Alex Rowell

Salafists in the spotlight

To the non-Salafist, the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Saida can look quite forbidding, what with its large, calligraphy-smothered, jet-black flags—favored by al-Qaeda, inter alia—protruding stiffly from the entrance. But the reception is anything but hostile at the nearby apartment where we meet Ahmad al-Assir, the mosque’s controversial cleric who caught the nation’s attention when he led a heavily-secured 1,000-strong rally in solidarity with the people of Homs in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square earlier this month.
Inside, a man sporting the signature Salafist facial hair—a full beard with the moustache trimmed—guides us to a sitting room, where he brings us tea and biscuits. Ten minutes later, a tall and lean Assir enters and greets us in the customary Islamic way: handshake for men, palm flat against his chest for women. In a prayer cap, grey robe and black slippers, Assir moves very little once seated in his armchair, and speaks in the measured tones of an intellectual throughout the conversation (in marked contrast to his furious bellows on stage in Beirut).

We ask about his movement, which he insists is non-political, though he admits that he has ties with certain parties, chiefly al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah and the Future Movement. “Politics is part and parcel of Islam,” he says. “But I’m not a typical man of politics. I’m an imam.” About his recent meeting with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt in Moukhtara, he says “[Its] purpose was to introduce and get to know each other,” adding that they also “discussed the Syrian situation. It was a positive visit.”
He insists, moreover, that his agenda is peaceful, and he wishes no harm to other Lebanese sects. “My mission in the past, present and future will continue to be to persuade all Lebanese to live together regardless of religious or political beliefs.” He flatly denies that his movement is armed. “Even as individuals, we don’t have weapons, as was proven when we went to Beirut peacefully.” However, in the run-up to the demonstration, he had urged his followers “not to carry arms,” suggesting that at least some may have intended to do so.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he seems happiest discussing Islam. We ask about the chants for “jihad” at the protest, which he says were misunderstood. “[When] 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 creating stability for our country.”

“Human rights,” he goes on, “are sacred in Islam, for Islam is a message from Allah to assure equality between all humans.” If this seems an improbably moderate stance, let’s be clear: The man is no liberal. He “encourages” women’s rights – but only “what’s permitted in Islam. If anything contradicts Islam, then of course we don’t consider it a ‘right’.” Similarly, “In Islam we have limitations for sexual freedom. Sex starts with marriage, and we don’t accept any deviations.”

He is equally uncompromising when it comes to his foes. The two greatest threats to Lebanon, he says, are “the dependency on the Iranian axis and the existence of [non-state] weapons. We saw lately how [Hezbollah] dealt with their weapons on May 7, how they dealt with the cabinet, and we refuse” these actions. 
Finally, he also condemns the “injustice which we and the Syrians are going through.” Lebanese and Syrians, he says, “are one people in two nations; we can’t be divided.” He vows to continue his mission until the “massacres and oppression” cease, though he doesn’t yet know “when and where” his next demonstration will be.
As is typical of Lebanon’s labyrinthine sectarian complexity, the Sunni Islamist “street” is divided on Assir. On the one hand, Bassam Hammoud, head of the March-14-aligned al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah in the South, defended him, telling NOW Lebanon that, “The crimes and horrors happening in Syria have been rejected by large numbers of Lebanese. The media is focusing on him because he went to Beirut, but there have been have been many such protests supporting the Syrian revolution elsewhere in the country.” When asked how his relations with Assir were, Hammoud replied, “We have great relations with him as a brother and sheikh from our region, but this is not political.”

On the other hand, Bilal Shaaban, secretary general of the March-8-aligned Harakat al-Tawheed al-Islamiyah, accused Assir of stirring trouble at the behest of foreign powers: “In Lebanon, especially in the explosive regional climate, people should not use pressuring or inciting language. The Americans want to create a conflict that divides the Sunni and Shia Muslims. Why was everybody so scared about this protest, and expecting the worst? Because the aim was not to spread the gospel and the good message, of course.” Shaaban described his relations with Assir as “neither positive nor negative.”

