By Daniel Harris
Daniel Harris is a master’s candidate in Political Studies at the American University of Beirut. He works as a freelance editor and writer, and focuses on Middle Eastern security issues, US foreign policy, Islamic political movements, and Iranian politics.
To say that Salafists in Lebanon have a chequered past is an understatement. For the Lebanese the word itself conjures up bad memories of violent months of when in 2007 the Lebanese Army laid siege to the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, eventually succeeding in destroying a jihadi group entrenched there. These memories, and the growing fear of the spreading influence of Sunni extremism in the wake of the Arab Spring, have come to the fore recently with the sudden appearance of a Salafist imam on the Lebanese political stage. Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, hailing from the southern city of Sidon, has made headlines recently with his outspoken condemnation of the Syrian regime and his criticism of Hezbollah and its Iranian backers. Assir’s arrival on the media scene was met with scepticism by many mainstream commentators like Salafist expert and Al-Hayat journalist Hazim al-Amin, who nevertheless pointed out that Assir’s rise comes as a growing sense of abandonment and listlessness spreads amongst March 14’s Sunni supporters.1
On March 4, 2012 Assir held a high profile anti-Assad rally in Beirut, bussing in supporters from Sidon to throng Martyr’s Square, and provoking speculation on his possible role as a spoiler to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s ostensible leadership of Lebanese Sunnis.2 Can Assir woo a significant number of Saad Hariri’s Sunni followers away? Looking around the Middle East, seeing other Sunni Islamists increasing their power in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, having a Salafist political force in Lebanon may not be as unthinkable as many might hope. Questions remain however about whether or not the movement is politically sustainable, or more of an opportunistic flash-in-the-pan.
Salafism began in Lebanon with Sheikh Salem al-Chahhal, born in 1922 and who dedicated his life to spreading the call – or dawa’ – of Salafism after being heavily influenced by its beliefs.3 While many of its followers would disagree with the various characterisations of Salafism made by the western press, it can be said that essentially, Salafism is a movement within Sunni Islam that emphasises a return to practices and lifestyles pursued by the first generations of Muslim believers, attempting to purge the influence of modernity and innovations developed in Islam as time went on – known as bida’.The movement developed as a reaction to what various influential Sunni thinkers saw as a growing corruption of the ‘true’ Islam, and began attracting followers in the late 19th century. To spread this belief, Sheikh Salem al-Chahhal founded the Islamic Association for Guidance and Charity, an organisation his son, Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Chahhal, now runs. Until the emergence of Assir, Sheikh Dai al-Islam al-Chahhal was considered the most prominent leader of mainstream Salafism in Lebanon.
Chahhal’s organisation, like many other Salafist organisations around the Middle East, primarily focuses on education, outreach, social affairs and proselytisation. Based in the suburbs of Tripoli in Lebanon’s north, it seeks to ‘convert’ as many adherents as possible to the Salafist dawa’. Another organisation, the Bukhari Institute in Akkar, is run by Sheikh Saadeddine al-Kebbi, and is even less intrusive, refusing to become politically involved and focusing purely on education.4 This kind of Salafism, the kind centred on spreading the call and based out of educational centres, is considered the most mainstream form of the movement. Most centres like these maintain relationships to Salafist organisations in the Persian Gulf, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.5 In an ideological sense, Salafist organisations like these are generally prohibited from directly participating in politics because they doctrinally eschew the legitimacy of post-Caliphate secular states. An unspoken arrangement is reached where their presence and proselytisation is tolerated by various governments in exchange for the Salafists’ non-interference in the country’s politics.
