Sunnis vs. Shiites in Lebanon


In Lebanon, Sunni’s make up about 30% of the population and live mostly in urban areas or in the rural Akkar region.  Shiites are widely thought to be the majority of the population, though there are no statistics proving this because there has not been a census in Lebanon since 1932. The Shiite and Sunni dispute dates back to the 7th century with controversy over who is the right person to succeed the Prophet Muhammad. In general, Sunni’s are more conservative and Shiites have taken to a more liberal interpretation of Islamic Law. Shiites defend themselves by declaring centuries of oppression and Sunnis declare Shiites to be heretics.

Despite the long historical division, the Sunni-Shiite conflict is relatively recent in Lebanon.  The 1975-1990 civil war centered around Muslim and Christian conflict over Palestinian presence in the country.  In the early 1980’s Iran helped to establish Hezbollah, and since then they have steadily been gaining power and numbers. Hezbollah is a Shiite associated political and social organization, which is recognized by the US as a terrorist group.  In 2005 conflict increased when Hezbollah established an alliance with one of the country’s most powerful Christian leaders, Michel Aoun, also a former general. The alliance strengthened the opposition towards a Western-backed government of the Sunni Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora. This correlated with the end of Syrian troops occupying Lebanon. The following year, riots broke out between Sunni and Shiites consisting mostly of young followers of the Hezbollah ally, the political Amal Party. At this point Hezbollah had a campaign to bring down the Prime Minister Siniora.  Rumors boiled of a Sunni militia being formed to counteract Hezbollah.

In 2008, the Sunni and Shiite conflict broke out and made headlines. Shiite associated Hezbollah, took over Beirut temporarily which resulted in street riots and violence. A government decision that threatened Hezbollah’s communication network prompted the takeover. The Sunni political leader at the time, Saad Hariri, was taken over, his military defeated, his television station kicked off the air, and had two of his buildings burned by Hezbollah. A Sunni man named Obaid went to Beirut when he heard of the attack on Hariri and was stopped at a checkpoint.  When the men found out he was a Sunni they shot fire at his car, killing the man’s nephew and taking the man away to a warehouse where he was tortured for two and half days. For Sunni’s it was humiliation, their “militia” quickly defeated and a massacre was what remained.  Soon following, attacks grew to outside the capital. Lebanese leaders met in Qatar in an effort to form a compromise.

The latest conflict involves Syria as well. Hezbollah has been a supporter of the Syrian regime and this month a Syrian rebel, whom kidnapped ten Lebanese Shiites, is debating their release but much of their outcome weighs on if Sunnis will offer a counterattack.  The Syrian rebel has revealed that he would prefer to turnover the hostages to the United States in hopes that this would holdback any attacks against both the Syrian rebels and the Shiite hostages. This event has sparked a multitude of revenge kidnappings lead by Shiites in Lebanon.  Hezbollah has denied any accusations of Shiite kidnappings and is taking a unaffiliated approach, allowing the Lebanese government to deal with the hostage’s release.  The probability of the United States becoming involved is doubtful due to the recent American made, Anti Islam film, which has sparked much controversy since it lead to the American ambassador to Libya’s death. Hezbollah’s Lebanese- Shiite leader, Nasrallah, has his own response and released a reaction to the film stating:

“Those who should be held accountable, punished, prosecuted and boycotted are those directly responsible for this film and those who stand behind them and those who support and protect them. Primarily, the United States.”

Source: Washington Post. Syrian Rebel who has 10 Shiite Hostages
Source: BBC. Nasrallah, Leader of Hezbollah.

It is evident that Hezbollah has escalated tensions between Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon. The question that remains, will the conflict ever cease?

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6 thoughts on “Sunnis vs. Shiites in Lebanon

  1. I feel that this conflict can reflect the issues Democratic and Republican parties face here in the United States. The Sunni Shiite mirrors the political sects in the government of Lebanon. This is issue has become more of a political debate then religious. Older generations feel more strongly about whether someone is Sunni or Shiite where the younger generations are less concerned about what you were born into but what kind of person you have become. That is very similar to the United States in that the younger generation has more liberal views, not basing everything off of someone’s religion or background. It is interesting that some people in Lebanon feel so strongly about this division that they are willing to not communicate with someone of a different background. Also, these government parties are giving people on their side money, which only makes people feel obligated to support one side supporting the division.

    1. not only younger generation in Lebanon are less concerned but also the older generation are getting bored of all these stuff.
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  2. I found this blog post one of the best personally for me to read! The Sunnis and the Shiites are two groups within the Middle East that I have next to no knowledge about. It is interesting that the Shiite’s formed a group called Hezbollah that is considered a terrorist organization, when they have a more liberal view of Islamic Law. While the more conservative group, the Sunni’s prime minister is westerner backed. In my mind’s view (with little knowledge to back up with) I do not understand how the more liberal group becomes the terrorist group? Also in the middle of your blog you go into events in 2008 that lead to the Shiites being in power, is this still the cause, or is the government still divided (like the reply above left by Shelby)?

  3. I feel like I don’t fully understand the Sunni vs Shiite controversy no matter how much I read about it. I understand the general concept but It seems like both groups are very intricate and I feel like there is so much more that I need to learn to really understand what exactly is going on. Like most countries the older generations are the ones that are more focused on traditions and keeping rules and laws how they were prior to the mony changes that the country has been through. The younger generations, however, are more likely to be more open minded and liberal about different religions especially Sunni and Shiite.
    When reading about the conflict between Sunni and Shiite, it almost reminded me somewhat of the racial discrimination that the United States dealt with up until the early 1960’s, but mainly 1940’s-1960’s. Discriminating against a certain group based on their religious beliefs and/or their race. Judging people based on their religion or race is a personal matter that shouldn’t affect anyone or anyone’s perception of others.
    With the government involved in the separation and basing statistics of members within their government on their religion just does not make sense to me. I understand that it is like a division of powers, but having a required religion be in a certain position every year doesn’t seem like something very proactive from a governing standpoint.

  4. This post did a good job on explaining some of the tension between the Shi’ite and Sunni. It is a complicated topic and each time I read about it, I learn something new. The Hezbollah is also another complicated topic. They are Shi’ite in religion. They are sometimes seen as helping the country and sometimes seen as terrorists. To me this is confusing because the view on them is always changing. Our teammates did a good job trying to explain how Hezbollah has 3 aspects to it and people support different parts. This could be tied into government too. Especially in the United States many people like some views of the presidential candidate but do not support them in other views. The question with this and the Hezbollah is if you support one aspect but not the others where do you lie? The tension between the Shi’ite and Sunni is a subject I am anxious to learn more about.

  5. I find many factual errors concerning this post, many of the events mentioned didn’t happen as mentioned, such as the Future TV attack and burning was not by hezbolla, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party claimed responsibility to the attack as a reaction to the Halba Massacre where Lebanese Sunnis where killed for not being in support of the Sunni leader Saad Al Harriri and Future TV never went off air because broadcast was never interupted, the building attacked had armed Future security forces which were later on handed over to army intelligence.

    And as for Sunnis being more conservatives and Shiites more liberal, both sects are conservatives and have basically same beliefs, the conflict is mainly political, no matter how far back it is traced, it is political. Both follow (in their opinion) the rightful path of Gods religion.

    And if anything (please search for Nasrallah speeches over time) he has always called for his supporters to stay calm and to not get dragged into street violence, even when Sunni/Salafi clerks such as Al Assir from Sidon, Lebanon, publicly called for Sunnis to take violent actions against Shiites in the country and cut off the Beirut – South roads deliberately so that Shiite could not get to their villages.

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