Friday, February 13, 2015

Adding injury to insult - The dangerous repercussions of Khalid Daher’s remarks

The controversy surrounding the remarks of Khaled Daher, a Jamaa Islamiyya parliamentarian who until Wednesday was also a member of the Future Bloc, has had a profound impact, one which the Sunni community must address carefully.

On Sunday, Daher led a protest against the removal of Islamic flags around Nour Square, part of a campaign to remove political posters, flags and banners from the streets of Beirut, Tripoli and Saida. Inexplicably, he then turned his wrath on the Christians, who had nothing to do with the decision, remarking: “If they want to remove religious symbols, let them start in Beirut. Let them start with the Christ the King statue. Let them start with the pictures of some saints ‘who are opening their arms wide’ in Jounieh.”

Not surprisingly, this provoked an angry counter-reaction, especially from Future’s Christian constituency. Daher then “suspended” his participation in the Future Bloc. It was a typical Lebanese compromise, one sought by both Daher and Future. Future did not want to sever its relationship with the electorally potent Jamaa Islamiyya, but also could not cover for Daher’s statements without alienating its Christian supporters. Daher, in turn, benefited by depicting himself as a maverick in defense of Islam, without isolating himself from the Future network.

But the danger in such an otherwise petty episode was that it reinforced growing Christian wariness of Sunnis in general, a process that began last summer when ISIS captured large swathes of land in Iraq and expropriated and expelled Christians in the north of the country. This has been exploited by Hezbollah, which has used it to advance its agenda in Syria, and has portrayed itself as a barrier defending Shiites and Christians from the depravity of Sunni jihadist groups in the Qalamoun area.

Though a majority of Lebanese Sunnis are moderate, the Christians’ existential fears have often made many abandon all nuance in this regard. Daher’s foolish remarks will not have persuaded them otherwise. Yet growing Christian worries are also a reflection of a broader sentiment of decline, one that both Sunnis and Shiites have an interest in alleviating, since what happens to Christians will impact upon Sunni-Shiite relations.

The Future-Hezbollah dialogue notwithstanding, what is required is more than that. Christians must be brought into a broader dialogue with the Muslim communities, and their anxieties attended to. Until that happens Christians may remain a pawn in the Sunni-Shiite sectarian rivalry, to everyone’s detriment.

Admittedly, the Christians are their own worse enemies. The presidency, constitutionally, is the political post that allows Christians to position themselves at an equal distance between Sunnis and Shiites. Yet caught up in their internecine contests for power, Christian leaders have been unwilling to fill the presidency with a compromise candidate. Even as they lament their growing marginalization, they have heartily and shortsightedly contributed to this very outcome.

But while blaming the Christians is always easy, today moderate Sunni leaders also bear responsibility for how their community is perceived; in particular the growing, if simple-minded, tendency of Christians to assume the Sunni community is a wellspring of extremism. Sunni moderates can only benefit by showing that it is they who have sway over the larger part of their communities, otherwise they will continue to be tarred by the extremists’ brush.

It has been four years since Saad Hariri left Lebanon, and it is unfortunate that few are asking anymore when he will return. However, on the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the question of the future of Lebanon’s Sunni leadership is more relevant than ever. The community is in flux, watching daily the fate of its brethren in Syria and Iraq. It seems self-evident that a moderate leadership is needed to ensure the community is not pulled in every direction, toward greater fragmentation.

Statements like Daher’s are signs of a larger problem. As the vacuum has persisted at the head of the Sunni community, others have tried to take advantage of this, playing on sectarian solidarity and political frustrations to gain popularity. Daher is no Ahmad al-Assir, but the symbolism he employs and the populist message off of which he feeds are not so very different.

Neither the Future Movement nor the Future parliamentary bloc can substitute for a Sunni leader. Saad Hariri’s presence is needed, and it is no longer credible to suggest he cannot return for security reasons — not when his movement is engaged in discussions with Hezbollah to lower sectarian tensions, despite the fact that party members have been indicted for Rafik Hariri’s murder.

Hariri’s return would not only help calm growing Christian worries about Sunni militancy, it would also revive a much-needed anchor to the Sunni community itself, and fill a vacuum that, in the last four years, has done Sunnis harm. The consequence would be a re-equilibration of communal relations in the country — essential at a moment when the repercussions of the conflict in Syria threaten Lebanese stability.

The anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s assassination would be an apt occasion to make this happen. Daher’s comments should be a glitch in Sunni-Christian relations, but they will only seem that way to Christians if a credible Sunni leadership is on hand to affirm it. For now, Sunnis, and many Lebanese, are still waiting.

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