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Lebanon’s Sheikhs Take on Assad and Hezbollah

Salafis are shaking up the fragile political balance among Muslims in Lebanon. The ultraconservative Sunnis—whose religious and social models come from the 7th century—are now stealing the limelight from Sunni and Shiite movements that have dominated politics since Lebanon gained independence in 1943.

By Garrett Nada

      Salafis are shaking up the fragile political balance among Muslims in Lebanon. The ultraconservative Sunnis—whose religious and social models come from the 7th century—are now stealing the limelight from Sunni and Shiite movements that have dominated politics since Lebanon gained independence in 1943.
      The Salafi movement was launched in the 1940s by Sheikh Salem al Shahhal, who reportedly visited Saudi Arabia multiple times and was inspired by its rigid Wahhabi version of Islam. Salafis largely kept out of politics until the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni. Some leaders encouraged their followers to vote for Sunnis.
            But Lebanon’s Salafis remained marginal figures until 2011, when Salafis emerged as major players across the region. Two specific issues gave them new voice – and disproportionate power – in Lebanon.
            The first trigger was the growing domestic influence of Hezbollah, the Shiite party and militia that forced the collapse of Lebanon’s government in January 2011. Sunnis generally were alarmed by the fall of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni. But doctrinally, Salafis are even more hostile to Shiites, whom they have been viewed as heretics and rivals for 14 centuries. In 2011, the old hostility became political.
            The second trigger was the Syrian uprising that erupted in March 2011. It echoed the same deepening sectarian issues in Lebanon. The uprising was led largely by Sunnis, including Salafis or Salafi sympathizers. It targeted a government led by members of the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot, and a primary supporter of Hezbollah.
            With passions inflamed both at home and regionally, Lebanon’s Salafis began holdings rallies to show support for their brethren in Syria and challenge Hezbollah at home. Two firebrand clerics even reportedly began sending fighters to defend fellow Salafis in Syria in April 2013. The sheikhs have claimed to oppose violence. But their rhetoric has nonetheless inflamed communal tensions.
      Lebanon has less than ten well-known Salafi sheikhs, but they attract thousands to their rallies and sermons. Unlike the emerging Salafi parties in other Arab countries, Lebanon’s Salafi sheikhs have not expressed any interest in running for office, but some of their followers might. Their ascendance has been so rapid, however, that the Salafi political leverage is still unknown.
      In late 2012, Sheikh Salem al Rafei discussed forming a Salafi party – in which clerics would only be advisers – but nothing materialized over the next six months. In March 2013, more than 70 sheikhs and preachers met in Beirut to form a united socio-political front. “There is a consensus among Salafis that we must put our house in order,” Sheikh Hassan al Islam al Shahhal told Al Akhbar. It was reportedly the largest gathering of Salafis ever assembled in Lebanon.
            But Lebanon’s Salafis are far less organized or effective than Egypt’s Salafis. They are also deeply divided. Each sheikh has his own local following. The largest group is based in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. Others major pockets are in Beirut or the southern coastal city of Sidon.
            The Salafi sheikhs also differ over tactics. Most condemn Hezbollah and the Assad regime, but not all favor sending fighters to Syria. As of mid-2013, Adnan Imama, a key Salafi leader in the Bekaa Valley, rejected calls for jihad. The following are profiles of five major Salafi sheikhs.

Ahmad Assir

      Born in 1968, Assir is Lebanon’s most controversial sheikh. Supporters call him the “Sunni Lion” for his strong stance against Hezbollah, the Assad regime and Iran. In April 2013, the sheikh reportedly began sending young men to defend Sunnis in Syria against Hezbollah and Assad’s forces. “Bashar will be killed, hopefully” and “Iran will fall,” he told The Independent in July 2012.
     Assir is also a media favorite. He has been widely photographed riding horses or bicycles, playing foosball, eating ice cream or walking his German Shepherd. In January 2013, Assir led a convoy of ten buses of followers to a ski resort for a retreat. He has over 330,000 followers on Facebook and 65,000 on Twitter.
            Assir began preaching full-time in 1989 near the southern coastal city of Sidon. He and his supporters built the Bilal bin Rabah mosque in 1997. But the sheikh only entered the public eye after the Syrian uprising began in March 2011. He was one of the first to organize large rallies to support the rebels.
            Assir sparked a national controversy when he launched a sit-on on Sidon’s eastern highway in June 2012 that disrupted traffic and local business. The sheikh vowed not to move until “Hezbollah is disarmed or the last drop of blood of our last child is spilled.” Hezbollah’s weapons deprive Lebanese of their dignity, Assir told reporters in June 2012.
            A month later, the sheikh won concessions from the government. Prime Minister Najib Mikati agreed to review the national defense strategy and take steps to oversee Hezbollah’s arsenal.
            Assir has claimed he is not looking for a fight. “I grew up in the civil war… We were losing our childhood friends who were Christian and Shiite,” he said in a July 2012 interview with The Independent. Today, Hezbollah is “making the same mistake which ruined us before… I am against all arms – so my grandchildren do not grow up” in a war environment.
            Assir made his most controversial move in April 2013 by sending followers to Syria for an “armed jihad” against Assad’s army and its Hezbollah supporters. The sheikh reportedly even spent a few days with his fighters inside Syria. Footage of Assir firing a machine gun and walking through a trench was posted on social media sites. The following are excerpted remarks by Assir on key issues:      