To Hazem al-Amin, the journalist and author of The Lonely Salafi, Assir is ultimately insignificant. “The protest was exaggerated by certain supporters of Assad, who sought to falsely portray Salafists as the face of the Syrian revolution. In reality it was a big failure; there were not more than 1,500 participants. So Assir clearly does not represent Lebanon’s Sunnis.”

Nor does Amin believe the Assirists will grow. However, he cautions that this is contingent on the ability of larger, more moderate Sunni powers such as the Future Movement to re-establish their presence and assert themselves more convincingly on the ground.

Luna Safwan contributed reporting to this article

  • Hep

    @ Hourep - I thought the US was a democracy and invaded Iraq to spread power to the people lol. “...wise up. The entire world is laughing at you” - [Gullible American – Paul Craig Roberts] .I guess you have nothing original of your own to write and “Hasbara” does the thinking for you. Haven’t you memorized any slogan from “Hasbara” to look like a smart guy? ----- What is wrong with writing the tiny url if I quote from that page. You are not obliged to open any of my references, tiny or big.

    March 20, 2012


    The president I elect? You've got me all figured out. Son you are making an "assumption" out of yourself, power to the people and all that. Do you always need others to think for you. You wrote nothing original so far just bits and pieces of stuff from different dubious sources waved together to, in your own mind, support a preconceived doctrine. I hope you've memorized those slogans by heart so you would sound clever in mixed company and make the comrades proud.And I understand the reason you used tiny, but you should also understand that others less scrupulous than yourself could you them to send unsuspecting people to infected pages. Just use multiple posts if you need more space.

    March 15, 2012

  • Hep

    @Hourep – Of course you would not believe the loony leftist or the rightist writers but believe in the presidents you elect, the likes of Bush Junior and expect the world to take his words for granted. Check this out: "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" - 'Why didn't you do something to stop all this?' By revcom.us. ------ http://violetflame.biz.ly/usa/guilty.html --- I used the tiny url in my previous comment to accommodate the number of words allowed in a comment here.

    March 15, 2012


    HEP, you must be completely desperate to quote Hamid Dabashi of the loony left and Colonel Ralph Peters of the loony right. Seriously these are nothing more than the personal opinions of a couple of guys no one listens to, one an Iranian Ayatollah loving apologist who'd rather live in the US than in Iran, the other an American doing a poor imitation of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. Anything more legitimate and I'm on board.. oh and nothing by Ibrahim Amin, if I want fables I'll read La Fontaine. Please post the links to the actual website rather than tiny.cc, people have the right to know where you are sending them before they go there.

    March 14, 2012

  • Hep

    To fight an enemy you have to learn his language. I wish Ahmad al-Assir would learn English to get a clear picture of what is going on before inciting people. Little knowledge is dangerous. I quote from THE US/SAUDI AGENDA AND THE SYRIAN REBELLION: ".. Some people consider it a bit rich that Saudi Arabia is the one leading the charge or helping to lead the charge with Qatar, which is also a bit rich, demanding human rights in Syria.." -- http://tiny.cc/i392aw --- See also what Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters wrote. He, who in one of the most terrifying articles ever published, wrote in 1997: "….There will be no peace. At any given moment for the rest of our lifetimes, there will be multiple conflicts in mutating forms around the globe. Violent conflict will dominate the headlines …THE DE FACTO ROLE OF THE US ARMED FORCES WILL BE TO KEEP THE WORLD SAFE FOR OUR ECONOMY AND OPEN TO OUR CULTURAL ASSAULT. TO THOSE ENDS, WE WILL DO A FAIR AMOUNT OF KILLING.." -- http://tiny.cc/tp44aw

    March 14, 2012

  • nwo

    al-Assir came from nowhere to challenge the established order within the Sunni community using the Syrian revolt as a platform to make a name for himself. He reminds me of Abou Moussa who also came from nowhere and made name for himself by challenging Arafat's leadership and the established order within the PLO. Some people were duped into thinking his stance legitimate but soon found out that he a Syrian agent nothing more, the Assad regime used him with great effect to unsettle Arafat. Is al-Assir the new Abou Moussa?

    March 13, 2012