TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Just a block away from the residence of Taha Kayal, the suicide bomber who targeted a popular cafe in Jabal Mohsen last month in a Nusra Front-orchestrated attack, Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim holds a card, the only proof of his affiliationwith the highest Sunni authority in the country.
“Nepotism is the main reason people in the north feel marginalized from Dar al-Fatwa,” Ibrahim said. “If I wanted to get a position, I would have to please a politician, then I’d become dependent on them and their political views.”
Ibrahim’s views are commonplace in certain areas of Tripoli and further north in Akkar, where Dar al-Fatwa’s moderate reach is fraying due to years of politically driven infighting.
Numerous religious and political sources have reported that in the void left by the institution, a plethora of unregulated mosques have prospered, some with radical preachers linked to jihadi groups proselytizing an extremist brand of Islam.
With the election of Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian last summer, the internal division sown during the last years of former Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani’s term was thought to have come to a formal end.
But Derian has inherited a host of new challenges from the previous administration that many religious figures in the north are unconvinced he can overcome. They agree that reining in unregulated mosques will be a key challenge.
“He needs time to prove himself,” Sheikh Salem Rafei, speaking to the Daily Star in his Koura home, said of the grand mufti.
Dar al-Fatwa has two registered mosques in the Mankoubine area, but residents say that they, rather than the institution, have had to foot the bill for renovations. “They feel alienated from Dar al-Fatwa,” Ibrahim said. “There is a great distance between their real everyday problems and the institution.”
The void this reality has created has left a space for extremist preachers to thrive and spread their message, Carnegie scholar Raphael Lefevre says. In Tripoli only one-third of mosques fall under Dar al-Fatwa. The rest, Lefevre’s research shows, are controlled by a range of religious groups and figures close to politicians from across the political divide and by more extreme preachers.
“The issue of unregulated mosques is a long-standing one,” he said. “But the infighting in Dar al-Fatwa made it much worse. The institution’s paralysis led to a decline in its religious credentials, popular credibility, influence in mosques and financial capabilities.”
In Bab al-Tabbaneh this reality is more acute. The area is often said to have an especially high percentage of practicing radical imams, and Dar al-Fatwa controls only one of the 12 mosques in operation there.
“It’s very difficult to control all the preachers in Lebanon because everyone opens his own supermarket, so to speak,” said Sheikh Mohammad Anis Arwadi of the Higher Islamic Council. “When we have a strong government we can stop these people, but when the government is weak these factions grow stronger.”
Derian received a delegation from the Forum for Islamic Dialogue in January which called on Sunni patrons to fund reform projects to improve Dar al-Fatwa operations. During the meeting, Fouad Makhzoumi, who led the delegation, raised the issue of increasing the wages of Dar al-Fatwa sheikhs to improve living conditions, rendering them less susceptible to “external pressures.”
It’s a call that resonates with Sheikh Majed Darwish, director of religious affairs at Dar al-Fatwa-associated Al-Azhar University in Abi Samra, a Tripoli neighborhood. The key to curb extremism from taking root in the north, he believes, lies in investing more heavily in Dar al-Fatwa’s endowments, properties that bring in revenue to the institution that are used to remunerate associated sheikhs and scholars.
Apart from resolving the hitches inherited from the previous administration, Darwish said, Derian must also do more to capitalize on the institution’s real estate potentialin order to improve the lot of its marginalized members.
“When we improve the conditions of sheikhs and preachers, they won’t be tempted to join ISIS or the Nusra Front, or any other group,” Darwish said. “Then no one will be able to take advantage of them.”
Darwish is convinced the rise in unregulated mosques, and by extension preachers, in the north is spurred by unmet needs. Sheikhs and imams are lured to toe an extremist line because jihadi groups are able to pay more than the paltry sum offered by the state-backed Dar al-Fatwa.
Under the current system, Dar al-Fatwa contracts imams for around $130 a month. Sheikhs with permanent positions, who fall in the minority, make less than the average high school teacher in Lebanon, according to Darwish.
“If we had the financial abilities to meet the needs of sheikhs, there would not be an extremist presence in north Lebanon,” he said.
The political division under Qabbani in Beirut greatly limited Dar al-Fatwa operations in Tripoli. Numerous projects devised by the institution’s scholars, including Darwish, to restructure the northern administrative branch and bring in revenue – including constructing an office high-rise next to Tripoli’s serail on land owned by Dar al-Fatwa – was effectively stopped during this time.
Darwish estimated that profits from renting the building once it was constructed would have brought in $300,000 a month, money that could have gone to improve the standing of northern sheikhs.
“The dispute [during Qabbani’s time] affected us greatly because all the decisions needed to be taken in Beirut, and there was no way that was going to happen,” Darwish said, adding that the plan still required the approval of the Higher Islamic Council in the capital. “Then we will be back on track.”
But Dar al-Fatwa can’t reclaim its reputation through administrative reform alone. The institution’s reserved posture over unresolved case of Fatah al-Islam inmates, detained in Roumieh prison since 2007, among other controversial Sunni issues has also tarnished its image in the north.
“They’ve been in prison for almost six years now. When we tried to help solve this issue, we were told than it wasn’t a national file, but an external one, and that our hands were tied,” Darwish said.
For Sheikh Rafei, the head of the Committee of Muslim Scholars, which in the past has reproached Dar al-Fatwa for not adequately representing the true voice of the Sunni street, providing legal support for the families of the detainees will be a great test for Derian’s reputation.
The Muslim Scholars Committee, which has an apparentSalafist orientation, emerged following the Syrian uprising to satisfy the void left by Dar al-Fatwa in the north during Qabbani’s time. As Lefevre has documented, over the years it evolved into a sophisticated association with its own institutions and remains an active critic of the state’s policies in the north.
The group’s profile rose after it contributed to mediating the release of some of the servicemen in ISIS and Nusra Front captivity.
While the committee had its own candidate to run against Derian, Sheikh Ahmad Darwish al-Kurdi, Rafei maintains that rather than a competitor, the committee can complement Dar al-Fatwa’s work in north Lebanon.
When Lebanese satirist Charbel Khalil shared a photo on social media earlier this week that was viewed as a defamation of Islam, Rafei called Derian, who filed a complaint with the judicial council.
“That’s an example of the partnership we could have,” Rafei said.
Differences aside, even Dar al-Fatwa’s harshest critics see it as the sole moderate Sunni authority in Lebanon, and the rise of radical preachers in the north as a symptom of its administrative ineffectiveness.
“What happens when a father leaves his house?” Sheikh Abdel-Rahman Akkari asked of Minyeh. “That house descends into chaos.”