Salafi leader Khattab calls for Sunni-Shia reconciliation

Mohamad Aburous
Interview with Jamal Khattab, leader of the Haraka Islamiyyah Muhjahida (Jihadic Islamic Movement, JIM), conducted in the Palestinian refugee camp Ain el Hilweh, Lebanon, in summer 2010.

Founded in 1975 by Ibrahim Ghonaim the Haraka Islamiyyah Muhjahida is considered to be the oldest Islamic movement within the Palestinian refugee camp Ain el Hilweh, Lebanon, which embarked on the armed struggle in order to liberate Palestine. It participated in the resistance against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982. In 1990 Jamal Khattab took over the leadership of the group. As a graduate from the American University of Beirut he shaped a moderate face for the movement and focused on media work. Beside Usbat al-Ansar (considered close to Al Quaida) and Ansar Allah (considered close to Hezbollah) JIM with some 200 fighters is the third armed Salafi force in the camp. It is, however, politically more articulated and wields a wider field of influence which leads to a strong presence within the civil organisations of the camp. They lead a student club, a women association, a kindergarten, a center for Islamic education, a charity network. Jamal Khattab enjoys respect as an Islamic scholar and intermediatory personality across all faction of the camp including the secular ones.

Q: Who is the the Jamaa Islamiyyah Mujahida and the coalition Islamic Forces which you represent?

This camp was established in 1948 after our families were deported from Palestine. Our generation was born here in the camp, in tents – that’s what the camp looked like when it was established. We stayed here for 20 years. Then, the Palestinian resistance began in order to liberate our country. Before 1965, there were some groups fighting to liberate Palestine, but that was before the foundation of the PLO. As you know, before the mid seventies the essence of the liberation struggle was a national struggle. At that time the Islamic beliefs were not wide-spread yet and the Islamic groups began to participate in the struggle to liberate Palestine.

With due respect to us as Islamic Forces, we started as a coalition formed by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Islamic Jihadic Movement, Liberation Party and Usbat al Ansar. These Islamic groups formed the league named Islamic Forces. As for the Islamic groups, we are Palestinians at the same time. Our country is occupied. It is our duty - be it national or Islamic or any kind of duty - and it is a universal right to liberate your country and to defend yourself. It is your right to try to go back to your homeland. My village in Palestine is empty. It is a kind of ruin. We have the right to return to our country.

As for the peace negotiations: These negotiations have been taking place for twenty years. It has been proved that the Israelis will not give us anything. The occupation of what is called West Bank of Gaza is continuing and the people are still suffering. The negotiations consider only this part as an occupied part. The Israelis keep violating international law, supported by the Americans. They are beyond any law and no one is willing to punish or urge the Israelis to follow the UN resolutions or any other resolutions. So we consider that the only way at the moment which is left to us is to fight to liberate our country. This is what we are trying to do now.

Of course we are here in Lebanon and we have to take the Lebanese situation into consideration. As refugees we have to face limitations in our struggle. After 1990, the Lebanese army put up military checkpoints around the camps and things changed for the Palestinians. The entrance and the exit of the camp are under restrictions. So the Palestinians are not able to participate in the struggle. The internal problems of the confessional state complicate things for us. So, because of these problems in Lebanon we are subjected to limitations of our struggle and our political movement around this struggle.

Q: You have mentioned many Islamic groups operating here. The largest Islamic resistance group is Hamas followed by Islamic Jihad. What are your differences with them?

Hamas and Islamic Jihad are basically struggling inside occupied Palestine. Their activities outside Palestine are restricted to political activities. They have representative offices in some Arab countries and they are not allowed to operate except in the form of political activities. Regarding us, since we were here in the camps before 1982 we have been struggling against Israel in many locations and at many times, especially during the first Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1978, then the second invasion in 1982 when they occupied Beirut, and later in the years between 1982 and 1985 when they had to leave Lebanon. In those years Hamas and Islamic Jihad did not exist in Lebanon. Therefore, Hamas and Jihad operate inside Palestine, while other groups are operating outside.

