Ahmad al-Assir first caught the attention of political observers when he was among the first in Lebanon to organize demonstrations in support of the Syrian uprising. Since then, the Saida-based Salafist cleric has been criticized for what some perceive as his heavily sectarian rhetoric, directed particularly against Shia Muslims. Then, earlier this month, he made the front pages when he and around 1,000 followers demonstrated in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square in solidarity with the Syrian people rising up against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. NOW Lebanon met and talked with Assir in an apartment near his mosque in Saida.
Is your movement an organized political party?
Assir: We are not a political party or movement. Of course, politics is part and parcel of Islam, and we work with Islamic parties where it concerns the interests of our religion and country, but I’m not a typical man of politics. I’m an imam of a mosque.
When did you form? How is the leadership decided?
Assir: I started my mission in 1989, and we built the mosque in 1997. Since we’re not a party, there is no official leader. I organize most of the activities, but there are some brothers around me who help.
Do you have formal ties with other political parties, inside or outside the country?
Assir: I have ties with different parties around Saida, such as the Future Movement and al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, since we’re from the same town. I have limited ties outside of Saida and none outside Lebanon.
How are you financed?
Assir: We are entirely financed by our supporters inside the mosque and inside Lebanon. We refuse to be financed by political or religious groups of any kind.
Walid Jumblatt welcomed you recently at his seat in al-Moukhtara. How are your relations with him?
Assir: The visit was the first of its kind, and its main purpose was to introduce and get to know one another. We also discussed the Syrian situation. It was a positive visit.
What are the major issues facing Lebanon today?
Assir: Many issues affect Lebanese politics, most of all the dependency on the Iranian axis and the existence of weapons in the country. Everything else is secondary to these.
Lebanon is a religiously diverse country. What is your policy toward other religious groups? Not only Shia, Christians and Druze, but even Jews, Alawites and atheists?
Assir: My mission in the past, present and future, will continue to be to persuade all Lebanese to live together regardless of religious or personal beliefs, because there’s no other way for this country.
What is your policy toward human rights, especially women’s rights, freedom of speech, sexual freedoms?
Assir: Human rights are sacred in Islam, for Islam is a message from Allah to assure equality between all humans: "And if you were to rule among people, you rule with justice." [Presumably a reference to the Quran, Sura 4:58]
We encourage women’s rights, for women have to work hard for them, especially in the Arab world. But we are only with what’s permitted for women in Islam – if anything contradicts Islam, then of course we don’t consider it a “right.”
We live in a country whose constitution ensures the freedom of speech, and the freedom of opinion, and we must protect this and make sure that it applies to everyone.
We in Islam we have limitations for sexual freedom. Sex starts with marriage, and we don’t accept any deviations from this.
Is your group armed? Under what circumstances would you use arms?
Assir: No we are not armed at all. Even as individuals, we don’t have weapons, as was proven when we went to Beirut peacefully. We have repeatedly warned about the risks of armament and of weapons being in the hands of only one party, especially one defined by a sect, because that affects all other sects in a negative way. I don’t foresee my movement using weapons of any sort under any circumstances.
The word “jihad” was being chanted by some demonstrators in Beirut – what kind of jihad?
Assir: The word “jihad” in Islam is not well understood, so as soon as people hear it, they think it’s only about weapons and fighting. This is only a small part of it. “Jihad” is also helping the needy with food; it’s also education; it’s also spreading awareness; it’s also creating stability for our country. Whoever was saying it may have meant it in their own way, but our movement will always be peaceful.
Also, at the demonstration, you did not join with other anti-Assad parties. Why?
Assir: For us, whenever we organize anything we invite everyone to participate, but every person holds a personal point of view, so to each their own. From what I understand, others did not participate because they were afraid of a clash with the other [pro-Assad] demonstration taking place.
How many supporters do you have in Lebanon? Where are they concentrated? Are their numbers increasing?
Assir: To be honest the issue of numbers does not concern me at all. That’s something I never discussed and I won’t.
Our mission started in Saida, so that’s where most of the supporters are concentrated, but our movement is spreading in different areas. The numbers are increasing because of the pain of injustice.
What is the significance of Syria to your supporters? Do they provide direct support to the Syrian opposition?
Assir: We and our brothers in Syria are one people in two nations; we can’t be divided. When we talk about our people in Syria, it’s as if we’re talking about our people in Tripoli, or Saida, or Beirut.
We don’t offer any financial or military support to them for we don’t have the ability to. And I always stated that we will only help them by peaceful and lawful means.
Was the rally in Beirut a turning point for the group?
Assir: No, but it was one of many steps toward overcoming the injustice which we and the Syrians are going through. For there is one group dominating this country, and this is affecting all Lebanese and especially [Salafists]. We saw lately how [Hezbollah] dealt with their weapons on May 7 , how they dealt with the cabinet, and we refuse all of these acts, as well as of course the constant demonization of us by media.
Will you organize more demonstrations in Beirut and elsewhere in the country in the future?
Assir: Of course we shall continue as long as there is injustice, and massacres, and oppression. But I haven’t yet decided when and where.