Hezbollah, Iran and Syria
           “There is a religious duty on every Muslim who is able to do so... to enter into Syria in order to defend its people, its mosques and religious shrines, especially in Qusayr and Homs.” April 22, 2013 in a sermon
           “The Iranian project [Hezbollah] is killing us one by one. If you need proof, all you need to do is listen to Nasrallah’s last speech when he threatened Syrian rebels...” November 10, 2012 in a sermon
           “The Iranians have come into Lebanon under the pretext of the Palestinian issue and Islamic unity… They're not really motivated by these issues. What they're really after is regional hegemony." August 2012 in an interview with NPR

           “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… Islam opens the door wide for a free economy. It leaves it to demand and supply…” March 2013 in an interview with Executive Magazine
           “The imbalance in Lebanon, all the economic problems in Lebanon, all the political problems are a result of the weapons of the Resistance [Hezbollah].” July 2012 in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor

Political Ambitions
           “We are not a political party or movement. Of course, politics is part and parcel of Islam, and we work with Islamic parties where it concerns the interests of our religion and country, but I’m not a typical man of politics. I’m an imam of a mosque.” March 13, 2012 in an interview with NOW Lebanon

Women’s Rights
           “We encourage women’s rights, for women have to work hard for them, especially in the Arab world. But we are only with what’s permitted for women in Islam – if anything contradicts Islam, then of course we don’t consider it a right.” March 13, 2012 in an interview with NOW Lebanon

Lebanon’s Diversity
           “My mission in the past, present and future, will continue to be to persuade all Lebanese to live together regardless of religious or personal beliefs, because there’s no other way for this country.” March 13, 2012 in an interview with NOW Lebanon

Assir’s official Facebook page, Twitter feed, YouTube channel, and Bilal bin Rabah mosque website.

Selim al Rafei

      Born in 1961, Selim al Rafei called on Lebanese Sunnis to defend their brethren in Syria in 2013. It was not the first time he challenged Syria. In the 1980s, the charismatic sheikh reportedly fought against Syrian forces occupying Lebanon. He spent many years outside Lebanon, studying in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Sudan, according to his Facebook page.
      But he also knows the West. In the mid-1990s, Rafei went to live in Germany after Syria occupied Tripoli, his hometown. He ran a Salafi mosque in Berlin until he returned to Lebanon in 2005.
      Rafei is currently the leader of the al Taqwa mosque in the in Tripoli. Like Assir, Rafei has also urged the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah. But he has not supported the use of violence in Lebanon for fear of another civil war.

Hezbollah and Syria
            “Our calls for jihad will stop once Hezbollah withdraws from Syria…” April 2013 in an Al Arabiya interview
            “By sending fighters to Syria, we force the Lebanese government to take a stand against Hezbollah.  April 2013, according to NOW Lebanon

Sunni Political Leadership
            “When our people were slaughtered in Beirut, what did you [Saad Hariri] do? You sat crying like a woman. You said the United Nations and America failed us… If you are unable to protect yourself, then how will you protect the Sunnis?” April 26, 2013 in a Friday sermon

The United States and the West
            “The Syrian army is killing the people and is supported by Iran, China, and Russia, and the U.S. did not interfere to help the Syrian people. Why are they not supporting the Syrians? Because they are Muslims. The West and America are liars… Jihad will give us back our dignity." July 13, 2012 in a sermon

Rafei’s official Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Dai al Islam al Shahhal

      Born in 1961, Dai al Islam al Shahhal may be the second most influential Salafi sheikh in Tripoli. His father, Salem, started Lebanon’s Salafist movement in the 1950s. Dai now runs his father’s Islamic Association for Guidance and Charity.
      Shahhal studied at the Islamic University in Media, Saudi Arabia. After the Lebanese civil war erupted in the late 1970s, he formed a group to protect the Salafist movement from Syrian forces and their local allies. In 1986, Shahhal moved to Beirut after the massacre of Sunnis by the Syrian army in Bab al Tabbaneh, a Tripoli neighborhood and bastion for Salafis. His group was forced to disband.
            Shahhal returned to Tripoli after the war ended in 1990, although he did not revive his Guidance and Charity organization until Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005.
            Violent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli broke out in 2008. His cousin Hassan al Shahhal, another Salafi sheikh, signed a memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah forbidding the killing of Muslims by Muslims. But Dai al Islam reportedly rejected the document and said it would be harmful to the Sunni community. Hassan froze the agreement with Hezbollah on August 19, 2008 ― just one day after signing it.
            Dai al Islam al Shahhal has held many rallies to support Syrian rebels since 2011. He has repeatedly warned that Hezbollah’s alleged involvement in Syria could spark violence in Lebanon.

