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The militants who lacerate the Sunni heart

Bernard Rougier, L’oumma en fragments, Puf, Paris, 2011.

From the first years of the twenty-first century onwards and following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq-al-Hariri and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops in April 2005, Northern Lebanon became an area of confrontation between militant ideologies. It thus turned into a ‘privileged observation point which allows to focus on the debates and the contradictions that are lacerating the heart of Sunni Islam’ (p. 4). L’oumma en fragments offers a grid by which to read the forms of militant action that have arisen over the last thirty years, analysing them in the light of the political events that have shaken the Middle East. The hypothesis of Bernard Rougier is that in the area of crisis of the Levant (the Lebanon, Syria and Palestine) a triangle of activists has developed, which is organised around three models of action: the resistant (muqâwim), the fighter (muqâtil) and the jihadist (mujâhid). These figures, explains the author, reflect equal axes of crisis which over time fostered their formation: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the frictions between Sunnis and Shiites in a Lebanese state apparatus which saw the alternation of ‘Saudi soft power with Syrian-Iranian hard power’ (p. 15), and the Russo-Afghan conflict of the 1980s. What marks out these three models is their forms of action, their varyingly marked ideological character, and the role and the status that each one of them attributes to regional Sunnism.

 

 

Established at the end of the nineteenth century in opposition to the political and military interference of Europe in the Middle East, the figure of the muqâwim is still shouting out today his rejection of the West and Israel, the supreme source of evil, and with time he has even conquered space within national institutions. Such is the case of the Hezbollah in the 1990s, the protagonist to the utmost of Resistance, or of the Pasdaran, the guardians of the Iranian Revolution, who became a political and administrative institution of the state under Ayatollah Khamenei.

 

 

As understood by the Palestinian activist ‘Abdallah Azzam, the figure of the mujâhid – explains Rougier – is the result of a special geopolitical conjunction that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979), a conjunction which envisaged the technological support of the United States, the economic support of Saudi Arabia and the logistical support of Pakistan. Differently from the muqâwim, the mujâhid fights his battle against the Western presence in the Middle East without seeking any recognition at an institutional or political level. An example of this attitude is the ‘McDonald’s Network’, a movement that was born in 2003 which sought to attack the symbolic places of the American economy present in the national territory of the Lebanon, amongst which malls, restaurants frequented by Westerners and above all McDonald’s.

 

 

The ideology of the fighter, muqâtil, is in historical terms older than the ideologies of the muqâwim and the mujâhid. Despite its ancient origins, this figure was established with the success of the notion of political independence and corresponds to the defensive attitude of a village or a city against an external aggressor, whatever the identity of that aggressor might be. Moved by a wish to achieve protection against foreign interference, the fighter is animated by a strong sense of belonging to his country and in general he does not have a political or ideological plan. ‘I fight for my honour and my existence on this land’ (p. 22) is only one of the slogans that openly reflect the spirit of the muqâtil. Such is the case with the so-called ‘Movement of 9 February’, a clandestine military organisation created on the date of the anniversary of the death of Khalil ‘Akkawi, the former leader of the Movement for Islamic Unification, whose principal goal is to attack the Syrian military presence in the Lebanon.

 

 

In analysing the forms of militant activity that have arisen during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the Middle East, and in focusing in particular on the case of Northern Lebanon, L’oumma en fragments highlights the reasons why at a given historical moment is it more likely that certain special forms of militancy will prevail, while exploring the dynamics that may cause a shift from one form of action to another.

 

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