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Lebanon’s Salafists Challenge Hezbollah Dominance

Salafi cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir


The port city of Sidon in Lebanon witnessed an almost unthinkable act today. The Sunni bastion in the south of the country was transformed into the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Instead of Billy Clanton and Wyatt Earp, today’s belligerents in the shootout were the bodyguard of a controversial Sunni cleric and a Hezbollah commander. By the time the smoke cleared three were dead, including the cleric’s bodyguard and seven wounded, among them the Hezbollah commander.

Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, pictured above in the center with the trendy sunglasses and cellphone, is the controversial religious leader in question. The sheikh has promoted himself as the “guardian of Sunni interests” and has become a regular commentator on Lebanese television, frequently engaging in fiery rhetoric against Bashir al-Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and the Shiite Amal movement. Al-Assir is a Salafist preacher, a member of the strand of Sunni conservative groups that call for a return to the practices of the first generation of Muslims. His rallies are attended by men in traditional wear emulating the Prophet of Islam with their long beards and prayer beads, while many women can be seen covered from head to toe in black burkas.

While outward religiosity is a common sight in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and increasingly in Tunisia, Lebanon has historically been  a country where Sunnis  practice a moderate form of Islam and equally involve themselves in the country’s debauchery; usually as much as their Christian counterparts.  For the most part this is still the case, with the growth of Salafist groups in the country on a much smaller scale than many ambulance-chasing analysts would have one believe.  For one thing, the Salafist movement in Lebanon is divided into multiple groupings, led by a variety of Sheikhs both in the south of the country and in the north. Many of these religious leaders are split over various doctrinal disputes and are reportedly divided over plans to create a Salafist political party that may compete in parliamentary elections next year.

That being said, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir is the most public face of a growing trend within Lebanon’s Salafist movement. The country’s more fundamentalist Sunni leaders are utilizing the civil war in neighbouring Syria to gain political power among their constituency. The latest manifestation of which was the Sheikh’s call for the removal of Hezbollah banners from his home city of Sidon. The Shiite group, which holds both political power in the country and Lebanon’s biggest weapon arsenal (more than the Lebanese Army) had been putting up posters of their leader Hassan Nasrallah and other religious motivated works to mark the holiday of Ashoura on November 24. A celebration which highlights the divisions between Sunni and Shiite, as it commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and who Shiites believe was the rightful heir to lead the Muslim community; a doctrinal schism which provided the catalyst for the modern religious divide.

Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir had called on Hezbollah to remove the banners from the city by today and it seems that representatives of the group, including the commander, were in the process of taking down the posters when the gunfight erupted. The sheikh was careful as to not paint the tearing down of Hezbollah banners as purely a sectarian act instead stating that he was against Hezbollah because it supported the regime of Bashir al-Assad in Syria and, in his mind, was responsible for the assassination of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, the Sunni security chief killed in a car bombing on October 19. Whether or not the move was purely sectarian is a marginal issue at best, the important part is that al-Assir, the most prominent Salafi cleric in this new anti-Hezbollah movement, represents a growing trend.

Sunnis within Lebanon have become marginalized since the takeover of government by the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition in January 2011, which pushed then Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the leader of the Future Movement and the pro-Western March 14 coalition into self-imposed exile, first in Paris and now in Riyadh. The Sunni leader and son of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was presumably killed by Hezbollah, has yet to return to the country. A lack of moderate political leadership to act as a counterweight to the Shiite movement, which is sponsored by both Syria and Iran, has provided an opening for Salafist leaders such as Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. Overall, Lebanon’s Sunni community has been emasculated, not just due to their leader’s absence, but also by events that proceeded the younger Hariri’s departure.

The assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, although acting as a catalyst for the creation of the March 14 coalition and the expulsion of Syrian forces, which had occupied the country for almost 30 years, exposed the uncompromising determination of Hezbollah to control events in the country. This outwardly violent trend was buttressed by the May 2008 takeover of many parts of the country by Hezbollah units after the March 14 led government attempted to dismantle its private communications network. In the process Hezbollah routed the Future Movement’s militia in a matter of hours, highlighting the Shiite group’s dominance in the military domain and the impotence of the March 14 government in curbing the group’s political and operational independence. Furthermore, the United Nations body responsible for investigating the assassination of the elder Hariri, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, although issuing indictments for members of Hezbollah responsible for the killing, have yet to bring anyone to court. According to a contact, the men responsible for the Hariri assassination won’t be facing trial anytime soon either and this is not just because Hezbollah has threatened to strike down any hand which touches its members. Rather, the men in question, given their failure to cover up their tracks and the ensuing spotlight on the group, have been disposed of by the Shiite movement.

Coupled with the arrests of Sunni individuals involved in supporting Syria’s rebel groups by Hezbollah-backed security forces, the divide between the two communities is the biggest since the country’s civil war; characterized by near-monthly armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in the second biggest city of Tripoli. Worryingly, these battles have seen attacks on the Lebanese Army, a symbol of cross-sectarian cohesion that is usually seen as above confessional disputes, which this author detailed in May. Without the traditional leadership and given the emasculation of the usual powerbrokers, Salafist leaders have become a prominent voice in the anti-Hezbollah struggle. With the faltering of Assad’s covert control over Lebanon and with the Free Syrian Army establishing a presence in nearly a third of their country, al-Assir and other Salafist clerics have taken a hardline stance against Syrian-backed Hezbollah. Tripoli based Salafi cleric Selim al-Rafei, speaking on relations between the two communities stated that, “The only thing that is helpful for Islam is jihad. Jihad will give us back our dignity.” While the message rings true among some in the Sunni community in Tripoli, home to many poor and unemployed members of this community, it represents a possible full breakdown in sectarian relations not seen since the country’s 15 year civil war.

The poster incident today was not the first public attempt to undermine Hezbollah by Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who Hezbollah says is backed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. As noted above, he is a frequent commentator on Lebanese television and has called on Hezbollah and its allies Amal to lay down their weapons or transfer them to the Lebanese Army. Al-Assir has even as far to challenged Hezbollah’s raison d’être; resistance against Israel and protection of the Palestinian cause. An issue many March 14 politicians dare not touch, Hezbollah has stated that it maintains its arms “for the protection of Southern Lebanon against Zionist aggressors“, which has forced many in the opposition to pay lip-service to their supposed cause, albeit be seen as an Israeli supporter. The Sheikh has no qualms with directly confronting the Shiite movement and even led a 1,000 person anti-Assad rally in central Beirut on March 4.

What is disturbing is that Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir`s actions, combined with that of other controversial Salafi clerics in Lebanon, could lead to a complete breakdown in dialogue between the sectarian groups. The Sheikh is magnifying feelings of injustice among the Sunni community while simultaneously challenging the core ideology behind Hezbollah`s existence. As an emerging leader, for political rather than religious reasons, al-Assir is setting a tone that will further distance both communities from one another, with dangerous consequences. Although today`s outburst of violence will not snowball into all out confessional war, continuing prodding of the Shiite movement and their regional backers may. The Sunni political parties and their Christian backers have not the firepower or the resources to enter into a full scale confrontation with Hezbollah, a force which arguably gave a good showing against the Israeli Defense Force. Furthermore, the issues that divide the two communities at this point must be settled at the ballot box and through political dialogue. The Sunni community and its leaders must understand that violent confrontation plays into the hands of Bashir al-Assad, who has sought to export the conflict in his country into neighboring states in a futile effort to increase the longevity of his regime. Furthermore, given the uneasy situation for Hezbollah with Assad`s impending downfall there may be many jumpy trigger fingers among the Shiite movement`s followers.