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ORIGINAL RESEARCH article

Front. Hum. Dyn., 04 November 2022
Sec. Refugees and Conflict
Volume 4 - 2022 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fhumd.2022.988999

Politico-ideological violence in Lebanon: The narrative embeddedness of grievances

  • School of Criminal Justice, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland

This paper presents the findings from doctoral research conducted between 2018 and 2020 on politico-ideological mobilization and violence in relation to causes and conflicts in the Arab World. It focuses on interviews conducted in Lebanon with individuals engaged in violent action or sympathizing with violent groups. Ideologically, the sample comprised a variety of orientations, including Christian right-wing, Salafi-jihadist and Shia militantism. The socio-economic, ethno-racial and political grievances expressed by interviewees are analyzed in-depth and the importance of collective memories, identities and narratives is elaborated on. It is argued that grievances, in order to be sustained over time and space, need to decomplexify reality by allowing for analysis to escape to the global, the collective and the past. Grievances are narratively embedded in a framework that simplifies reality in order to pinpoint injustices and suggest straightforward actions for remedying them.

Introduction

Grievance-based violence comes in many forms. The phenomenon labeled variably as terrorism, political violence, or violent extremism is one of them. Scholarship in this field has for years pointed to the importance of grievances in the process toward violent action, yet in-depth engagement with grievances is only starting to pick up. This special issue which seeks to explore grievance-fuelled violence from a transdisciplinary and crossphenomenal perspective is a step in the right direction (see call for papers1) for it helps decentre and de-exceptionalise terroristic violence and enables us to adopt a more sober and epistemically distanced perspective on the phenomenon at hand. In this paper, I will be presenting findings on politico-ideological violence in the Lebanese context, based on three months of fieldwork in different Lebanese cities in 2019. Lebanon has been haunted by internal and cross-border conflicts since the 1970s, whether conflicts with bordering Israel, the Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990, the Syrian occupation which ended with the Cedar Revolution in 2005, assassinations of political figures like former Prime Minister Rafic Al-Hariri, terrorist attacks following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, clashes around the Palestinian refugee camps, or recurring fighting in Northern Lebanon. It is therefore – unfortunately – a particularly fertile context for an investigation into grievances and their relationship with politico-ideological violence. After presenting a brief review of the relevant literature on grievances, and discussing concepts such as collective memory, collective identity and narratives, I will describe the data that was collected and analyzed for this paper. In the findings, I will discuss the different socio-economic, ethno-racial and political grievances expressed by the interviewees, before attempting to decrypt grievances and shed light on their workings and narrative embeddedness.

Politico-ideological violence: Revisiting grievances

Politico-ideological violence will be used according to the following definition:

Politico-ideological violence is any form of physical violence by non-state actors that is justified on political and ideological2 grounds. It is considered morally and ethically just and warranted by the actors themselves. Although it is individual in its final materialization (a person chooses to fight, attack, injure, kill, etc.), it is collective in its conception, for it is employed to defend, protect or revenge a collective that is being seen as suffering from massive, recurring and, crucially, unpunished, injustice (Ajil, 2023)

Scholarship on phenomena labeled variably as terrorism, violent extremism and political violence has, it seems, developed [or perhaps rather re-developed, with a look to the versatile scholarship pre-9/11, see Jackson (2012)] a growing interest in the role of grievances for our understanding of individuals' motives and trajectories toward violent action (Corner et al., 2018; McCauley, 2018; Dyrstad and Hillesund, 2020; Ajil, 2022; Clemmow et al., 2022).

As this body of scholarship argues, the focus on grievances, i. e. feelings of injustice, of having been treated unfairly (Cambridge Dictionary n. d.), allows for a broader coverage of various forms of violence. It counterbalances the gnarling tendencies of scholarship developing in isolation and of exceptionalising particular forms of violence. Grievances allow us to broaden the picture not only across violent phenomena, with the added benefit of promoting interdisciplinary research. With respect to the study of politico-ideological violence, it allows us to broaden the picture beyond ideological differences. Whether right-wing extremism, jihadist extremism or Incel violence, the mechanisms and processes behind the gradual adoption of violent means to respond to individual and collective grievances are often very similar beyond ideological specificities. Cross-phenomenological approaches such as the ones adopted by Haggerty and Bucerius (2020) – comparing conventional soldiers and terrorists – or others that look at both right-wing and jihadist radicalization (Koehler, 2015; Pisoiu, 2015; Carlsson et al., 2020) have produced compelling insights in this respect, such as the common relevance of group solidarity and meaning-making of one's identity, a sense of vicarious victimization, the quest for glory and adventurism, or the importance of political framings of violence.

Furthermore, a focus on grievances can counterbalance the individualist approach to the study of the engagement in politico-ideological violence (Silva, 2018; Ahmad and Monaghan, 2019) because it directs our attention to the structural factors at the micro level and allows us to explore their pertinence for the macro level, in line with Lafaye's (2017) argument that it is perhaps less the individual that changes (supposedly, toward more “radicality”), but the socio-political context that becomes intolerably dysfunctional. This corresponds to (Abu–Lughod, 2013) call for an in-depth investigation of the particular to grasp the complexities of the general. The study of grievances further prompts researchers to engage with the voices of those directly concerned, thereby contributing to the empirical grounding of scholarly insights. It should also contribute to de-politicizing the dominant academic narratives and research orientations by restoring the political agency of individuals engaged in PIV (Cohan, 2005; Huët, 2015; Mohamedou, 2018).

Nevertheless, approaches that truly and holistically engage with grievances are rare. One explanation thereof is the difficulty of access to the field, lamented by several scholars (Horgan, 2012; Dawson, 2019; Schuurman, 2019). Another one is the persistent statecentrism and politicization of the field, which tend to lead scholars and the public to conflate a grievance-based approach with a lenient and apologetic view of the terrorist offender (Blakeley, 2017; Heath-Kelly, 2017; Author). The present contribution is destined for a special issue that seeks to fill precisely this shortcoming of the field and will present an analysis of grievance-based engagement.

Over the course of my work on this object of research, I have engaged with various questions related to the links between grievances and violence: How do grievances emerge and form? How do individuals appropriate those grievances, which are often located at the level of the collective? What does, in fact, the relationship between the individual and the collective look like when it comes to grievances? How do grievances form into a coherent narrative that suggests violent action as viable or even inevitable? And how are these grievances negotiated once individuals have effectively engaged in violent action? These are some of the questions that this paper will present tentative answers for. The importance of memories, identities and narratives has proven to be of high relevance, which requires a brief review of the theories and concepts mobilized in the analysis later on.

Memories, identities and narratives

Research on collective forms of violent action, be it in social psychology, sociology, social movement has long pointed to the relevance of collective memories and identities. Some of the works on what are seen as contemporary forms of politico-ideological violence and mobilization have used these insights and analytical tools, for instance Wiktorowicz (2004) or Gunning (2009). Without doing justice to the wealth of the literature on these concepts, they will be briefly explicated in what follows.

Collective memory has been suggested as a “fundamental tool in advancing our understanding of social movements” (Daphi and Zamponi, 2019, p. 400). Paez and Liu (2011) define collective memory as a “widely shared knowledge of past social events that may not have been personally experienced but are collectively constructed through communicative social functions” (p. 105). A crucial component of collective memory is therefore naturally a sort of common and fairly homogenous construction of past events that have affected a particular group or collective. Importantly, although collective memory is clearly distinct from individual memories, it can only be upheld through a convergence of individual memories. It has therefore also been referred to as “social memory” (Candau, 2017). The construction of a collective memory inevitably requires a silencing of certain episodes and a highlighting of others. This selective emphasis serves to construct a coherent storyline, which can encapsulate shared suffering, but also traditions and values. Collective memory of painful past events has been found to influence one's willingness to fight to defend one's country (Paez et al., 2008). It also contains a specific interpretation of the past which suggests a “repertoire of possible action” (Ruggiero, 2005, p. 11). In the East European context, Uehling (2004) found that the power of memory lies in the memories of power, i. e., memories of episodes where the group felt powerful, suggesting that the “Tatars framed a very specific ideological terrain from which to resist” (p. 135).

In relation to forms of politico-ideological violence that relate to the Arab World, scholarship has suggested that the collective memory of colonization, occupation and imperialist incursions into Arab countries, but also arguably neo-imperial military projects such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories in violation of the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 provide ideological building blocks that can be assembled and instrumentalised for various forms of violent political contestation (Abi-Hashem, 2004; Burgat, 2016; Falk, 2017; Mohamedou, 2018; Polk, 2018). The potential instrumentalisation of collective memory for various political purposes, including the mobilization of individuals for violent action, seems to be a human inevitability, and it recalls Volkan's (2001) notion of chosen trauma, i.e., the intentional evocation of a painful memory of collective suffering which may work both restoratively and destructively. Pollak (1993) has developed on the notion of memory entrepreneur, to refer to individuals who “create shared references and monitor respect for them” (p. 30).

Polletta and Jasper (2001) suggest that collective memories are the “cultural building blocks” (p. 299) of collective identities. As (Jenkins, 2004) argues, “people collectively identify themselves and others, and they conduct their everyday lives in terms of those identities.” Anderson (1983) suggested that imagined communities, i. e., the perception of being part of a socially-constructed community such as a nation, serve to convey a sense of “deep, horizontal comradeship” (p. 7) which can explain mass mobilization for wars and conflicts. Hence, while essentialising identity whether collective or individual is certainly a futile endeavor (Tyson, 2006), individuals do seem to attach themselves to various collectives, both cognitively and emotionally (Kaufmann and Quéré, 2020) which warrants a careful and thorough engagement with the notion of collective identity. Scholars have found the individual identification with a collective identity to be an essential mechanism through which they develop the urge to stand up and resort to (physical) violent action (McAdam et al., 2003; Ruggiero, 2005; Hafez and Mullins, 2015). The characteristics of the collective identity, i.e., the perceived common denominator between individuals often scattered around the world, may refer to ethnic, linguistic or cultural factors, but also to political views. Rydgren (2007) cogently suggests that ethnicity as a foundation for a collective identity only plays a role in the light of differential dysfunctionalities, where the “allocation of resources and rights” seems to hinge “on ethnic category belonging” (p. 227). While mostly symbolic, “ethno-symbolism” can act as a “legitimizing mechanism of identity feelings and collective rights” (Cojanu, 2014, p. 217). In relation to politico-ideological violence in the Arab World, the perception of a transnational community of Muslims has been frequently discussed (Abi-Hashem, 2004; Lakhani, 2014) in relation to Sunni forms of collective action. It is related to the imaginary of a reconciled Arab World spanning from the Maghreb to the far end of the Mashreq, which is at the core of the political ideology of Pan-Arabism (Mellon, 2002). When it comes to Shiite militias, it is a different collective that is imagined, one that spans across Arab and Persian countries to include the Muslim Shi'a who are perceived to have been oppressed for centuries (Salamey and Zanoubia, 2011). Right-wing extremism in the Arab World, on the other hand, is often related to the perception of a transnational Christian collective (Bassil, 2021).

It should have become clear so far that the understanding of collective memory and collective identity in this paper draws on constructivist approaches and takes care not to essentialise these concepts. Memories and identities are understood as being socially co-constructed, prey to individual and contextual influences and likely to change over time. The notion of narratives is crucial to provide us with an analytical device to engage with the malleable nature of memories and identities. I am drawing here on narrative criminology, a strand of criminology that focuses specifically on the ways in which individuals construct their identities and life stories and the ways in which these stories are linked to action, potentially criminal and violent one. Narrative scholars ascribe a particular intrinsic ontological value to stories that are constructed by individuals to describe events and themselves, because the posit actors, causes and consequences, in a way that translates a specific view of the world. The narrative is both influenced by the lived experience and will in turn influence the lived experience (Althoff et al., 2020). Narrative criminologists have engaged with crime and terrorist trajectories (Ilan and Sandberg, 2019; Sunde et al., 2021) but also counter-narratives (Joosse et al., 2015; Sandberg and Colvin, 2020). They point to the importance of individual and collective narrated self-understandings for justifications of the action – whether violent or non-violent – ultimately engaged in. Narratives do not simply tell a story, they are also “vehicle[s] for resistance [and] have performative significance” (Presser, 2016, p.143). According to Benford and Snow (2000), frames serve to identify problems and simplify complexity (diagnostic framing), define solutions and remedies (prognostic framing) and rally people to a common cause (motivational framing). For the latter, collective action frames may be used, which are frames co-constructed by members of a movement in order to make sense of particular events and experiences, define lines of action and garner adherents for a cause. Many groups may construct or inflate threats and scenarios in order to create moral panic and garner adherents to the cause. The question of whether the frame fits the objective condition that is lamented by a group always requires a particularly careful analysis. Benford and Snow (2000) suggest that the higher the empirical credibility of a frame, i.e., the extent to which it corresponds to actual or real events or circumstances, the greater its reach and longevity. In other words, an injustice frame is more likely to promote action if it confirms, from the point of view of the militant, an actual situation of injustice or oppression (Crettiez, 2011).

Lebanon, the “Switzerland of Arabs”3

Since, empirically speaking, the insights presented in this paper are based on data collected in Lebanon (see methodology), it is worthwile providing a brief description of the historic and political context in which phenomena related to politico-ideological violence have developed in this country.

Lebanon achieved independence from French colonial rule in 1943 and French troops left the country after the end of WWII. Starting with the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, a growing number of Palestinians started fleeing into Lebanon and would go on to have an important impact on Lebanese domestic politics. Among the almost half a million Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were armed groups affiliated to Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization PLO. While, in the aftermath of the first Palestinian exodus, their activities had focused on Jordan, they were forced to relocate after a massive clampdown by King Hussein in 1970, called “Black September.” The significant influx of Palestinian (predominantly Sunni) refugees started shaking the sectarian balance (itself subject to discussion, see for instance Maktabi (1999) in the country. Some political groups welcomed the Palestinians, hoping it would increase their power share, and a coalition of sympathizers formed around Palestinians. The PLO and Fatah increased their stronghold in various parts of Western and Southern Lebanon, gradually threatening the sovereignty of the Lebanese state (Salibi, 1990; Krayem, 1997; Ménargues, 2012; Harris and Harris, 2014).

In 1975, the Lebanese civil war started, which, put simply, opposed groups around Lebanese Maronites and a pro-Palestinian front. Although political in its outset, the civil war soon turned sectarian. Non-combatants suffered enormously and were the main victims of massacres such as the Karantina, the Damour, or the Tel al-Zaatar massacres. The Syrian President intervened with a large number of troops, which was soon afterwards placed under the banner of the Arab Deterrent Force (officially warranted by the Arab League in 1976), to stabilize the conflict. However, given Hafez al-Assad's own political interests, including antipathy toward Palestinian groups and Islamist factions, he started siding mostly with Maronite factions, although that changed during the “Hundred Days War,” where Syrian troops attacked what had become Maronite-dominated “East Beirut.” In Southern Lebanon, the conflict was opposing Christian and Shia groups on one side and Israeli forces on the other. Israel continued their involvement in the conflict, targeting primarily PLO bases, but was pushed back by Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Israeli and Phalangist forces were responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, during which a reported 3500 Palestinians were killed (Salibi, 1990; Krayem, 1997; Ménargues, 2012; Harris and Harris, 2014).

The civil war would drag on for 15 years, until the Taif Agreement in 1989 would set the outlines for the modern Lebanese state characterized by a system of consociationalism: The main posts in government are distributed between Christian, Sunni and Shia representatives. The security apparatus is also divided along the same lines: In principle, the head of the army is Christian, the head of general security and state security is Shiite, and the internal security forces are led by a Sunni representative (Seurat, 2020). Through Taif, the Lebanese Army was attributed an internal police function, as long as it cooperated with the Syrian security and military apparatus, including the intelligence services. Even today, more than 15 years since the Syrian tutelage ended, there are still close ties between the Lebanese Army and Damascus (Bahout, 2014).

The memories of these massacres are strongly present in today's Lebanon and are repeatedly brought up by interviewees who, depending on their political orientation and familial background, tend to emphasize one part of history over another. During an informal lecture that I attended with one of my interviewees in Beirut, former Finance Minister Georges Corm suggested that the history of the civil war has never been really processed and tends to be shut down for fears of sectarian conflicts flaring up again.

Throughout the 1990's, Lebanon was busy rebuilding itself from the shatters of the civil war, a period dominated by Rafic Hariri's capitalist and neoliberal policies. As a result of the massive reconstruction efforts, he gained enormous popularity among some parts of the population, and was critiqued by others. After his assassination in 2004, for which the Syrian regime was presumed responsible (in relation to his anti-Syrian politics), the yet fragile sense of national unity started to disassemble back into sectarian fragments. In 2005, the Syrian regime was forced to withdraw after decades of occupation. Lebanon politics remained nevertheless polarized between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian camps. These schisms would grow bigger after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war (Norton, 2007; Lefèvre, 2014). The developments in relation to the Arab Spring have also restarted the discussion around Lebanese identity, which continues to be a fragile and divided one (Bahout, 2014).

