Bilal, a Salafi sheikh, holds court at his well-furnished house in Bab al-Tabbaneh, a notoriously volatile Sunni neighborhood in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The area, which has historically been a flashpoint for many violent conflicts with neighboring Alawites, is tense following June clashes between the Lebanese army and supporters of Sunni cleric Ahmed Assir in the southern town of Abra that left 46 dead. An uneasy truce has held in Tripoli since the army seized Assir's compound and Ramadan started, but Bilal says he's sure it won't last, and he blames that on Iran, the militant group Hezbollah, and, oddly enough, on the U.S.
"Americans see us as Bin Laden, as terrorists," he says with a sneer. "But when the world talks about Hezbollah, they call them a militia. We have brains. We know the Americans are behind everything that's going on. They're sitting watching the blood of Muslims being spilled, and they turn a blind eye."
Lebanon, a country rife with long-simmering sectarian tension, has recently begun to show signs of instability, escalated by conflict across the border in Syria. A heavily armed, Iranian-backed Hezbollah has attracted much condemnation for its military support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's regime, while radical Sunni groups have become more powerful and mobilized, allegedly with funding from Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In addition to the clashes in Abra, incidents such as assassinations, roadside bombings and rocket attacks have taken place over the past year with increasing frequency.
As cracks appear in the relative peace that has held since Lebanon's bloody 15-year civil war officially ended in 1990, a long-standing Lebanese pastime seems to have gone into overdrive. If there's one thing people from all four major Lebanese sects--Sunni, Shia, Christian and Druze--appear to agree on, it's that there's a conspiracy going on, and opposing sects, backed by nefarious foreign powers, are the masterminds.
In fact, according to Elias Muhanna, an assistant professor at Brown University and author of Qifa Nabki, a blog on Lebanese politics, conspiracy theorizing has always been a way for Lebanese to make sense of their government's labyrinthine politics and shifting alliances with other nations. He says the sectarian nature of the Lebanese state creates an environment in which conspiracy theories flourish.
"I think what makes it confusing from an outsider's perspective is that there are so many relevant political actors," says Muhanna. "You don't have sort of large, hegemonic political parties that can get their message together and have one clear platform. What you have instead are lots of little parties that have their own following and think they have the right to be heard and play a role in the political process...It becomes sort of an echo chamber, and they're all talking to each other and about each other. For all the punditry that goes on...the internal world of Lebanese politics is actually pretty opaque to Lebanese citizens...so it's just easier to look for that one silver bullet that explains everything."
And that silver bullet changes, depending on whom you're speaking to. Hussein, whose name has been changed, is a Hezbollah fighter. Tall, thin and soft-spoken, he explains how he thinks Sunnis in Lebanon, with the help of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.S. and Israel, were behind attacks on Hezbollah, including two Grad rockets that struck Dahiyeh, a Shiite suburb of Beirut, in May.
"This was something we were expecting," he says calmly. "They're going to chase us wherever we go. The Information Branch is giving them intelligence on our locations and activities. Our goal is not a sectarian goal. We have Sunnis working with us. But others are all Al Qaeda, which is under the protection of the U.S., and they are our enemies...what we are witnessing today in the region--these people are cutting off heads, eating hearts. You will never hear this about the Shia. Even when we capture an Israeli, they go home fat."
Hussein believes there is an alliance between major Western powers, Israel, and the Gulf nations against Iran and Hezbollah, and their combined influence has enabled the rise of militant Sunni radicals like Assir in Lebanon.
"It's natural that the Sunnis in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Israel have the same goals," he says. "They all work together. Look what the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt. They closed the Syrian embassy and opened the Israeli embassy. We believe we can defeat them all. Our ideology is stronger than Al Qaeda, and we're not terrorists like them."
Hussein smiles grimly. "They don't know Hezbollah," he says. "We're ready to fight on all fronts. The Salafis in Syria flee from us."
Others have a much different explanation for the mysterious rockets fired on Dahiyeh, which no faction claimed responsibility for.
"Either the Syrian regime or Hezbollah were behind the Grad missiles on Dahiyeh," says Omar Bakri, a militant Salafi leader notorious for praising those behind the September 11 attacks and other such terrorist acts. As he speaks, the booming sound of two or three grenades being thrown echoes close to his own spacious apartment in Tripoli. "You can't blame those on Islamists. Islamists are very brave. We always accept responsibility for everything we do. But no one accepted responsibility for these...Someone aimed the missiles, which cost $15,000 each and are very accurate, into an empty parking lot on a Sunday morning...Islamists aren't funded by any state. The ones who have money are Syria and Hezbollah."
But some analysts scoff at the suggestion that the increasingly militarized Salafi groups in Tripoli and elsewhere haven't received funding from powerful nations. As'ad Abukhalil is a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus and author of the Angry Arab News Service, a controversial blog on Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics. According to him, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf states have provided direct military and monetary support to Salafi groups within Lebanon.
