Understanding the Shaykh Ahmad Al Assir phenomenon- Grievance-based versus doctrine based analysis of Lebanese Sunni-Shia relations

The obvious reality for all to see is that there are great sectarian tensions in Lebanon and in the other Arab countries as well. These tensions are getting worse. The assassination of the intelligence chief Wesam al-Hassan, who is a Sunni Muslim and a supporter of the Sunni-led Future Movement, has aggravated these tensions further. This phenomenon has led to the laudable calls from different quarters for Muslim unity and rising above divisions. But what is behind these tensions? Is it the historical split in Islam that led to the birth of Shia and Sunni Islam? Is it the fault of the so-called “Salafists/Takfiris” who “hate” the Shia and want to “slaughter all of them as infidels”?

 A man who has spoken frequently, openly, and controversially about Sunni-Shia tensions and issues is the Sunni Lebanese Imam of the Masjid Bilal Bin Rabah in Abra, Sidon, Lebanon, Ahmad Al- Aseer. Recently he was interviewed by MTV Lebanon focusing on his personal and family life. He has become of interest to the Lebanese national media as well as the international media in a span of a year due to his dealing openly with the sectarian issue- some say using inflammatory rhetoric designed to foment sectarian conflict. On July 9. 2012 Robert Fisk of the Independent wrote an article entitled “The Rebel Sheikh defying Hezbollah to take aim at Assad.” It’s obvious that Fisk did not take the man seriously and focused on his “huge beard” instead and concluded the report with “he has nothing against the West.” On July 17 an article entitled “Lebanon’s Salafi Scare” by Geneive Abdo appeared in Foreign Policy. Abdo seems to have the dismissive attitude of Fisk calling the man “a self-proclaimed religious authority with a bushy long beard” and a “firebrand political Salafist.” She alleges that, with other Salafists, Assir is “using the civil war in Syria to gain political power and revive the sectarian conflict with their historical foes, the Shiites.” She accuses Assir and the other Salafist leaders of sectarian incitement: “they have discovered that framing the turbulence as a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims resonates not only with their followers, but with many outside Lebanon.” She concluded her article with a warning that Lebanon is again facing the threat of civil strife but this time around the product of Salafists painting the Syrian conflict as a Sunni-Shia conflict. It is useful to know that Al Assir has a long bushy beard. But what did the man say? Did he proclaim himself a “religious authority” as Abdo said? Fisk says Assir does not hate the West- that’s good. But is that it, isn’t there more?

What is the man saying and why are hundreds of thousands of people- almost 900,000 in a nation of 4 million people- listening as one finds out from his two channels, Ahmad Al Assir and masjidBilalbinrabah, viewership numbers on Youtube? He does not have a militia and less than two years ago he was an obscure leader of a small mosque in Sidon. What happened? What did he say in his sermons that led to the controversy? There is a way to know. The man has a website, a website for his mosque in Abra, Masjid Bilal Bin Rabah. He also has two YouTube channels: Ahmad Assir and masjidbilalbinrabah. Unfortunately, the videos do not have English subtitles therefore those who don’t know Arabic enough have to rely on what others say about him, except for a short clip on MEMRI, or what a short interview that is overshadowed by the “bushy beard” reveals. One sermon he gave on July 2, 2012 dealt with the issue of sectarian tensions and the reasons behind them. Listening to this sermon provides the insight one needs to assess whether the man is fomenting sectarian hatred or instead is raising his voice to voice disagreement about practices that are, in his opinion, causing tensions. He has repeatedly told Arab media outlets such as Al Arabiya TV and al Jadeed TV the bases for his protest movement- but the ideas were not adequately developed in the interviews- interviews more focused on fitna/civil strife than on the factors creating civil strife. He seems to never have had an English language TV interview. The July 2, 2012 sermon is on the Sunni-Shia relationship explaining the reasons for the increase in tensions. Listening to the sermon, two things struck me about the man. One is that he does not call the Shia names or mock their religion or dig from their old books, in context or out of context, to condemn them. Second, he repeatedly says that he wants civil coexistence and calls on all to help keep the national peace.

This is not a fire and brimstones preacher. He does not claim that he is a religious authority and does not self identify as a Salafist. While in Sunni Islamist circles, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 so many have Sunni preachers dug out comparisons to the “treachery of Ibn al Alqami,” the Shia minister who allegedly betrayed the Sunni Caliph of Baghdad, to argue that the Shia “always stab the Sunni Muslims in the back and betray them.” That dominant theme of radical discourse on the Shia is missing from Assir’s speeches. Other Sunni preachers and activists have dug out phrases and sentences, in context and out of context, from Shia classics to argue that the Shia are heretics, not real Muslims, that they hate the Sunnis, that they believe that the Koran is incomplete, etc. Al Assir, remarkably, does none of that. So what does he say? He can speak for himself and he has done so many times in his mosque and during the public protests he held in Sidon, Beirut and North Lebanon. 

