News / Middle East

    Lebanon Cleric Draws Spotlight Blasting Hezbollah, Assad

    Sheikh Ahmad Assir speaks during a demonstration in solidarity with Syria's anti-government protesters, in Beirut March 4, 2012. Sheikh Ahmad Assir speaks during a demonstration in solidarity with Syria's anti-government protesters, in Beirut March 4, 2012.
    x
    Sheikh Ahmad Assir speaks during a demonstration in solidarity with Syria's anti-government protesters, in Beirut March 4, 2012.
    Sheikh Ahmad Assir speaks during a demonstration in solidarity with Syria's anti-government protesters, in Beirut March 4, 2012.
    Jeff Neumann
    SIDON, Lebanon -- Under the blistering summer sun in the coastal city of Sidon, a new protest camp is highlighting a deepening sectarian divide in Lebanon. Led by a previously obscure Salafi preacher, the stated goal of the sit-in is to bring the Shiite militant group Hezbollah's vast, independent arsenal of weapons under the control of the government.

    The rapid ascent of Sheikh Ahmad Assir, the charismatic 44-year-old Sunni cleric who called for the sit-in, is raising concern among Lebanese that the country's fragile sectarian balance is unraveling – an alarming prospect in a country which has yet to fully recover from a bloody, 15-year civil war.

    Assir's vitriol is directed squarely at Hezbollah and one of the group's primary patrons, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Lebanon's long history of political assassinations, especially of critics of the Syrian government, looms large in the minds of the sheikh's supporters.

    The ongoing war in neighboring Syria has enraged a Sunni populace that finds itself increasingly at odds with the Lebanese government, which is dominated by a Hezbollah-led pro-Assad regime coalition. After Assir directed threatening remarks at Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah in a television interview last month, the station was attacked with Molotov cocktails, and streets across Beirut were blocked with burning tires. Two months of sectarian fighting linked to Syria in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli claimed the lives of at least 30 people and left some 200 injured this spring. And fighting in Beirut between pro- and anti-Syrian regime Sunni political parties killed several people in May.

    The “Sunni Lion”

    Some in the camp refer to Sheikh Assir as the "Sunni Lion." Local newspaper Al-Akhbar has called him "the face of a new phase of Salafi activity." And though it is modest in size, attracting several hundred people at most, Assir's open-ended street protest has become something few people can ignore. Lebanon's president and interior minister have so far failed to mediate a solution.

    Ahmad Assir (L) and his supporters shave their heads during the sit-in in Sidon July 4, 2012.Ahmad Assir (L) and his supporters shave their heads during the sit-in in Sidon July 4, 2012.
    x
    Ahmad Assir (L) and his supporters shave their heads during the sit-in in Sidon July 4, 2012.
    Ahmad Assir (L) and his supporters shave their heads during the sit-in in Sidon July 4, 2012.
    ​On a four-lane thoroughfare wedged between a car dealership and a plant nursery, the protest camp is small but growing. "Here is the border," Walid Hamimi, a tannery owner and volunteer bodyguard for Assir says with a laugh, gesturing to a parked dump truck blocking the road. New mattresses and tents are brought in throughout the day to accommodate a growing number of protesters. The camp is encircled with a make-shift security force – muscular young men in polo shirts idle on plastic chairs – and arriving visitors' identities are radioed in to the camp's communications hub. "We welcome anyone who wants to join us: Sunni, Shia, Christian, Druze… anyone," Hamimi says.

    Assir speaks to a disgruntled populace that has felt marginalized since Hezbollah took over Beirut from Sunni political parties by force in May 2008. For Assir, the events were a turning point, which he says forever changed his views on "the Resistance," as Hezbollah is commonly called in Lebanon. "We cannot take this any longer," Assir says, stroking his pet German shepherd in the shade of a used car lot next to the sit-in area. "Hezbollah's aggressive stance against the Lebanese people is unacceptable. The situation has become completely unbearable," Assir adds. One word that comes up in almost every conversation in the camp is dignity, and everyone here laments the perceived loss of it.

    Broad appeal

    Assir's message resonates not only within the masses, but also among some of the well-off and educated. Mohammed Kawam, a Ph.D. candidate in nanotechnology, has taken a leave of absence from his job and studies to stay in the camp. "Since 2006, Hezbollah's weapons have been moved to Beirut, and pointed at [the] Lebanese," he says, referring to the last war with Israel. "If they are truly the resistance, why are they oppressing [the] Lebanese? They should point their weapons at Israel, not us." Kawam says he will stay here for as long as the sheikh asks him to.

    Ahmad Assir walks his dog with family members and bodyguards in Sidon July 5, 2012 (VOA/Jeff Neumann).Ahmad Assir walks his dog with family members and bodyguards in Sidon July 5, 2012 (VOA/Jeff Neumann).
    x
    Ahmad Assir walks his dog with family members and bodyguards in Sidon July 5, 2012 (VOA/Jeff Neumann).
    Ahmad Assir walks his dog with family members and bodyguards in Sidon July 5, 2012 (VOA/Jeff Neumann).
    ​Since the collapse of then prime minister Saad Hariri's government in 2011, a political void has been left unfilled. "The seat of Sunni leadership has been empty for a long time," Hamim, the bodyguard, says. "Hariri sits in France while we suffer constant humiliation under Hezbollah. His words mean nothing to us and our sheikh understands this very well."

    Regardless of what some of his followers might wish, Assir claims he has "never had any interest in politics." And with no clear political leadership, many Sunnis feel abandoned by their former patrons.

    The son of a professional singer, Assir says his childhood was shaped largely by the Lebanese civil war and, at age 15, he fully embraced Islam. In 1997, he built the Bilal bin Rabah mosque in Sidon, where he serves today as its imam. His brand of Salafism adheres to a puritanical interpretation of the Quran.