"The Saudis are doing what Israel can't do publicly," he says. "They want to push the conflict against Hezbollah as far as possible. They tried going the political route; now they are trying to mobilize against Hezbollah militarily...they have enlisted the help of various radical Sunni and Salafi organizations, in Syria and Lebanon, to push the Sunni-Shia conflict as far as it can go."
To which those very Salafis counter with one word: Iran. "The Iranian regime has complete control of every corner of the Lebanese government through Hezbollah and the Syrian regime," says Sheikh Bilal. "We consider the Lebanese government to be raped by Iran...If the Sunnis in Lebanon were supported by Saudi Arabia, you wouldn't see a single Shia walking the streets. We would rule this place."
The fact of the matter, according to Muhanna, is that more powerful nations have indeed been meddling in Lebanese politics since before its establishment as a state, when France supported Lebanon's Maronite Catholics in a violent sectarian war against the British-backed Druze. This trend would only intensify after Lebanon became a republic, and during the civil war, every faction in the country was being funded by an external actor.
"The Lebanese invite foreign interference into their politics themselves, and it's not only soft power, it's very much hard power in the sense that you have other nations bankrolling political parties and movements or militant groups," he says. "So I think that plays a role in the conspiracy theorizing, because everybody says of course something's going on behind the scenes. All these powers have some way of influencing the outcome of events, and nobody's really in control of their own fate."
Foreign interference in Lebanese affairs is something both sides of the escalating cold war in Lebanon can agree on. Ali, whose name has also been changed, is introduced as a high-ranking member of Hezbollah with a family that is extremely influential within the organization. He himself refuses to acknowledge this, admitting only to being a "concerned citizen of Dahiyeh." Yet when referencing Hezbollah in conversation, he quickly slips into the possessive, referring to them as "we." Young and eloquent, Ali speaks perfect English with an almost American accent and is dressed casually in shorts and a T-shirt. Asked about Iran's support of Hezbollah, he shrugs.
"Historically, Lebanese sects have always had a major country outside Lebanon supporting them," he says. "During the civil war, France supported the Christians; Russia supported the Druze. It will always be like this...but the careful balance between Shia and Sunni in Lebanon that we've maintained thus far keeps the balance in the whole Arab world."
According to Ali, that balance is under threat by Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and, of course, Israel. He blames the Israelis for recent events such as the rocket attacks on Dahiyeh, saying the Jewish state is attempting to instigate a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon.
"I'm reminded of Adolf Hitler's book Mein Kampf," he says casually. "In it, he makes the case that the Jews started a war between the Catholics and the Protestants in Germany in order to destabilize that area. I think the Jews do that--they divide and conquer. They don't do it based on new theories or ideas. They make use of historical themes and implement them using the media. So Israel is a major player. Are they directly playing in the field? Maybe not...but I think they had a hand in planning and setting up these attacks. It's only logical."
As for the U.S., Ali considers it to be nothing more than Israel's muscle in the region.
"Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said once that the Americans, through an ambassador, offered Hezbollah full control over Lebanon in 2001 if they would sign a peace treaty with Israel," he says, referring to Hezbollah's leader. "Because what does America want, in the end? They want a powerful party loyal to them ruling over a country neighboring Israel. Take for example Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt. It was stable for 40 years. Why? Because he signed a peace treaty with Israel. So if we play nice, things would be different. But we won't do that...Sunnis always make the accusation that we actually support the Jews and Israel, and all our rhetoric is just for publicity...but I think Hezbollah is the only honest player standing against Israel. Keeping it distracted with other issues ensures that the borders with Israel stay calm."
"I think even the Americans don't have the control they pretend to have," Ali says, deep in thought. "We overestimate the U.S. Everybody does. From their movies, even, they've created this idea that everything that happens is part of their master plan...as someone in a TV show once said, 'America is a broke island in the Atlantic.' They can't fight another foreign war."
At his house in Tripoli, Sheikh Bilal's four-year-old son drifts out of the kitchen holding a toy machine gun. Periodically, he points it at an invisible enemy and makes the sound of gunfire. After a while, he sits next to his father on the couch and receives an affectionate kiss from the sheikh.
Asked about criminal acts attributed to various Sunni jihadi groups within Syria and Lebanon, the sheikh sighs and throws his arms up in frustration.
"Throughout history, the Sunnis in Lebanon have been oppressed," he says, seemingly oblivious to the history of Sunni oppression of other sects. "When the Sunnis in the world are oppressed, sometimes small groups slip away and react badly against civilians in some places. We don't support this, but we understand it, because we are under attack, especially by the Iranians through Hezbollah."
The sheikh leans forward conspiratorially.
"Besides, the Shia didn't exist in Lebanon before the 50s," he says with utter conviction. "They were brought by the Iranian government to Lebanon. Iran paid money to start the Shia sect where it didn't exist before. They shipped Shia from Iraq and all over the Arab world and gave them Lebanese citizenship."
He puts an arm around his son. "Being oppressed will make you do anything," he says with a smile.