Hezbollah had gained significant popularity, respect and, as a consequence, influence after successfully pushing back the Israeli military that invaded the country in 1982, and, a second time, after the 2006 July War, where they successfully fought back a protracted Israeli attack on South Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut (Norton, 2007). After Taif, Hezbollah was also granted access to the political system, while being allowed to keep its weapons (Bahout, 2014). When the Syrian civil war broke out, Hezbollah and groups close to the party soon started supporting the Syrian regime and effectively sending fighters to fight alongside the Syrian army. More than 1,000 Lebanese have fallen fighting with Hezbollah in Syria (Elkayam, 2019). On the other hand, groups around the predominantly Sunni Future Movement were supporting the revolution. As a result of the conflict, Lebanon experienced a massive influx of Syrian refugees, in addition to the already significant number of Palestinian refugees. Groups affiliated with “Al-Qaeda” (AQ) and so-called “Islamic State” (IS) gained presence in northern Lebanon, especially the Bekaa Valley, around Tripoli and in the refugee camps. Linked to that presence and in combination with the widespread disenfranchisement of especially the Sunni (both Lebanese and Palestinian) population in light of the growing domination and perceived impunity of Hezbollah (as demonstrated during the 2008 Beirut troubles, during which fighters associated with Hezbollah attacked Lebanese protesters), several car bombings, assaults and kidnappings took place in Lebanon from 2013 on in various parts of Lebanon (Bahout, 2014; Lefèvre, 2014; Assouad, 2021).

In Tripoli4, the poorest city on the Mediterranean coast (Bassam and Nader, 2020), there had been a long-standing conflict between two neighborhoods, namely Jabal Mohsen (dominated by Alawites) and Bab el Tabbaneh (dominated by Sunni Lebanese). The Syrian regime is reported to have committed several massacres throughout the 1980's and reigned brutally over Bab el Tabbaneh. Hundreds of families were executed by militiamen from the Arab Democratic Party that was dominating Jabal Mohsen and was supported by the Syrian regime (Lefèvre, 2014). During the 2000's, Salafist preachers such as Salim al-Rafa'i grew increasingly influential and were able to rally many young Tripolitanians, especially from Bab-el-Tabbaneh, around a shared narrative of Sunni oppression (Pall, 2018). From 2007 on, a conflict erupted between the people of Bab el Tabbaneh and the Syrian-backed residents of Jabal Mohsen, dominated by the Arab Democratic Party (ADP). With the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the residents of Bab-el-Tabbaneh demonstrated their support for the revolution. The fighting increased and was exacerbated by a spill-over from Syria in the form of groups such as Jabhat-al-Nusra (JAN) and IS, who started entering Bab-el-Tabbaneh and forming cells there (Lefèvre, 2014; Pall, 2018). Several significant incidents happened throughout that period in these two neighborhoods, of which the most devastating was the bombing of two mosques on 23 August 2013, killing over fifty people and injuring more than 500 (Holmes and Siddiq, 2013). The attack was largely perceived as one on Sunni residents and attributed to groups operating on Jabal Mohsen affiliated with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. Two men were sentenced to death for the bombing in 2019 (Mustafa, 2019). As a result of this attack, groups like JAN and IS gained even more influence and many Tripolitanians joined the Syrian battleground fighting alongside rebel groups (Nayel, 2015). The local conflict calmed down after a security plan by the Lebanese Armed Forces in 2014, which managed to build a strong presence in the neighborhood and engaged in sweeping and heavy-handed repression against individuals suspected of sympathizing with terrorist organizations (Strickland, 2015; Al-Dahaybi, 2018). After years of calm, on 3 June 2019, an attacker by the name of Abdel Rahman Mabsout opened fire at soldiers and police officers and threw an explosive into a government building. He had served time in prison for his support of IS (Kranz, 2019).

In 2018, Lebanon adopted the National Strategy for Preventing Violent Extremism, which recognized the need to promote social justice and equality in all parts of Lebanon as well as the need for prison reform and capacity building in the justice system. Individuals accused of terrorism are tried before the military court, which is responsible for a series of offenses and has broad jurisdiction over civilians. The system has been widely criticized for its alleged use of torture and the suppression of criticism (Waszul, 2017). Individuals accused of or sentenced on terrorism charges are held at the overcrowded Roumieh prison, where detention conditions do not meet human rights standards and deaths of inmates have remained unpunished (Human Rights Watch, 2015). Little remains known, however, regarding the counterterrorism practices in Lebanon and the impacts they have on individuals associated with terrorist offenses.

In October 2019, civil protests erupted after the government announced an increase in taxes for gasoline or tobacco and a tax for calls via the application WhatsApp. The protests spread over the entire country and united Lebanese from all backgrounds under the Lebanese flag. Various tactics were employed including sit-ins, internet activism, human chains or barricades. The protesters called for an end to sectarian rule and corruption in the government. The army and police are reported to have used excessive force against peaceful protesters (Amnesty International., 2020). The Lebanese pound has also collapsed, deepening the economic crisis in the country (Bassam and Nader, 2020), and amidst the impact of Covid-19 and the Beirut Port explosion in August 2020, the socioeconomic inequalities that have existed before the crisis are being exacerbated. In December 2019, Hassan Diab was appointed as a new prime minister. But in the absence of significant change of the functioning of the ruling class, the protests continued, and he resigned following the Port Explosion (Assouad, 2021). Hence, the situation in Lebanon continues to be far from stable and continues to provide the breeding ground for economic, political and social crises which can facilitate eruptions of violence.

Research protocol: Data collection and analysis

The fieldwork that generated the data used for the present contribution was conducted over the course of the year 2019. My doctoral research dealt with politico-ideological mobilization and violence for causes and conflicts in the Arab World, especially the Mashreq region, such as the Palestinian conflict, the Iraq war or the Syrian civil war. The objective was to understand how grievances in relation to conflicts in this part of the world emerge, how they are identified with and how they may lead to action, both violent and non-violent. More than 100 interviews were conducted in Switzerland, Canada and Lebanon between 2018. The research protocol was mostly qualitative, based on semi-structured interviews and immersive fieldwork.

