Ahmad al-Assir: A Salafi With a Difference
By: Ibrahim al-Amin
Published Tuesday, March 6, 2012
The experience of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir is one of a kind. Salafist movements have been active in Lebanon for many years. They were greatly affected by events in Iraq following the 2003 US invasion. Some started forming groups or adopting operational programs emulating al-Qaeda, which captured the minds of many of this category of Islamists after 9/11.
But there’s a difference between al-Assir's movement and the other groups – whether those that mushroomed in the Palestinian camps, or those that gained a significant popular following in various parts of Sidon, the Iqlim al-Kharroub, the central, western, and northern Bekaa, and some neighborhoods of the capital.
The difference is largely due to al-Assir’s own personality. He is a young man from Sidon who became committed to propagating the faith. For over a decade, he worked persistently and diligently. His small mosque in Abra turned into a meeting-place for dozens of youth from both poor and affluent city neighborhoods, in addition to Palestinians living in Sidon or its refugee camps.
At first, al-Assir avoided addressing politics directly. He made some comments, but they remained marginal. He expressed his admiration for Hezbollah's success in achieving victory in 2000, but did not give it his religious blessing. He even described Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah as a leader with special charisma but he never treated him as a man of religion. In other words, he constantly sought to separate the religious-ideological beliefs of Hezbollah's followers from the victory against Israel.
He did the same with Osama bin Laden and his followers. Al-Assir refused to endorse al-Qaeda's actions and protested against its practice of takfir (accusing other Muslims of apostasy) and attacking civilians. He explicitly declared to his followers that the time has not yet come for military jihad, and the priority is ideological jihad aimed at helping introduce people to the faith and persuade them of their religious obligations.
Over the years he sent scores of his aides and followers on outreach missions. A group of them would go to a town, village, or neighborhood, sleep in the local mosque, and spend time in prayer, reading the Quran, and listening to sayings of the Prophet and religious stories. Afterward, they would visit local homes, knock on doors, introduce themselves as advocates of propagating the true religion, and try to get invited in to present their ideas.
At one stage, al-Assir presented himself as a social counselor to whoever sought him out. He was quick to respond to requests to help parents with problem children, deal with marital problems, or provide advice on how to deal with life's daily affairs. Such issues were the main focus of his sermons and classes in the mosque.
This mosque, in time, became too small for its congregation. The road leading to it became known for being closed on Fridays by the crowds of worshippers. On religious occasions, such as Laylat al-Qadr – which commemorates when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet – the road was sealed off with human beings.
In recent years, different types of people have become attracted to the Bilal Mosque. Some who were rediscovering religion and its rituals preferred it to others, especially to religious centers involved in the country’s political disputes. They preferred it to the mosques controlled by the Dar al-Ifta, where the imams preach what they have been instructed to. They preferred it to the underground groups, presumably because they were seeking personal well-being rather than a new organization.
Al-Assir himself never discussed political convictions or party affiliations with his followers or visitors. He is strictly opposed any direct or indirect participation in political campaigns, at elections, or other times.
However, day by day, al-Assir was collecting dozens of questions and complaints related, ultimately, to what is happening in the country. His behavior did not change significantly after former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. In fact, he said that he did not rule out the possibility that al-Qaeda was responsible. He did not exploit the issue politically. But the ensuing fierce political clash in the country, and growing Shiite-Sunni sensitivities, raised questions he could not ignore.
Then came the events of 7 May 2008. On the day, al-Assir was quick to call for calm. Afterward, he was inundated with reports about one incident or another. The mosque buzzed with talk of the "persecution of the Sunni community at the hands of the resistance."
Until now, no one has given an adequate account of the reason for al-Assir's direct shift to political action in connection with what is happening in Syria. Some of his supporters have said he was affected by the Arab revolutions which gave the Islamists a major political boost. Others have noted that the Salafi sheikh has never been an admirer of the Muslim Brotherhood's record, the official religious Sunni leadership, nor the Hariri family's example. They say the fierce confrontation in Syria prompted him to stand up and speak out.
But nobody in the sheikh’s entourage can explain his campaign against Hezbollah, and his riding, by extension, the wave of Sunni-Shiite tension. He has, of course, been gratified by the response. It has drawn supporters of the Future Movement in Sidon. Hariri aides in the city discovered that the man was pulling the rug from under their feet. It wasn’t just the city's poor but even the wealthy families, and everyone feeling roused, whether directly against Hezbollah or against the regime in Syria.
Over the past few weeks, Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, the Dar al-Iftaa, and the Hariri family, have found themselves having to contend with a new type of rival. All the talk about extremism and fanaticism will no longer do them any good. Their people, who they mobilized on a sectarian basis against Hezbollah and on a sectarian-political basis against the regime in Syria, think al-Assir has got it right.
Having abandoned purely religious proselytization, Sheikh al-Assir seems to be the face of a new phase of Salafi activity. The ongoing reactions, which will continue, are unimportant. What is important is for all concerned – whether Hariri’s people, the state's people, or Syria and Hezbollah's people – is to approach the man in order to understand him, examine his story, and not count on reports about mysterious funding or hidden leadership.
Whoever misunderstands the nature of this man will have much work to do in understanding where his experience will lead.
Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.