Lebanese cleric gives voice to Sunni Islamists

by Reuters
Friday, 16 March 2012 17:57 GMT

By Mariam Karouny

SIDON, Lebanon, March 16 (Reuters) - A protest by bearded Sunni Islamists in the heart of Beirut has catapulted a relatively unknown cleric onto Lebanon's national stage and highlighted divisions in the country over the Syria crisis.

The softly spoken Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, from the southern coastal city of Sidon, brought hundreds of supporters into the centre of the capital two weeks ago in the first such protest by Salafist Sunnis against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad's year-long crackdown against a mainly Sunni uprising in neighbouring Syria has deepened sectarian divisions in Lebanon, pitting many Sunni Muslims who support the rebellion against Hezbollah and other Shi'ite groups who back Assad.

Until Assir emerged, the voices against Assad had been mostly muted and limited to the northern city of Tripoli, where Sunni movements have a strong presence.

But the Sidon cleric told Reuters he wanted to change that by sending out a message from the heart of the capital.

"The massacres committed against our people in Syria exceeded all expectations," he said. "I was troubled that Beirut looked like a city that supports Bashar al-Assad. That is why we had to come to Beirut."

His Beirut gathering attracted Lebanese pop star Fadel Shaker, who kissed Assir's forehead and called him a "Sunni lion". On Sunday he was due to led another rally, this time in the Bekaa Valley.

"The Sunnis have finally found a man to unite them and break the fear barrier," said Omar Bakri, a Lebanese Islamist militant leader who also attended Assir's rally.

Assir's strident opposition to Assad contrasts with the position of Lebanon's government, led by by Sunni businessman Najib Mikati, who has sought to distance his fragile country of just 4 million people from the turmoil next door.

Many anti-Assad politicians urged the government to take a stronger stance.

FEUD WITH HEZBOLLAH

Although he has attracted the support of Salafists, conservative Sunni Islamists who call Shi'ite infidels, Assir said he did not consider himself to be one.

Unlike many religious leaders in Lebanon Assir, born in 1968, does not come from a religious family. His father was a singer until the 1990s when Assir convinced him and his brother to stop singing and playing music because it is forbidden in conservative Islam.

"Family-wise I have faced some difficulties. The whole family atmosphere was an atmosphere of singing and I wanted to be religious, but slowly I have managed to overcome it," said the bespectacled cleric, who has three children and two wives.

"My dad went to Haj, he prays now with us in the mosque," he said with a smile.

Sunni Islamist movements are usually strong among poor and deprived people but Assir also has wealthy backers who he says have funded him and the mosque he leads in a Sidon suburb.

What started as a small mosque is now a three-storey building that receives up to 2,500 people on Friday prayers and offers religious classes to 400-500 people. His ${esc.dollar}150,000 office, facing the mosque, was a gift from one of his rich supporters.

Sidon connects Beirut to southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold, and the port city is known as "the gate of the south".

While Assir does not hide his disagreement with Hezbollah and its ally Iran, he stresses that his ideas are not based on sectarian differences. He says his mother is a Shi'ite believer and she practices her belief freely.

"I am in feud with Hezbollah (only) politically. I refuse to call them Hezbollah (the party of God) because this means that others are party of Satan and I reject that," he said.

But he said Hezbollah, the only militia in Lebanon not to disarm after the 1975-1990 civil war, needed to reassure its Sunni Muslim rivals.

"Many Sunnis are scared," he said pointing to Hezbollah's considerable military arsenal, which the Shi'ite group says it needs to retain to defend Lebanon against Israel.

Hezbollah and Israel fought a month-long war in 2006, but two years later its supporters battled supporters of Sunni political leader Saad al-Hariri in worst sectarian clashes since the end of the civil war.

While Sunni Muslims have no military power to match Hezbollah, Sunni Islamist fighters including Arab veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have always found haven in Lebanon, especially in Palestinian refugee camps off-limits to security forces and in the northern Sunni city of Tripoli.

Assir says his support for Syria's uprising is mainly because most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, rising up against an Alawite leader.

Asked whether he would take the same position if Assad were Sunni and the majority of the Syrians were Alawites he said: "We are against injustice...but would my reaction be the same? I would be lying if I say yes." (Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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