The other strand – the one that tends to grab headlines – was embodied in the strict visage of Sheikh Shaker al-Abssi, who led the Salafist group Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared camp in northern Lebanon. Though his exact whereabouts are difficult to determine, reports indicate that Abssi had first entered Lebanon in 2005 under Syrian tutelage, and was allowed to train followers and set up shop in Nahr al-Bared
The question arises then, what kind of support does Assir have, or rather, what emotion is he tapping into with his constituents that gives him support? As mentioned earlier, the traditional Salafist groups in Lebanon – for both ideological and survival concerns – tended to prohibit themselves from political action, or making charged statements, holding rallies and the like. The extremist Salafists, typified by Abssi, were condemned by the mainstream organisations. So what has changed now to allow someone like Assir to hold rallies in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square?
Two events are credited with having energised the Salafi movement in Lebanon and given them political space to operate. The first took place in May 2008, when Hezbollah and its March 8 allies swept aside pro-government Sunni militias in their swift occupation of west Beirut and other parts of the country. The March 14 bloc, and the Future Movement in particular, was effectively emasculated by the incident, proving that the government of FouadSiniora did not have the strength to follow through on its programs to rein in the pro-Syrian Shia group. Assir continues to denounce this incident and Hassan Nasrallah’s characterisation of it as “glorious”.8 The other major event came with the beginning of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in 2011. Many Sunnis in Lebanon empathise with Sunnis across the border and their current struggles against Assad’s regime. As the recent clashes in Tripoli and Beirut’s Tariq al-Jadideh neighbourhood show, there is no love lost between Sunni activists and pro-Syrian government groups in Lebanon.
These events build resentment, which in turn shapes perceptions. The uprising is perceived as a predominantly Sunni one against the tyranny of the Shia offshoot Alawite sect manifested by Bashar al-Assad. Some disgruntled Lebanese Sunnis look around them and see a host of hostile forces – Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, March 8 and so forth – arrayed against them, humiliating them, and marginalising their position in society. And then they look to their traditional leaders for strength and find ineptitude, and in one particular case, abandonment: former prime minister and leader of the Future Movement, Saad Hariri, has not been in the country for a little over a year at this point, and regardless of the reasons given for the departure, his absence is being felt and is affecting even his staunch supporters.9
Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, contends that these conditions led directly to Assir’s newfound prominence. “Were it not for Hariri’s weakness and vacillation,” he said, “Salafists such as Assir would not have appeared on the political scene.” Current Prime Minister,NajibMiqati, has also faced accusations that he is not “Sunni enough,” and his claim that he was the “Number One Sunni in Lebanon” – made last year on a Lebanese talk show – are probably not taken as seriously as he would like.10 It remains to be seen whether Assir can translate the relative deprivation of Sunnis and his newfound prominence into political power, as recent events have shown.
Tripoli’s emergence as the Peshawar of Lebanon – a city acting as a launch point or stopover for foreign fighters on their way to the main battleground, in this case Syria – brought tensions to a head in mid-May with the arrest of an Islamist activist. Clashes occurred between an adjacent Sunni, anti-Assad neighbourhood and an Alawite, pro-Assad neighbourhood.11 Tensions were further strained when two Sunni clerics were killed by Lebanese Armed Forces personnel on their way to an anti-Assad rally on May 20, sparking bouts of clashes in Tripoli and Beirut. Everyone condemned the violence, and members of the March 14 bloc accused pro-Syrian government forces of attempting to stir trouble in the region to both punish Tripoli’s Sunnis and intimidate the Lebanese into supporting the Syrian regime. Assir also called for calm and blamed pro-Syrian regime forces, but noted that while he opposed armament, Hezbollah’s continued possession of weaponry made other Lebanese feel anxious and incentivised them to also obtain weapons, increasing instability in the country.12 His voice was far from being at the forefront of the media’s coverage of the events in Tripoli, however, with most of the national attention focused on the statements and actions of Prime Minister Miqati, members of the government, Islamists from Tripoli and the northern region of Akkar, and Saad Hariri’s tweets. Assir gave his support to the efforts of Islamists in the north and warned of further escalation,13 but has remained largely on the side-lines of the May flare-ups, perhaps illustrating the limits of his influence outside of Sidon.
