Tine Gade, Sunni City: Tripoli from Islamist Utopia to the Lebanese ‘Revolution’ (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Tine Gade (TG): My research for this book started as a PhD thesis, which I defended at Sciences Po Paris in 2015. I consider it important to publish a book about Tripoli, a city long neglected in the literature—the most recent English-language book on Tripoli appeared in 1967!

Most studies of Lebanon’s second largest city have focused on its alleged role as a hotbed for radical Islamist movements. I wanted to provide another perspective, focusing on the weaknesses of the Lebanese state in peripheral areas, the failings of the public school system, and the many networks of dependency between wealthy leaders in Tripoli and the generally deprived local population.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

TG: The book analyses a century of political socialization in Tripoli (1920–2020), focusing on the post-2005 period. When I started my fieldwork in Tripoli in 2008, sectarian political discourse (anti-Shi‘i or anti-Hizbullah discourse) had begun with the war in Iraq, later peaking in 2012/2013, influenced by the war in next-door Syria. Further, Tripoli experienced the rise and fall of several non-state armed groups claiming adherence to Islamism and, often, jihadism. However, when I conducted interviews in Tripoli starting in 2008, many said that Islamism was on the decline and that people were increasingly becoming secular. Moreover, most Islamist movements were moderate and accepted the Lebanese state.

Rather than taking any of these phenomena (Islamism, sectarianization, etc.) for given, I analyze their importance in Tripoli society, drawing on rich description, narratives, and social and political history. My analysis is informed by research on the crisis of the Lebanese state and its governance and by studies of Sunni leadership strategies in Lebanon (for example, Michael Johnson’s classic Class and Client in Beirut). I also take interest in studies on the proclaimed crisis of religious authority in Sunni Islam (Bernard Rougier’s excellent The Sunni Tragedy in the Middle East, for instance). Finally, I draw on urban studies from the Middle East and studies of sectarianization, and relate to current debates about Islamism. One important debate concerns the causes of radicalization: Can radicalization be explained as due largely to ideological factors (Islamist ideology)? Or are social and sociological explanations more relevant? I can only speak for the case of Tripoli, and here I found that the Sunni crisis in Lebanon is really a state crisis—a crisis of governance. The issue of religious authority would not have mattered so much, had it not been for the gaps and structural inequalities in Lebanese state governance.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

TG: My PhD thesis was on Tripoli, and I have done fieldwork there since 2008, as well as intermittent fieldwork in northern Iraq since 2016. Most of my articles have concerned topics related to my PhD thesis; one article, for example, analyses the continuity of social movements in Tripoli from the 1970s until today. I have also published on clientelism, and on the Lebanese resilience in the face of spill-over from the Syrian conflict. I point out that, despite the geographical proximity to the Syrian conflict theater, the number of Lebanese jihadis who have travelled to Syria is relatively low, and I try to explain why. Recently I have also published on Kurdish Islam (with Kamaran Palani), analyzing the relationship between ethno-nationalism and religion in the Kurdish case. Finally, I have recently completed a book chapter on refugee-host relations in Erbil city (co-authored with Khogir W.Muhammad). Since almost all the Syrian refugees in Erbil are Kurdish, this is an interesting case of intra-ethnic (Kurdish-Kurdish) relations.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

TG: I hope that many Tripolitanians, Lebanese, and scholars of Lebanon will read the book and take note of my analysis of Tripoli as a secondary city. I argue that the dethronement of Tripoli when the Lebanese state was created in 1920 largely explains the historical and current propensity for protest in Tripoli.

I see Tripoli as one in a larger universe of secondary cities, like Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Secondary cities are often marginalized within the state. Tripoli, Aleppo, and Mosul are all dominated politically and economically by elites in the capital. Such cities tend to have a more protest personality than (non-secondary) capital cities that are tightly controlled by state security agencies.

Many of Tripoli’s Sunni elites refused to acknowledge the Lebanese state. When they finally did, they felt that the Lebanese state saw them as second-class citizens; in their view, Tripoli did not receive its legitimate share of state resources, and its history and identity were often neglected by historians of Lebanon. To protest what they perceive as their city’s continued marginalization within the Lebanese state structure, Tripoli’s population has rallied behind the popular Arab ideologies of the times: pan-Arab nationalism, Nasserism, Ba‘thism, Islamism, and so on. By focusing on the perspective of secondary cities, on governance, history, and geographical and political economy factors, I seek to nuance the recent focus on Islamism and sectarianism that has dominated analyses of Tripoli and Mosul. Further, I stress the pluralism found within Tripoli, especially in terms of class. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

TG: My latest research project concerns the rise of female religious authority in Saudi Arabia. In 2013 women were for the first time appointed to the Council of Senior Clerics, and in 2017 female Muftis emerged. Moreover, some Saudi female da‘iyyat preachers have reached large audiences through social media platforms such as Twitter. This rise of female Muslim religious leaders is a regional and transnational trend. As Islamic studies as a discipline is becoming increasingly feminized across the world, I investigate how the growing role of women may have an impact on how religious authority is performed.

