Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Lebanon's Islamist Stronghold

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Lebanon's Islamist Stronghold

Article excerpt

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has apparently retained the hope of a military return to Lebanon from where he summarily withdrew in 2005 following the Rafiq Hariri assassination. In a 2008 interview with a Lebanese newspaper, he accused the northern city of Tripoli of becoming a base for Islamists who posed a direct threat to Syria's security.1 More recently, Rifat Eid, head of Tripoli's Alawite Arab Democratic Party, described the city as the "Lebanese Kandahar."2

These charges could not be further from the truth. Far from posing a threat to its immediate neighborhood, let alone to Syrian security, Tripoli's hopelessly fragmented Salafi movement is primarily non-combative, its more militant groups having long been defeated and pacified. Its devout and conservative nature notwithstanding, this movement is very much a cathartic reaction to the city's prolonged political marginalization and economic deprivation. To exaggerate the threat of Tripoli's Salafis is tantamount to fettening the sheep before the slaughter.


From its founding by the Phoenician seafarers in the eighth century BCE to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Tripoli maintained its status as one of the foremost cities in the eastern Mediterranean. During the Arab-Islamic era, its port was second only to Alexandria's, serving at different periods as the economic lifeline of Aleppo, Damascus, and Baghdad.

This privileged status came to an abrupt end in the wake of World War I when Tripoli's inclusion in Lebanon - against the will of its Muslim population, which would rather have been included in Syria - instantly marginalized the city. In its place, Beirut rose to prominence as the capital of the new political entity and the major site of its economy. Likewise, for some Maronite nationalists, Tripoli's inclusion in Lebanon threatened the slight Christian majority reported by the 1932 population census. The leader of the National Bloc, Emile Edde, for example, demanded the incorporation of Tripoli and its environs into Syria in order to preserve Maronite political predominance.3

For their part, the French, who created modern Lebanon as an essentially Christian state, had little interest in maintaining the leading political, social, and commercial standing of predominantly Sunni Tripoli, and the city's economic suppression during the French mandate (1920-43) became a tacit policy of the Lebanese state after independence. Still, Tripoli managed to reemerge as a provincial hub, unencumbered by the stress of the country's Beirut-based divisive confessional politics, serving the economic, educational, medical, and commercial needs of northern Lebanon and northwestern Syria. This, however, was not due to government policy but rather to private investments by northern Lebanese and the influx of Syrian capital after the introduction of nationalization measures in that country.


Tripoli is often referred to as the seat of Lebanon's multifaceted Salafi trend, whose genesis coincides with the withdrawal of the last French mandate troops from the country in 1 946. Home to the first Salafi reformer Rashid Rida (1865-1935), this profoundly conservative and devout city remained a rare oasis of religious and cultural diversity until the mid-1970s. This was a place where, despite infrequent social, interfaith interaction, Christian missionary schools proliferated and central roads and boulevards bore decidedly Christian names such as Nuns Street, Churches Street, Archbishop Street, and Saint Elias Street.4 In Tripoli, Islamic religiosity tolerated the existence of Lebanon's only gambling club (known as Cheval Blanc Casino) long before the opening of Casino du Liban in 1959. Taverns and cabarets stood alongside mosques and religious institutes without a hitch.

The advent of religious organizations on a considerable scale during the 1950s and 1960s did not radicalize Tripoli or reduce its toleration of religious and cultural diversity. …

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