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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Lebanon’s Sunnis must refuse marginalisation

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

© AP Images
© AP Images

Lebanese politicians invariably cite “Sunni moderation” when they characterise Sunnis, who make up 28 per cent of the country’s population, in terms of their political stances, societal behaviour and their responsible approach to their own self-defence. Attaching the word ‘moderation’ to a community is generally viewed as complimentary elsewhere on the planet but, in this case, ‘moderation’ is a couched indictment of Sunnis being pliable, easy to push around; people unwilling to stand up for their rights. Is it moderation never to react with unity and strength to opponent’s libels and physical attacks?

One Lebanese politician insists that all religious groups in Lebanon are moderate. Unfortunately, he’s dreaming. If that were the case, Lebanon would be one of the most peaceful, stable and secure places on earth. Instead, the atmosphere is one of dog eat dog; every man for himself. There is an Arabic saying which Lebanese Sunnis would do well to heed – “If you are not a strong, Alpha wolf, then even the foxes will attack you.” In other words, if you give the impression that you are weak or afraid, there will be those who will take advantage of you.

My relationship with Lebanon stretches back to the early 1970s before the country became enmeshed in sectarian violence and foreign occupation. I was bowled over by the sheer natural beauty of this part of the Levant hugging the Mediterranean as well as the warmth and hospitality of its people, without distinction between Sunnis, Shi’ites, Christians or Druze. Although I’m not a citizen, I’m both emotionally and financially invested, which is why it deeply pains me to witness its takeover by a foreign power via its proxy Hezbollah that is out to alter its moderate character and drag it into conflicts.

For as long as I can remember, Sunnis in Lebanon have never taken a meaningful stand against those disguised as patriots willing to turn it into rubble for the sake of their ideological masters. Mahatma Gandhi may have succeeded in ousting the British from India by asking his followers to abide by the adage, “If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer him the other one as well.” But that doesn’t work in our part of the world as the Palestinians and minorities all over the region can attest. If Yasser Arafat had emulated Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, Palestinians would have been ethnically cleansed from Jerusalem and the West Bank decades ago. When the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was in charge, at least Sunnis had a powerful and influential voice who spoke not only on their behalf but also championed Lebanon and all its nationals but since his life was brutally stolen, none of his successors have been able to match up.

I understand that the Lebanese are saddled with a divisive confessional system of governance and I respect the authorities and the military for their past efforts to cement the country in the face of almost impossible obstacles. But in recent times, Sunnis have complained that the army is biased in favour of certain factions and has invited Hezbollah fighters into its camp, which it denies. In reaction to thousands of Sunnis protesting the army’s storming the headquarters of a Sunni cleric, who’s an outspoken critic of Hezbollah and its ally the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria, the military faced off against people it termed as “Sunni militants”. Eyewitness reports from Sidon indicate Hezbollah’s military wing was engaged alongside Lebanese soldiers. If true, Sunnis will feel deprived of their national military’s protection which will only add to their sense of insecurity during an era when Hezbollah imposes its will on the political arena and the Sunni voice is being drowned out. Moreover, any covert marriage between the army and Hezbollah will ignite an already simmering sectarian tinderbox and increase polarisation in a country fractured over Syria whose civil war threatens to spill over the border and consume its neighbour.

Sunnis must not forget that they represent one of the largest sects and so deserve to be treated as equal partners by state institutions as well as security forces and the military that have sworn to defend all Lebanon’s sons and daughters. They must stop burying their heads in the sand else wake up one day to discover they’re second class citizens like Sunni populations in Iraq, Iran and Syria. They must refuse to be intimidated by men in turbans who pay allegiance to the mullahs in Tehran. They must forcefully and loudly answer attempts to trample over their rights or insult their personal dignity and honour. Sunnis should also petition government bodies to be firm and fair with every individual and party without discrimination or bias and without favouring one religious community or sect over another.

This summer’s visitors to Beirut may have returned wide-eyed and enthused about a capital that is superficially picture perfect and high energy but underneath the gloss, are seething sectarian tensions that could erupt at any moment. The authorities should go all out to dampen those embers before they turn into flames incinerating the hopes of a generation. When almost a third of Lebanon’s people are being made to feel their opinion and well-being don’t count with the powers that be, the chances of a flare-up increase to the detriment of all.

I can only urge Lebanon’s Sunni communities to hold their heads high in an open field where only the strongest will survive. This should not be interpreted as an encouragement to Sunni Muslims to carry weapons or engage in violence on the street. My message is clear and simple: Be brave enough to defend your principles. Be persistent enough to achieve your demands. Reject unequal status and show that you are once again a force to be reckoned with. Many throughout the Arab world are with you, support you - including myself - but if you can’t or won’t hold your honour high, then neither will anyone else.

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