Has Lebanon’s Sheikh Assir Reached a Dead End?

While the outspoken Lebanese Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir has made plenty of headlines recently, growing Sunni resentment suggests he will try to save face and cease speaking on behalf of the entire Sunni sect, writes Ghassan Rifi.

al-monitor Sunni Muslim Salafist leader Ahmad al-Assir (R) poses with a snowboarder in the Faraya ski area, Mount Lebanon, Jan. 24, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir.

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sunni, sectarianism, lebanon, lebanese sunnis, lebanese politics, ahmad al-assir

Mar 5, 2013

The Association of Muslim Scholars, which includes religious scholars from across Lebanon, knows that the escalatory steps taken by the imam of the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Sidon, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, have reached a dead end, and that any misstep by the latter could lead to grave and dire consequences. These consequences could include clashes with the Lebanese army, which has been ordered by the High Defense Council not to allow any breach of security, confrontations against the city’s own inhabitants, who have grown tired of his activities, or even confrontations against other Islamist factions, which would lead to blind sectarian strife.

The association, whose elders are closely following the events in Sidon, is also aware that “Assir’s tendency to want to be seen as a Sunni leader for all of Lebanon will make it hard for the man to accept or even comprehend any form of disappointment or defeat. In fact, such a feeling might push Assir to go out recklessly and involve other Islamists in acts that no one in Lebanon would want.”

In its latest meeting held in Tripoli, the association has focused its efforts on finding Assir a face-saving way out of the corner into which he has painted himself, in the hopes of averting the repercussions of any further poorly thought-out moves.

One of the elders went so far as to state: “Assir always tries to escalate the situation, lacking a clear strategy or vision, and requiring that the scholars intervene in order to diffuse the situation and return matters to normalcy.”

The Association of Muslim Scholars visited the head of the Islamic Reform Society, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Mikati, and met with fatwa secretary Sheikh Mohammad Imam, Awqaf Department Chairman Sheikh Hussam Sbat, and Sheikh Dai Al Islam al-Chahal. They decided to visit Assir at his mosque in Abra in order to discuss matters with him and to come up with a single, face-saving stance acceptable for everyone.

Sources from the association affirmed that it would clearly and honestly tell Assir that its stands with him in his demands. At the same time, however, it would emphasize that no one person has the right to unilaterally decide, talk or act on behalf of Sunnis in Lebanon, and that such unilateral action could drag the Sunni community into an unwanted confrontation that would ultimately prove detrimental for some of its contingents. The lack of preparation, coordination and consultation would engender the “moral defeat” that Assir talked about.

These same sources also stated that the Sunnis were “being marginalized” and their rights “usurped,” as they suffered as a result of “life under the hegemony of arms” (Hezbollah), and the “injustices in Syria.” This situation is further exacerbated by a political leadership that issues threats and promises but does nothing, in addition to the detrimental effects of divisions within their ranks. As a result, no one man can undertake to face an issue of this magnitude, nor can one man find solutions to such grave problems. Any misstep would be tantamount to suicide for the Sunni community and would further weaken and harm its standing.

According to the sources, Assir must realize that going alone on this path will not lead to positive results. Instead, the consequences are sure to be negative. Consultations must be undertaken, as Islam prescribes; cooperation and preparation must be embarked upon to avert the sectarian strife towards which Hezbollah’s arms lead, as well as the sectarian strife that might erupt as a result of newly ratified electoral laws, such as the Orthodox Gathering law.

The same sources pointed out that Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his party had failed to find solutions to such problems, as did Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. In light of this, the imam of Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque will also surely be unable to resolve them through a protest here or a movement there, or by openly carrying arms through the streets.

One of the association’s elders told As-Safir that what was required now was for all of Lebanon’s religious sects to stand together in order to avert strife that would affect everyone. He pointed out that all these sects were heading towards strife under the pretense of securing their own interests and rights. He advised them all to be patient and espouse a long-range plan devoid of incitement or polarization. According to him, through patience alone will people achieve the rights guaranteed to them by the Lebanese constitution.

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