Notoriously divided, Lebanon's Salafis  convened recently at a Beirut mosque to form their version of a united front. Though some are skecpitcal of the motives, this could be the first step to uniting Lebanon's Salafis.
Lebanon’s Salafis dream of joining forces. Indeed, the faith itself exhorts the faithful to unite, but their multiplicity of factions keeps them apart. Rather than enriching them, their diversity leaves them fractious and divided.
The Salafis have never acted as one. The saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammad, that any group of people, however small, should appoint one of their number as leader, has become a recipe for having a multitude of chiefs.
They are currently attempting to close ranks and find a common voice, not least, as many Salafi sheikhs have frequently complained, because they feel increasingly misunderstood by the public and demonized by the media.
On March 17, the largest ever gathering of Salafi leaders from different parts of Lebanon was held at the Dhil-Nurain mosque in Beirut’s Ras al-Nabaa district, bringing together more than 70 sheikhs and preachers with the avowed purpose of “putting the Salafi house in order.”
The meeting was held to discuss internal Salafi affairs, and the prospects of joining forces to launch an umbrella group that would engage in public affairs, championing the interests of Lebanon’s Sunnis.
The participants concluded by declaring themselves to be the founding assembly of such a body and electing an administrative committee and a scholarly council. The former was tasked with monitoring developments in the country and meeting when necessary to decide follow-up actions. The latter is to draw up an overall strategy and vision, and issue religious judgements about developments.
What prompted the meeting? Does the Council of Muslim Ulema not suffice as a unifying framework? And – as was widely suspected – was an external hand at work?
In response to these questions, one of the participants explained that the aim was to bring only Salafis together at this stage, though the new body might be expanded in the future to all Sunni scholars.
“There is a consensus among Salafis that we must put our house in order,” said Sheikh Hassan al-Shahhal, head of the Daawat al-Adl wal-Ihsan Society.
Speaking to Al-Akhbar by phone, he stressed the need to counter negative public stereotypes of Salafis. “Salafis are opposed to takfeer. We Salafis bear no resemblance to the Salafis the media talk about,” he said.
He said more than 90 percent of the participants at the first gathering agreed to a way forward.
Salafi activist Ihab al-Banna said the recent meeting was the culmination of several initiatives aimed at bringing Lebanon’s Salafis together, involving groups from different parts of the country.
“Work is still underway to develop an idea or vision of how to organize ourselves,” he added, saying two meetings had been held for this purpose and a third was being planned. This vision would be based on “patriotic principles consistent with the doctrines of the Salafi school of thought,” he said.
Many observers of the Salafi scene believe these efforts to unite rival sheikhs with idiosyncratic views and different ideas and terms of reference are doomed to fail.
Banna begged to differ. “We do not deny that there are regional factors and different backgrounds, all of which could pose obstacles. But we are trying to ensure that the existence of differences does not prevent us from integrating.”
He conceded that that Salafis were partly motivated by their sense of being embattled, but maintained that the central reason for their move was the religious injunction that the faithful should come together.
During the discussions, Sheikh Dai-al-Islam al-Shahhal objected at having been invited to the gathering without being consulted about its aims, claiming that it had originally been his idea.
Banna countered that Shahhal’s idea had been for the formation of a Sunni Front that would include both Islamists and secularists, so a start was being made by organizing the Salafis’ ranks so they could present ideas to other components of the Sunni sect.