J: How does Tripoli compare to other cities in Lebanon, and why is Tripoli interesting?

TG: The old city of Tripoli is Mamluk, similar to Cairo, and has an Arab feel in architecture, culture/lifestyle, and identity. Compared to Saida in southern Lebanon and the capital Beirut, Tripoli is a more genuine and intact old city. However, many parts are very dilapidated due to war damage and long-time neglect.

Although eighty to ninety percent of Tripoli’s population share the same religion (Sunni Islam), the city is deeply divided politically and socially. These divisions underscore how Sunni Islam is not monolithic. Sunni identity must be recognized as intersecting with other important identities such class, education, region, sect, religious and political belief, and lifestyle.

With its rampant inequality and poverty rates, Tripoli can be seen as a microcosm of Lebanon’s current economic, financial, and political crisis. Political ties between wealthy elites and voters are often based on clientelism and patronage, and even vote buying. This occurs across Lebanon, but is particularly accentuated in Tripoli because of the material needs of the population.

Moreover, urban development and road development have led to the isolation of certain urban areas in Tripoli, now deemed “dangerous.” Young urban Muslim males are especially often subjected to police controls and arrest. Tripoli is an example of how city development in Lebanon often occurs without proper planning and leads to the marginalization of certain populations.

It may also be argued that Tripoli’s city identity is more conservative than that of Beirut. Indeed, many have characterized it as a city of religion and religious scholars. This may have begun to change in recent years, especially after people from all social backgrounds, sects, and regions mingled at al-Nour Square during Lebanon’s October 2019 revolution. Finally, it should be noted that Tripoli’s civil society is also becoming increasingly active, with many women involved.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5, pp. 158—62)

The Image of Tripoli as a Citadel of Sunni Hardliners

The proponents of the ‘sectarianization thesis’ see sectarian identities as the result of manipulation by political elites eager to maintain political and economic power over their constituencies. In this view, Lebanese political elites control sectarian expressions in their communities by giving a red light or a green light for sectarian expressions in the media outlets they control. State leaders, according to this argument, accentuate the salience of sectarian identities by stirring up local sensitivities.

However, a bottom-up–top-down distinction in the study of collective action is not helpful when analysing sectarianization. Indeed, elite manipulation from above would be impossible if sectarianism did not appeal to existing identities and expectations from below. Lebanon’s sectarianism is as much due to the sum of individual needs for belonging that grew out of the insecurities, anomie, and displacement created by Lebanon’s wars as to manipulation by elites and qabaḍāyāt, who seek to prevent the formation of a self-conscious working class.

In my interviews with a number of high Future Movement officials, they refused to see themselves as responsible for sectarianism, and blamed it on the lack of education of the Sunni masses. Referring to the multi-sectarian composition of the Future Movement’s political bureau, the Movement’s elites cast themselves as non-sectarian, and accused the humbler layers of society of not being ready for civic identities. However, to take politicians’ self-justification at face value would be a mistake: sectarianization arises due both to demands from below and to strategizing from above. One major reason for sectarianization was that the Future Movement gave political cover to sectarian street leaders and identity entrepreneurs in Tripoli, who had their own motivations for turning the Lebanese conflict in a sectarian direction.

The Future Movement gave a green light to sectarian rhetoric in 2006, as a response to the beginning of Sunni-Shiʿa tension in Beirut. It intensified its recourse to sectarian slogans about a year prior to the 2009 parliamentary elections. Then, after the elections, it attempted to defuse sectarianism, but easing sectarian tensions was more difficult than creating them in the first place. The Future Movement could no longer control the sectarian ‘Frankenstein’ it had brought to life. Moreover, as the Future Movement refused to take responsibility for its sectarian Sunni constituents, it came to be seen as disloyal to its supporters.

Regional and Historical Influences

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad and its replacement with an Iranian-dominated Shiʿa majority regime victimized Sunni Arabs in Iraq and sparked Sunni sensitivities about Iran’s regional role in the entire Levant and the Arab Gulf region. Sunni leaders in the Middle East responded by ‘sectarianizing’ the regional conflict, inventing a myth that Saddam had been a ‘Sunni martyr’ who had fought Iran, not just a dictator who oppressed his people.

Sectarianism had always been more visible in Lebanon than in Syria and Iraq, since it was institutionalized through political representation. Sunni identity was for a long time contrasted against Christian identity. Until 1982, sectarianism was expressed in ideological terms. Muslim-Christian conflict was expressed as a conflict of pro-Westerners (mostly Christians) against those who wanted to safeguard Lebanon’s Arab identity (predominantly Muslims). Muslim Arab identity also became identified with support for (Arab) Palestinians.

Sectarianism in the sense of Sunni hostility to Shiʿism began in Beirut in the 1980s. The Lebanese capital, a melting-point of all the religious and political cleavages existing in Lebanese society at large, was a frontline between Sunni and Shiʿa areas. In the Sunni fortress of Tripoli, meanwhile, Sunni anxieties about growing Shiʿa power did not come to the forefront. The main factor was the Shiʿa demographic rise in Beirut, which made Sunnis feel more vulnerable, especially in a context of rising property prices. A Sunni sectarian myth began with the Amal militia’s fight against the PLO in the Palestinian camps south of Beirut, known as the War of the Camps (1985–1988). The narrative transmitted to a new generation was of a Shiʿa military attack against Sunnis who had become exposed after the 1982 PLO withdrawal which had left them without a military force.

A Sunni sectarian undercurrent also existed in Tripoli, although the Sunnis saw the ‘other’ here as Maronites in Zgharta and as political Maronitism, rather than the Shiʿa. Sectarianism against Christians had led to clashes in support of the Palestinians during the 1970s. However, the Sunni-Maronite struggle was over access to state resources and power, rather than differences in religion. Most of Tripoli’s well-to-do sent their children to Christian schools. Until the civil war, Christians had constituted a larger portion of Tripoli’s population.

Sectarianism was also a cause of Tripolitanians’ opposition to the Syrian regime, which for so long had repressed Sunni groups and individuals in northern Lebanon. It was certainly also present in the tension between Bab al-Tibbeneh’s Sunnis and the ʿAlawites in Jabal Mohsen. The narratives of the December 1986 massacre at Bab al-Tibbeneh (described in Chapter 2) were transmitted to new generations through incomplete accounts of the history (as was typical in Lebanon, since contemporary history was not taught in the schools), and in popular nashīd (Islamic songs or chants) of artists who were close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Most people in northern Lebanon distinguished, however, between the Syrian army (and its corrupt practices) and the ʿAlawite civilians of Lebanon and Syria. Moreover, ʿAlawite identity was not seen as linked to Shiʿism until Hizbullah began aiding and abetting the Arab Democratic Party in Jabal Mohsen in 2005.

Sunnis in Beirut and in Tripoli often felt that they belonged to something larger than just Lebanon. Although they accepted the state, their cultural identification with the Muslim umma and with Muslim Arab history was generally strong. This view of history made many Sunnis see themselves as superior to other religious groups, and as more entitled to rule. The Sunnis viewed the Shiʿa as rural ‘third-class citizens’. The Shiʿa had long faced both Sunni and Christian racism.

Many Sunnis saw the Hariri assassination in 2005 as a decapitating attack aimed at depriving the Sunni sect of its leader. Manipulation from above, building on sectarian vulnerabilities from below, portrayed Hariri’s murder as the latest example of a systematic elimination of Lebanese Sunni leaders, including Khalil ʿAkkawi in February 1986, sheikh Subhi Saleh in October 1986, and Mufti Hasan Khalid in May 1989. The sectarian myths about these figures conflated the historical contexts to argue that Syria’s al-Assad regime wanted to leave Sunnis in the Levant without a leader, to keep Syria’s Sunnis down and help the ʿAlawite-dominated Assad regime stay in power.

The 2006 between Hizbullah and Israel war further increased a Sunni sense of victimization in Lebanon. Hizbullah, led by Hasan Nasrallah, framed the outcome of the war as a ‘divine victory’ and gained immense popularity among youth across the Middle East. 150,000 Lebanese Shiʿa fled from Lebanon’s south to Beirut, and 70,000 displaced came to Tripoli. In the capital, the displaced took over buildings in Burj Abi Haidar and other Sunni areas, sparking Sunni anxieties.

Future Movement officials described Shiʿa demographic expansion (and even the building of some new roads) as a deliberate Shiʿa strategy to take over Sunni areas. In Lebanon’s ‘Sunni fortress’ of Tripoli, the continuing clashes between the Sunnis of Bab al-Tibbeneh and the ʿAlawites of Jabal Mohsen re-activated civil war memories.


Note: All citations have been removed, please see Sunni City, pp. 158—162 for the full overview.