(Burj al-Barajneh Palstinian camp, Beirut) — Following the June 6, 1982 Yawm an-Naksa (‘day of the setback’) of the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, I began to notice that youngsters in the camps in Lebanon, and in the Palestinian diaspora, specifically in Washington DC where I worked, were identifying more with scholars from Egypt’s Al-Azhar University and with Political Salafism. They would explain to me the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood and of a new Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement called Hamas, which was created as a direct result of the 1982 Israeli aggression against Lebanon.
A few indicated that they wanted to study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which was established around 970 by the Fatmids as a center of Islamic learning and where students studied the Qur’an and Islamic law. Salafism was part of their education. For centuries the mission of al-Azhar was to propagate Islam and Islamic culture. Until today its Islamic scholars counsel students on Islam and even render edicts (fatwas) on disputes submitted to them. Requests for their fatwas come from all over the Sunni Islamic world regarding proper conduct for Muslim individuals and societies and how to achieve justice for all people of good will. Al-Azhar also trains Egyptian government-appointed preachers in the best ways to achieve proselytization (da’wa).
In light of the failure of Arab political elites, including Lebanese and Palestinian leaders, to provide an alternative model for peaceful political change and for acquiring elementary civil rights, including the right to work in Lebanon, many of the angry Palestinian youth in Lebanon are concluding that they have few options to achieve civil rights and are listening to the new chorus siren calls from Jihadist Salafism.
With respect to the differences between Political Salafism and Jihadist Salafism, all Salafists take the same basic approach to Islam, emulating the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers—al-Salaf al-Salih, (the pious forefathers) even to details such as facial hair. They reject religious innovation, or bida, and support the implementation of sharia law. However, non-Jihadist Salafist scholars are far from homogeneous, expressing different views on everything from apostasy to activism. Many Salafists in Lebanon now engage in politics despite a tradition of quiescence. But with little to show for their efforts some Political Salafis are beginning to withdraw from quiescence and are gradating toward Jihadist Salafism with its focus on war and terrorism to achieve equality and justice under sharia.
Moderate Islamic groups, proponents of Political Salafism have long had significant influence in the Palestinian community and have a long history in the struggle to liberate Palestine and resisting the occupation. But it is also the case that with respect to the Zionist occupation, Salafi Jihadist groups in Palestine and Lebanon do not have an impressive record in resisting and fighting against the occupation forces, when compared to other Palestinian factions over the past 35 years.
Their influence is being challenged by the Salafi Jihadists. The extent of anger and tension in Lebanon’s camps, the appalling political and economic conditions, rising poverty, lack the most elementary civil right to work and banned from owning a home, repression, marginalization, harassment by security forces, create fertile ground for radicalization and violence.
Salafi Jihadism as an alternative model for Lebanon is being promoted especially on social media recruitment sites as ISIS (Da’ish) which play the Palestinian card in Lebanon as many in the region do. ISIS is telling Palestinians in Lebanon and elsewhere that Arab regimes for more than half a century have repressed them and that these regimes and claimed “Resistance” movements are irrelevant in achieving freedom for Palestine and have refused the Palestinians right to work and to own a home in Lebanon.
Given its simplistic apocalyptic rhetoric, diligent planning, its highly touted religious purity and its severe dealing with corrupt warlords and tribal leaders, its reputation for being uninterested in popularity, its austerity and reception of fellow jihadists without discrimination, and its substantial social services all add to its popular appeal among many raised in a corrupt Lebanese system.
So does its Safafi Jihadist appeal to liberate Palestine and guarantee civil rights for Palestinians in Lebanon. Simultaneously, proponents of moderate Political Salafism are losing their Palestinian audience and the confidence of many in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps and have to reconsider political positions to prevail over the rising tide of Jihadist Salafism. To date there is little evidence that they will rise to the challenge.
In my view, despite some perceptible movement in its direction, it is not likely that Jihadist Salafism will succeed in Lebanon’s camps despite the misery caused partly from being denied the right to work or even to own a home. Palestinians in Lebanon possess a deep moderation and an abiding commitment to tolerance and to coexistence among religious, social, and political aspects of their society. They are increasingly united in their commitment for Full Return to their Zionist occupied country.
For example, on a typical Sunday afternoon a visitor to the village of Maroun al-Ras which is perched some 945 meters above sea level on the Lebanon-Palestine border with a wide view of Palestinian territories, will observe Palestinian families looking deep into their country with parents often teaching the history of the Nakba to their children, answering their questions and pointing toward their village or visible towns such as Akka toward the south west.
The Beirut Al-Zaytouna Centre’s Atef Joulani in his recent instructive report entitled Salafi Jihadist Groups and the Possibilities of Proliferating among Palestinians, argues that Salafi Jihadist groups have a limited presence and influence in the Palestinian arena. He points to the close knit Palestinian community which he believes will likely continue to reject Salafi Jihadism. I agree.
Another barrier preventing broad camp penetration by Jihadi Salafism e.g. al-Quada, Islamic State/ISIS and countless others operating in Syria and Iraq these days, is the fact that Palestinians in Lebanon’s camps are known for their openness, moderate political views and employing dialogue among factions to reach peaceful solutions when security breaches do occur.
Islamist jihadi groups are seeking to create a wedge between Muslims and those of other faiths. ISIS is demanding the destruction of what it calls the “gray zone,” where people of all religions co-exist. They face a hard sell to Palestinians whose views are overwhelmingly the obverse.
Moreover, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees, given a half century of being used for political purposes by warlords in this host country, some of whom became and remain political lords since granting themselves amnesty a quarter century ago, are very sophisticated about detecting efforts to infiltrate their camps by corrupt politicians or radical elements. Still fresh in their memory is the terrorism and extremism of the 2007 tragedy at Nahr al-Bared camp when the jihadist Fateh-al-Islam was sent into the camp to cause strife and create security chaos presenting themselves as moderate devout Muslims.
ISIS has failed in its attempt this month to incite sectarian tensions in Lebanon following last week’s double suicide attack on the edge of Burj al Barajneh refugee camp which killed 43 civilians including five Palestinians.
Those who claim to want to preserve the relative quietude in the Palestinian camps here would do well to resist ISIS in a concrete form. One of the most effective ways would be resisting with actions not just ‘feel-good Resistance speeches but rather by using their political power positively by taking 90 minutes in Parliament to grant Palestinians in Lebanon the six decade overdue most elementary civil rights to work and to own a home.