The recent war in Lebanon could become a significant factor leading to a transformation within the Salafi movement in the Arab world. The conflict may also have a similar impact on Salafis as did the Gulf War of 1991. Transformations within the Salafi movement tend to create divisions and cause new splinter groups to form. When the new splinter groups emerge, they generally are more radical in nature and closer to Salafi-Jihadi extremist ideology. This article explores the early fractures in Salafi ideology, examines the controversial arguments among Salafis in the wake of the war in Lebanon, and attempts to understand how the recent war in Lebanon may affect the Salafi movement as a result of the increasing sectarian conflict in the Arab world and the acute divisions over the perspectives of Shiite Hezbollah.
Origins of Modern Salafi Factions
On the eve of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and the eruption of the Gulf War, the Arab-Islamic world witnessed severe internal divisions. The presence of U.S. troops in the region was a source of internal disagreements in the Salafi movement about the justification of the U.S. presence on the Arabian Peninsula. As a result of these disagreements, the Salafi movement splintered into two factions: the “traditional faction” and what can be labeled as the “center-wing faction.” A third faction—the Salafi-Jihadis—was formulating in Afghanistan at the time and would remain concentrated in Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.
The traditional Salafi faction expressed Saudi Arabia’s and the Gulf States’ approved government perspective of Islam and justified the presence of foreign forces in the region, particularly on the Arabia Peninsula.
The second faction, however, formed what became the first modern Salafi political opposition. This new Salafi orientation can be labeled as the center-wing faction or the al-Sorour faction, an attribution to Syrian Sheikh Mohammad bin Sorour Zinalabdeen. Sheikh Salman al-Odeh and Sheikh Safar al-Hawali were the two prominent clergymen of the center-wing faction and were considered unique in the history of Salafi movements because they politicized the movement to a degree that had not been seen previously. This Salafi faction was opposed to the U.S. military’s presence in the region and against other political issues in Arabia such as government corruption and the mounting influence of the liberal movement in the Arab world.
The influence of the center-wing spread across the Arab world and the lectures of the “two sheikhs of resurgence,” al-Odeh and al-Hawali, circulated throughout the Muslim community. Some of these lectures included, “Why They Fear Islam” by al-Odeh, and “Kissinger’s Promise” by al-Hawali. The Salafi movement, even though not fully mature, emerged as a popular political movement. The imprisonment of both al-Odeh and al-Hawali from 1994 to 1999 by Saudi authorities made them symbols of that movement.
After the events of September 11, the center-wing and the Salafi-Jihadi factions witnessed deep discord, especially when the two sheikhs were released from prison. These divisions occurred because after the two sheikhs were released, they were less radicalized and less willing to irritate the Saudi government. They became especially conservative on the use of violence. The disagreements between both factions exacerbated over time. These differences were manifested when a prominent Salafi-Jihadi, Yousef al-Ayyiri, released an article criticizing Saudi religious reformists by calling them weak and accusing them of begging the West to spare the Muslim world . In a message to Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, in response to al-Hawali’s declaration to the umma entitled “Message to Bush” released in November 2002, al-Ayyiri commenced by describing al-Hawali’s declaration as “a scholar’s slip of tongue that should not dishonor him”; nevertheless, he criticized al-Hawali for not having a clear position regarding the mujahideen, governments that do not apply Sharia and Western culture. Al-Ayyiri insinuated that al-Hawali was using the mujahideen to pressure the government without participating in jihad himself .
The deep dissidence between the center-wing and the Salafi-Jihadis was further manifested in another message by al-Ayyiri to representatives calling for Islamic reforms on the eve of the inauguration of al-Hawali’s “Global Campaign for Aggression Resistance” . Al-Ayyiri rejected the campaign and accused al-Hawali of becoming a pro-government intellectual and of removing the duty of jihad from Islam . Further, he says that al-Hawali does not support jihad, citing an interview that the latter gave to al-Majd Islamic television declaring his disapproval of jihad in Afghanistan and calling upon the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden to stop the bloodshed there . Al-Ayyiri also criticized al-Odeh for altering his previous perspectives that were more in-line with center-wing and Salafi-Jihadi ideology. This was a significant development in the Salafi movement because al-Ayyiri was once a major supporter of al-Odeh and al-Hawali.
In the Salafi-Jihadi publication Sawt al-Jihad, a writer by the name of Mohammad bin Salem wrote an article that said fatwas issued by some Saudi religious scholars prohibiting suicide bombings were gifts for Jews . He criticized al-Odeh for forbidding the mujahideen to travel to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces. The writer accused Safar al-Hawali of turning Ali al-Faq’asi al-Ghamidi into the authorities; al-Ghamidi was on the Saudi most wanted list of 19 terrorists issued in 2003. Al-Ghamidi, however, surrendered to the authorities himself and is still in prison.