These sermons are primary sources that to my knowledge have not been translated into English. In the July 2, 2012 he does review of the relationship between the Shia and the Sunnis and then goes into a list of grievances against Iran and Hezbollah. He states that before the Iranian Revolution in 1979 there was not much sectarian tensions and he refers to his own family background, the fact that his mother is Shia and all his relatives on her side are, and that during his youth there were not tensions. He states that the Iranian Revolution did not aggravate sectarian tensions for a number of reasons key among them is that it raised the slogans of Islamic Unity and the Liberation of Palestine- two causes that appeal to all Muslims. Another reason is the Iran-Iraq war that got Iran engulfed in that conflict and therefore unable to spread its influence and ideology. Then he refers to two events that had some effect on sectarian tensions in Lebanon- the Lebanese Shia Amal Movement War of the Camps with the Palestinians and the Amal- Sunni-dominated and led Nasserist Movement Al Mourabitoon conflict in Beirut. The two conflicts between a Shia organization and the Sunni Palestinians and the Sunni-majority Mourabitoon did not aggravate sectarian tensions much since the dominant character of both conflicts was political in nature.

 Al Assir identifies the key culprit for Sunni-Shia tensions to the emergence of the Shia resistance movement- Hezbollah. He defends labeling the Hezbollah as a Shia resistance movement. He claims that the labeling of Hezbollah’s resistance as Shia resistance is not motivated by sectarian animus since the very name of the group is a Shia-specific name- Hezbollah is the Party of God according to Shia interpretation who interprets the Party of God as Ali and his descendants and those who are their partisans the Shia. Hezbollah’s resistance is also a Shia resistance since only Shia can be member of the Hezbollah. The Syrian-Iranian alliance in Lebanon disallowed all resistance to Israel accept the Shia resistance. Anyone who wanted to fight Israel had to go through the Shia resistance movement. Al Assir says many refused to go through the Hezbollah to resist Israel because this means a non Shia would sacrifice their blood and that organization would use the sacrifice to advance its own agenda.

In his words, with minor editing: “A key culprit is the emergence of the tensions is the emergence of the Shia resistance. Slowly it led to the aggravation of sectarian tensions. This is a resistance that was built on the ruins of other resistance movements. Before it there were Palestinian, nationalist, leftist, communist, [Sunni Islamist] Jamaa Islamiyya. We trace the sectarian tensions to the emergence of the Shia resistance since the fight against Israel was monopolized by the Shia resistance and the only way to fight Israel was through the Shia resistance. This is an Iranian-Syrian decision taken during the years of Syrian hegemony. Only through them could anyone fight Israel. That means if you want to fight Israel and engage in resistance acts you have to go through them. Many would be Israel resisters were upset about that. Through them means you contribute your blood and they take the credit for your sacrifice to advance their agenda. Now they are a Shia party. When I use this label some say I am inciting sectarian tensions by calling them a Shia party. But what are they? Is their party secular? Is it Islamic? Are they nationalist? That’s what they are. From the very name- Hezbollah. This name originates from the Koranic verse that the Shia have their own interpretation of. To them Hezbollah means Ali and his family and their followers. The Shia cite the Koranic verses as proof that Ali and his descendants are the legitimate successors to the prophet and if you don’t subscribe to that then you cannot be in Hezbollah. If you don’t subscribe to that reading then you are not Hezbollah and your faith/belief is not acceptable.

This is the situation as it is. So the name is sectarian. By the way, I am not against religion- based parties. So the name is sectarian. Also, the structure of the party is also sectarian. You can’t be a member of Hezbollah unless you are a Shia- I am not inventing this. If I call it a Shia resistance- that’s what it is. The slogans of the party are all Shia-specific slogans. For example: “We shall avenge Hussein!” From whom? “Of Hussein we all heed your call?” Who says that but the Shia? “All what we have is from Karbala” “All what we have is from Ashura” Who says that but the Shia? The occasions they celebrate, the political appearances and the events they hold, all held during Shia-specific occasions where they mix their religious- Shia-specific traditions with politics where there is some talk of religion but then mostly a discussion of politics. Israel is our enemy and this is a doctrinal issue. This Shia resistance emerged to resist Israel- and this is a limited resistance. They fought Israel when the official Arab political system shied away from confrontation with Israel. But this is Jerusalem that we are talking about. It was conquered by Omar and liberated by Saladin. This emergence of a [Shia] resistance on the ruins of other resistances upset a lot of Islamists. Why? The Palestinian file/cause is a sensitive file. They took hold of the Palestine file. This is a sensitive file. They forbid the others from fighting for Palestine [The late George Hawi, a Christian and the longtime head of the Lebanese communist party, made the same point in the Aljazeera documentary The Lebanon War].

