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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More