Monday, July 2, 2012

Inside the Salafist "intifada"

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Luna Safwan]

Salafi cleric Ahmad al-Assir addresses supporters at the Saida sit-in (Alex Rowell)

As Ahmad al-Assir brings a lengthy and emotive sentence to a close from the pulpit, a voice pipes up from the middle of the crowd: “To heaven we go! Martyrs by the millions!” The Salafist cleric has earned a reputation for divisive rhetoric, but here at the sit-in he launched on Wednesday on a main road in his hometown of Saida, the audience is gripped. “Take your hand down, O Nasrallah, you are not greater than Allah!” cries another voice, referring to the Hezbollah secretary general, and suddenly 500 people are echoing the chant and clapping their hands excitedly. “Go forward, O Assir, we are all with you for change!” goes a third one.

Supporters of Assir listen to his Friday sermon (Alex Rowell)

After the speech, in which Assir reiterated his refusal to unblock the road despite numerous requests from local political and religious notables, NOW Lebanon spoke to him about the reasons for the protest and his followers’ possible next steps.

“The issue of non-state weapons has reached a point where we can’t take it anymore,” he said, referring to the Resistance’s arsenal. “Lebanese dignity is being taken for granted. Our patience has its limits. We will keep the road blocked until, at the very least, we see evidence that the weapons situation will be taken seriously by the government.”

He added that the protest was also a reaction to intimidation of his co-religionists in Saida. “Saida is controlled by Hezbollah’s thugs, who continually insult us and our mosques. Everyone who goes to our mosques is being threatened. This must stop.”

Asked what he meant by remarks that he will “escalate” the protest if this goal isn’t achieved, Assir was evasive. “I don’t like to reveal the steps I’m going to take before I take them.”

NOW also asked whether he would take complaints about the protest from locals into consideration. “From the days of Adam until today, there has never been a demand that everybody agrees on. This [issue] is my pain, and it’s my right to raise my voice. If others don’t share my pain, they are free not to join. Some asked me to open the road again, and I told them, ‘Sorry, I’m not convinced.’”

Also present was Omar Bakri Muhammad, former head of the Islamist Hizb al-Tahrir party in London, who is now banned from the UK. “It’s my duty as a Muslim to support a just cause,” he told NOW when asked what brought him to the sit-in. “We are asking peacefully for an end to non-state weapons because we can’t take anymore. And this is not just about Hezbollah; this applies to everyone, whether you’re Muslim or Christian, a supporter of the atrocities in Syria or of the Free Syria Army.”

Attendees at the sit-in tended to voice similar concerns. “We want our dignity back, not only for ourselves but for all of Lebanon,” said Rima Shaaban, who stood with other female supporters in a designated women-only area. “We simply want all weapons to be with the army, as is the case in any other country.”

“We share Assir’s demands,” said a young man. “To live in freedom and dignity, with no person or group above any other. This is what Lebanon should be; a place for peace and tourism, not weapons and war.”

“We want to be under the protection of the army,” added another man. “We definitely are not for disrespecting the army.”

Elsewhere in Saida, however, some residents are less enthusiastic about the whole enterprise. “None of us want roads to be closed,” said a grocer on the main road. “If I’m forced to close my shop, who would notice? This is not the way to solve these issues. It should be done with dialogue. People shouldn’t take to the streets like this. It scares people, and this is not the image we want for our country.”

Others are sympathetic to Assir’s general message, but have reservations about his confrontational approach. “I definitely agree with his demands as far as weapons are concerned. But to face up to Hezbollah, which is so powerful, you need to be equally powerful. It’s his right to protest, and it’s a correct demand, but I don’t know if he really has the necessary strength.”

Whether or not Assir’s “intifada,” as he calls it, ends up yielding tangible results, it’s clear that the cleric’s various initiatives in recent months have established his name on the Sunni Islamist street. “Assir has broken down the barriers of fear,” says Bakri. “No longer do the Sunnis in Lebanon feel fear. Now, for the first time, they are able to speak out.”

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