Then this sectarian party’s star started rising in the Arab and Muslim world because of the forced monopolization of this sensitive file. The Palestine issue is a very sensitive issue even to the unobservant Muslim- even the Muslim who is an alcohol drinker or a drunkard, cares about Palestine. They monopolized this file and they are a sectarian party. Then they started the campaign of conversion of Sunnis to Shiism. The target was the Sunni community. I have mentioned this before and warned against the conversion campaign many times. We want to live together peacefully. But don’t say Islamic unity and then under the table try to convert me to Shiism. Why am I lost and need guidance to true faith? Think of these books- Then I was Guided, I rode the Salvation Ship, With the Sadikeen/Rightly Guided [these are polemical works written by former Sunnis who converted to Shiism]. You say there is no difference then you engage in a conversion campaign. And in this campaign you tell the would be convert that the difference between the Sunni practice and the Shia practice is a matter of heaven or hell. Many were deceived and many Sunnis converted to Shiism. I heard an Iranian official speak about this. The Sudan is a Sunni country- there are no Shia there. The Iranians opened a consulate there and started right away the conversion campaign. They used the Palestine issue and their monopoly on the fight against Israel to promote their faith. Many [Sunnis] were deceived- they were taken with the Shia resistance and its achievements. The Sudanese government discovered the efforts of the consulate and closed it. The Iranian official said that they should have moved slowly. Shiism started spreading. Thousands in Egypt converted. Now they are saying they want a Shia party in Egypt. The Azhar clergy reacted to that. Al Qaradawi himself too he said no difference and supported the resistance. He fell in the trap of the slogan of no difference and Islamic unity and then discovered what was happening on the ground and that he had been duped…..

They have allied Sunni clergy whom they drew to them in the name of the resistance. This is an issue of religious doctrine. They have sent them Shia clergy from Iran specialized in converting Sunnis into Shia. It was a ferocious campaign to convert Sunnis to Shia- more important to them than Palestine. I have seen the polemical books urging conversion to Shiism being distributed widely during the years of the Syrian hegemony. The tide has receded due to the efforts of alert Sunni clergy. Why? Because light was shed on this matter and the they exposed their modus operandi of packaging Shiism and selling it using the slogans of Islamic unity and the resistance as tools to achieve this end. The tide has receded due to the shedding of light on the issue and the exposure of the utilization of the slogans of resistance and Islamic unity as tools for that end. This aggravated the sectarian tensions. They became aware that the slogans of Islamic unity and resistance were used as a ploy for conversion of Sunnis to Shiism. Another reason for the tensions is the rhetoric of the Shia resistance. The Sunni clergy started paying attention to this rhetoric that included verbal attacks on Islamic figures revered by the Sunnis. Some of the Companions of the Prophet were attacked by their speakers during their Shia -specific events. [Amawite Caliph] Moawiya and Abu Sufyan were attacked- these are Companions of the Prophet.

They attacked/insulted Sunni symbols during occasions that are quintessentially sectarian. Their rhetoric incited against [Caliph] Moawiya his mother and his father. The Sunni man on the street did not catch that. Their Secretary General [Sayed Hassan Nasrallah] said that Hussein left Medina [in today’s Saudi Arabia] for the fight after the Medina had forsaken him. Do you know what it means to say that Hussein was forsaken by Medina? It means that these people not worth any respect? But these are the Sahaba/the companions of the prophet in Medina. These are the best of all people. An attack on these people is an attack on our history. This is said in public with no concern for the seriousness of the allegations. The Sunni man on the street does not get it. The man on the streets thinks this is just politics. This fed the fire of the sectarian tensions.

