Plastic toy guns—the kinds with flashy lights and sound effects—were an unlikely source of sectarian tensions Friday. Yet following his weekly sermon in Saida, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir brandished the toys and accused Lebanese Shia of fomenting sectarian tensions by putting an audio recording on the toy guns that, according to Assir, says in Arabic, “hit Aisha,” a wife of the Prophet Mohammad and a revered figure in Sunni Islam but not in Shia Islam. Addressing Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Nabih Berri, the leaders of Shia parties Hezbollah and Amal respectively, during his sermon, Assir said: “If you don't take heed of this issue, I will not let you sleep at night as long as I live.”
Assir’s words were reminiscent of those uttered by Sudanese Sheikh Mohammad Al-Amin Ismail who, in a video uploaded in September of last year, also accused Shia of distributing anti-Sunni toy guns. But from when Ismail plays the audio from the guns in his video, it is evident that the recording is in English and that the uttered words are, "Go, go, go! Pull over! Save the hostages!"
These two cases are not unique. In October 2011, 1,500 toy guns were removed from shelves Saudi Arabia for “mocking and offending” Aisha, and a week later nearly 100 more were seized in the United Arab Emirates. More recently, on May 6 of this year, an Egyptian MP held up a plastic toy gun in the People’s Assembly and said it is offensive to Egyptian and Muslim culture as it says the words, “shoot Aisha.”
The increased Sunni-Shia tensions in Lebanon reflect a growing regional antagonism between the two groups, according to Hazem Saghieh, political editor of the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat. The ongoing crisis in Syria, a country whose politics is intrinsically linked to Lebanon’s, is increasingly being seen in Sunni-Shia terms. So too is the ongoing conflict in Bahrain and past protests in Saudi Arabia.
Following Assir’s accusations, both Lebanon’s General Security and Dar al-Fatwa, the seat of the highest Sunni authority in the country, investigated the claim. On Saturday, they both rejected Assir’s accusation as unfounded. The head of Dar al-Fatwa’s Public Affairs department, moreover, confirmed the audio as saying: “Go, go and take the hostages.”
In a phone interview with NOW Lebanon, Assir maintained that while the English sentence was clearly audible, an Iraqi accented voiceover that insulted Aisha was added to the recording.
Assir fuelled further sectarian tensions on Sunday by lashing out at Hezbollah and accusing it of involvement in the arrest of a Sunni cleric in the Bekaa town of Mashghara. The cleric was later released. Speaking to Al-Jadeed TV, Assir said Nasrallah would “pay, in a peaceful way, for what happened to [the arrested sheikh].” When asked what he meant by his inflammatory words, Assir told NOW that “[Hezbollah] sort of paid for what they did because they didn’t sleep at night” following his remarks, adding “if that happened after me being on TV, imagine what would happen if we organized a peaceful protest.”
The sheikh told Al-Jumhuriya that such a movement is in the planning phase. He also stressed that all movements will be peaceful and that he would not stop “until balance is brought back to Lebanon.”
Naturally, Hezbollah supporters were not the only ones affected by Assir’s fiery rhetoric. The feeling among many Shia, Hezbollah supporters and not, is that while Islamists do not pose a significant military threat to Hezbollah, the increase in Sunni extremism in both Lebanon and the region is a real concern. Moreover, as one Dahiyeh resident who asked not to be named for security reasons remarked, “the Salafists’ friction with a well-established party like Hezbollah will only increase their popularity among Sunnis.” Before figures like Assir, the Dahiyeh resident said, there were few strong verbal attacks against Hezbollah and its leadership. By the same token, if Sunnis are drawn to radical Salafists like Assir, previously moderate Shia might feel pushed toward Hezbollah.
Indeed, Assir has been gaining support in recent months. Although the number of people backing the sheikh is difficult to ascertain, he says his number of followers has doubled recently and that he has support across the country.
Despite Assir’s rise, however, Lebanon’s Sunnis remain almost overwhelmingly faithful to the more mainstream Future Movement. That being said, public perception is vital in how sectarian tension plays out and whether it increases.
On Monday, the day after Assir spoke to Al-Jadeed, several men lit tires on fire outside the station’s offices, an incident that was caught on CCTV. The army intelligence services captured one of the assailants, identified as Wissam Alaeddine, leading to demonstrations against his arrest across Beirut. According to security services on Wednesday, Alaeddine is connected to the Hezbollah-linked Resistance Brigades and was part of a group planning another attack on the Future TV station. According to Naharnet, “the assailants were reportedly planning to issue a statement in the name of an unknown Islamic party claiming responsibility for the attack in solidarity with ex-Premier Saad Hariri.” The road blockades, moreover, were believed by security sources to have been carried out to prevent the army from reaching areas where the other attackers on Al-Jadeed had taken refuge, according to the same source.
The president, prime minister, parliament speaker and other high-ranking politicians called the TV station to express solidarity and condemn the attack. But even the best efforts to contain sectarian tensions by politicians may not be enough, as the issue in Lebanon cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Regional developments, especially in neighboring Syria, will continue to inflame divisions here.
Luna Safwan contributed reporting.