For the present paper, I am only focusing on interviews conducted in Lebanon with male individuals involved in various forms of violent action or sympathizing with groups engaged in violent action. The ideological orientations were multifold. Twenty men had joined groups with a Salafi-jihadist orientation, such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS, 9 had joined or supported Hezbollah and other Alawite groups in Lebanon and Syria, 3 men were engaged specifically for the defense of Palestinians, and two were involved with right-wing extremist groups. They were all between 20 and 35 years old. All of them have grown up in Lebanon. These 34 interviewees were recruited primarily through NGOs, social workers, psychologists and religious figures, using chain-referral sampling. Given the difficulty of access, the sample must be considered as a convenience sample and does not lend itself to generalization.

Interviews – conducted for the majority in Arabic, sometimes in a mix of Arabic, English and French – were with a few exceptions recorded, integrally transcribed by the researcher and analyzed using MAXQDA. The analysis involved a first phase of open coding to develop codes and categories, then a phase of focused and axial coding, and eventually a phase of theoretical coding, to confront the empirical insights to existing theories and concepts and develop new theoretical insights. The codes were primarily developed using a Grounded Theory approach (Birks and Mills, 2015). At a later stage, the ideal-types proposed by Ajil (2022) were introduced to organize the grievances identified in the narratives under study. Based on an extensive review of the literature on grievances and violence in various fields, he suggests that the three ideal-types (a) political grievances, (b) ethno-racial grievances and (c) socio-economic grievances may reasonably cover the different forms of grievances associated with violent engagement. The organization into ideal-types facilitates the more specific purpose of this paper, which is to engage with memories, narratives and identities in relation to grievance-fueled violence.

Besides interviews, immersive ethnographic fieldwork took place over the course of several days in contexts marked by internal conflicts or from which a significant number of individuals had left to join violent groups in Syria, Palestine or Iraq. The fieldwork consisted of participant observation, often in relaxed settings, informal discussions with residents and security forces and note-taking. The ethnographic fieldnotes were added to the MAXQDA database and coded analogously to the interviews.

In order to triangulate the findings, 18 practitioners were also interviewed. They included researchers, psychologists and social workers, religious figures, policymakers and politicians. Analogously to the other interviews, these were recorded, transcribed and added to the MAXQDA Database for analysis.

Engaging with grievances

When it comes to political grievances, the experience of political marginalization and exclusion is commonplace, especially among individuals around Tripoli (see also Nayel, 2015). This often translates as socio-economic grievances: Unemployment, lack of social assistance, no access to proper housing, education or healthcare are pointed out as making life extremely difficult for the young men interviewed in poorer areas such as Bab-al-Tabbaneh. Many individuals point to poverty as a main reason for their hatred of the state and a major driver of their engagement in armed conflicts:

But, to make it short, all this is happening because of poverty. I don't want you to give me money or pay me my hospital bills. I want you to guarantee me a job, where I can earn my own money. I want to sweat for this. But if there is no work. I can't do anything, not even get treated. Of course, I start hating the state (Naseem, Alawite fighter, Tripoli)

For an estimated 27,000 people born to Lebanese fathers [a number expected to double by 2035, see March Lebanon (2020)], an additional pervasive problem is statelessness. They were not registered at birth and have therefore remained invisible to the state. Most of them are unable to access basic services. Nassim describes a situation where the hospital refused to treat his child (who “inherits” the condition of statelessness):

I got out of the hospital and they asked for 10 Million LBP – had I had a rifle at that moment, what would I have done? Of course, I hate this state, that doesn't care for me, but should. This problem, statelessness, made me so angry, I wanted to hurt someone. Abroad, even a dog gets an identity card. Here, the most essential rights, we don't get them. I don't get an ID.' (Nassim, Salafi-jihadist, Tripoli)

A major issue that is pointed out by all interviewees including practitioners is that individuals who have once been arrested, detained or sentenced for terrorism-related offenses are virtually unemployable because of their criminal record. It has become a common practice in Tripoli to ask for criminal records, even for jobs that are far from security-sensitive. This leads to continuous grievances and hampers disengagement efforts:

Whenever I go for a job, they look at the criminal record and say: what is this?! killing, kidnapping! [shows me a picture of it]: joining terrorist organization, fighting army, injuring army, carrying military weapons… (Zakaria, Salafi-jihadist, Tripoli)

I was finally happy to be working again. Things were good. And then the employer came and asked for the criminal record. And I told him please don't. But he insisted. So, I said goodbye' (Aamer, Salafi-jihadist, Tripoli)

Further related to political grievances are feelings of political marginalization and exclusion which must be read against the backdrop of the general perception that there is no reliable political representation for Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, whereas the Christian, Druze and Shia segments of the population have strong parties representing them. Interviewees from poorer areas feel that they are left behind by the Lebanese state. This problem is of course exacerbated in the case of Palestinian refugees who are forced to live in the refugee camps which have become hotbeds and safe havens for members of IS and Al-Qaeda:

with all the pressures and hatred building up inside a person that is living in the camp, it should come to no one's surprise that an organization which offers a project and money will be able to attract people like me. I am conscious and able to choose better options, others are not (Abdeljaleel, Palestinian activist, Tripoli)

Among these interviewees of whom many joined groups like Al-Qaeda or Daesh, there is a perception that the state apparatus and security forces are siding with Shia and Christians. When interviewees are arrested, detained in military prisons or interrogated, they report being confronted mostly to officers and soldiers who have little sympathy for Sunni Muslims and tend to operate according to stereotypical representations of Sunni Muslims, especially from Tripoli, as being all Daesh-fanatics. It is also common knowledge that the enrolment of Lebanese men in Hezbollah and groups affiliated with the Syrian regime is handled very differently from the engagement of others with oppositional rebel groups, especially those with a salafi-jihadist orientation. Given that atrocities are committed on both sides, the differential criminalization – Hezbollah fighters will not face any criminal punishment upon return – feeds into the grievances of other groups, especially Sunni Muslims who are frustrated with the ongoing suffering of Syrian civilians. Amir describes this feeling:

Why don't you allow us to have weapons also? Why should we be the weak? We don't have the protection that they have. As soon as you carry a weapon here, you are a terrorist! If you leave for Syria and come back, of course you are a terrorist! They have a straight corridor to Syria from the south. That does not seem to be a problem. (Amir, Salafi-jihadist, Lebanon)

Charismatic leaders such as Ahmed Al-Aseer – sentenced to death in 20175 – have used the awareness of this hypocrisy to rally people around their cause, as a former member of his group explains:

After two people of his group were shot, Ahmed Al-Aseer started to call for arms more aggressively. And naturally, he was able to rally many people around him with that. Because there was a prevailing feeling that if Hezbollah can be armed, if the Christian militias can be armed, we want to be armed, too. It was as if people wanted to restore the balance (Rashid, Salafi-jihadist, Saida).

Such calls of incitement instrumentalise the sense of transnational connectedness among collectives that share a religious identity. Add to this that many interviewees from Tripoli reported physical abuse and torture at the hands of the military. The following quote also illustrates how interviewees often make connections between a supposedly negative representation of the collective they feel connected to and the individual experience of state violence:

The first day of the security plan after the last clashes here, they took me by mistake. They tortured me and beat me…until three months later, I kept crying by myself. And until now I can't forget it. I swear we were the first to help the military, the soldiers to get them to the hospital. But anyone can come and humiliate you, because you are considered a terrorist, a criminal, a troublemaker. That's the image they have of us. They think we hate the army… (Walid, Salafi-jihadist, Tripoli)

Ethno-racial grievances were also frequently expressed. The legacy of the Civil War continues to shape inter-ethnic and inter-religious relationships in Lebanon. The presence of sectarian hatred between Shia and Sunni Muslims, as well as religion-based animosities between Christians and Muslims creates an environment where many will refuse to mingle with members of other communities, especially in areas marked by inter-group clashes. A Christian right-wing extremist justifies his hatred of Sunni Muslims by describing his representation of the Syrian refugee:

Some time ago, my anti-Syrian sentiments were very strong. I told my family that we should all get our weapons and go down. I said that if I see a Syrian, I would shoot him. That's how far it came. There were many news, a Syrian who raped a girl, killed her etc. …and then I go on the internet, and then I watch the news and then, my mistake, I go down to the comments and see how they insult the Lebanese. They say we are gays, not real men, our women are whores, etc. I can't accept these things (Justin, Christian right-wing, Jbeil)6.

Sympathizers of Salafi-jihadist groups engage openly in a demonisation of the Shia Muslim, whom they associate with Hezbollah, local Alawite fighters, the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, the Irani Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Iraqi Shia who sold their country and murdered Saddam Al-Hussein, etc. There are little nuances when it comes to the representation of this particular enemy. Besides a state-sanctioned instrumentalisation of sectarian identity, this is mostly due to immediate painful confrontations with Hezbollah sympathizers among security and military personnel, the suffering of Syrian civilians at the hands of Bashar Al-Assad, and the deaths suffered following the attacks and bombings by individuals from Jabal Mohsen:

We got to the mosque, it was blown up, there were corpses everywhere…When I saw that, I almost lost consciousness…I was standing there, crying, but my blood was boiling. And while we were standing there, the second explosion happened. We heard it and the ground shook. […] At this point, it was completely anarchy. […] I was walking through the streets and when I saw the army, I would shoot at them. I am surprised how I am still alive today. […] I didn't care about anything. I wanted to die. (Nassim, Salafi-jihadist, Tripoli)

Many interviewees confirmed that the bombings of the two mosques in 2013 in Tripoli had a major impact on young men's willingness to join groups like Daesh or Al-Qaeda.

On the other hand, Hezbollah sympathizers tend to engage in a similar form of vilification of the fundamentalist Sunni Muslim, especially the ones from the North, whom they associate with jihadist groups. Their views tend to be, however, slightly more nuanced, as Yamin, a researcher in a Hezbollah-affiliated think tank, explains:

We have a very specific problem with the Takfiri7 groups. There is a difference, this fight is not against the Sunna but against Wahhabism, the takfiri ideology. So, the Hezb was using sectarian symbols, but not a discourse based on sectarian hatred. There is a huge difference. We use Hussein for instance, but we don't say this fight is against the Sunna or declare the Sunna as unbelievers. But the takfiri groups do this of course.

While many of these grievances are focused on dysfunctionalities and perceptions of injustices in the local Lebanese context, there are grievances that can be located at a more global level. Among sympathizers and former members of jihadist groups, there is a widespread and frequently repeated feeling that Sunni Muslims around the world are being oppressed. The plight of Sunni Muslims after the Iraq invasion, the suffering of Syrian civilians, the toppling of Islamists in Egypt, and the marginalization of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon are taken as evidence that there is a “war against Muslims,” especially Sunni Muslims. In Arabic, the term Madhloumiya reflects this feeling and perception that there is a transnational suffering. Each interviewee focuses on a transnational suffering that affects their community of reference: Christian Lebanese refer to situations around the world where Christians are attacked by Muslims, Shia Muslims refer to the oppression of Shia in the region, as the following excerpt illustrates well:

For example, Iraq, yes, or Bahrain. You could say that. If you look at Iraq, after Saddam, but also before it of course. Under Saddam, the Shia were very oppressed. But here in Lebanon, the Shia were oppressed by Israel. Israel was attacking mostly the Shia, not all of Lebanon. Bahrain, Saudi, these are places where Shia can't go out. They are oppressed and attacked. In Yemen, that's a big proof. The Yemeni people, although not all Shia, they are suffering a lot. […] Look the worst news, the one that affected me most, the one where you really felt the mischief, that was the thing that mobilized each of us here. When they wrote on the mausoleum of Sayida Zaineb “You will go with Bashar”. This was the greatest shock. Because we remember what happened in Karbala, who suffered there. And you come and want to do this? (Samir, Hezbollah sympathizer, Lebanon)

In a similar vein, the feeling that Islam, or at least a conservative form of Islam that is carried outwards through visible aspects such as beard or attire, is targeted behind the pretext of the War on Terror, is widespread. It manifests itself when individuals realize that in the absence of actual wrongdoings on their side, it is their looking “Muslim” that earns them scrutiny by security forces:

I mean, I can still go out and see my people. But I am careful about posting things on social media or via WhatsApp. And I don't wear a beard, I shave on purpose. Because they will come get me if I grow a beard. They will come and ask you “So, you think you're becoming a sheik?” and take you in for interrogation. The guys with long beards, they know they are being monitored by the security forces (Amir, Salafi-jihadist, Tripoli)

Inside security facilities such as prisons or detention centers, this manifests itself through punishment for pursuing religious practices such as praying, especially in groups, something which interviewees argue is seen as a specifically Sunni practice, and one that might further individual and collective radicalization:

I didn't want to pray when I was there. Because as soon as they see two people together praying, they make a big fuss about it. My friend was there with me and he said let's pray. I said, you go first, and then me. But he insisted and so we prayed together. Then they came and got him: “So, you think you're making an Emirate here?”, and they humiliated him – they cut his hair in some places and left it in others. The rest of the 12 days at the court, I wouldn't pray! It simply wasn't worth it. (Halim, Salafi-jihadist, Tripoli)

Decrypting grievances: Escaping into the past, the global and the collective

The analysis of the grievances that are expressed in relation to individuals' engagement in forms of armed insurgency allows for several observations: Grievances seem to relate to historic injustices that have affected previous generations in the past and that appear to be recurring and, crucially, remain unpunished. These injustices refer to the large-scale suffering of civilians (often represented in the collective imaginary through the figures of women and children); and they tend to connect local situations to global ones and systematically refer to the collective level. These characteristics can be systematically identified when grievances are expressed.

The way grievances drive engagement in violence is of course different from one individual to another. There seem to be certain common factors nevertheless: In the case of socio-economic grievances, they tend to come in the form of unemployment, unstable lifestyles which create spaces for external influences and in-depth engagement with certain causes, often via social media. This has been referred to as “biographical availability” in the literature (McAdam, 1986). Socio-economic grievances are often connected to political grievances, given that they are often the more immediate and tangible expression of political exclusion and marginalization. The effect of political grievances that can facilitate violent engagement seems to be mostly a cognitive one: because of the perception of systemic injustice, corruption and abuse, the legitimacy of state actors who hold the legitimate monopoly of violence is put into question. This feeling of “legal cynicism” (Hagan et al., 2016) seems to build the foundation for activities against or in defiance of the state and its laws. Finally, when it comes to ethno-racial grievances, the major impact they seem to have is the demonisation: Feeling demonized and vilified because of one's ethnic background or religious affiliation leads to a pervasive feeling of alienation which tends to breed similar forms of demonisation. Demonisation and dehumanization are essential components of action when it comes to engagement in politico-ideological violence.

Hence, it becomes clear that the core of grievances is a classification of a situation or event as unjust. The perception of injustice is inherently subjective: It is never too far detached from reality, especially since it is usually shared by a great number of people. At the same time, it never fully represents it. For grievances to “live,” reality needs to lose some of its complexity. Processes of “decomplexification” are commonplace throughout the narratives and manifest themselves, I would argue, through a flight to the global, a flight into the past, and a flight toward the collective. The flight to the global has been highlighted above: individuals tend to connect their local grievances to global ones.

For an analysis of the flight into the past, recurring to the concept of collective memory is helpful. When interviewees voice their grievances and explain their radicalization, they of course often refer to experiences of moral shocks8, which are of more immediate nature, but very frequently they recall events that occurred often before their lifetime. These collective memories are often full of extreme violence, enormous suffering, and unpunished aggression:

But …you know, in the 80s, our parents would tell us… that they [Syrian-affiliated groups] came down to destroy mosques, commit all these massacres, humiliate us, rape our women…and now…the same thing…exactly the same thing is happening now!! (Mansour, Salafi-jihadist, Tripoli).

One of the turning points that I grew up to …it was the massacre of Qana 1996. And the Israeli hypocrisy that came with it. You know this story that they are friendly…that they don't want war… and Hezbollah are the enemies and they want war etc. that's something that really makes me angry. And what happens in Gaza and the West bank. The shellings and stuff. It's something that infuriates me. (Nidhal, Hezbollah sympathizer, Lebanon).

As the excerpts illustrate well, interviewees tend to construct a “narrative continuity” between the past and the present. The flight toward the collective establishes a similar continuity, this time between one's individual experience of injustice and the collective experience. Adhering to a collective identity – for instance, Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Christians – facilitates focusing on events and situations that affect these collectives in particular. One's individual experience is then analyzed as not being an isolated incident, but the expression of a more systematic oppression of or aggression against that particular collective. By elevating the perceived injustice to the level of the collective, grievances become better shielded against accusations of idiosyncrasy.

Taken together, my analysis suggests that grievances gain weight and importance when they are detached from the individual, the local and the present. By shifting the reference points of grievances outside their immediate manifestation, they can become robust narrative vehicles that perdure over time, mobilize individuals around the world cognitively and emotionally, to the point of justifying violent action. Complexity needs to be reduced in order for grievances to be upheld over time and space.