 Then there is Iran’s politics in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iranian aid to the American occupation of Haroun al Rashid’s Baghdad and Sunni-majority Afghanistan is another factor that aggravated Sunni-Shia relations. That was a clear Iranian support of the American war effort. Some say there were common interests between Iran and the US as to Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s more than that. Mohammed Baker al Hakeem is the biggest Iraqi Shia agent of the American occupation. Al Hakeem gets his support from the same source as that of Hezbollah: Iran. Al Hakeem formed his party in Iran and came into Iraq, from Iran, riding American tanks. When Al Hakeem died they [Hezbollah] commemorated his death in the [Shia majority/Hezbollah controlled] Southern suburb of Beirut. The commemoration lasted 40 days. Who was that man that he got all this respect? His successor in leadership Abdul Aziz al Hakeem visited the US and met with George Bush, while the Sunnis were being slaughtered in Falluja [Sunni majority city in Iraq]. This led to a negative reaction. Also, they slaughtered Saddam on the day of the Muslim Eid [it fell on a different day for the Shia of Iraq] with no concern to Sunni sensibilities. This has aggravated sectarian tensions.

 Another reason for the aggravation of sectarian tensions is the way their media outlets have focused on and magnified Shia victimization and Shia grievances. Their outlets focused on the slaughter of the Shia in Iraq the destruction of Shia holy sites. But how about the massacres committed against the [Iraqi] Sunnis? Tens of thousands of Sunnis were evicted from Baghdad. They want it like Tehran a city with no Sunni mosques like what happened when Khomeini entered Tehran. They did not allow the Eid prayer for the Sunnis in Tehran. They want that also in Baghdad. Their media outlets were silent. Those [Sunnis] who listen? Those who follow the news and pay attention what do they say? How is he who listens affected? Note that I condemn fitnas/community strife anywhere. Then the focus on the [Shia] Houthis in Yemen- There is none other the Houthis to focus on? The focus on the Houthis even displaced the focus on Palestine in their media. What is the impact of all of this? The Houthis are agents of a foreign power. Why this focus? Why this silence as to certain agents of the United States? Their silence on the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and the role of the agents of the occupation. It’s a big deal. Contrast that with their rhetoric in Lebanon.

The Hezbollah has accused the Future Movement and the Sunni prime ministers of treason/betrayal [of being agents of the US and Israel]. As to me I disagree with the Future Movement and the former Sunni prime ministers. But for the Sunni man on the street? These prime ministers represent the majority of the Sunnis- Akkar and Tripoli [Northern Lebanese Sunni majority areas] are represented politically by the Future Movement and these prime ministers. The issue of accusing one of agency to the West is a sensitive matter. These people [Sunni politicians] represent hundreds of thousands of Sunnis and they are accused of being agents. But for the Sunni man on the street these people represent him. To me if this accusation of being agents is based on evidence I would be the first to attack them from my minbar/platform. There is no evidence. It’s all Wiki leaks he said, he said, he told me; I saw it in my dream! No evidence. This means you are calling agents a wide spectrum of people. They [Hezbollah and its allies] laid a siege on the prime minister’s offices. Now even the Sunni that drinks alcohol, the drunkard, the drug addict realizes that here is a sectarian party- all their leaders that appear making these accusations are either bearded or wearing turbans- sees that. Now what is the reaction that will result? There is a sectarian response. By the way, to me I accuse the Future Movement of doing a lot of harm to Sunni religious interests. More than you can imagine- to an unbearable extent. There are massacres in Palestine and in Sidon we have Superstar on Future TV.

There are massacres in Syria and we have Superstar on Future TV. The Maronite Patriarch insults us- it is reported in Shia and Christian media outlets. But not on Future TV. Where are you? We are being insulted? The Future Movement has caused a lot of harm to the Sunnis. Here there is a sectarian group, Hezbollah, accusing the Future Movement of being sectarian. The Future Movement is sectarian? Who is the sectarian political group? Bye Bye to the end [The Hezbollah are sectarian to the bone]. They are sectarian to the bone and when you criticize them politically they accuse you of being sectarian. It’s remarkable. The conflict that erupted because of the private Hezbollah communication network, the massacre in Beirut [May 7, 2008] and the reaction in Halba [North Lebanon attacked on Hezbollah’s secular allies in the SSNP- Syrian Socialist nationalist Party]. There was the issue of the officer in charge of airport security, the false witnesses [for the Special tribunal for Lebanon] and the communication network of Hezbollah. Both administrative governmental decisions taken. They paralyzed the country as a response to these decisions. Then there is the issue of the government cabinet after the Shia ministers resigned and whether the cabinet existence is a violation of the National Pact. Why the armed military reaction?