Iran and Syria
            “If I wanted to back the Syrian revolution with men, I could have issued a jihad fatwa to send thousands of men from Lebanon and outside to fight in Syria…
            We never [Salafis] harmed anyone…Those who are responsible for the damage done [to Salafi institutions] must be held accountable and not us… We are confronting a dangerous plot run by Iran.” March 2013 in an interview with Al Joumhouria
            “The Sunnis in this country are at the forefront of the fight against the oppression and tyranny of the Syrian-Iranian axis.” February 15, 2013 according to The Daily Star

Lebanese Government and Military
            “Double standards in the implementation of security leave our areas in a state of despondency as perpetrators run free. In fact, there is an official state in Lebanon and one of hegemony [Hezbollah], which aims to exemplify the barbaric Syrian regime.” March 18, 2013 at a demonstration against attacks on clerics

Shahhal’s official Facebook page, website and Twitter feed.

Adnan Imama

      Adnan Imama founded the Salafist movement in the Bekaa Valley region in 1986. He has rejected calls for fighters to go to Syria. Imama has urged his followers to support the rebels in a way that will not spark sectarian strife in Lebanon. Syrian rebels need money and shelter for their families, Imama told Al Akbar in October 2012.  
      Imama has contended that Salafism in eastern Lebanon is “centrist” compared to the hardline current that has gained ground in Tripoli and Sidon. Imama’s brand of Salafism “does not accept extremism or fanaticism, and opposes isolating itself from society,” he told Al Akbar.

Hardline Salafis
            Hardliners “have a membership of no more than 50 or 60 young men… Because they committed violent acts that disrupted security, the spotlights were focused on them. The media both here and abroad highlight the phenomenon of extremism and armed groups… The taking up of arms must be to preserve life and achieve good, not to bring ruin, destruction and perdition to Muslims…
            We stood by Sheikh Ahmad when he spoke out for what is right. But regrettably he erred, and it was a big error when he cut off the road to Sidon…” October 2012 in an interview with Al Akhbar

Hezbollah, Iran and Syria
            “We do not want to burn Lebanon in the furnace of the Syrian revolution... We are not against the Shiites for being Shiites, but we are against political Shiism... Let Hezbollah explain this strange coincidence: Nobody supports the Syrian regime except the Shiites of Iraq, Iran and Lebanon…
            Our dispute is not with Hezbollah but with the Twelver doctrine of Shiism [dominant in Iran]… Political Shiism classifies the Salafi movement as being al Qaeda and terrorist, and treats us in Lebanon the way al Qaeda is treated in Iraq...
            There is a clash between the Salafi and Shiite doctrines. This does not in any way mean that we consider them to be our enemies. If only we could build bridges of love, cooperation and contact so we can live with them in this homeland.” October 2012 in an interview with Al Akhbar

Sunni Leadership
            “Regrettably, Sheikh Saad [Hariri] did not live up to hopes. The Sunni street will not stand by an individual if… he does not represent people well.” October 2012 to Al Akhbar

Imama’s Facebook page (administered by followers).

Zakaria Abdel Razzaq al Masri

      Born in 1953, Zakaria Abdel Razzaq al Masri has also condemned Iran’s support for Assad and Hezbollah. Masri began organizing protests in mid-2011 against the Syrian crackdown on protestors. He has coordinated with fellow sheikh Ahmad Assir.
      Masri is an academic among Lebanon’s Salafi sheikhs. He studied in Mecca and Medina, then taught Islam in Lebanon and reportedly produced over 30 books. In 1985, Masri became the leader of the Hamza Mosque in Kobba, Tripoli.

Hezbollah, Iran and Syria
      “Hezbollah wants to govern the whole country, but I can assure you that it will not happen because we have an Islamic revolution in Syria right now, and this will bring Hezbollah down…” December 2, 2012 at a rally in Sidon
      I support the “blessed uprising of our brothers in Syria against the Baath party and regime, which has killed children, women, the elderly and did not even show mercy for the wounded in hospitals.” July 8, 2011 in a sermon
            “Although the Hezbollah members were arrested with trucks of weapons and ammunition, and they were arrested after firing at the [Lebanese] Army patrol, they were released two days after their arrest.” August 21, 2012, according to The Daily Star

Lebanese Government
            “Hezbollah is making use of you [Prime Minister Najib Mikati] and the cabinet to dominate Lebanon, after which it will abandon you. By this, prime minister, you will be helping the oppressor in its injustice…” July 8, 2011 in a sermon according to The Daily Star

Political Participation
            Salafists reject “the legitimacy of post-Caliphate secular states. I expect that the decision to enter politics will cause a rift among the Salafists themselves, before anything else.” October 1, 2012 in an interview with NOW Lebanon

Masri's official Facebook page.

Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace in the Center for Conflict Management.

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