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

Turkey's Erdogan: Women Not Equal to Men

Speaking at conference in Istanbul, President Erdogan says Islam has defined a position for women: motherhood More

Ahead of SAARC Summit, Subdued Expectations

Some regional analysts say distrust between Pakistani, Indian officials has slowed SAARC's progress over the year More

Philippines Leery of Development on Reef Reclamation in S. China Sea

Chinese land reclamation projects in area have been ongoing for years, but new satellite imagery reportedly shows China’s massive construction project 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.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid