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