Consisting of almost 1,000 members, the Islamic Unity Movement (Harakat at-Tawhid al-Islami) is a major Sunni organization in Lebanon. Originating in Tripoli in 1982, it was the creation of the late Sheikh Sa’id Sha’ban, who was previously a leader of the Islamic Association (he died in June 1998). Sha’ban was one of the few charismatic leaders of Lebanon’s Islamist movements. Islamic Unity Movement (IUM) fighters consolidated their control over Tripoli in 1983-1984 by defeating a number of rivals and then, at the height of their power in 1985, splintered, as Khalil ‘Akkawi and Kan’an Naji left to organize their own associations. In the autumn of 1985 the Syrian army entered Tripoli and crushed Islamic Unity’s militia, though it permitted Sha’ban to maintain leadership of his now unarmed movement. This defeat did not prevent the militia’s subsequent reemergence in Beirut, Sidon, and south Lebanon. In 1988, Tawhid forces joined the Islamic Resistance to fight the South Lebanese Army and the Israeli troops in Israel’s “security zone.”
Sha’ban’s ideology sprang from the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is believed to have come from a Shi’i family of Batroun in North Lebanon and only later became a Sunni. He forged close political ties to Iran during visits to Tehran and through Hezbollah, which considered Sha’ban doctrinally a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini. While accepting the validity of the Iranian Revolution and emphasizing that the path started by Khomeini should be followed by all Muslims, Sha’ban and IUM did not call for an Iranian-style order in Lebanon, knowing that this would have alienated their Sunni followers. They sought ways to unite Sunnis and Shi’a, for example by suggesting that the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad’s biography provided foundations on which all Muslim groups and sects could agree. They suggested that instead of arguing about sectarian representation in the parliament, Muslims should call for government based on the Shari’a (Islamic law) without which no government could be legitimate. Sha’ban and IUM rejected nationalism, sectarianism and democratic pluralism in favor of an Islamic rule that “absorbs and dissolves all social differences and unites them in one crucible.” Sha’ban lamented the 1976 Syrian intervention in Lebanon to help the Maronites who, he asserted, would otherwise have fled to Cyprus or Latin America. Aside from rare instances of mild criticism, he was careful not to antagonize the Syrian authorities; he spoke favorably of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon as a framework for unified, armed action against Israel. Today the Islamic Unity Movement strives to carry on Sha’ban’s legacy.
The current leader of IUM is Bilal Shaaban, who relishes the perceived success of fellow Islamic activists in Egypt, the Palestinian territories, and Somalia. “In every place, why does the Islamic current reach its goals?” he has said. “Because it expresses the people’s sentiments against the Americans. It’s a reaction to American policy. They are planting the seed of hatred that is going to last generations.”
This profile is adapted from the article “Islamism in Lebanon: A Guide to the Groups,” written by A. Nizar Hamzeh and published by Middle East Forum in September 1997.