Al-Assir: A New Guardian of “Sunni Interests” in Lebanon
By: Radwan Mortada
Published Friday, March 2, 2012
Al-Akhbar exclusively interviews Ahmad al-Assir, the Lebanese Salafi star whose strident defense of “Sunni interests”– and attacks on Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah – are turning him into a controversial political force to be reckoned with.
He has a lean figure, slightly stooped back, and lanky arms. His close-trimmed mustache lies above a bushy beard flowing down to below chest-level. He speaks in a calm monotone, his voice rising only when he becomes agitated.
These have become the trademarks of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir – “the Sunni Lion,” as some admirers refer to him – since he became a media celebrity in Lebanon.
The 44-year-old preacher’s stridently-expressed views have attracted a sizable following that has come to be referred to as the “Assirist movement.” The sheikh himself rejects that name and prefers the term “devotees” to “followers.”
Yet conditions in his hometown of Sidon and the surrounding area have enabled him to become a pole of attraction and harbinger of change in the eyes of some Sunnis. Many in the community, he says, feel they “lack a leadership figure.”
It is not hard to find the Bilal bin-Rabah Mosque – named after Prophet Mohammad’s muezzin (prayer-caller). It has become closely associated with al-Assir’s name. Anyone can direct you to “Sheikh Assir’s mosque,” as residents choose to call it.
The sheikh receives visitors in a three-story building across the street from the mosque. An aide sets up a video camera to record the interview. He wants to guard against being misrepresented or selectively quoted.
“Personally, I do not like fame,” says the sheikh, whose father was the Sidon-born singer Hilal. He explains that media coverage is unnecessary for preaching the faith, but he was forced by the pace of events to address political developments in his sermons.
Al-Assir says he has been a full-time preacher since 1989. He recounts his speaking tours which have taken him throughout the country, and even outside Lebanon. He sees himself as part of a worldwide religious mission. He laughs when recalling that eggs and onions were hurled at him during a recent trip.
The conversation turns to Hezbollah, and al-Assir becomes animated. He takes a dim view of the “hegemonic project of the party of resistance” (a term he pointedly uses in preference to “party of God” – “Hezbollah”).
Al-Assir, whose mother hailed from a Shia family in Tyre, says he makes a distinction between two types of Shia: Moussa al-Sadr ones, and those of Khomeini.
Khomeini, says al-Assir, introduced something novel to Shia thought itself, which contradict its fundamental principles. “Khomeini’s interpretation allowed their leader to rule on behalf of the Mahdi, and they base their claim to holiness on that,” he says.
Al-Assir has more to say about Iran, including how it “slaughtered us in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and “deceived us as Arabs and Muslims, and split Sunni ranks, under the heading of Palestine.”
Hezbollah, for its part, “maintained a sectarian monopoly of the resistance in order to divide the Islamic groups and push through the Iranian project,” he charges. The party’s declared commitment to resistance and Islamic unity “are nothing but a mask for promoting its own plans.” Its leader Hassan Nasrallah has never concealed his “pride at serving the case of Velayet e-Faqih (Guardian of the Islamic Jurist),” says al-Assir.
But he does not fear there will be an outbreak of Sunni-Shia strife in Lebanon, even though, according to him, “there are brethren who feel strongly the urge to acquire and take up arms.” Al-Assir stresses his opposition to such calls and to any communal fighting, while noting that “the party of resistance has more arms than a regular army.”
He calls for urgent action to remedy that situation, by formulating a national defense strategy that makes provisions for the existence of resistance brigades, provided they are subject to state control.
Al-Assir is equally scathing about Hezbollah’s position on events in Syria.
“How could those who experienced Israel’s injustice, accept injustice against women and children?” he asks, adding a question for Nasrallah: “Why are you taking this position, Sheikh Hassan, when you know they are slaughtering us with knives?”
He adds that “it is a religious obligation to support the oppressed against the oppressors and everyone knows that the Syrian regime is one of the most oppressive there is...it is flattening our homes and mosques.”
Al-Assir suggests that Hezbollah should change sides for pragmatic reasons. He believes the regime in Damascus is doomed, and it will soon become clear that “it is already finished.” This ought to “prompt the leaders of the party of resistance to review their calculations,” he says.
But how far should Lebanese support for the Syrian revolution go? “I am for supporting the oppressed with what relieves them of their oppression...from calling demonstrations and raising the voice in denunciation, to gathering arms,” he replies.
Assir's Debut in Beirut
Al-Assir has called for a rally in Beirut’s Martyrs Square on Sunday in support of the Syrian people. Rumors emerged Friday the event might be canceled due to pressure for fears that the demonstrators will clash with Pro-regime ones.
“We just want to send out a message to everyone that we support the oppressed Syrian people,” al-Assir told Al-Akhbar when asked why he was gathering his followers in the capital.
“The view of one group or alliance does not speak for Lebanon,” he explained, adding, “Just as there are Lebanese who support the Syrian regime and its crimes, the world must know that there are people in Lebanon who oppose everything the regime does,” al-Assir said.
What about the political symbolism of the downtown rally, unprecedented by a group of this nature?
“Beirut is capital of all the Lebanese, and the action is not confined to one group,” al-Assir said, adding, “It is a stand against what Syria is witnessing, and anyone can take part, regardless of religion, sect or denomination.”
However, he said the decision to hold the march was his alone, and no other political or Islamic groups were involved.
“We do not want to impose our decision on anyone...We informed our brethren of what we intend to do, and invited them [to participate] of course, but the decision is left to them,” he said.
“The invitation is open to all.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.