the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Amal was formed in 1974 as a political and a paramilitary wing of the Lebanese Shia cleric Musa Al-Sadr’s Dispossessed Movement that had been formed to promote Shia political and economic integration.

Over the years and with enormous logistical and financial help from post-Islamic Revolution Shia Iran, the group succeeded in building a mass political and paramilitary movement in predominately Shia areas of Lebanon.

After a period of violent armed clashes between them, the two groups ended their rivalry and joined forces to shore up the communal interests of Shias who were the most socially and economically underprivileged part of Lebanon’s population.

Over the years and since the end of the Lebanese Civil War, Lebanese Shias have made substantial gains in the Lebanese government and have assumed more significant roles in the country’s decision-making process and in its security. 

Although Lebanon’s politics have been influenced by sectarianism since its independence, the rise of the two Shia movements has deepened the country’s identity politics and reshaped its demographic balance of power.

Meanwhile, the empowerment of Iraqi Shias following the ouster of the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 had a significant impact on the revival of other Shia communities in the Middle East.

Shias, members of the second-largest branch of Islam, comprise about 20 per cent of the world’s Muslims. While they make up a large majority of the population in Iran, they form a substantial majority in Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain and smaller minorities in several other Arab countries.

Shiism was born as a protest movement within Islam. Living under Sunni caliphates, rulers and governments, Shias have been marginalised in Muslim societies for political and theological reasons. 

In Iraq, the Shias suffered from discrimination, and their political groups were persecuted under various Sunni regimes. Under the Saddam regime, Shias who were accused of affiliation with political groups such as the Islamic Dawa Party faced execution. 

In many Arab countries, Shias are treated as pariahs and suffer religious, political and economic exclusion and are sometimes stereotyped as being loyal to Iran. 

For many Shias, the sect’s revival is enshrined in the Quran, which has it that the lowly who kept the faith will rise up and inherit the earth free from their oppressors. 

The Shia revival, however, has sparked fears among many Sunni Arab governments of a Shia assertiveness that could fundamentally shift the region’s sectarian and geopolitical balance of power.

After Saddam’s fall, many Sunni Arab leaders started warning of an Iran-led “Shia crescent” extending from Beirut to Tehran emerging in the Middle East amid concerns that this could turn into a “full moon” that could shift towards Shia power in other Arab countries.

Though many considered such concerns as fear-mongering, reactions to the Shia revival and Iran’s mounting influence have created a poisonous regional sectarian environment that has recreated ancient rivalries between the Shias and the Sunnis and increased geopolitical antagonisms.  

In this respect at least, the geopolitical metaphor has so far proved inaccurate, and the Shia empowerment in Lebanon and Iraq has been owed to very specific historical circumstances in the two Arab countries and in the region.

For one thing, and as the Iraqi experiment has also proved, there is a deep-rooted sense of nationalism and also secularism that has been playing out among the Shia communities in the two countries against communalism.  

Like in Lebanon, where Shias participated in the nationwide anti-establishment protests in 2019 and 2020, the simultaneous uprising against the Shia-led government in Iraq was driven by Iraqi nationalism and efforts to unmake the post-Saddam sectarian order.

Also like in Lebanon, the Shia ruling groups in Iraq started a crackdown against the mostly Shia protesters, including by killing hundreds of them sometimes in targeted murders, in order to quell opposition to their own dysfunction, corruption and alignment with Iran.

Without wanting to belittle the damage done by the identity politics that the Middle East is facing today, the rift which has started to be seen within the Shia communities in Lebanon and Iraq is a sign that the Shia Arabs have not yet said their final word.

It is impossible to say what might happen next, however. Could a new secular Shia voice emerge separate from the mostly sectarian order in Lebanon and Iraq that the Shias’ leaders want them to contend with?

The savage murder of Slim and the killing of Shia protesters in Iraq have exposed how difficult it is for non-democratic Shia groups to rise above the bloody legacy of their countries’ past. 

Slim’s killing could, therefore, offer a lesson: that sectarianism in the Middle East has run its course and that it is time for a reset. But much will depend on a new regional order that can balance the demands of the Shias with those of the Sunnis and reinvent the region on a non-sectarian basis.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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