Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...

Mutual antipathy runs deep between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites and permeates cultural parlance. The ill feeling between them did not surface in public discourse, even though its historical root cause is ineradicable. Deep in their collective consciousness, Sunnis view Shiites as apostates who disavow religion. The 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezbollah unveiled the magnitude of the divide between the two sects and made it a subject of open discussion. Shiite refugees fleeing Israeli bombardment refused to be sheltered in Sunni mosques or schools named after their religious symbols. Infuriated, a Sunni social worker spoke of her experience with Shiite refugees: “We work around the clock to provide assistance to them, yet they curse us to our faces.”[1] This essay tracks the origins of the Sunni-Shiite divide which, in the case of Lebanon, lay dormant until the creation of its modern day political structure. The essay argues that the country’s sectarian tensions mounted as a result of the installation of an Islamic republic in Iran, and the establishment of Hezbollah as an instrument in the pursuit of leading power status in the Middle East.

The Tribal Feud that Turned into a Great Religious Rift

Muslims split into two factions following the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD over his successor. Members of his household stressed that the mission of the Prophet necessitated turning his duties and functions—except for the revelation and transmission of Divine insight that were completed—to Imam Ali, the most competent and eligible member of his household. They argued that “… Ali was part of Muhammad’s clan and as such, especially given the unwritten rules in a heavily tribal culture, had the right to emerge as the true successor.”[2] However, the Prophet’s Meccan and Medinan followers ruled out legal injunction in choosing the Prophet’s successor and opted to choose him by a body of wise men on the basis of consensus and endorsement. This rift led to a series of battles between the partisans of Ali who believed in his entitlement to inaugurate the line of imams, and their opponents who clung to the caliphate. The split culminated in the Battle of Karbala (680 AD), in which Imam Hussein lost his life and the chance to create the Imam’s state.

Karbala planted the seeds of political Shiism. Hussein’s battle cry “woe to the oppressors” has inspired Shiites to rise against injustice since then. The formulation of Twelver Imami Shiism as we know it today is largely due to the doctrinal contributions of the sixth Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq in the eighth century AD.[3] The failure of Shiite rebellions against the Sunni-dominated state led them to political passivity while awaiting the return of the hidden Imam to lead the faithful into redemption. The rise of the Safavids in Persia—who presented themselves as the representatives of the Imam—in the beginning of the sixteenth century, rejuvenated the energies of the faithful and readied them for political action “… against the Christian infidels [and] … their Muslim foes in the Ottoman Sunni state.”[4] In Persia, the Shiite sense of political competence manifested itself against their Qajar rulers in the third quarter of the nineteenth century and the constitutional movement in the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Defeat of Secular Ideologies and the Resurgence of Religious Identity

Reza Pahlavi’s ascendancy to the throne as the king of Persia in 1925 sealed the fate of the constitutional movement. His abdication in 1941 spurred the emergence of nationalistic and anti-imperialist sentiment among Iranians. In a tactical shift, the former Soviet Union opened up to the peoples of the Third World under the pretense of promoting their national liberation. In the spirit of the day, Lebanese Shiites, like their brethren in Iraq and Bahrain, rallied to join leftist and radical movements.

In Lebanon, the Shiites began to slowly drift away from pan-Arab and leftist ideologies and discover a separate sectarian political identity with the arrival of Musa al-Sadr into the country near the end of 1959. With his policy of sectarianism above, Sadr developed for the Shiites a distinct identity with its own social, political, and paramilitary infrastructure, thus transforming them “… from a sect-in-itself to a sect-for-itself.”[5] Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six Day War weakened non-sectarian ideologies in the eyes of Sunnis and Shiites alike, and boosted Sadr’s drive. The Amal Movement he founded in 1974 secured equality for Shiites with Sunnis and Maronites in the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the civil war. The triumph of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 delivered the coup de grace to secular ideologies throughout the Middle East, as Iran's ruling clerics’ aspiration to spread their doctrine in the Arab world became a central component of their foreign policy. Hezbollah, presenting itself as a resistance movement unencumbered by sectarian affairs, stayed outside the realm of politics until Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

Hezbollah presented itself as the embodiment of political Shiism, which is essentially a rebellious movement against the Sunni ruling order. Graphic Ashura rituals are a constant reminder of historical injustices and a vehicle of potent symbolic protest against Sunni usurpers of political power. Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah’s Ashura discourse is a tribute to sacred martyrdom and an occasion to unite coreligionists in the face of perceived threats.[6] Thus “…weeping for the Imam is not a sign of weakness. It is not a cry for the memory of the slain…but a call for bravery and martyrdom and protest against tyranny, evildoing and the denial of one’s rights.”[7] Hezbollah used Ashura’s culture as a powerful mobilizing force both against Sunni antagonists in Lebanon and Syria. In 2012 Hezbollah sent troops to Damascus ostensibly to defend the Sitt Zeinab Shrine. In May 2013 it justified waging the battle of Qusayr against Syrian rebels to protect Lebanon’s internal security and its anti-Israel resistance. Running out of rationalizations for fighting alongside the Syrian regime on different fronts, Hezbollah spokesmen finally said their men would go wherever their presence is needed in Syria.

