Anwar, a populist salafist from Tripoli

Anwar, a populist salafist from TripoliThis account of a three-day journey through Tripoli presents the reader with a tangled jumble of the words, phrases, images and allusions of populist Salafism as found echoing around the head of a forty-year old man from Tripoli. It will set out tales and news from the city: the life and atmosphere of a place where the impact of the Fatah Al-Islam incident is still being negotiated.

Suddenly, the man got up from the chair in an office of the Media Institute in Tripoli, where he worked as a news photographer. He turned and bent over, thrusting his buttocks towards my face, in a dramatic demonstration of how his tight jeans revealed the “shame” of his rear end to the world. This would, he explained, be held against him on the Day of Judgement. According to the new evangelizing Salafism he had committed the crime of highlighting and delineating his precise dimensions, his “features”, through the tight denim of his jeans.

Openness and reticence
Anwar is in his forties and married. His oldest son is almost twenty. He lives with his family in a large residential block built some ten years ago over the Christian village of Ras Massaqa next to Qadaa Al-Kora in the new Tripolitan neighborhood of Al-Bahsas and only two or three kilometers from the hills of Mahalla Abu Samra in South-Eastern Tripoli. One of Anwar’s female coworkers in the Media Institute told me that following Fatah Al-Islam’s bloody assault against the Lebanese Army and security forces on May 20 2007, a Lebanese Army patrol raided a building in the block and arrested two young men. She phoned Anwar and asked him to act as my guide on a visit to the block. At first he was taken aback, then dismissive and finally angry that his colleague was intent on dragging both his family and himself into an attempt to pry into the private lives of his fellow residents and sully their reputations by using them as a conduit of information about the two young men. So I made do with meeting Anwar openly at his place of work to pick his brains about the inhabitants of the residential block I had no real expectations that he would tell me anything about the new Salafism and its populist variants that currently held sway in certain circles and environments throughout Tripoli, but especially in the inner city: i.e in the stretch of Eastern Tripoli stretching from Mahalla Abu Samra through neighborhoods such as Al-Qubba, Bab Al-Raml, Al-Aswaq or the Old City, Al-Mankoubain as far as Bab Al-Tabana.

The “shame” of the human body
Anwar explained that there is an anger directed at underwear and clothing that displays shameful parts of the human body and exposes them to the gaze of others. After he had risen from his chair and turned round he started muttering the word for buttocks in dialect, filling his mouth with the word, like a sheikh giving a lesson in anatomy. Just as suddenly he spun round to face me, saying that the T-shirts both he and I were wearing were also forbidden under Islamic law. Not only did the T-shirt display the shameful parts of our bodies, it also made us look like Americans and unbelievers. His nervous agitated movements continued as he continued to emphasize how the clothes he wore displayed all the shameful body parts and flaws that the loose-fitting clothing prescribed by Salafist Islam concealed, thus guarding against arousal and the impulse to sin.
He raised his leg and placed his foot on the chair, drawing a circle around his testicles and groin with his palm. He said that the Muslim man is prohibited from displaying his “frontal shame”, because the sight of it swelling through his trousers would arouse any woman and thus expose him to judgment on the Final Day. He mentioned the word for testicles in crude dialect then pointed to them with his hand—almost touching them—and chanted, “Shame, shame, shame…”, as if this particular “shame” lay at the centre of all life in this world and the next.
“So what if some passing vision happens to arouse a woman?” I asked him. Anwar, a populist salafist from Tripoli
“You say ‘so what,’” he replied, “but the Lord of the Worlds doesn’t recognize ‘so what’. Human behavior is subject to divine decree and no one can contravene or change it.”
But you go against God by wearing these clothes, I pointed out, to which he said that his job in the Media Institute prevented him from wearing Islamic dress. If he implemented God’s decree in such a manner, he would be fired.
Perhaps his silent, repressed desires were the source of the verbal and physical mania that gripped him as he explained, with sensual, fluid movements, the various shameful parts of the body. He placed his palm against his chest then moving it away slightly, outlined the shape of a woman’s breast, giving the impression of gripping it as he did so, and saying: “A woman’s tits are shameful. How can she show them off like they do with the clothes they wear today?” He then sent a brief prayer heavenwards, “that He may spare us from the fire in the afterlife.” He sees hellfire as blazing before him, I mused as he directed a stream of abuse and threats against the ungodly Muslim women and girls of Tripoli, “strutting around” the streets of his city. “God curse them,” he declaimed in pompous classical Arabic, like a man delivering a sermon in the mosque. He prayed for the day when his Islam—his, Salafist Islam—would govern the land, enthroned over the ruins of the secular state whose power compelled his silence and prevented him from being a true and obedient Muslim: wearing the loose robes of Salafist Islam and hiding every last blemish and shameful part of his body.

