Friday, January 11, 2013

A feud in the corridors of Sunni power

[Originally posted at NOW]

A long-brewing feud in the corridors of Sunni power took a turn for the worse this week, in spite of mediation efforts undertaken Monday by the community’s premier representatives, with a group of Future Movement MPs describing Grand Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Rashid Qabbani as a “dictator” and “tyrant” in a statement Wednesday.

The controversy was first triggered by Qabbani’s call last year for elections in the Higher Islamic Council, the clerical body in charge of Dar al-Fatwa, the Sunnis’ officially established religious authority. The call was rejected by 21 of the 32 members of the council reported to be loyal to the Future Movement, ostensibly on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The Mufti has dismissed this claim, accusing the 21 members of “working on dividing the Muslim [community] for political reasons.”

Elections, if they were to occur, could impact not only the Sunni community, but all Lebanese. The council’s role is not limited to Sunni religious affairs, such as issuing fatwas and managing the awqaf [financial assets] – it also holds considerable sway over national parliamentary decisions, according to lawyer Nabil al-Halabi. For example, a 2011 draft law that sought to criminalize domestic violence was blocked by Dar al-Fatwa on the grounds that it “violat[ed] Islamic law.”

From a strictly legal perspective, it appears both sides in the current dispute have grounds to argue their cases. On the one hand, the Mufti is correct in saying that the current term of the council members has expired, according to lawyer and council member Muhammad al-Mrad. Indeed, the term expired in 2009, but has been extended by decree every year since then due to agreement among members that extraordinary circumstances in the country made the holding of elections undesirable.

By the same token, however, Mrad told NOW that elections cannot be held without the consent of all council members. “It is not possible to call for elections without referring to the council. The council is the authority that decides whether the extraordinary circumstances are still present. Any call for elections by the Mufti must be based on a council decision that these circumstances are over.”

According to Halabi, the Mufti argues in turn that since the council’s term has ended, it has become a “caretaker” one, which does not have the legal authority to reject his call for elections.

However, protocol was also violated in other ways, according to Mrad. “Article 12, Item 2 of the 1955 decree stipulates that the electoral check lists must be published in the first month of every year. The Mufti cannot call for elections” since this has not been done.

In any case, beneath the legal dispute lies deepening political antagonism that may be the key driving force of the rift. Over the past year, the Mufti and the Future Movement have waged a public war of words over a number of issues, with Future accusing the Mufti of favoring their March 8 opponents, and the Mufti in turn accusing them of “slandering” him, “disregarding [his] dignity” and trying to “take away [his] powers.”

“Undoubtedly, there are political problems such as [the Mufti’s] receiving a Hezbollah delegation [and] the Iranian and Syrian ambassadors,” Halabi told NOW. “Some consider this a dangerous sign that the Mufti may take the council to another path that does not serve the interests of the Sunni sect.” Indeed, in their statement Wednesday, Future MPs accused the Mufti of “serving [Iran] and [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s regime.”

The Mufti dismisses these allegations as “lies”, saying, “I am not one to be on one side and move to another like politicians.”

Others, including Mrad, believe the Mufti is maneuvering to extend his own term for the rest of his life. “I think there are personal calculations for the Mufti. His insistence on holding elections [aims] to provide a certain majority in the council, in order to extend his term for life. The law gives him the right to choose 8 members and there is someone who promised to provide him a majority,” that “someone” being “well-known parties that are controlling all issues,” likely a reference to Hezbollah and/or Syria.

The Mufti denies this too, saying via a Dar al-Fatwa statement that he would leave the institution when his term ends on September 15, 2014, and “go back home […] [A]ny other talk is just rumors and fabrications.”

At present, PM Miqati is trying to push through a solution that would see the current council remain for two to three months, after which time the elections would be held. While Qabbani has accepted the proposal subject to minor adjustments, it remains to be seen whether it will satisfy the Future Movement.

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

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