TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Suddenly, and without warning, the mufti of Tripoli and north Lebanon has disappeared. Sheikh Malek al-Shaar, a prominent moderate sheikh, has not been seen since mid-February, leaving an extensive agenda filled with appointments at his house, the place he had once resolved to take refuge in upon his return from trips abroad as a result of ongoing death threats.
Unlike during previous instances, however, this time there was no fuss about the mufti’s departure, with those closest to him completely silent about his travels and the possibility of his return, as well as the reasons that drove him to leave.
Yet a source close to Shaar told The Daily Star the mufti’s return was imminent and that his travels had merely been extended.
But while the source denied knowledge of any imminent threat to Shaar’s life, the mufti’s nearly monthlong absence strongly hints at him being in danger.
However, this is not a recent development, but is instead heavily tied to the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Shaar said in 2012 that members of the Internal Security Forces had told him to leave the country because his life was at risk.
His name has appeared more than once on a list of targets of assassinations, something that has in the past prompted him to leave the country for months at a time.
And given the deteriorating security situation in Tripoli, which has led to a rise in the number of assassinations and clashes in broad daylight, the city has become increasingly risky for Shaar.
For example, pro-Hezbollah Sunni Sheikh Saadeddine Ghiyyeh was murdered last November, while an official with the pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party, Abdel-Rahman Diab, was killed last month. Diab was the father of Youssef Diab, one of those detained over suspected involvement in last August’s deadly twin mosque bombings in Tripoli.
Retired Army intelligence officer Mohammad Mistou, who used to interrogate Islamists for the military, was shot to death just a week ago as he was leaving a mosque in Tripoli’s Souk al-Atarin. All of these murders, which are linked to the rise of hard-line Sunni groups, suggest that the mufti’s disappearance comes as a result of a very serious threat.
The background for all of this is the growing animosity toward Shaar from more extreme Islamist groups.
More than one Islamist activist has said that the large number of Lebanese fighters inside Syria, particularly in Qalaat al-Hosn in the Homs region, and those who sent them feel orphaned politically, believing that all sides have abandoned them following a campaign of regional and international condemnation of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism.
Saudi Arabia, for example, has taken a tough stance on fundamentalist groups, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria and the Nusra Front, while former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has said such radical groups are linked to the Syrian regime.
Islamist circles have suggested that it is possible that Shaar’s sudden, unexplained absence has to do with this.
This growing aversion toward extremist Islamist groups, however, has simply led to more radicalization, as the groups feel they are alone in fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
This sense of betrayal has also bred an intense hatred of moderate Islamic figures, the head of which is Shaar. The fact that he is mufti of Tripoli, which is considered a city that embraces Islamists and stands with the Syrian revolution, further irks some of these extremists.
Many worrying signs can be brought up regarding the mufti’s relationship with Islamist groups that support the Syrian opposition from within Lebanon. The most notable of these is that a large number of demonstrators attending a protest in Tripoli in November last year called out a number of slogans specifically citing him, including: “There is no God but God, and the mufti is the enemy of God.”
The comments got a lot of attention from Tripoli officials, who said it constituted a threat to high-ranking religious figures.
But a Salafist in Tripoli told The Daily Star that the mufti was not necessarily being threatened by fundamentalist groups.
“We all know that during security and military tensions, a third party enters and performs an assassination that serves its interests, therefore it is possible there is a plot to assassinate the mufti and there is a serious danger to his life, but not necessarily from extremist Islamist groups from Al-Qaeda and its affiliates,” the source said. “Even given the continuous resentment of the fundamentalists, the threats on Shaar’s life are serious but they definitely do not emanate from Salafist circles.”
When asked about the same issue, another Salafist sheikh chose to quote an old Lebanese saying that roughly translates to: “When nations change, watch out for yourself,” pointing out that the Syrian crisis had precipitated several regional and international changes, which in turn increases the danger of extremism.
The Salafist sheikh said that these complex geopolitical circumstances could lead to several assassinations of high-level figures, not just the mufti.
Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Sunni authority, refuses to give an answer over the mufti’s disappearance, and it is true that the sheikhs and employees have grown used to his regular travel.
Obtaining information as to why the mufti has disappeared is a complex mission, but a source close to Dar al-Fatwa said last week: “The mufti is in Saudi Arabia and he has answered his cellphone without telling us the reasons for his leaving or the date of his return.”