On Aug. 23, Muslims in Lebanon’s majority Sunni city of Tripoli congregated as usual for Friday prayers. But just as the prayers ended, an enormous blast hit the al-Taqwa mosque in Abu Ali Square. Just a few minutes later, a huge explosion ripped through the wall of the al-Salam mosque in the Mina area of the city. With at least 42 people dead and more than 400 injured, groups of angry men sporting AK-47 rifles took to the streets and fired in the air while others threw rocks at nearby Lebanese soldiers.
The incident follows a week after a car-bomb detonated in a Shiite-dominated neighborhood in southern Beirut, an echo, it seemed, of the volatile, ugly sectarian hatreds that are shaping the brutal civil war in neighboring Syria. For months, the northern city of Tripoli has seen gun battles between local Sunni militias and Lebanese troops. Elsewhere, fighters belonging to the powerful Lebanese Shiite organization Hizballah have flocked to the banner of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, who himself is an Alawite (a sub-sect of Shiite Islam) and faces a rebellion that is dominated by Sunni militias and backed by Sunni monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
The turmoil that has gripped parts of the Arab world since the hopeful democratic uprisings of 2011 has been characterized by an uptick in religious tensions. A report published by the Pew Research Center on June 20 said that the Arab Spring had added to restrictions on religion, with “pronounced increases in social hostilities involving religion” since 2011. Experts have suggested that the cause of this is the political instability that the revolutions have brought to the region.
Prior to the Arab Spring, corrupt, authoritarian rulers may have governed many Arab states, but these states were also fairly stable. “Living under an autocratic ruler in Syria meant that the Syria you wake up to every morning will be the same as the Syria you went to bed in,” says Aaron Reese, deputy research director at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “When you disrupt the state as a source of identity, then people become unsettled and they are going to turn to other identities to seek a stable community of support.”
This leads to a politicization of religious identity. While Lebanon, which went through its own grinding, sectarian civil war, has a political system shaped by confessional divisions, authoritarian regimes in Syria and Egypt preached a secularist Arab nationalism that seemed to supersede religion. The tumult of the Arab Spring created political vacuums that unleashed underlying hostilities, exposing how fragile and sometimes cynical the existing political arrangements had been in some of these countries. Nowhere is this more acute than in Syria, where the initial bloody crackdowns launched by the Assad regime, critics say, exacerbated sectarian divisions, polarized the conflict and led to the emergence within the rebellion of a radical extremist wing that has made the West deeply wary of intervening.
Meanwhile, the rise of political Islam in fledgling Arab Spring democracies has created a new set of concerns, with secularists and religious minorities fearful of new restrictive laws. In Egypt, the military-backed government’s recent crackdown on Islamist protests allegedly spawned a backlash against the country’s Coptic Christians, with a number of Coptic churches attacked and burned. In Iraq, the terror attacks and bombings continue on a near daily basis, with July ranking as one of the country’s bloodiest months in half a decade. Sifting through the wreckage, from Tripoli to Cairo, it’s hard to see when or how the violence will stop.