Ideologically there are minor differences because of the different geographical places we are in. Inside Palestine they have a special situation, and here we have our situation. So we have some minor differences in the activities, positions and how to deal with our situation.

Q: What was your position towards the clashes between Hamas and the Salafi groups in Gaza last year?

With respect to the Islamic Forces as a league outside Palestine, we reached an agreement to leave the situation of Gaza and the West Bank inside Palestine and not to be affected by what happened there, not only by what happened between Hamas and the Salafi groups, but also by what happened between Hamas and Fatah. We try to separate our situation in Lebanon from that inside Palestine. This is because we have our problems which are difficult enough to face and we don’t want them to interfere with the problems inside Palestine.

And of course inside Palestine there are things we don’t know in detail, so we leave it to our brothers in Palestine to deal with them. In general, we sometimes give advice to achieve cooperation between all factions inside Palestine. Here in Ein el-Hilweh we have reached a kind of cooperation. Ten years ago we formed a follow-up committee which includes the Islamic forces, the PLO groups and also the allied groups who are usually considered as supported by the Syrians. All groups here are under the umbrella of the follow-up committee. So we have coordination and cooperation in dealing with all sorts of problems, political or social, or even in cases of security situations.

Q: What is your conception of an Islamic state? How do you deal with terms like democracy or elections? What is your position on participating in elections in Palestine or Lebanon?

Islam is different than other religions. It is a kind of a complete life and is not limited to prayers and religious practices. It is a concept for all aspects of life. During the last one thousand years, there was an Islamic state ruled by the Islamic Sharia. Included in this state were all religions. Churches here are more than one thousand years old. Also Jews left Europe and came to live in our country for being more tolerated here. Our religion does not oblige anyone to believe in it and grants all other religions the right to practice, even those without a holy book such as Hindus and others. This is our concept of a state and its inhabitants.

Regarding elections, they were held during the period of the Islamic state as well as today, like for example in Palestine or in Iran. According to our Islamic view, participating in elections is not in contradiction with the Islamic religion, because it is an expression of the choice of the people. This is well-considered in Islam. In Islam it was called Shoura. Now they call it democracy.

Q: Social justice and a life in dignity are two important aspects of Islam. How do you understand the term social justice? Social rights? The relation between the rich and the poor?

The Islamic legislation has in fact in its terms a kind of wealth distribution. There is a holy Quran verse which says that the wealth should not be monopolised by the rich. One example is the case of heritage. When someone dies, his wealth is to be distributed and it goes for at least ten persons. This kind of distribution will make many people benefit directly from this wealth. Also, there is worship and one of the pillars of Islam, which is called Zakat. 2.5% of the money goes to the poor. This is paid to the state, which is responsible for the distribution. This is also what is happening in Europe. There you call it taxes. These taxes are collected and distributed to those who are in social need. This has been applied in Islam for 1400 years. Islam gave this kind of payment a character of worship, which makes it independent of state violence. The people pay to the poor to fulfil their religion. The Palestinians here have no state, but they pay the Zakat. In our mosque we collect the Zakat and use it to help those in need. For example, we help young people to get married, students to pay the university fees, or those in need of health care etc.

Q: In the West, Salafism is presented only in the context of terror and Al-Qaida. How do you define Salafism?

Salafism is like “fundamentalism” in the West, where people in the past asked for the return to the holy book. In the West, there have been many fundamentalist movements such as the Puritans and other religious movements including the Protestants. Salafism is similar to these trends. It was established in Saudi Arabia 150 years ago. Their main goal was to ask people to return to the holy Quran and to the words of the prophet. This is consensus within all Muslim groups. But there are differences even within Salafi groups. Some are rather moderate and others are going to extremes, tendencies you may find in any other ideology. The majority of the Muslim groups here in the camp are not Salafi. Even the Salafis here have rather a moderate attitude, especially for us, the Palestinians. Our country is occupied. Our energy is focussed on our country - we have our country to liberate it. One trend in the camp is called “scientific Salafism”, which in contrary to “Jihadic Salafism” focuses on teaching Sharia and educating scholars in this aspect. The camps do not follow the trend of Salafism outside Lebanon.

