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Lebanon warily watches its Salafis

While the small community of adherents to strict Islam are being courted by Sunni and Shiite rivals, many worry they could bring Al Qaeda into the Lebanon conflict.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 2008

Tensions rising: A bomb exploded outside a mosque Tuesday in a south Lebanon Palestinian camp. Two Sunni groups, one that follows Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology, have been fighting there for several weeks.

Ali Hashisho/Reuters

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Tripoli, Lebanon

In the hilltop Abi Samra neighborhood of this northern city, black banners inscribed with Koranic verses adorn crowded streets. Young men advertise their religious devotion by wearing white dishdashas, long beards, and short hair.

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This is where many of the country's small Salafi community, the adherents to strict Islam who aim to emulate the 7th-century practices and ideals of the prophet Muhammad and his followers, can be found and where they now find themselves under close scrutiny in politically divided Lebanon. Ideologically, Salafis shun man-made laws and politics, choosing instead to embrace only sharia (Islamic law) and believe in some of the same rigid ideals that Al Qaeda espouses.

Militant Shiite Hezbollah has been reaching out to them, believing that striking a deal with a Sunni sect, which does not even recognize Shiites as Muslims, might ease flaring intra-Muslim tensions.

The Future Movement, which represents most Lebanese Sunnis and opposes Hezbollah, also has been eyeing the Salafis. They allegedly bankroll the group's leading clerics, who are also said to be receiving funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.

But concerns linger that Salafi extremists could provide a future bridgehead for Al Qaeda into Lebanon.

"There is no organized Al Qaeda here but there are people who support and love Al Qaeda and justify its actions. And if the conflict in Lebanon continues and sectarian fighting continues, then it could be an ideal opportunity for Al Qaeda to organize themselves and form cells," says Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Salafi cleric living in this northern city.

Salafis suffered in the 1980s and '90s when Syria, ruled by a secular Arab nationalist regime, controlled Lebanon and launched periodic crackdowns on Islamists. But the group began to gain prominence in Lebanon at the onset of the US-led war on terror in 2001. Their heightened profile is mainly due to the growing Sunni-Shiite schism that has engulfed Lebanon since the assassination in 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister.

Salafis' new clout

Rival factions have been courting the Salafis since 2005, placing pressure on a sect that is supposed to remain aloof from secular politics.

"The Salafi movement in Lebanon is broken. We are not united," says Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, imam of As Salam mosque in Tripoli.

Last month, Hezbollah signed a memorandum of understanding with the Salafi Belief and Justice Movement, a group represented by Hassan Shahhal. Hezbollah is allied with some Sunni Islamists as well as secular Sunni leaders, but penetrating the Salafi community was a remarkable coup. Other Salafis, however, reacted with fury, forcing Mr. Shahhal to publicly freeze the memorandum just two days later.

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