The Decline of Lebanese Political Sunnism and the Rise of its Shiite Counterpart

The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the routing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—the closest ally of the Sunnis—from the country ushered in the beginning of Sunni political decline. Less than two years later, a joint Shiite-Druze uprising drove the Lebanese army out of the Shuf Mountains, the southern suburbs and west Beirut. Capitalizing on their weakness and regional isolation, Druze and Shiite Amal Movement militiamen destroyed the miniscule Sunni al-Murabitun militia.

Hezbollah, under the direction of Iran, sponsored radical Sunni militias—such as at-Tawhid in Tripoli and al-Fajr in Sidon—at the expense of the traditional and status quo-oriented Sunni communal representatives, whom it sought to neutralize.[8] Hezbollah’s efforts toward this end were inadvertently facilitated by the late Rafik Hariri. Acting on behalf of Saudi Arabia, Hariri presented himself as the uncontested representative of the Sunnis and behaved as a trans-sectarian leader. His assassination in 2005 was a coup of far-reaching consequences: it removed a formidable obstacle to Hezbollah’s preponderance in Lebanon and completed the isolation of the Sunnis.

Iran’s steady political line on Lebanon lent credence to Hezbollah’s posture, assured its constituency, and maintained its high level solidarity with the party’s position on domestic and regional issues. On the other hand, Saudi accommodative policy and desire to preserve a delicate balance of regional relationships confused premier Sunni leader Saad Hariri and forced his hand on important issues. Upon the request of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, he had to apologize “… to Syria for having charged it with murdering his father.”[9]

The empowerment of Lebanese Shiites under the guidance of the ayatollahs has been possible because Iran followed an unwavering policy line. The same cannot be said about the Saudi patrons of Lebanese Sunnis. The Saudi royals “… ruled out asserting the kingdom as a military power and, thanks to oil wealth and religious significance, chose to make it a cornerstone of the regional balance of interests.”[10] Iran had a different calculus of religious values and regional interests that did not lend them to compromise.

Hezbollah: the Apostle of Lebanese Shiite Redemption

Hezbollah’s 1985 manifesto outlined its goals of installing a just and free society in Lebanon, resistance to Israel. The saliency of the situation in the Shiite heartland in the south required immediate attention. Hezbollah chose to play the Israeli occupation card of southern Lebanon to endear itself to fellow Shiites. As soon as it initiated in its 1987 guerrilla warfare against the Israelis and their Southern Lebanese Army (SLA) surrogate, Hezbollah claimed the right to monopolize the resistance. It specifically banned Lebanese Sunnis and Palestinians from taking part in the fight against the occupation forces. When the Israelis withdrew from the self-declared security zone, Hezbollah took full credit for the achievement. Its reputation soared as the only Arab force that can competently engage the Israelis in battle.

Hezbollah’s emergence in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion and its subsequent monopoly of Shiite representation progressed in stages: from resisting Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon to propagandizing the notion of deterring Israeli encroachment on Lebanon, and finally to containing its Sunni critics, whom it chose to label as “the Zionists within us.”[11] Hezbollah used the war years in the south to unite the country’s Shiite community under its banner. It eliminated Shiite leftists and wrested control of the southern suburbs from the Amal movement, liquidated the latter’s military component and placed it under its wing. In the aftermath of the 2006 summer war with Israel, which Hezbollah celebrated as a “Divine victory,” it turned its attention to the power base of Saad Hariri. It moved to dismantle his military infrastructure under the pretext of defensive jihad[12] Hezbollah’s invasion of predominantly Sunni west Beirut in May 2008 mightily aggravated an open Sunni-Shiite historical wound and laid the groundwork for regional sectarian civil strife, whose preconditions had long existed. The Sunni Future Movement of Saad Hariri used allegorical language to refer to Hezbollah’s conquest of the capital: “The faction of masked, armed men invades Beirut.”[13] Alluding to it as a major breach of the integrity of its Sunni residents, the Future Movement placed Hezbollah’s military action in the context of its “culture of revenge from Beirut.”[14]