Q: So your group was not involved in the fights in Nahr El-Bared between the state and Fatah-El-Islam?

The conflict in Nahr El-Bared was not a Palestinian phenomenon. Those who are called Fatah-El-Islam came from Syria. People from different Arab countries came to Syria with the intention to go to fight in Iraq against the Americans. As Syria closed the borders to Iraq, they made an intelligent trick to get rid of them, sending them to Lebanon. Remember, at that time the Lebanese and the Syrians were in a major conflict. The Syrians were urged to leave Lebanon. So Syria let these people enter Lebanon. In cooperation with one pro-Syrian Palestinian fraction called Fatah-El-Intifada they settled in Nahr-El-Bared and had the confrontation with the Lebanese army. If you read their names and nationalities - none of them was Palestinian. None of them was from Nahr-El-Bared. They all came from Saudi Arabia, Algeria and other countries. It was a phenomenon from outside the camp.

Q: What was you position during the fights?

In fact, we tried to rescue our camp. We tried to negotiate with the Lebanese army and we were even ready to go to Nahr-El-Bared to negotiate directly with Fatah-El-Islam. But things did not go as we planned because it was necessary to make a cease-fire and a troop separation between the army and Fatah-El-Islam and to send a peace troop. We failed in forming such a force. After the fights were stopped for a few days, they returned and the camp was destroyed completely - after the end of Fatah-El-Islam. The camp was not completely destroyed during the clashes. During the fights the majority of the houses were in good condition inside and outside. After the clashes the Lebanese army unfortunately destroyed the camp completely and plundered the houses. If you go to the camp, you will see how the people are suffering.

Q: Did these events mean a significant change in the attitude of the Lebanese state towards you and other groups in Ein-El-Hilweh? Is it being used as a pretext to eliminate the groups inside this camp?

During the events we tried to enter into negotiations with the army in order to settle the problem of Nahr-El-Bared and to avoid clashes between the army and the groups in Ein-El-Hilweh camp. We succeeded in the second point. Many people felt that what was happening with Fatah-El-Islam was directed against the Palestinians and that the events involved more than Nahr-El-Bared. It was a kind of total destruction and at first they even refused to return. Now they are not allowing some people to rebuild their shelters. I hope you will be able to visit Nahr-El-Bared to see how much the people are suffering there.

Q: What is your relationship with Abdullah Azzam?

Azzam never came to Ein-El-Hilweh camp. He was a member of Hamas in the past. He fought between 1967 and 1970 against the Israelis in Jordan during the PLO military presence there. He was a member of the Muslim Brothers Society, the mother organisation of Hamas. He fought within Fatah troops. From 1970 to 1980 he was a university professor. Afterwards he went to Afghanistan. He was full of enthusiasm, he wanted to express himself in that area. But he had no relations with Ein-El-Hilweh camp. He was a Palestinian from Jordan. He never came to Lebanon.

Q: After the Freedom Flotilla, do you see a change of the Turkish role in the region? How do feel about international support for the Palestinian cause?

The Palestinians welcome any kind of support. The Palestinians were expelled from their country and have been suffering for more than 60 years. Therefore any support from any country is welcome. If this support is voluntary for some, we consider support from Turkey and other Muslim and Arab countries as their duty. For Arabs and Muslims it is their nation and their country, and hence their duty. We blame them if they do not support us. As for others, we welcome their support but don’t blame them if they don’t support us. People who support us are welcome, regardless of their religion or ideology. Some have a humanitarian background, others have a special ideology. Guevara for example came to Algeria and supported the Arab cause.

Q: Can you tell us about the famous library you created, where important books are collected?

It is a bookshop under the mosque, hired and run by one person.

Q: What is your political initiative regarding Palestine or Lebanon? Or are you only reacting to changes in the Lebanese state policy?

