In August 2014, Lebanon’s Sunni authority, Dar al-Fatwa, elected as its new head the Muslim cleric Abdel-Latif Derian, who through this process also became mufti of the republic. Dar al-Fatwa is a government institution that was created in 1922 and charged with issuing legal rulings specific to the Sunni community, administering religious schools, and overseeing mosques, all in the context of a Lebanese confessional system in which each sect deals with its own internal affairs.

As the Sunnis’ new religious leader, Derian faces daunting challenges. In recent years, the lack of Sunni leadership in public affairs helped lay the groundwork for the growth of Islamic radicalism in Lebanon. Derian’s main task is to reassert Dar al-Fatwa’s moderating voice in the Sunni community.

Raphaël Lefèvre
Raphaël Lefèvre was a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on Sunni Islamist movements in Lebanon.
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Derian replaced Mohamed Rashid Qabbani, who had become a polarizing figure in Lebanon’s Sunni community. In his inaugural speech, the new mufti pledged to fight against “extremism and terrorism.” Since then, Derian has quickly become a prominent public figure. He organized a Christian-Muslim summit in Beirut, reached out to various political parties to facilitate the election of a new Lebanese president, and attended a high-level antiterrorism conference in Cairo in December 2014.

But the mufti’s activism has not pleased everyone in Lebanon’s Sunni community. A group of influential clerics has spoken out against him, charging that he does not represent the true mood of the Sunni street and acts under the influence of politicians. Others see him as a puppet for regional powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Much of his ability to restore Dar al-Fatwa’s moderating influence will depend on whether he reaches out to his critics and invites them to participate in a genuine process to reform the body and enhance its representativeness.

A History of Political Influence

The election of Abdel-Latif Derian to the post of mufti of the republic was marred by protests led by a group of Sunni clerics who denounced what they said was political interference in the religious institution’s matters. These clerics had a point: Sunni politicians accounted for nearly a third of the 109-member electoral college that selected Derian—including the current prime minister, four former prime ministers, four cabinet members, and 27 members of parliament. But political influence over the country’s Sunni affairs isn’t a new development.

Since its creation, Dar al-Fatwa has been under the sway of Sunni notables who repeatedly used the body’s religious authority to bolster their own credentials and gain some political advantage. This wasn’t always a one-way process.

In 1943, then Sunni prime minister Riad el-Solh rewarded mufti Mohammed Tawfiq Khalid for his political loyalty by granting him funds that were used to build the Dar al-Fatwa compound in the Beirut district of Aisha Bakkar. In 1966, former Lebanese president Fouad Chehab supported another cleric to become the new mufti, Hassan Khalid; once elected, Khalid worked relentlessly to give a degree of religious legitimacy to the president’s wide-ranging reform agenda. His successor, Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, however, pushed this pattern to the extreme.

While Qabbani was initially supported by then prime minister Rafik Hariri, he had a falling out with the Future Movement, Hariri’s party, in 2012 over financial issues and his administrative powers as head of Dar al-Fatwa. In order to retain his position, Qabbani allied himself with politicians on the other side of the political spectrum: the Sunni supporters of the Shia Hezbollah party and the Syrian regime, such as al-Ahbash, a Sufi movement known for its ties to Syrian intelligence. This resulted in a sharp split in Dar al-Fatwa between a faction close to the Future Movement that opposed the mufti’s authority and a wing close to Hezbollah that supported Qabbani—a dynamic that effectively undermined the body’s credibility and paralyzed it to a great extent.

Abdel-Latif Derian was, in many ways, the ideal compromise candidate for both of these factions. A former head of the mufti’s office, he enjoyed close ties to Qabbani, but he had distanced himself from the bitter power struggle in which the mufti was engaged. As the former chief judge of the Higher Sunni Religious Court, he had strong religious credentials. And, last but not least in a country so often susceptible to regional influence, he had the backing of Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

A Regional Compromise

The regional powers of Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt all have an interest in—and, in some cases, a long-standing tradition of—meddling in the internal affairs of Lebanese Sunnis.

