Lebanese protesters block the main road from the coastal city of Tripoli in July, 2012
© AFP
Lebanese protesters block the main road from the coastal city of Tripoli in July, 2012
Last updated: July 20, 2013
Josef Olmert: Lebanon's Sushi War

"'Sushi' in today’s Middle East political reality is anything but a favourite dish, rather it is a recipe for mayhem and death"

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Hisham Hasabala, an American Sunni Muslim, calls himself a ‘’Sushi,’’ a Sunni-Shi’ite hybrid, a term first coined by American Muslim activist Salam Al-Marayati. For lovers of the Japanese dish, as well as people who like the lighter side of current affairs, it may seem as a good-intentioned attempt to put a nice face on a huge problem, which besets the Islamic world, in fact tears it apart.

I refer to what is already called the Sushi war, the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict whose existence cannot be ignored anymore. In Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain, the Hassa Province of Saudi-Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and even Egypt, Sunnis and Shi’ites fight and kill each other. Let us dwell on the last four of these countries, so that we can get the real and full dimensions of the problem.

Egypt has a Shi’ite population of well less than a million - out of 85 millions - in a country which once had a glorious Shi’ite history under the Fatimides who built Al-Azhar, today’s Sunni Islam central religious academy. Being such a numerically negligible minority has not spared the Egyptian Shi’ites from persecution and recently four of them were murdered by fanatic Sunni Salafists. In Irqa, according to official statistics, 761 people were killed in sectarian clashes in the previous month.

The external Arab architects of the arrangement were the Saudis

Then there is the Syrian civil war, pitting in Syria itself, Alawites and Shi’ites against the Sunnis, with well over 100,000 fatalities, no end in sight and escalating involvement of Shi’ite Iran, Iraq and Hizballah on the one hand, and Saudi-Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other Sunni states on the other end.

In fact, one of Muhammad Mursi’s last actions as President of Egypt was to deliver a speech in a hall covered with flags of the Syrian Sunni rebels.

So, 'sushi' in today’s Middle East political reality is anything but a favourite dish, rather it is a recipe for mayhem and death.

As this sectarian violence rages all over, surely so too in little Lebanon. Its Sunni community numbers about 25% of the overall population. Two million altogether, centred mostly in the three coastal cities of Sidon in the South, Beirut in the centre and Tripoli in the north. The Lebanese Sunnis are no different in one major respect than Sunnis everywhere in the Arab world. They believe that they are destined to be the dominant Muslim community in their country, destined to rule. But Lebanon is not yet another Arab country, as Lebanon still is the most diversified Arab state in terms of its multi-religious and ethnic division. Arab Sunnis have never been the majority, nor the single largest religious community in the country since its inception (along its current borders) in 1920.

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They were traditionally second to the Catholic Maronite community (though larger now), and due to demographic and political developments in the last 4-5 decades became outnumbered by the Shi’ite Muslims, who are today the single largest community in Lebanon, numbering 35% of the overall population. The Lebanese Sunnis therefore had a problem of identity and status from day one of the existence of the Lebanese state. They were torn apart from the Sunni hinterland of Syria by a colonial power, the French, who viewed them as an implacable adversary of their plan to base their presence in the Levant on Christian and other minorities. Lebanon was not considered, therefore as a legitimate entity by most Lebanese Sunnis, but it became so only in the Second World War, when changing political circumstances, both in the regional and global contexts made it possible to get rid of the hated French, but on condition of having Lebanon recognized as an independent state, separate from Syria.

It was then, in 1943, when the Sunni leadership of Lebanon, under the Sulh family from Sidon, and the Maronites under Bishara Al-Khoury agreed on the Lebanese National Covenant, an oral agreement stipulating the conduct of affairs in independent Lebanon, basically solidifying the division of political power in the country along sectarian lines, while maintaining its membership in the Arab League and cutting any claim for formal connections with France, the traditional, but as of the Second World War, the weak backer of ‘the little brothers in the Orient,’ the Maronites of Lebanon.

From a Sunni perspective, this arrangement was the utmost possible under the circumstances of the time, but far from being ideal, as it meant that they could not be in full control of the country, whom they dimmed to be Arab and Islamic, like it was in the other, neighbouring Arab states.

The external Arab architects of the arrangement were the Saudis, and their agreement for the establishment of an Arab state to be ruled, partly at least, by Christians should be seen against the background of Arab politics at the time.

The alternative for them was to have Lebanon included in a larger unit, that of ‘Greater Syria,’ or ‘the Fertile Crescent union,’ both projects planned by the two wings of the Hashemite family, the historic rivals of the Saudis.

So, Lebanon with just partial Sunni domination was born in 1943-5, and the question remains if and how the odd Sunni-Maronite couple will sustain the alliance, especially under the pressure of regional and international crises, which calls upon Arabs everywhere, not just in Lebanon, to pick a side.

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