As you know, these days the Palestinians experience many limitations in political activities here in Lebanon. We are confronted with many obstacles when we want to express ourselves and the Palestinians are deprived of the right to form a political party or even a social association. So what we are doing in the camp is outside Lebanese law, and if they applied it many things would change. Palestinians are not even allowed to have a pharmacy or a clinic, so the political activities are not an exception concerning these deprivations. But on the other hand, our country is occupied and we have the right to express our position towards the occupation of our land and towards the Zionist occupier in order to convince others to join us in the struggle to liberate the country.

Q: Does this mean you restrict your activities to a political struggle? Aren’t there any expressions of an armed struggle?

We still have military forces in the camp. But this force is usually used in certain times for self-defence. When the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982, this camp was devastated. We fought the Israelis inside and outside the camp until they had to leave in 1985. In 2006 we participated in the fightings in the South. Military force is still necessary and we are fighting the enemy who has occupied Palestine and who is preparing to occupy other countries. Now they are present in Lebanese waters and they are still violating Lebanese air space. So what do you expect from them? They also attacked the camp in 2006.

Q: What is your position toward the Islamic revolution in Iran and a Sunni-Shiite reconciliation?

We are calling for cooperation and reconciliation not only between the different sects or confessions in the region, but also between the nationalities. Arabs, Turks, Kurds are living together within same states. We are trying not to differentiate between people. People have been living together for 1000 year. Things which are 1000 years old cannot be changed easily.

Q: And on a theological or ideological level, do you see any future possibility to achieve a reconciliation between the two wings of the Islamic Nation?

Of course there have been many attempts in the past. But this kind of reconciliation needs the support of states and cannot be achieved by the efforts of individuals or small groups. In the course of history there had been many reconciliations. There have been Shiite ministers within the Sunnite Abbaside Khalifate. They were never considered a problem, as long they were a minority.

Q: So you do not consider Shiites as non-believers or blasphemes as other Salafi groups do?


Q: What is your position on martyr actions or suicide bomber actions carried out in Palestine or in Iraq?

We are fighting almost unarmed against an enemy who possesses all kinds of modern weapons, facing the enemy with our bodies. The only method left to you is this kind of fighting.

In fact, Islam prohibits suicide. But if it is the only way to defend yourself, it will be allowed. Islam prohibits the killing of children, women and old people. Even when you fight an enemy you cannot do this to the people. You fight only those who fight you. But as for the Israelis and the Americans, they have not left us any other way to defend ourselves. The only other option is to surrender and let our enemy take our land and kill our people. As for modern weapons, they also kill civilians and they say it is necessary, or it is a mistake. The Israelis killed 1000 people during the last war in Gaza. If I have to face them with a home-made missile, this might kill a civilian woman, but what should I do? This is modern warfare. In the past people fought with swords, face to face. Now it is the kind of modern life we live in and the kind of modern weapons we are dealing with which cause the killing of innocent civilians. We don’t intend to kill innocent people, but it is the only way to defend ourselves and it happens by error, although we don’t agree. Sometimes we are asked if we intend to kill Israeli children if the Israelis intend to kill ours. We say no, although there have been many cases in Gaza and the West Bank where Israelis killed children without really being threatened.

Q: What do you expect from the solidarity movement in the West or from the Western society?

I think that the people in the West can play an important role as they did in the anti-war movement. They can put pressure on their governments, thus urge them to stop supporting the Israelis in their invasions and occupation of our countries. Even if the occupied territories are recognised as such, the Western governments have not taken any step to push Israel to withdraw. The West does more in the cases of other countries such as Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait or in the case of Yugoslavia. Concerning Israel, different standards are applied. People should urge their elected governments to use the same standards and to demand from Israel to withdraw at least from the occupied territories. At the moment, the Israelis are continuing to occupy more land and to expel the Palestinians. Even elected Palestinian politicians have recently been expelled from Jerusalem. Israel is acting against universal law, against international agreements and against UN resolutions and nobody is stopping them at the moment.