With its base in Syria’s Alawite community, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, like that of his father, former president Hafez al-Assad, has always been wary of the rise of a powerful Sunni current in neighboring Lebanon with the potential to influence events inside Syria—and the ongoing conflict there makes this even more the case.

Riyadh, for its part, has in past decades played the role of patron of Lebanon’s Sunni community: it supported Rafik Hariri’s leadership when he was prime minister and, today, it may want the new mufti to lend religious legitimacy to the political agenda of his son, Saad Hariri. Since Derian became mufti of the republic, he has repeatedly praised Saad Hariri’s leadership as a model of moderation and generosity and lauded his political initiatives, which Derian said are based on “an Islamic and national roadmap.” More recently, Derian provided religious cover for Hariri’s desire to begin a dialogue with Hezbollah.

The stakes were different for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. For the new Egyptian president, the Dar al-Fatwa elections represented a unique opportunity to mediate between the interests of Saudi Arabia and Syria and, thus, to boost his credentials as an increasingly powerful head of state who matters in the region. The election of Derian can even be seen as the Egyptian ruler’s first major foreign policy achievement since becoming president in June 2014. The new Lebanese mufti is not likely to forget Sisi’s successful mediation. In December 2014, Derian hailed “Egypt’s leading role in treating major Arab and Islamic issues.”

But there was also a longer game at play. Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt all share an interest in bolstering the role of Sunni religious institutions in Lebanon, and more generally throughout the region, in order to promote politically accommodating clerics and sideline as much as possible the politicized Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, who have emerged as powerful voices since the Arab Spring. This is what Egypt’s military-backed regime did in late 2013 by restructuring al-Azhar, Egypt’s leading religious institution, to eliminate Brotherhood sympathizers within its ranks, and give it greater powers to regulate mosques and promote a type of religious discourse in tune with the country’s new rulers.

In Lebanon, the election of Derian as the new mufti of the republic has the potential to marginalize the Jamaa al-Islamiya, Lebanon’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which in recent years has started to compete seriously with the Future Movement for votes in the Sunni community. The Jamaa al-Islamiya controls a powerful network of high schools, clinics, and charity organizations that have been active in providing services to a number of Lebanese Sunnis and Syrian refugees living in remote areas of Lebanon.

An Alternative to Dar al-Fatwa?

But being a compromise candidate among various political factions and regional powers also means that Derian does not have a lot of room to maneuver to take bold positions on issues seen as crucial in the Sunni community, including the conflict in Syria, the dominant role played by Hezbollah in Lebanese politics, and the fighting between Sunni extremist groups and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) that erupted in the northern port city of Tripoli in late 2014. As Derian wrestles with those constraints, the League of Muslim Scholars (Hayat al-Ulama al-Muslimin) has emerged as the most powerful voice challenging his authority.

The league was created in the wake of the Syrian uprisings to take advantage of the void left in the Sunni community by Dar al-Fatwa, which was then roiled by severe infighting. Its aim was to gather all Lebanese Sunni scholars—those with a degree in Islamic law—who opposed the Syrian regime and to act as a Sunni authority, lobbying on a wide range of issues. In effect, the body united many members of the Jamaa al-Islamiya, the Salafist trend, and some clerics from Dar al-Fatwa who were frustrated by the weakness of the institution.

It rapidly gained traction in the Sunni community and, with the backing of Qatar, it progressively evolved from an informal body into a sophisticated structure with its own institutions, decisionmaking process, and charity arm. The league has become more prominent since it took a leading role in negotiations to release 29 Lebanese servicemen who were abducted by extremist groups in Arsal, near the Syrian border, in August 2014.