From the aforementioned, we notice the state of antipathy and escalation that culminated between the two factions that started from admonitions, arguments, ideological queries, acquiescence and ending with accusations that center-wing Salafis were collaborating with the state.
The Impact of the Lebanon War
To understand the impact of the Lebanon war on the Salafi movement, there are three developments to be considered. First, the traditional Salafis that represented the state’s opinion argued that it was permissible to sign a truce with Israel. The argument was presented by Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al-Obeikan who strayed from the traditional norms of Salafis and said “min al-Siyasah Ala Natdakhal bel Syasah” (it is good policy to quit policy). This sanctioned a truce with Israel by citing Islamic historical practices toward Jews. He said that “resorting to peace, reconciliation or political and peaceful solutions with the Jews is needed at this time for the lack of Islamic might to liberate by force what is righteously theirs” (Asharq al-Awsat, July 27).
Second, the Shiites’ glory and increasing popularity after the Lebanon war in the Arab world caused concern among Salafi-Jihadis. They were afraid that they would lose the lead role in the global jihad. Salafi-Jihadis have expressed many times that they are leading the global Islamic liberation war. Consequently, the analogies drawn between Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the Arab street were in favor of Nasrallah. The analogy was that Nasrallah is a nationalist leader with political legitimacy who is fighting the direct enemy Israel; bin Laden, on the other hand, is a global leader who is fighting the indirect enemy, the United States, without credible political justifications (CNN Arabic, September 16). The Salafi-Jihadi fears of losing the lead role were expressed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who, on September 11 of this year, threatened to take revenge on Israel and called upon the Muslim nation to fight the “Zionists and crusaders.” Al-Zawahiri added that “al-Qaeda cannot standby and watch missiles fall on our people in Palestine and Lebanon,” a statement perceived by many as an attempt by al-Qaeda to pull the rug from underneath Hezbollah.
Third, the center-wing faction became divided during the conflict in Lebanon. While this division started with the release of al-Odeh and al-Hawali from prison, it culminated when the Lebanon conflict began. After their release from prison, both sheikhs became more traditional and less radical. This caused elements of the center-wing faction to move further away from al-Odeh and al-Hawali, yet not all the way into the Salafi-Jihadi camp. These new elements can be labeled the “conservative” center-wing faction and they have been led by Nasser al-Omar, who replaced the ailing Safar al-Hawali. The conservative center-wing faction has refused to support Hezbollah and the Shiites, while the more traditional center-wing faction has supported Hezbollah in its latest conflict with Israel. The division in the center-wing was manifested in a fatwa issued by Nasser al-Omar prohibiting support for Hezbollah. On the other hand, al-Odeh, who represents the traditional center-wing, called for the postponement of internal Islamic struggles—such as Sunni-Shiite violence—promising to debate these issues at a later stage (al-Hayat, August 25).
In the wake of the divisions over the Lebanon war, the proclamations of the conservative center-wing faction are in concurrence with Salafi-Jihadis. In the September issue of al-Bayan magazine, published in London, an article was published warning of the rise of the Shiites after the Lebanon war. In an article entitled “Lets be Frank, Salafi is the Last Defense Line,” the writer indicated that Hezbollah is active in upholding the interests of Iran, Syria and the Shiites, therefore the victory of Hezbollah serves an Iranian expansionist policy that aims to strengthen Shiite penetration and dissemination of Shiite ideology through fueling minorities and sectarian disputes among Sunnis. The writer calls upon world Salafis to unite. Furthermore, he reiterates the need to develop genuine political rhetoric so that Salafi ideology appeals to more Muslims.
With each new conflict in the Middle East, the Salafi movement has experienced divisions, which have created new strains within the movement. Yet, as each new strain forms, it becomes more radical in nature and closely resembles the ideology of the Salafi-Jihadis. The conflict in Lebanon furthered this trend, and the intensifying sectarian violence in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites is also playing an important role that will only increase tension over time. It is likely that this increase will result in added strength to the Salafi-Jihadi movement and this may cause severe security problems for the Gulf States when these veteran Salafi-Jihadis begin returning to their home countries.
1. Yousef al-Ayyiri, Fadlan Inbatiho Siran (“Please Lie Down Secretly”), 2002, https://www.albatar.org.
2. Yousef al-Ayyiri, Letter to Safar al-Hawali, 2002, https://www.albatar.org.
3. The campaign was an effort to explain the righteousness of Islamic causes. It primarily consisted of a website at https://www.qawim.org. Its general secretary was al-Hawali.
6. Sawt al-Jihad, Issue 5, p. 34-35.