I wanted him to expand on the reasons for his anger and I urged him to sit. He duly sat back down and said, “As a Muslim who lives in an Islamic environment in Tripoli, but in a secular state in Lebanon, I will be judged on the final day for my failure to abide by Islamic law. This calls on me to rise against the secular state that would prevent me from killing you, in accordance with my religious duty, if you were a Christian and I heard you abusing God and cursing him.”
So what types of young people shared this particular form of piety? In an impassioned rush of words Anwar told me that about 70 percent of people held these very views. He urged me to attend Friday prayers at any of the city’s mosques, so I could see for myself the vast numbers of young people among the worshippers. He can’t be right about that, I thought as he went on, angrily, “Go and see for yourself. The kids are on fire with the power of Islam, their closeness to the Lord of the Worlds, their love of religion and their desire to abide by its teachings.” But he quickly added that these young men were, “nice kids: they dress like you and me because there’s no Islamic rule in the country. Because of this they aren’t able to implement the decrees of the Islamic law they believe in, neither on themselves nor on others.”
Anwar shot out of his chair a second time, giving a pantomime of what he would do if he lived in an Islamic Emirate and heard me—his interviewer—abuse God. He raised his hand over his head, gripping an imaginary knife, which he then plunged into my neck, crying: “This is what you get for your braying!” He waved the imaginary knife back and forth and said, “I’ll kill you; I’ll make mincemeat of you!”
A violent and unexpected shudder of terror swept my body as he imitated the sound a person—or an animal, perhaps?—makes as they are slaughtered and blood spurts from their veins and arteries. Yet for my interlocutor, the man who had just murdered me in his own theatrical enactment of the longed for life in a Salafist Emirate, the performance was not yet over.
“I’d slaughter you in the street right in front of people without the slightest hesitation,” he continued, “and I’d shout, ‘He abused God, he blasphemed, Allah Akbar!’ while the knife was sticking out of your neck.”
With a start I saw that his features had completely transformed as he carried out his religious duty. His lips were puffy, his face mottled and dark and an artery throbbed in his neck. The light beard under his chin and the wispy moustaches perched over his upper lip, which initially seemed like an entirely conventional manifestation of male vanity, now seemed eloquent with the bloody and criminal version of Islam he espoused.

Islamic rule deferred
“I feel trapped and tortured by my condition and my life,” Anwar explained. The source of this agony is, as he explained when he had reseated himself, his thwarted desires and ambitions: “Like any young man I want to be ruled by Islamic law so I can get some relief from this constant psychological torment.” Sensing that he was about to work himself up into another rage, I suggested he calm down a little. “The Prophet (PBUH) taught us that we must get angry over nothing but our religion,” he replied. “You should know that what Shaker Al-Abbasi and his group are doing is technically completely legal, but as a Muslim living in a non-Muslim state I wash my hands groups like that. They’re filth.”
But how could they be “filth” if their actions are correct under Islamic Law? “Before these latest events in Tripoli and the Nahr Al-Barid camp,” Anwar told me, “there were a series of incidents in the camp. On one occasion a young man blasphemed, so a group of guys from Fatah Al-Islam grabbed him and dragged him round the camp by his hair. They told him, ‘If there was Islamic rule, we’d have slaughtered you on the spot, you filthy infidel. But because His rule is absent from this country, God has had mercy on you today.”
Anwar, a populist salafist from Tripoli
So I asked Anwar if this religious anger called for by the Prophet was being visited on anyone in Tripoli, and if so, where?
“Like I told you,” he said, “about 70 percent of people share this anger. They’re mostly in neighborhoods like Bab Al-Raml, Bab Al-Tabana, Al-Aswaq, Al-Qubba, Abu Samra and Muharram. They’re all fiery kids.”
Who’s stoking this fire?
“The Lord of the Worlds, of course.” Then, a moment later: “You guide who you love, and God guides who he will. For example, all us Sunnis respect Ramadan. It’s a test for every human being. The kid you see in the nightclubs the rest of the year will be in the mosques come Ramadan.
Next I asked what institutions and factions were working to promote this evangelizing Islamic rage amongst young men. “For your information,” he said, “there are no institutions left in Lebanon, just constant lessons and study groups in the mosques. The kids talk about what God has commanded us to do, what the Prophet has prohibited and our obligations in this day and age. You find this new piety side by side with unbelief in the same person, and it’s all because Islamic rule is absent. Take me for instance: my car is full of all kinds of cologne and deodorant. That’s prohibited under Islamic law. If I want to smell good I should use Islamic, alcohol-free scent. When some guy, not even twenty yet, wants to get married, you’ll find him asking his mum to get him a veiled girl. Why? What does he know about what’s religious and what isn’t?”

The Internet, corruption and marriage
Anwar’s rage returned afresh, and this time its victims were the Internet and CDs. He abused the Internet in the most explicit terms because, he said, “it messes the kids up: it corrupts them and fills them with doubt. And why’s that? You’ve got some thirteen year-old girl who know what **** means (a crudely carnal dialect word is here excised). This girl has extensive sexual knowledge. She could give you a comprehensive and explicit working over in bed, and all because the Internet’s spreading such degeneracy.”
But doesn’t the Internet also offer knowledge of Islam and religious guidance to those who search for it, I ventured. It was quickly clear to me that he misunderstood my modest observation, and that I was claiming that all the Internet did was to make young men terrified of marrying girls with an encyclopedic but entirely untested knowledge of sex: the mind of a whore in a virgin’s body. Anwar took it on himself to reemphasize the qualities young men looked for in a potential wife. “’I need your help, Dad, God bless you,’ the kid would implore his father. ‘I want her tall and pretty and I want her hair like this, her chest like that and her clothes like goodness knows what, but make sure she’s a veiled girl.’ Why? Because the kid sees so many terrifying pictures on the Internet and TV. My son’s the same. When I tell him, ‘What do think, son?’ and point out some girl that might suit him, he says, ‘Make sure she fears God, Dad. I don’t want problems.’”
Anwar returned to his 70 percent theme, this time emphasizing that the youth were being driven to the mosque by debauchery and moral corruption, in protest, as it were, against the, “buttocks, breasts and thighs of women on display in the streets, and through fear of God. Myself, for instance, if I see a woman passing in the street I can’t stop myself from talking to her and saying, ‘Bless the one who created you so fine. Your beauty’s calling out to me.’ But an hour later, you’ll find me praying in the mosque.”
It is the secular state that permits women to act wantonly and dress in an un-Islamic and provocative fashion. It supports them, protects them from the rage of Anwar and those like him, compelling him—against his will—to engage in lumbering and fruitless flirtations. If this state were to fall, however, and replaced by the rule of divine, Salafist Islamic law, this very flirtation would become a crime.

The Emirate of Lebanon
My friend then turned his attention to other matters. “Take the guys in the Islamic Liberation Party,” he said. “They believe in an Islamic Anwar, a populist salafist from Tripoli state, or Emirate even more strongly than Fatah Al-Islam. They really are the best of men. A while ago more than 15,000 people came from all over North Lebanon to a rally they held in Tripoli. Their goal is an Islamic state that rules the earth justly, as commanded by God. They and other groups like them currently recognize the idea of ‘Lebanon’. They hang Lebanese flags on their balconies, they turned out for the marches and demonstrations protesting the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri and they constitute a large proportion of the popular support for the Mustaqbal movement. They say, ‘We are the Sunnis in Lebanon, but we don’t recognize the Lebanese regime: we recognize the Emirate of Lebanon, on the same footing as the emirates of Iraq, Syria and Jordan.”
Couldn’t Al-Qaeda recruit young men from these groups? Anwar didn’t hesitate: “Not only Al-Qaeda but Shaker Al-Abbasi too, and lots of them. If I got the whiff of someone plotting to attack us I’d be the first one to take up arms and fight.”
What did he mean by “someone attack us,” I asked.
“I’m Lebanese, and if anyone attacked us, no matter where they came from or who they were, I’d mess them up.”
“Like a Shiite ‘rejectionist’?” I asked.
“Not necessarily.”
“A Christian?”
“Anyone who means to do me harm.”
“What do you mean by ‘do you harm’?”
“Suppose that a group from the Lebanese armed forces came to Tripoli to set up a garrison here. I wouldn’t accept that. Suppose they hung a picture of Al-Khomeini in Abu Samra Square or Saadoun. Al-Khomeini’s not a prophet: he’s just a man like any other Muslim.”
Once again, Anwar took refuge in wild exaggeration. He told me how the whole of Tripoli cried out with one voice, “Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!” when videos of Osama Bin Laden were shown on television. Yet when he hadn’t released a new tape for a while, these same people would start asking where he was, accusing him of being a fraud and an American agent who appeared and disappeared at their command. “Where is that useless idiot now, why doesn’t he appear? They want him to turn the whole world on its head and destroy the enemies of Islam with no truce, and no remorse.”

Islamic rage
I stopped Anwar mid-rant to ask a question and he responded by suggesting I visit those neighborhoods where the flame of Islamic rage burned brightest amongst the youth. He explained that most of these impassioned young men were between sixteen and twenty and that, “when you greet them they will answer in a terrifying growl—as if their voices were issuing from a volcano—‘Welcome!’ Then they’ll fix you with a dark and unwavering glare that’ll chills you to the bone and make you turn to me and say, ‘Please, Anwar, let’s get out of here.’”
As Anwar tells it, these young men are veritable beasts but bloody in tooth and claw alone: they have yet to receive weapons training. Most belong to gangs and groups that fight with blades and blunt objects. If knives aren’t to be found, he says, they rip each other apart with their bare teeth, especially in Bab Al-Tabana, where their rage could spill over at any moment.
But what is the connection between the anger of young men like these and Islamic piety? Anwar said that this particular form of Islamic rage could be seen most clearly in the response to the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. How so?
“Whoever they told about the insult done to the Prophet (PBUH), even if he was having sex with a prostitute, got up out his bed chanting, ‘Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!’”
“What exactly are you trying to get at, Anwar?”
“God help me! Aren’t I speaking Arabic? Every one of these guys dropped whatever he was doing for the sake of revenging the Prophet’s honor and shouted out: ‘We want to do something and be like our brothers elsewhere.’”