The big question is whether or not Assir has the capability and/or desire to contest the 2013 Lebanese parliamentary elections. Sidon is well-known as the Hariri family’s backyard, and a shift there would certainly shake things up in the broader Lebanese political landscape. Assir mentioned that he maintains affable ties with the Future Movement and Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiyah – the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Lebanon and also a member of March 14 – but it is hard to imagine that Saad Hariri would welcome the emergence of a Salafist cleric from Sidon whose support base is mostly disaffected Sunnis and others that should be supporting the son of the slain former prime minister. With his prolonged absence and inability to exert pressure on Miqati’s March 8-dominated government, Hariri risks increasing marginalisation. In March 2012, Michael Young commented that this next election cycle may punish him for the strategy he has pursued.14
Arguably, there is a direct correlation between the decline in popularity and influence of Hariri and an increase in Assir’s. They are both potentially vying for the same electorate, and the latter’s fortunes seem to be tied to the inability of the Sunnis’ traditional leaders to provide adequate leadership in times of crises. Unless Assir is able to maintain momentum and build a real institutional base of support that reaches beyond Salafists, he will remain influential in Sidon, but nowhere else. The trauma of events previously described in this article combined with general fears about the rise of Sunni Islamists in the region will make cross-sectional appeal a difficult goal for Assir and the Salafists, should they decide to enter electoral politics.
Professor Khashan believes Assir’s moment in the sun will pass. Speaking on Assir’s intentions, he said, “Yes, he will [try and muscle in on Sunni politics], but I do not believe he can make it. Salafis are inherently weak and do not appeal to the Sunni mainstream … Even if they do they will remain a marginal force. Lebanese politics has little tolerance for extremist groups, since they tend to further upset the country’s system of accommodation … Salafism has no future in Lebanese politics. Their current rise is transitory.”
1. Alex Rowell, “Salafists in the Spotlight,” NOW Lebanon, March 12, 2012, http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArchiveDetails.aspx?ID=375559
2. Stephen Dockery, “Pro-, Anti-Assad Beirut Rallies Come off Peacefully,” The Daily Star, March 4, 2012, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2012/Mar-04/165441-pro-and-anti-assad-demonstrators-face-off-in-downtown-beirut.ashx#axzz1w77dwULG
3. “Lebanese Salafism: Between Global Jihad and Syrian Manipulation,” NOW Lebanon, February 11, 2012, http://pdfuri.com/lebanese-salafism
4. Ibid, p 6, 7.
6. Gary C. Gambill, “Salafi-jihadism in Lebanon,” Mideast Monitor 3.1 (2008).
8. Mirella Hodeib and Mohammad Zaatari, “Sidon Split but Determined to Stay Calm,” The Daily Star, May 18, 2012, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Politics/2012/May-18/173800-sidon-split-but-determined-to-stay-calm.ashx#axzz1v39jyhW2
9. Michael Young, “Voting for the Prodigal Son,” NOW Lebanon, March 23, 2012, http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArchiveDetails.aspx?ID=379294
10. Elias Muhanna, “The Number One Sunni in Lebanon,” Qifanabki.com, May 21, 2012, http://qifanabki.com/2012/05/21/the-number-one-sunni-in-lebanon/
11. Antoine Amrieh, “Sporadic Clases Test Tripoli’s Shaky Truce,” The Daily Star, May 17, 2012, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Politics/2012/May-17/173675-sporadic-clashes-test-tripolis-shaky-truce.ashx#axzz1vhQJSNeC
12. “Sheikh Assir Warns of Flare-ups in Tripoli,” LBCI News, May 15, 2012, http://www.lbcgroup.tv/news/30382/sheikh-assir-warns-of-tripoli-incidents-recurrence
13. NOW Lebanon, Assir: Syrian regime followers killed Abdel Waheb,“Assir: Syrian Regime Followers Killed Abdel Waheb,” NOW Lebanon, May 20, 2012, http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArchiveDetails.aspx?ID=398672