[The answers are paraphrased, not the shaykh’s verbatim responses. I hope to conduct a more in-depth interview with the shaykh at a future date and to seek clarification on some of the responses below as well as to ask follow-up questions.]
Question: What, from an Islamic perspective, are the key issues facing the Muslims of Lebanon?
The shaykh was emphatic in his response that the sectarian fault lines that run through Lebanon between Sunnis, Shias, Christians and Druze are the biggest problem facing the Muslims of Lebanon. He laid the blame squarely upon the Sykes-Picot accord stating that the Lebanese state was inherently unstable from its inception. The West has used Lebanon as a staging post for its cultural invasion of the Middle East. The abiding Shia – Sunni conflict still looms large in the list of problems facing the Muslims of Lebanon. Whereas previously there was a lack of scholarship in the Sunni community now the situation is much improved.
Question: The Sunni community seems to be economically and politically disadvantaged. Why is this and what can be done to ameliorate the situation?
It is important to understand why this is [the shaykh doesn’t elaborate]. The Sunni community needs to cultivate links to the Gulf states primarily by establishing strong commercial ties. There needs to be a co-ordinated plan to raise the level of the Sunni community and the outcome in Syria is inextricably linked to this.
Question: Regarding relations with Christians, Shias and Alawis – current status and tensions?
The tensions between the communities fluctuates in accordance with the prevailing political situation. So with the current situation in Syria relations with the Shias are at a low. Previously, in the 80s, relations with the Christians were bad but now are fairly good. So the political reality dictates the state of community relations. There is a need to move beyond such a paradigm and this can only be achieved via Islamic governance.
Question: Are outside powers influencing events in Lebanon? Which powers?
Iran and Saudi are the two main sources of outside influence but both, in turn are influenced by the US. Iran obviously backs the Shia (via Hezbollah) while the Saudis exercise their influence via the Mustaqbal party headed up Saad Hariri. Turkey has recently been trying to expand its influence via cultural projects.
Question: What is the role of Hezbollah within Lebanon – some have described it as a state within a state. How are Sunni relations with the organisation?
The “state within a state” description was apt until a few years ago when Hezbollah managed to engineer the collapse of the Hariri government. In the wake of this event they have managed to insert their own people into key positions within government ministries to the extent that today it would be more appropriate to describe them as the state rather than a “state within a state”. There is currently a widespread animus in the Sunni community towards Hezbollah and this was sparked in the first instance by the actions of the Shia force in Beirut back in 2008. The outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the intervention of Hezbollah on the side of Bashar Assad’s regime has, of course, exacerbated this. Prior to Syria the Sunnis dealt with Hezbollah on a pragmatic level rather than an ideological one but as a result of the events of the past 6 years we are seeing a convergence in interests of the Sunni communities in Syria and Lebanon. The shaykh expressed his hope for the creation of a united cross-border vision for the communities and that ultimately the fate of Palestine depended on it.
Question: What has been the impact of the Syrian revolution on Lebanon? What is the stance of the committee towards this revolution? Are you insistent that Bashar Assad must be removed and what would you like to see replace his regime?
The committee emerged, in part, as a response to the revolution in Syria. Unfortunately a combination of lack of resources, parochial interests of certain political factions has hamstrung the uprising. Bashar’s departure is an absolute necessity. The shaykh reveals that he has proposed an initiative to gather the Syrian exiled scholars into a united front around which the non-extremist (non-takfiri) factions could coalesce and to whom they could provide guidance. The two criteria for participation in this united front are that the faction must exhibit sincerity and not be under outside political influence. Additionally they shouldn’t exhibit any indicators of extremist ideology.
Question: What of the role of IS?
Islamic State have made it abundantly clear they are not willing to listen to any guidance and as a takfiri organisation they are beyond the ambit of the scholars. Jabhat an-Nusra [the local AQ affiliate] seem more inclined to abide by the restraints of the Shariah and have proved open to dialogue. Although they have previously (and in part still do) exhibited a takfiri disposition they are certainly not the same as Islamic State in their attitude and behaviour and therefore channels to them should be kept open.
Question: What about protections for minorities in an Islamic state?
[The shaykh was reticent and preferred not to discuss it in the limited timeframe we had available.] Islam should be posited as a positive alternative system with an emphasis on the spiritual nourishment it affords. It should be explicated that Islam in not anti-technology and that science and technology is not the sole preserve of the West.
Question: Regarding the current violence in Arsal and the Syrian-Lebanese border region between JaN and the Lebanese army what can you tell me?
Jabhat an-Nusra wanted to control Arsal and its environs to utilise it as a safe zone from which to launch operations in Syria. They had been expanding their influence in the area until suddenly the Lebanese army decided to arrest JaN commander, Emaad Jumaa. JaN are threatening to take-over Arsal town and should this threat materialise it has the potential to provoke a countrywide conflict.
Question: What would you say to those British Muslims considering going to Syria to participate in the conflict there?
The shaykh strongly recommended against it. There is no shortage of manpower amongst the rebels. Instead Western Muslims’ energies should be focussed on aiding the revolution through media activism, aid work and bringing political influence to bear upon the regime of Assad.