Generally speaking, the findings suggest that the agency of engaged individuals should not be understated. However, there are indications that external influences can play a substantial role in facilitating individuals' radicalization and engagement. These individuals can be referred to as grievance entrepreneurs. In a way similar to memory entrepreneurs (Pollak, 1993) or moral entrepreneurs (Becker, 2017), they confront individuals with situations of injustice – through imagery and speech – they attribute blame, establish cause and effect, and they suggest paths to action, reminiscent of the framing model suggested by Benford and Snow (2000). Emotions play a central role in this process: The confrontation with the injustice is intended to lead to indignation and anger, feelings that are action-oriented. One may here speak of emotional weaponisation. Grievance entrepreneurs can be influential and charismatic ordinary individuals or persons with authority such as religious leaders, politicians or warlords. They facilitate the formation of grievances and they help embed them in a narrative that calls for violent action.

Concluding discussion: Ways forward

The findings presented in this paper confirm the importance of engaging closely with grievances to further our understanding of engagement in politico-ideological violence. As this paper illustrates, the grievance-based analysis allows for a cross-ideological approach, it decentres our focus from individualistic factors to structural aspects relevant for engagement and it re-creates space for acknowledging the political agency of individuals involved in politico-ideologically motivated violence. The in-depth engagement with the narratives of Lebanese men involved in various groups that are variably called extremist or terrorist – Salafi-jihadist, Hezbollah, Christian right-wing – allows for the organization and the decrypting of grievances. Grievances refer to experiences of socio-economic marginalization, poverty and unemployment, lack of access to health, education and basic rights. These are often the expression of political marginalization that leads to political grievances. The perception of state violence, corruption, unequal treatment of different groups of the population and differential criminalization further contribute to political grievances. Ethno-racial grievances refer to sectarian hatred between Shia and Sunni Muslims, religious animosity between Christians and Muslims, or racism against Palestinians.

Importantly, grievances are usually expressed in a way that locates them at the level of the collective and detaches them from the individual experience of the injustice. Grievances are also usually formulated in reference to a collective that is suffering at the transnational level. Grievances are also strongly informed by collective memories of suffering and pain, thus representing a shift of the focus from the present to the past. The narrative construction is central to grievance-based engagement, because narratives have “performative significance,” as Presser (2016, p. 143) cogently states: Elevating grievances to the level of the global and the collective and allowing for the past to take a major place in the analysis of the injustice at hand serves the decomplexification of reality, on the one hand, and the establishment of a narrative of spatial and temporal continuity, on the other, something that has been pointed out before by Bosi and Della Porta (2012).

Importantly, the findings presented here do not suggest a straightforward link between grievances and politico-ideological violence. They point to the central importance of grievances in creating a fertile ground for ideologies that suggest simple and concrete solutions to settle in. At the same time, grievances can be actively promoted, narratively constructed and instrumentalised. We must leave enough room for this complexity when analyzing such forms of violent action: Grievances do not fully reflect reality and they are potent argumentative building blocks for justifying violence, but they must be taken seriously nevertheless and engaged with in-depth.

Data availability statement

The datasets presented in this article are not readily available because the raw data was only made available to the researcher. Requests to access the datasets should be directed to ahmed.ajil@unil.ch.

Ethics statement

The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by Swiss National Science Foundation. The patients/participants provided their written informed consent to participate in this study.

Author contributions

AA was solely responsible for the entire work related to this research.

Funding

This paper is part of doctoral research funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (P0LAP1_178349/1).

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to the Swiss Embassy in Lebanon, the NGO March Lebanon, the NGO RescueMe, and all individuals who contributed to making the fieldwork in Lebanon possible.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher's note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Footnotes

1. ^https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/33751/grievance-fueled-violence-conceptual-and-empirical-developments

2. ^The “political” is closely linked to the notion of “power”: Political justifications refer to the mishandling and abuse of power, as well as imbalances of power, which lead to the unjust treatment of particular collectives. The “ideological” is inherently normative, for it refers to a set of ideas and principles about how the world should be and how power should be handled. Both notions are close and often overlapping, which is why I will subsume them under the notion of “politico-ideological”.

3. ^A description (sometimes also “Switzerland of the Middle East”) that is widely reported to have been used to refer to Lebanon, given its perceived economic prosperity and stability.

4. ^Given that most interviews were conducted in Tripoli, a more extensive description of the context seems appropriate.

5. ^https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/9/28/lebanon-sentences-ahmed-al-assir-to-death

6. ^While a closer look at gendered narratives and masculinities would exceed the scope of this paper, the stereotypical representation of Syrian men evoked by Justin is reminiscent of what Allouche (2017) has suggested as the revival of “the authentic Lebanese man” (p. 64).

7. ^The term Takfiri refers to groups and ideologies that are focused on ex-communicating Muslims, identifying them as “unbelievers” and suggesting punishment for them.

8. ^In the social movement literature, moral shocks refer to moments or experiences that have fundamental impacts on individuals' worldview and can accelerate activism. Jasper (2011) defines moral shocks as “the vertiginous feeling that results when an event or information shows that the world is not what one had expected, which can sometimes lead to articulation or rethinking of moral principles” (p. 302).

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Keywords: terrorism, Lebanon, Syria, ISIS, radicalization, Hezbollah, grievances, narrative criminology

Citation: Ajil A (2022) Politico-ideological violence in Lebanon: The narrative embeddedness of grievances. Front. Hum. Dyn. 4:988999. doi: 10.3389/fhumd.2022.988999

Received: 11 July 2022; Accepted: 11 October 2022;
Published: 04 November 2022.

Edited by:

Jane Freedman, Université Paris 8, France

Reviewed by:

Mordechai Nisan, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Kwan-Lamar Blount-Hill, Borough of Manhattan Community College, United States

Copyright © 2022 Ajil. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Ahmed Ajil, ahmed.ajil@unil.ch

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