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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Shi'is in Lebanon

View Group Chronology

Lebanon Facts
Area:    10,400 sq. km.
Capital:    Beirut
Total Population:    3,506,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References



Risk Assessment

Several factors increase the risk of Shi'a rebellion, including: Shi'a territorial concentration; their high levels of group organization; and Lebanon's political instability. However, in recent years Shi'a organizations have been more reliant on nonviolent strategies, such as electoral politics and protest, to advance their interests in Lebanon. Most violence has been directed against Israel, a risk that remains high.

Prime minister Rafik al-Hariri's assassination in February 2004 revitalized the national debate over Syria's presence in the country. While many large scale rallies were generally aligned with pro-Syrian Shi'a on one side versus anti-Syrian Sunnis and Christians on the other, the year only experienced one minor incident between the groups. The war between Hizbollah and Israel in summer 2006 had a significant affect on the region's political landscape. While the conflict ended in a relative stalemate, Hizbollah's claims of victory led to its strengthening throughout the region and its recognition by many as a legitimate power capable of fending off "Israeli aggression."

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Analytic Summary

Lebanon's Shi'a community is its largest ethnopolitical group at about one-third of the total population. They share other Lebanese groups' ethnic Arab background (RACE = 0) and Arabic language (LANG = 0), but they have distinct religious beliefs from Sunni Muslims and Maronite Christians (BELIEF = 0; RELIGS1 = 6). One of the two main branches of Islam, they strictly adhere to the five pillars of Islam and the six articles of faith. They differ from Sunnis (the other main branch of Islam) in that they are followers of the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law Ali. They believe in succession of infallible Imams or religious leaders who were all members of the Prophet's family and who interpreted the law and doctrine. Shi'ism is the established faith in Iran, and Lebanese Shi'a have a continuing interest in events in that country. There is now a substantial Shi'a population living in Beirut, but southern Lebanon and the Bekka region are the areas where the majority of the Shi'a have traditionally lived (GROUPCON = 2).

With the civil war ending in 1990 and parliamentary elections being held throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, most of the previously warring factions have been satisfied with the reforms to the electoral system and took part. Lebanon's fragile peace is dependent on a sectarian governmental structure, where the President is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies a Shi'a Muslim. Unlike other parts of the Arab world (e.g., Iraq), Lebanon's sectarian (or confessional) structure aims to prevent cultural and economic discrimination against all populations. However, because the current confessional system is based off of antiquated numbers from the 1932 census, Shi'a are under-represented in the current political system.As the fastest-growing portion of Lebanese citizenry, the Shi'a face a moderate amount of both economic and political discrimination. (ECDIS06 = 2; POLDIS06 = 2).

In 2003 a Hezbollah militant was killed in a south Lebanon clash (REPVIOL03 = 5). Additionally, five Shi'a were killed during a 2004 protest against rising fuel prices (REPNVIOL04=5). Militant organizations, such as Hizbollah (Party of God), which is openly supported by Iran, and Amal (supported by Syria) have usually directed their grievances toward Israel. However, when they do engage in public protest, which is fairly infrequent, the grievances usually revolve around the Syrian issue. For example, in 2000 Hizbollah Shi'a protested against the Syrian presence.

Individual harassment between Shi'a and Sunni adherents has occurred in the past. More recently, however, individual Shi'a men have been responsible for sporadic violence against Maronite Christians and other members of society (it is not clear to which communal group the victims belonged). In 2002, a Shi'a Muslim opened fire on 8 employees from the Ministry of Education, seven of whom were Christian. In 2003, a Shi'a assasinated a Christian leader. Intra-group sporadic violence between Hizbollah and Amal continued into 2003 (INTRACON02-03 = 1). These two Shi'a groups have been engaged in a power struggle since the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Other Shi'a organizations include the Higher Islamic Shi'a Council and a new organization started in 2003 called Muslims Without Borders. Overall support for all these groups ranges from one- to two-thirds of the general Shi'a population. When Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri was assassinated on February 14, 2005, many protests were held against the Syrian military presence in Lebanon. On March 8 of the same year, Hizballah and a coalition of pro-Syrian parties held a pro-Syrian rally in which over 500,000 people attended. While Syria officially left Lebanon in April 2005, Hizbollah continued to take a pro-Syrian stance.

After decades of chaos a weary hope pervades the country. Several militias have disbanded and/or disarmed. The relationships between the many diverse religious and ethnic groups remain tense, but for the first time in decades, this tension does not constitute the greatest threat to Lebanese stability. The status of Hizbollah will be a top issue in the coming decades. As soon as the war in the summer of 2006 ended, many began predicting that another war is soon to come. Hizbollah's growing status as a regional power to be reckoned with yet a populist organization looking out for the needs of Lebanon's Shi'a will make for an interesting balancing act in the coming years.

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References

Council on Foreign Relations. 8/13/2008. "Hezbollah." http://www.cfr.org/publication/9155, accessed 4/29/08.

Degenhardt, Henry W., ed. 1987. Revolutionary and Dissident Movements: An International Guide. A Keesing's Reference Publication. London: Longman.

Faour, Muhammad A. 2007. "Religion, Demography, and Politics in Lebanon." Middle Eastern Studies. 43:6. 909-921.

LexisNexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006.

Norton, Augustas. 1987. Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Saad-Ghorayeb, Amal. 5/2005. "Lebanon: Shiites Express Political Identity" http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/Saad-Ghorayeb_PDF.pdf.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Lebanon. 2001-2006.

U.S. Department of State. International Religious Freedom Report: Lebanon. 2006.

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Information current as of December 31, 2006