Sunni-Shia Bellum Sacrum Faultlines Deepen: Gloves Come Off in Lebanon


Franklin Lamb – TRANSCEND Media Service

Mohammad Hussein Fadallah, Husseiniya, South Beirut

Historically, the term “religious war” (Bellum Sacrum) was used to describe various European wars among Christian denominations spanning mainly the 16th to the 18th centuries, bloodlettings such as the Seven Year’s War (1756-1763), a conflict which spread widely throughout Europe and on to North and Central America and also to the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. There were dozens of other intra-Christian wars, the seeds of which began to sprout shortly after the death of Jesus Christ.

The Encyclopedia of Wars, by authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, estimate that only 7 percent of the 1,783 wars they chronicle involve religion. But Lebanon is one of these. Tragically the country is still mired in a cold war phase of its 15 year (1975-90) civil war, from which it has yet to recover. Religious differences are one of the major causes of Lebanon’s many problems today, and it is within this context that the mushrooming intra-Muslim war between Sunni and Shia is spreading and intensifying. Sunnis comprise approximately 90 percent of the followers of Islam, while their increasingly vilified coreligionists, Shia Muslims, make up about 10 percent. This month, Lebanon’s Shia are commemorating Ashoura and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali at the battle of Karbala in 680, and they are doing so under increased security, with additional checkpoints manned by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah forces, this because Da’ish and al Nursa have announced their intent to target the Shia worshipers.

Many among Lebanon’s older generation, both Sunni and Shia, report that as youngsters they were not aware of the internecine antagonisms, nor did they harbor animosity with their neighbors. Sometimes members of the different sects intermarried, shared holidays, and always there was the developing of strong friendships with each other.

“That is all changed now, perhaps until End Times,” says an employee at Beirut’s Dar al Fatwa in the mixed neighborhood of Aisha Bikar, near the American University of Beirut.

The gentleman and a colleague he was with elaborated:

“Everyone alive today in Lebanon and for many generations to come will have their families’ lives negatively affected by the rapidly spreading sectarian hostility. The Sunni-Shia hatred is poisonous—it’s the new political Ebola virus! Can it be eradicated? How can we stop it from engulfing the Middle East or has it already done so?”

His friend added, “And forget about the Christians! In a few years’ time there will probably not be enough of them left in the Middle East to matter.”

To this observer, the spiraling sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia in Lebanon appears to be coming mainly from Sunni groups and militia who vent a laundry list of complaints against their fellow Muslims, many, but not all, stemming from Hezbollah’s involvement in the civil war still raging across the anti-Lebanon mountain range to the east.

Co-existence, which held sway for centuries, included the sharing of many fundamental beliefs and practices, but there are differences in doctrine, ritual, law, theology, and religious organization, and these are based in part over a political dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over who should lead the Muslim community. Sunni Muslims regard themselves as the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam, and they adhere to traditions and practices based on precedent or reports of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and those close to him. Sunnis venerate all the prophets mentioned in the Koran, but particularly Muhammad as the final prophet. In early Islamic history, the Shia were a political faction—literally “Shiat Ali,” or the party of Ali—and they claimed the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and his descendants to lead the Islamic community.

In Sunni-ruled countries, for hundreds of years Shias made up the poorest sections of society, and today many view themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression as some extremist Sunni doctrines continue to preach hatred of Shia. Some argue that the Shia-Sunni Bellum Sacrum is more political than religious. If true, the mutually destructive conflict now intensifying in Lebanon would share much in common with other religious wars which were basically political conflicts justified in the name of religion. Iran, which supports some Shia militias beyond its borders, is in conflict with some Sunni countries, especially regional neighbors who support Sunni militia. In Lebanon, both Sunni and Shia have been put in a difficult situation, caught up in spill-over from the Syrian civil war. Teheran’s policy of supporting Shia militias and parties beyond its borders is essentially matched by the Sunni Gulf states, with Shia and Sunni leaders often seeming in competition as the latter continue to strengthen their links to Sunni governments and movements abroad.

And Lebanon is paying a big price. On 10/29/14, lawmakers failed for the fifteenth time to elect a new president due to a lack of quorum at parliament; they will “try again” on 11/19/14 with likely the same result because those holding power seem to want a deadlock. Only 54 members out of the 128 in Parliament showed up, well short of a quorum. The others were instructed by their parties to boycott, including the pro-Hezbollah Change and Reform and Loyalty to the Resistance blocs of the March 8 alliance. Their motives, their opponents in the pro-Saudi March 14 alliance claim, are purely political. The latest failed session was also boycotted by Speaker Nabih Berri, the Shia leader of the pro-Syrian Amal militia, with the parliamentarian insisting he is simply trying to encourage ‘dialogue”.

“It has never been this bad” explains the proprietor of a neighborhood grocery store, agreeing with ever more of his fellow countrymen, who seem now to be openly cursing both sides in public.

A few brief examples from the past week illustrate the rapidly intensifying sectarian clash. As Hezbollah continues boycotting parliamentary electoral sessions due to disagreements with the mainly Sunni March 14 camp over a compromise presidential candidate, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, himself a presidential candidate, this week accused the Shia Resistance of “blocking Parliament in to order to blackmail political blocs into electing their puppet, Michel Aoun.” Aoun, who like Geagea, is anti-Palestinian, denies the current media speculation that “the ongoing obstruction is no longer a political maneuver, but an attempt to target Lebanon’s political system.”

In joining the Syrian war, Hezbollah is also being accused of sacrificing Lebanese young men while killing many innocent Syrians solely on orders from Tehran. According to one March 14th member of Parliament, “No one believes, not even the Hezbollah leadership, that Hezbollah is fighting in Syria to protect Lebanon, whose people are paying a big price for their adventure.” Other Sunni opponents of Hezbollah, including the spokesman for the March 14th Alliance, claim that terrorists, or the so-called Takfiris, would never have come to Lebanon had Hezbollah not invaded Syria and started killing Sunni.

And then there are the largely Sunni families of the 27 captive troops and policemen being held for ransom by the al-Nursa front. The families are blaming Hezbollah and the Shia leader of Lebanon’s Internal Security Force, (ISF) Major-General Abbas Ibrahim, for not acting seriously to negotiate their loved ones’ release from captivity, a shortcoming they allege has been for purely sectarian reasons. On 10/30/14 the families threatened again to escalate their protests, and have been burning tires at the Riad al-Solh Square in downtown Beirut while their relatives’ captors, al-Nusra Front, increasingly are setting up sleeper cells and advocating for the Sunni community in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, both Notre Dame University – Louaize and Saint Joseph University decided this week to suspend student elections for the current academic year as the sectarianism spreads. “The political and security situation in Lebanon, which could impact the campus, will not allow the students to practice their democratic role positively,” USJ’s Board of Members said in a statement.

The United Nations has warned again this week that foreign, religiously-motivated jihadists are swarming into the twin conflicts in Iraq and Syria at “an unprecedented scale,” some of them coming from countries that “had not previously contributed combatants to global terrorism.” More than 1,500 foreign fighters are arriving in Syria each month—a higher rate than when US airstrikes against Da’ish began in September. The trend line established over the past year would mean that the total number of foreign fighters in Syria now exceeds 16,000, with the pace eclipsing that of any comparable conflict in recent decades, including the 1980s war in Afghanistan. The “democracy success story and Arab Spring winner” Tunisia has been reported as the country contributing the most jihadists, while meanwhile, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has announced that 560 people have been killed in the US-led airstrikes, among these 32 civilian deaths, including six children and five women. The Pentagon, for its own part, estimates that each of the more than 600 US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq costs the American taxpayer approximately $9 million, which if the Syrian Observatory figures are accurate would average out to $ 1.4 million per corpse.

As noted above, many of the jihadists are moving into Lebanon, especially the north near Tripoli and into the largely Shia Bekaa Valley East of Beirut and to the Sunni are of Saida to the south.  The north of Lebanon continues to experience sporadic fighting between Sunni and Shia-backed militia. If one credits social media, some of the Sunnis want to fight Hezbollah, which they oftentimes label the “Party of Satan” or “Iran’s militia.”

On 10/30/13 Saudi National Guard Minister Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, directing his comments to the KSA’s arch foe, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nassrallah, proclaimed that “The parties embracing terrorism in the region have become well-known.” Within minutes, Saudi media outlets opened with commentary and statements like those currently appearing in the Lebanese Naharnet:

“Yes those supporting terrorism—they are the same who killed Rafik el Hariri and the remaining M14 leaders. They are the same who refuse to abide by Lebanese justice and deliver the accused/witness for investigations, they are the same who in order to remain in power, decide to destroy their country and kill their people and allow a huge inflow of terrorist into their land to show a worse alternative.”

Such sentiments are shared by what seems to be a growing number in the Sunni community. Unlike during the years following the 2006 July war and Hezbollah’s widely acknowledged success against the Zionist regime still occupying Palestine, such critics are no longer reluctant to openly castigate Shia Muslims generally and Hezbollah specifically.

Where this all ends is anyone’s guess, but a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict, even one limited to certain areas as Washington, Tehran and Moscow are discussing, would perhaps help. Yet as various analysts and scholars postulate, the latest Sunni-Shia manifestation of Bellum Sacrum may well take a long time to heal—tens of years, or even centuries. Only time will tell.


Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program ( He can be reached c/

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Nov 2014.

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