We wanted to avoid talking about Hezbollah, we really did. We entered the room with the intention of carrying out our first interview with Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir where he didn’t mention the ‘Iranian Party’ — as he calls the movement led by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Yet, it was not that simple.
Assir, one of Lebanon’s most divisive figures, has made his name out of Hezbollah. His hostility to the party’s arms and Iran’s influence in Lebanon in general has made Assir the darling of some, the enemy of others and an unpopular character with much of the Lebanese business community.
Before the interview, we had agreed with Assir’s assistants that we would primarily be asking him about his economic views, but it appeared that no one had told the Sheikh. When he greeted us and we explained that we wanted to flesh out his views on financial matters, he was a touch taken aback and said that he was not an expert in this area.
Assir has been a religious leader in Lebanon’s southern city of Saida for a decade, but his star has risen on the national stage since the Syrian uprising began in 2011. He does not describe himself as a ‘Salafist’ as such, preferring to be referred to as simply a ‘Sunni Muslim’, while at the same time he has become the de facto public face of Salafism for most Lebanese. He has proved a vociferous, and some would say sectarian, critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah and this, mixed with a penchant for publicity stunts, has elevated Assir’s brand. Indeed, Assir has previously stated that it was his ambition to become Lebanon’s preeminent Sunni figure.
While eschewing official political office, what is clear is that he is assuming an ever-more politicized role in in the country. To lead people, however, is also to be responsible for them. Assir has demonstrated his ability to rally people around his cause, but Executive wanted to challenge him on his plan to take care of them — does Sheikh Assir have an idea of how to raise living standards and job prospects in his hometown Saida, or a solution to rejuvenate the wider Lebanese economy?
Where all roads lead to
It soon emerges that at the core of every economic principle Assir has is the disarming of Hezbollah. “I believe nobody, regardless of his great economic knowledge, can improve the economic situation,” he says. “As long as [Hezbollah’s] weapons are present, it is not possible.”
For Assir, the dysfunctional and oftentimes corrupt state of the Lebanese economy is purely the result of allowing Hezbollah to maintain its arsenal. “In the recent past until 2006 the economy was thriving in all of Lebanon, and then Nasrallah launched his adventure and kidnapped the two Israeli soldiers [sparking a war with Israel]. Lebanon entered a complete economic disaster,” he concludes grandiosely.
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When we interject that the years of unprecedented growth that followed the war seem to dispute his theory, he snaps back: “What made Lebanon stand on its feet again was donations. Is this an economic policy? Where it had been getting better, the reason it degenerated is purely due to the policies of Iran in the region and its party here in Lebanon.”
If Assir is one thing, it is consistent, as again and again when we appear to disarm him with queries on how to solve economic or social woes, he recovers his ammunition by attacking the arms of ‘The Resistance’. When one arrives at one’s status riding enmity for another party, who else is there to blame? But between the diatribes, there are hints that Assir isn’t completely a one-trick pony.
If hostility to Hezbollah can be considered one pillar of Assir’s economic view, piety is the second. What understanding of commerce he has is deeply woven into his religious views. “Islam looks to the economy from a number of perspectives and not in isolation. It treats it through morals and piety — that is to say, a real faith in Islam,” he says. “The source of social and economic solidarity in Islam is based on zakaat [a system of giving a fixed proportion of one’s wealth for redistribution]… If Muslims are not very devout and don’t pay zakaat then there will be economic problems.”
When asked what can be done to improve business in his native Saida, he argues that it is not his role to intervene. “We don’t live in a country under Islamic rule. We live in a country where it is known the responsibility falls on the government.” He admits that up to 40 percent of young people in Saida are unemployed but his solution is woefully lacking in depth. “There needs to be a political situation. We need an emergency plan, if you can call it that.” The grand focus of that plan: disarming Hezbollah.
Behind the beard
Critics may argue it is unfair to highlight how theological figures are not well-versed on the economy — you would not ask the Minister of Finance to quote the Quran. Indeed Islamist parties in the Middle East have historically had relatively little to say regarding business and trade, often appearing unbothered and assuming that business would prosper as a result of an Islamic state.
But, as Assir concedes during our meeting, he is no longer purely a sheikh but a political actor with dedicated followers. His protests in the city of Saida last summer — when he closed off a main road to the southern city for several weeks in a futile attempt to force Hezbollah to disarm — had a crippling effect on local businesses that depend on the constant traffic passing by their doors. Assir’s supporters or their affiliates have also had armed clashes with opponents, and the Sheikh has even flaunted the idea of establishing a military wing for his movement.
More generally in the Middle East, fundamental changes in the past three years have forced religious actors to define themselves economically as much as theologically. In Egypt, for example, the two leading Salafi parties have diverged on economic policies. The powerful Al Nour Party — which has appeared to take a laissez-faire approach to the economy — has faced heavy criticism from a new Salafi grouping called Al Shaab (the people), which is more in favor of government intervention. At least partly as a reaction, Al Nour recently reversed course somewhat and called for an increase of the minimum wage.
For his part, Assir — who says he does not expect there to be a formal Salafi block at this summer’s elections — appears to side with free market principles over heavy state involvement in the economy. “Islam opens the door wide for a free economy. It leaves it to demand and supply,” he says. “An Islamic ruler does not interfere, for example, in price setting. This is to be left to demand and supply, to the highest degree of freedom.”
When asked how he would tackle Lebanon’s national debt, his response shows that he has at least considered the issue: “I sat with some economy specialists and they presented some ideas to me. For example, trading some of Lebanon’s gold reserves to reduce the debt. This is one such idea. We have very large gold reserves — it is not traded or invested.” This is partly true: Lebanon has large reserves of gold, the second largest per capita in the world, and the rising prices in recent years do present opportunities.
The money trail
As Assir has spent so much time criticizing the influence of Iran over Hezbollah, it is perhaps ironic that he has faced claims that he has his own foreign backer, with allegations that he is on Qatar’s payroll. We ask him to deny publicly that he had ever received funding from the Gulf state. His response is emphatic: “This is not at all true. I don’t even know Qatari officials or anything like that and I have never been [to Qatar].”
Executive’s inquiries seemed to concur that the majority of his funding is domestic, with a network of families in the Saida area the biggest bank rollers of Assir and his fundamentalist form of Islam. Among those are the Alaylis, a powerful family that are believed to have made their fortunes in Brazil. “Alayli is a prominent trader and businessman. He supports us and others [do as well],” concedes Assir.
A story that has made the rounds is that when Assir went looking for money to establish a television station, a supporter gave him a plot of land to sell. He chooses not to respond directly when we broach the subject: “If people can support us in different ways — say with a store or land or a house — then yes, they may offer.”
Piety of pragmatism
The revelation that Sheikh Assir has little plan for the economy of Saida is unlikely to embarrass him. He considers himself a theological actor first, who makes his decisions based on religious rather than economic rationale.
But the success of Hezbollah over three decades cannot, as Assir charges, be simply attributed to weapons and Iranian funding. The reality is that the continued support for Hezbollah among its largely Shia constituency is heavily based on the party’s comprehensive political, economic and social programs that enable it to act as a pseudo-welfare state to many that have been failed by the central government.
Assir, however, appears to have learnt little from his foes regarding the necessity of developing a holistic approach. Some disenfranchised Sunnis may feel emboldened by his devout and defiant posturing but the reality is he offers no concrete or coherent plans, on a local or national level, to actually improve their lot in life. Rather, Assir would appear to be a leader polarized between piety and enmity, with little in between.