    The Syria factor

    Primary among the concerns of Assir's congregation is the worsening conflict in Syria. From the Bilal bin Rabah mosque, the sheikh followers even run a charity for Syrians.

    "We offer our revolutionary brothers in Syria moral support as Muslims and as human beings, but we do not give them weapons as Hezbollah has claimed. However, Hezbollah sends fighters to help Assad and they kidnap Syrian revolutionaries here on [Assad's] behalf," Assir says, echoing claims long made by some members of the opposition in Syria. "How can Hezbollah claim to defend the dignity of all Muslims when they support the murderer Assad?"

    As spokesman for Hezbollah's political wing declined to comment, but the group's allies have repeatedly lashed out at Assir, claiming he sends weapons and fighters into Syria.

    Sheikh Assir says his goal is "to break the Lebanese people's fear of the Syrian regime."

    Assir's camp is well equipped for a long stay and with new facilities such as toilets, running water, wireless internet, and flat screen televisions. His detractors are sure that the sheikh receives foreign funding, most likely from Saudi Arabia. But Assir disputes this, and claims to have rebuffed attempts at contact by the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait who, he says, are "trying to buy our cause." He says all monetary support comes only from ordinary people in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Gulf.

    Downplaying Assir

    Many Lebanese are unimpressed with Assir's tactics. An elderly shop owner in downtown Sidon named Khalil says, "Ahmad Assir is a good man, a holy man, but he does not have much support here. He is only hurting businessmen like me with this ridiculous protest." However, a counter-protest by area business owners last week failed to convince Assir to leave. A violent breakup of the camp has so far been avoided, but cannot be ruled out altogether.

    While there clearly is momentum building around Assir, he still has far more skeptics than believers. Kamal Wazne, a Beirut-based political analyst says Assir is merely a "hiccup" on the political scene, but stresses that “his sectarian agenda carries great risk in Lebanon.” “This is something that can easily spread here. The main problem [in Lebanon today] is the failure of the government to deal with the security issues in the north," Wazne says, pointing to the recent sectarian violence in Tripoli. He adds that the continued inability of the security forces to control the situation will become a "catastrophic" problem for the state. The Lebanese army recently scrapped plans to disperse the camp with water cannons over fears of political backlash.

    Wazne also points to the harm done by disrupting people's daily lives with a sit-in, which some feel could hurt the cleric's chances of growing his support base. "The people of south Lebanon will not rally behind Sheikh Assir as he might want to believe," Wazne says. "Not now, or in the future."

    You May Like

    Top US General: Turkish Media Report ‘Absurd'

    General Dunford rejects ‘irresponsible' claims of coup involvement by former four-star Army General Campbell, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan before retiring earlier this year

    Video Saving Ethiopian Children Thought to Be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at efforts of one African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children

    Protests Over Western Troops Threaten Libyan 'Unity' Government

    Fears mount that Islamist foes of ‘unity' government plan to declare a revolutionaries' council in Tripoli

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Haruun from: Beirut, Lebanon
    July 08, 2012 12:10 PM
    Interesting article, except farfetched and fails to mentioned several key points-- namely, that promoting an Al-Qaida affiliated unknown has become a positive so as long as it is against the Assad regime? I, and many other independents who are no fans of neither Assad, Hezballah, and certinalty Al Qaida find it preposterous that such articles are given any credence. Shame on those who would support such a man or even write such an article.

    by: Godwin from: Nigeria
    July 07, 2012 1:40 PM
    The trouble in the entire Middle East is there is hardly any central objective in the area short of hatred for Israel. Would-be leaders and loafers capitalize on this fallacy and perpetuate themselves in office or new ones form an encampment to extort money from such minded and gullible leaders out there pretending to protect them from Israel. All that is make-belief. Israel is never the problem: The problem is the much ado about nothing created to keep afloat money making propaganda. It could have been a joke some time ago but has become costly, of course, in lives and property, and has become the image of the Middle East. It's high time the Arabs wake up to this onerous truth.

    by: Nordham from: UK
    July 06, 2012 4:10 PM
    the Iranians must be quacking in their plastic flip flops... i smell the hand of Turkey here...
    In Response

    by: glennPatrick from: Ky USA
    July 08, 2012 4:46 PM
    I have to comment,, a very astute observation you have,, I do admire courage,, even though I would be on this mans hit list for being an infidel,, and , I truely think wahabbism is a true evil,,this guy has courage,, he wont be with us long because the proffessional (Iranian ) killers will soon make him a martyr
    In Response

    by: Lilian from: US
    July 08, 2012 12:49 AM
    To Nordham, you are quite right. Just about Turkey... it's sad that recently, they have become more towards destructive 'political-Islam' (Islamic fascism), and away from Ataturk-ism. Still, reltaively to Iran, they're the "lesser-evil" choice.
    In Response

    by: Anonymous
    July 07, 2012 6:27 AM
    He is funded by either Qatar or Saudi Arabia or both. The Goal is to start a sectarian war in Lebanon...
    Wahhabi/Salafi Petro-Dollars at work funding terrorists and extremists around the world.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunitiesi
    X
    VOA News
    July 25, 2016 5:09 PM
    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Four Brother Goats Arrive in Brooklyn on a Mission

    While it's unusual to see farm animals in cities, it's become familiar for residents of Brooklyn, New York, to see a little herd of goats. Unlike gas-powered mowing equipment, goats remove invasive weeds quietly and without adding more pollution to the air. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this is a pilot program and if it proves to be successful, the goat gardener program will be extended to other areas of New York. Faith Lapidus narrates.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora