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Lebanon: More to Lebanon’s Salafis than meets the eye



Salafis are often painted with a broad brush. But many who identify as Salafi complain that the popular media stereotype is inaccurate and informed by opportunists who do not represent the movement’s true values. Part One of Al-Akhbar’s portrait of Salafis looks at the group’s following in Tripoli.

Salafis are often portrayed in both Western and Arab media as bearded extremists – deeply misguided believers at best, and suicidal terrorists at worst.

In the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, the Salafis are concentrated around the Abi Samra district. At first glance, the large numbers of bearded men and strictly veiled women appear to confirm preconceived notions about the community.

These stereotypes can be attributed in part to media exaggeration. But to outsiders, the Salafis’ strict adherence to certain garb and grooming rites makes them appear homogenous when, in fact, several ideological currents exist within the movement.

The Salafis of Abi Samra, for example, classify the community into roughly three types: opportunists, moderates, and extremists.

This first type, everyone agrees, does not resemble Salafism in any way. The only similarity is their external appearance – “a mold without the filling,” as some describe them.

Salafi sheikhs are critical of this particular breed, saying they can immediately distinguish them from sincere believers by their tattoos or extensive use of foul language, not to mention their connections to certain political and security figures.

“The hundred dollar bill has become the compass directing these counterfeit beards,” complained one sheikh.

Some Salafis argue that these opportunists can hardly be deemed Salafi. More relevant, they say, are the two other currents: moderates and extremists. Though the groups are a minority, they are highly organized.

“Many non-religious people in Tripoli credit Salafis with helping reform wayward men who had become involved in drugs or other vices. Critics point out that the goal of such work is to direct the energies of these young men toward Salafi goals, which may not be in the interest of the nation as a whole.

Detractors also object to the way Salafis choose to engage with members of different religions. Recently, a Salafi mob burned down an Alawi-owned grocery store in Abi Samra. According to a local resident: “The owner has been living in the area for 20 years and has never been involved in politics.”

Some Salafis in Abi Samra go out of their way to polish their image due to what one Salafi described as a media conspiracy to “fatten Salafis up in preparation for the slaughter.”

Another relayed the hostility he faces when he ventures into other neighborhoods. His long beard is greeted with stares, and he’s made to feel unwelcome or even treated in a discriminatory manner. He suggested that focusing on the darker side of jihadi Salafism – be it real or fabricated – has helped provoke rage towards the movement.

What has made matters worse is the refusal of many Salafi sheikhs to appear in the media as a reaction against their consistent negative portrayal. This has allowed for unofficial Salafi spokespersons who have little influence within the movement to speak on their behalf.

For the time being, the Salafis seem to be stuck with a negative public image that’s based on stereotypes, not individuals. Many self-identified Salafis who spoke to Al-Akhbar went out of their way to point out that they are mothers and fathers, students and professionals who struggle with the same challenges as any other Lebanese family.

Despite the fact that Salafis can be found all over Lebanon – in Beirut, Khaldeh, Saida, Iqlim al-Kharroub, and the Bekaa – the North, and particularly Tripoli, is seen as a fundamentalist stronghold dominated by Salafis. Many, including Salafis, reject this stereotype as inaccurate.

In fact, the Salafis are a tiny minority in Lebanon’s second largest city, something that is plainly evident to any visitor to Tripoli and its surroundings. Voting trends and public opinion polls there suggest they represent no more than five percent of the city’s population.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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