The populist Salafist
Who exactly is Anwar himself? How did he come by the language of Salafist Islamism and make it the axle around which his life and worldview turns?
Listening to him talk you sensed that he was wandering in a wilderness of half-heard words, phrases and images that filled the environment in which he lived: a Salafist vernacular, an Islamic patois, both populist and local, whose source was the new breed of preachers and the fatwas and teachings they delivered to young boys and girls in the study sessions they convened in neighborhood mosques. In the last fifteen years these sessions, lessons and fatwas have proliferated at an incredible rate and the language they employ has seeped into the speech of the illiterate, semi-illiterate, school dropouts, the unemployed, craftsmen and artisans.
It is possible to compare the accumulated impact of this language on Anwar with that of the nationalist and leftist movements in the very same neighborhoods, starting with schoolyard activism in the late 1960s right through to the Lebanese civil wars in the 1970s and 1980s. The difference between the two, is that while Salafist Islamic language revolves around the body, its movements and clothing and is chiefly interested in sex, sexual behavior and enmity towards the West, the second concerns itself with the nationalist and class struggles and colonialist depredations.
Anwar, Muslim and news photographer, willing recipient of this populist Salafism, seems to pick and choose words and phrases from this language just as his camera picks and chooses from whatever images and scenes pass his way and take his fancy. Lost in a jungle of echoes he gobbles and regurgitates words like infants imitating sounds before they have learned the meaning of words. Yet forty-year old Anwar has perfected the art of inflating these ponderous words in his head and elevating them to the status of absolute and incontrovertible truth. He is utterly seduced by these echoes. They have hollowed him out, taken possession of his tongue and his movements, and he acts them out like a marionette on the stage. He is a mirror, a medium, reflecting and channeling what is said and experienced in a particular circle of Tripolitan society. He offers us a sense of the place, shrouded in a fog of his own desires and delusions. Unconsciously he acts out roles and personalities other than his own. Rather than record and replay actual incidents and events he regurgitates the images and words that crowd his head. The reality around him crumbles away before the onslaught and his imaginings become the world.

Islam in Mahalla Abu Samra
He is the very model of the populist Salafist: battered and thrown about by words, situations and roles without converting them to the focused will and action of true Jihadist Salafists.
The Anwars of Abu Samra are proliferating. They belong to Muslims from the bottom rungs of the middle classes, saved for the moment from the poverty, desperation, violence and chaos of life in Bab Al-Tabana, Al-Aswaq, Bab Al-Raml, Al-Mankoubain and sections of Al-Qubba. Like him, they live in new residential blocks erected by traders in prefab buildings, where apartments are paid for in installment or rented out. Around the edges of these blocks religious schools and institutes spring up, packed with Lebanese students and those from abroad, from Bosnia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Some of these students live in the schools while others take out short-term rents in nearby buildings. Some of these institutes are owned by Islamic preachers such as Fathi Yakin, Bilal Shaaban, Hassan Shahaal and others, all products of Saeed Shaaban’s Islamic Emirate in Tripoli, established in the 1980s. Most of these men live in Abu Samra, concentrated in the new residential districts of Karoum Al-Zeitoun. These are wastelands, residential areas devoid of all urban amenities in which piety and religious education are the only diversions. These institutes and schools, such as Al-Janan, Al-Rahma, Al-Anaya, Rouda Al-Shahal and Al-Islah Al-Islami, were built and funded by religious associations and donors from Qatar, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that continue to construct and fund other institutes and hospitals to the present day.
The casual visitor to Abu Samra cannot help but try and guess at the various functions performed by these institutes and the residential buildings that crowd Karoum Al-Zeitoun. Yet it isn’t pure imagination: he is inescapably affected by the rumors and obscure news stories that occasionally emerge from this neighborhood. There are claims that the schools and institutes of Abu Samra take in students and preachers from other Arab (especially the Gulf states) and Islamic countries. It is no coincidence that the Ahl Al-Daawa and non-Jihadist Salafist Jamaat Al-Tabligh held their annual general meeting in Tripoli some months previously. The meeting, held over a period of several days in the Tinal Mosque, included 7,000 preachers and evangelists, the majority of whom came from the Arabian Gulf. When students from the Gulf come to study here they rent out apartments in nearby buildings. Inevitably, religious studies become mixed up with the decrees and pronouncements of popular preachers and tourism both religious and non-religious. This exchange and interaction has given birth to a poorly understood world of relationships and mutual exchange in the buildings around the institutes, whose internal workings remain obscure to all but those who live there. Saddam Dib, killed on May 20, 2007, on Tripoli’s 200 Street along with Abu Yazin, a Fatah Al-Islam official, was a student in Al-Janan University and played football for the Al-Riyada wa-l-Adab club. His father lives with his thirteen siblings in the Al-Mankoubain neighborhood. In the June 10 issue of Al-Hayat, his father told journalist Hazim Al-Amin that Saddam had been detained in Syria for 8 months then released when Fathi Yakin, owner of Al-Janan, approached Syrian officials.
Mohammed Abi Samra

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