Last month a new player was born into the world of sectarian politics in Lebanon. Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, the Imam of Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in the southern city of Sidon, was for the first time given a national audience, his speech to a rally of some 2,000 Salafist Sunni Muslims in Downtown Beirut on March 5 broadcast across the spectrum of Lebanese satellite TV stations, his words printed in newspapers and websites affiliated with all the country’s sectarian power centers. Overnight, Sheikh Assir became the face of the Salafist movement in Lebanon.
Until last month, the strongest association most Lebanese had with the word ‘Salafi’ was the siege of Nahr Al Bared in 2007, when a group of heavily armed, mostly-foreign Sunni extremists waged a four-month war with the Lebanese army at the Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, leaving many hundreds dead and wounded, tens of thousands displaced and the camp leveled. Until last month ‘Salafi’ was synonymous with a vein of religious fanaticism most Lebanese find abhorrent.
Not unaware of this, Sheikh Assir clearly made moves to legitimize and rebrand the Salafist movement and move it closer to the mainstream. Opening the rally before Assir took the stage was Fadel Shaker — the pop-culture icon most had previously associated more with Lebanon’s glitzy, Champagne-guzzling nightclubs than a literalist Sunni interpretation of the Quran — who crooned an Islamic anthem to bless the ceremonies. Then came Assir’s conciliatory words to the country’s Christians, emphasizing their essential place in a religiously plural Lebanon. He repeated this sentiment the following week in an interview on the nation’s most popular talk show “Kalam Ennas”, on the Christian-affiliated LBC channel. While on air he shrewdly went as far as he probably could to distance himself personally from the extremist label while not alienating his followers when he said that he is, in fact, not a Salafi at all, but at the same time to be a Salafi “is not a crime.”
During this interview, despite saying, “I am not a politician,” Assir made his political ambitions clear: he intends to replace Saad Hariri as the leader of the Sunni sect in Lebanon. That’s ambitious, as Assir’s movement is still small relative to other political parties in the country, with a support base focused mainly around Sidon and Tripoli, but it has gained momentum in recent years.
Following Hezbollah-led fighters’ effective takeover of much of Beirut in May 2008, many Sunnis were left feeling humiliated and abandoned by their traditional leaders. The enduring absence of Hariri from the Lebanese political scene and the financial troubles battering his business empire have left much of the Sunni populace increasingly adrift for leadership — an opening Assir seeks to exploit.
Assir is also emboldened by the regional gains of the Salafi movement within the context of the Arab uprisings, with Salafi parties making public shows of force at the ballot boxes in Egypt and Tunisia, and the Syrian uprising increasingly becoming a regional rallying cry for Sunni liberation.
There is a fundamental incongruence, however, in trying to take an extremist ideology into the mainstream, and the more Assir’s movement is in the spotlight of scrutiny, the more these inherent contradictions will surface.
While the rally in downtown Beirut was ostensibly a show of support for the Syrian uprising, the Salafi character of the demonstration played perfectly into the warnings of the Syrian regime that there is actually a sectarian conflict being waged by religious extremists.
While there will also undoubtedly be a Salafi showing on the next ballot for parliamentary elections in 2013, can a group that explicitly believes non-Sunnis to be ‘infidels’ reconcile this with responsibility to govern fairly over a population as religiously diverse as Lebanon’s?
Perhaps the contradictions are no better embodied than by the man who opened for Assir at the rally, Fadel Shaker. Despite having sung his way out of a youth of poverty and being invited to open the rally precisely because of his famous vocal cords, Shaker said afterward in an interview on MTV’s “Inta Hurr” talk show that — in line with fundamentalist Islamic teachings — he considers singing a sin and was going to retire. He’d decided to postpone his professional exit, however, to use his immoral abilities to support the Syrian revolution — and introduce the nation to its newest religious icon.