Thanks in part to Nasrallah’s convincing rhetorical discourse, Hezbollah’s hold on the Shiites endured. When they started to elicit hushed discontent over Hezbollah’s mounting casualties in Syria, he placated them. Speaking at an Ashura occasion, he proudly reminded them of who they were: “We are descendants of the Prophet and we are the party of the Supreme Leader.”[15]

Hezbollah’s Pseudo Mainstream Politics versus Harsh Sunni Jihad

Throughout the 1975-1989 civil war, Lebanese Sunnis had little interest in establishing militias; until 1982, they had contented themselves with the PLO fighting on their behalf. Nevertheless, the routing of the PLO from Lebanon coincided with the rise of Lebanese Shiites as a serious political competitor buttressed with the Amal Movement’s militia. Backed by the Syrian regime of Hafez Assad, Amal sought to amend the two-pillar Lebanese confessional system resting on a Maronite-Sunni coalition into a triangular formula that recognized the Shiites as a constituent component.

Israel’s exit from southern Lebanon brought tremendous pressure on Hezbollah to disarm since the justification for maintaining a military wing had expired. This pressure escalated after Rafik Hariri’s assassination and the formation of the March 14 coalition, which brought together a broad Sunni-Maronite coalition that placed the question of disarming Hezbollah at the top of its agenda. Hezbollah responded by signing a memorandum of understanding with maverick Maronite leader Michel Aoun, who has become a standing and regularly unsuccessful presidential candidate since 1988. This unlikely alliance produced “… a deeply unequal arrangement that has brought Hezbollah further into Lebanese politics while limiting Maronite options.”[16] One of the real goals of the alliance was further curtailing Sunni political power following Hariri’s assassination.

The Unavoidable Defeat of Millennial Sectarianism and Return to Accommodative Politics

Hezbollah’s active involvement on the side of the Syrian regime and Lebanese Sunni jihadists siding with the rebels leave little doubt that the ongoing regional upheavals are bound to impact Lebanon. Even though the outlook for the region remains nebulous, it is quite plausible to argue that the Lebanese confessional model will serve as the basis for post-conflict political arrangements in at least a few Arab countries. Confessional politics is predicated upon the maintenance of balanced relationships in non-pluralistic societies. This requires elites’ consensus on eschewing ideological divisions in favor of communal autonomy. Hezbollah, like its inimical Sunni counterparts, is a utopian movement that lacks a clear and a political program that realistically can be implemented. It is reminiscent of leftist movements that—during the period of the 1950s-1970s—attracted both Sunnis and Shiites to promote social justice and combat American hegemony. It cannot be reconciled with the quest for stability and economic development.[17]

The exaggerated observation of Ashura was alien to Lebanese Shiite practices until it was introduced by Sheikh Abd al-Hussein Sadiq upon his return from Najaf in 1909.[18] Hezbollah encouraged its practice and assigned a great political role to it, using it as a constant reminder of historical injustices done to Shiites. The breakthrough deal on the Iranian nuclear program is likely to facilitate agreement on Syria and other hot spots in the region. Self-flagellation, which has been banned in Iran since the 1979 revolution, will lose its political symbolism. This could lead to phasing it out from Ashura and aid in re-launching the Lebanese political system along an updated version of accommodative politics.

[1]“Shi’ite Penetration of Palestine and the Levant,”,…

[2] Aaron W. Hughes, Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 117.

[3] Aaron W. Hughes, Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 123.

[4] Elisheva Machlis, Shi’i Sectarianism in the Middle East: Modernisation and the Quest for Islamic Universalism (London, UK: I. B. Tauris, 2014), p. 173.

[5] Max Weiss, In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi’ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 187.

[6] Al Arabiya (London), October 21, 2015,

[7] Elisheva Machlis, Shi’i Sectarianism in the Middle East: Modernisation and the Quest for Islamic Universalism (London, UK: I. B. Tauris, 2014), p. 182.

[8] Ash-Sharq al-Awsat (London), May 26, 2012.

[9] Hilal Khashan, “Saad Hariri’s Moment of Truth,” The Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 1 (2011),

[10] Hilal Khashan, “Bandar bin Sultan’s Botched Syrian Intervention,” The Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 1 (2014),

[11] Nahdat Misr (Cairo), May 11, 2008.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), December 12, 2013.

[13] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), May 8, 2008.

[14] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), May 8, 2008.

[15] Al-Akhbar (Beirut), October 26, 2015.

[16] Hilal Khashan, “Lebanon’s Shiite Maronite Alliance of Hypocrisy,” The Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 3 (2012),

[17] Orient Net News, May 27, 2015,

[18] "Tale of the Ashura Play in Nabatiyeh," (November 2004),

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