To further increase its profile, the league announced in the summer of 2014 that cleric Ahmad Darwish al-Kurdi would run against Derian for the position of mufti of the republic on “a platform to transform Dar al-Fatwa and abandon the political authority over it.” Unsurprisingly, he lost the elections, but the message of defiance the league sent was clear. From then on, the body continued to take important political positions on a range of issues. In late September, as fighting raged between the LAF and Sunni militants in the historical souks of Tripoli and in the city’s impoverished Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, the league issued a statement condemning “the excesses of the security forces,” and the “arbitrary detentions” of suspected Sunni militants. It also compared the LAF’s “unfair and abusive” operation to a bloody 1985 crackdown by the Syrian regime on Sunni Islamist militants in Tripoli, an episode that still evokes bitter memories among Lebanon’s Sunnis. The league’s bold declarations contrasted starkly with the mufti’s silence on the issue.

The league’s success in highlighting its differences with Dar al-Fatwa have helped it to increase its influence in Tripoli. The league’s current head, Salafi cleric Salem al-Rafei, as well as many other members of the group, hail from northern Lebanon, the stronghold of Lebanon’s Sunnis; they often present themselves as the last bulwark in the defense of Tripoli—indirectly hinting at the Beirut origins of Abdel-Latif Derian and his lack of a popular base in the city. This and other factors have weakened Dar al-Fatwa in northern Lebanon, where the institution has sometimes struggled to fulfill its duties. A senior official in Dar al-Fatwa suggests that, in late 2014, the body was only able to oversee a third of Tripoli’s mosques, with the rest in the hands of preachers who lack proper Islamic qualifications and may be close to extremists.

Toward Sunni Moderation

To counter his perceived lack of legitimacy in Tripoli, Derian has made use of his extensive powers as head of Dar al-Fatwa to secure funds and kick-start an ambitious charity campaign in the city. In November 2014, the mufti donated 3,000 free meals to residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh—a media stunt designed to increase Dar al-Fatwa’s influence in the neighborhood, where, according to the senior official, it controls only one of the area’s twelve mosques and prayer rooms. This seems to be part of a broader strategy aimed at reasserting the presence of Dar al-Fatwa through charity activities. Derian recently met with the Lebanese Central Bank governor, Riad Salamé, to discuss the best ways to assist the needy and the poor, and the potential for cooperation with Dar al-Fatwa.

The new mufti has also played a prominent public role in the months following his election. He earned the respect of the Christian community by holding a major interfaith summit at the Dar al-Fatwa compound in Beirut. This subsequently encouraged him to attempt to mediate the thorny issue of Lebanese presidential elections among wary Christian factions such as Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces. He also met with Shia dignitaries, including a delegation from Hezbollah, called for the rejection of sectarianism, and underlined the importance of Islamic unity in the face of tensions between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shia communities.

In virtually all of his speeches since his inauguration in September, the mufti of the republic has spoken out against Sunni extremism. He has stressed that, under his leadership, the Sunni community would serve as a “guarantee of moderation, nationalism, and allegiance to the state.” These stances may not have earned him much praise from the radical corners of the Sunni community, but they helped secure his position as an important figure to be reckoned with on the Lebanese stage.

However, to be truly effective in reviving Dar al-Fatwa’s long tradition of Islamic moderation, Abdel-Latif Derian must go beyond grand speeches and move to unite the whole of Lebanon’s Sunni community, and particularly the country’s many clerics, behind his leadership.

Dar al-Fatwa is expected to embark on a process of reform in early 2015, and Derian must be sure to include the League of Muslim Scholars. In public statements, members of the league declared in late 2014 that, despite their criticisms of the way Dar al-Fatwa is managed, they recognize the institution’s legitimacy. Their relationship with Dar al-Fatwa, they insisted, is one of communication, and they want to have a say in the reform process.

To gain broad legitimacy within his own community, the new mufti will have to take the clerics’ concerns into account and address issues such as Dar al-Fatwa’s politicization and its lack of genuine representativeness of the Sunni religious community. Doing otherwise would only accelerate the dynamic of Sunni radicalization that is at play in Lebanon—and, then, speeches about coexistence and moderation will sound very empty indeed.