Raphaël Lefèvre is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on Sunni Islamist movements in Lebanon. He is also the Rank-Manning junior research fellow in social sciences at the University of Oxford (New College). He holds a doctorate in politics and international relations from the University of Cambridge, where he was a Gates Scholar and the recipient of the 2015 Bill Gates Sr. Award. Lefèvre is the author of Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (Oxford University Press, 2013) and co-author of State and Islam in Baathist Syria: Confrontation or Co-Optation? (Lynne Rienner, 2012). He recently published a Carnegie paper titled “The Sociopolitical Undercurrent of Lebanon’s Salafi Militancy,” and it is to discuss the paper that Diwan interviewed Lefèvre in early April.

Michael Young: You’ve recently published a paper on Salafism in Lebanon, what is your main argument?

Raphaël Lefèvre: My main argument is that, while Lebanese and Western policymakers often dismiss the rise of Salafism as a phenomenon supposedly “foreign” to Lebanese society and as a local byproduct of broader factors such as the nearby war in Syria and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, the roots of Islamist mobilization are profoundly local. And these root causes need to be looked at in order to be dealt with effectively.

Many analysts, of course, also explain the growth of Salafi militancy as a Sunni reaction to the rise of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi‘a party and militia. It is undeniable that the Sunni-Shi‘a polarization that has gripped Lebanon since the assassination in 2005 of the Sunni former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, Hezbollah’s takeover of Sunni-dominated western Beirut in 2007, and the Shi‘a militia’s involvement on the side of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict, played a very significant role in fueling narratives of Sunni victimization and resentment, which have sometimes been channeled into Salafi mobilization.

But I’m arguing that there is more to Salafism than meets the eye. It is not simply Sunni pushback against Hezbollah’s domination, it is also a product of the Sunni leadership’s own failure at dealing with the grievances of its coreligionists. Lebanese Sunni leaders have been unable, or unwilling, to truly embrace a new and more diverse generation of young politicians, to improve the lives of impoverished Sunnis, and to empower the moderate clerics in Dar al-Fatwa, the main religious authority of Lebanon’s Sunni community. This disaffection with Sunni leaders is, in my view, key to grasping the rise of Salafism. 

MY: A central aspect that you develop in your paper is what you call “Qabaday Salafism.” Can you define it and explain how it plays out in Lebanon today?

RL: A key part of the phenomenon of the rise of Salafism that Lebanon has witnessed since the mid- and late-2000s has been the growth of Salafi militancy. In Lebanese and Western media, much has been made of the rise of “Salafi militias” in the marginalized neighborhoods of Tripoli, Sidon, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, and so on. And there has often been a temptation on the part of policymakers to treat these militants as ideologically-driven radicals.

In light of this, “Qabaday Salafism” is a term I developed to suggest that, while the discourse, appearance, and violent tactics of these militants look and sound Salafi, when one looks closer, some of them appear more driven by local grievances, identities, and solidarities than by ideology. In fact, in these deprived neighborhoods, such militants are often viewed as what locals call the qabadays of the area—local strongmen who, in the absence of the state, have traditionally provided small services and physical protection in exchange for resident loyalty. Their militancy often targets symbols of the state and the elite, such as the security services and chic shops or restaurants. Although it takes the garb of “Salafism,” it aligns more with local traditions of rebellion and social unrest. “Radicalization,” as a result, takes on a different meaning than is generally assumed, for recruitment into such groups often takes place on the basis of loyalty to the qabaday, or local strongman, and a shared sense of belonging to a deprived urban community. Ideology becomes a means to other ends, such as claiming divine backing in struggles for urban power, scaring rivals, and seeking new allies.

I don’t dismiss the power of ideology, as I also point out the possibility that it can take a life of its own and drive local rebels and gangsters to embrace groups such as Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, often as a result of fighting in Syria or spending time in prison. But with “Qabaday Salafism” I really sought to draw attention to how Salafi militancy often starts as a local and sociopolitical protest movement rooted in the process of urban segregation and political marginalization of poorer districts. This is essential, in my view, to grasp Salafi militancy more fully, make sense of its appeal in deprived areas, and design effective polices beyond security-centric ones only. 

MY: How have the Lebanese authorities dealt with this phenomenon?

RL: As a result of successive waves of attacks that targeted the army and civilian areas in Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli, and the Beqaa Valley, the authorities began cracking down on what they loosely called “the Islamists.” They launched a nationwide security plan in 2014, which Sunni politicians quickly backed, that led the security forces to deploy much more widely than before and arrest hundreds of suspected militants.

This brought short- and medium-term success, to be sure, and militant attacks have greatly receded. However, this security-only approach also raises the specter of long-term radicalization, because many of those detained, who were more akin to qabaday Salafists than to global jihadists, may be on the verge of radicalizing. Lebanese prisons, much like elsewhere in the region, are so overcrowded that detaining convicts according to whether or not they are actual terrorists has been very difficult. This has led qabadays and gangsters to mix with jihadists in prison, turning more than one into an ideologically-hardened militant. Fixing the prison and justice system is therefore key to preventing radicalization.

Another way in which the authorities have responded to the rise of Salafi militancy in recent years has been by tasking Dar al-Fatwa, which oversees mosques, to do more to control religious speech. But before empowering Dar al-Fatwa, the institution must be reformed, for its credibility is at an all-time low due to accusations of corruption and to the meddling of politicians in religious affairs.

MY: How do you view the future of Salafi militancy in Lebanon?

RL: What is appealing about Salafism to some Lebanese Sunnis is less its rigid view of what Islam should be about than its ability to channel their revolutionary zeal. While, indeed, analysts traditionally distinguish between quietist and activist versions of Salafism, in Lebanon the dividing line is not as sharp, as figures from both branches have spoken out vocally against Hezbollah’s role and the failures of Sunni leaders.

Many of these Salafi figures are now in jail, and those who are not are either in exile or lying low. Yet the revolutionary potential into which they tapped is still there. Poverty rates, estimated at 28 percent nationally but rising up to 57 percent in cities such as Tripoli, are at an all-time high. Disaffection with the Sunni political leadership is continuously growing, as the mixed results of the Future Movement in the 2016 local elections suggested. And resentment of Hezbollah’s rise in Lebanese politics and participation in the war in Syria might not fade away any time soon. Salafi militancy as a political revolt is therefore likely to continue to prosper. Paradoxically, though, Salafism as a belief system is still far from the practices of Lebanese Sunnis, and, more broadly, of Levantine Sunnis, whose religious traditions as a whole remain embedded in a long legacy of Sufism and religious coexistence.

That is why, for all the talk in some Lebanese media outlets a few years ago about the possibility that the Islamic State might create an “emirate” in Sunni-dominated northern Lebanon, I never thought that the terrain would be favorable to such expansion. Some qabaday Salafists might use Salafi ideology in their local struggles, and other more ideologically-driven militants will continue to recruit in a context of intense grievances, but there are also limits to a true expansion of Salafi thinking.