 We offered a political criticism and they said this is [sectarian] incitement. Of course the Future Movement benefited from the sectarian tensions. There was polarization and the Sunnis gravitated to the Future Movement. They gravitated to the Future Movement even though the Future Movement is not sectarian. They accuse others falsely of sectarianism when they are the quintessential sectarians. Another factor is the Hezbollah’s resort to sectarian incitement when they perceive it as needed and useful. They did not want the International Tribunal. So the Shia ministers resigned from the cabinet. Then came a fatwa from a high-ranking Shia religious authority banning any Shia from joining the cabinet. The cabinet was said in violation of the Mithaq Watni/National Pact [unwritten Constitution dividing top government position among the sects]. Isn’t this sectarian talk? At the same time how do they deal with others? It is not allowed to say that the prime minister was chosen by Hezbollah and does not represent the majority of the Sunnis. The Hezbollah dissolved the cabinet in an insulting manner and formed another also in an insulting manner to the Sunnis. What does the Sunni man on the street see? The Sunni prime minister- who brought him to office? What reaction one expects from the Sunni community?

 Then there is the issue of the 7th of May [2008] and what happened on the 7th of May- The killing, the scaring of the innocent people in Beirut and Sidon. It was expected that on the first anniversary of that day there would be an apology to the Sunnis for what happened on that day. They know that that day and what happened does not help their cause. What did the Hezbollah say on the first anniversary? [Sayed Nasrallah] He said it was a glorious day. When I hear that and the Sunni man on the street hears that what is the reaction? It was expected that he would apologize instead he said it was a glorious day. [Another factor is how they deal with Sunni religious leaders and how they react to perceived slights of their leaders]. The way they deal with the Sunni Mufti of the Republic. When there was disagreement with him he was not called the Mufti of the Republic but the Sheikh in their media. They had mercenaries appear on their media to call the Mufti of the Republic [the highest Sunni religious figure in Lebanon] Sheikh al Fitna. This is the highest Sunni clergy. When a comedy show directed by a Christian Hezbollah supporter in a comedy show appeared to poke fun at [Sayed Hassan] Nasrallah, when in fact the show’s director was doing the opposite, the country almost burnt [ Hezbollah’s supporters went into the streets and destroyed property in a Sunni-majority area and closed roads]. What is the effect of this? Aggravating sectarian tensions.

Then there is the issue of advocating Islamic unity over the table while working on converting the Sunnis to Shiism under the table. My Dawa/religious call work I don’t do Dawa with Shia and don’t pay them visits to discuss these matters. I visited a Sunni who converted to Shiism. So I asked him what do you think of the Islam of Omar and the Companions of the Prophet, those who spread Islam in the world? He told me that that was not Islam but polytheism! I asked him why [Sayed Hassan] Nasrallah doesn’t say that in public. He responded that Nasrallah does not see any benefit to saying that in public. But what Nasrallah says in public is that the [Shia-Sunni] difference is small and insignificant. In their media they say the Takfiris are doing that [exaggerating sectarian differences] and under the table you are saying just that. There are hundreds of books being distributed in the Sunni community to convert Sunnis to Shiism. Another factor contributing to worsening sectarian tensions is the Hezbollah support and arming of marginal figures and groups among the Sunni personalities and organizations. They want to fragment the Sunni community. They give them support and tell them you are now with the resistance. They give money and weapons. They give financial support to Sunni Sheikhs- to individuals who are not even Sheikhs- not trained in religion. They take them in after they wear a turban and they are presented as Sunni Sheikhs. I asked one Sheikh why you take money from them. He said no Sunnis are offering financial support so I took it.

 But what does this behavior and action lead to? It increases sectarian tensions. In their media outlets they used to call the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini the “leader/Guardian of the Muslims”. Then they changed the label in Hezbollah’s outlets. But the Iranian Arabic language outlets still do that. How are people going to react to that? Day and night they are focusing on Wahabis and Salafist especially in Saudi Arabia. Even if a Christian or even a Buddhist commits a crime they bring up the Salafists and the Wahabis. What is the result of all that?

Then there is the issue of buying real estate in Sunni-majority areas and then splashing sectarian slogans all over the area during sectarian occasions. Aisha Bakkar [a Sunni-majority neighborhood in West Beirut] is one area. They want to send the message that we are present and strong everywhere. But what is the impact of these practices on the [Sunni] people who live in that area? What is the impact of the residential compounds that are being built and that blast Shia- specific rhetoric during Ashura? This also aggravates sectarian tensions. Their rejection of the International Tribunal’s [Special Tribunal for Lebanon] investigation of the [former Prime Minister Rafiq] Hariri’s murder even though they know what the assassination of Hariri means to the Sunnis. They vociferously defend the suspects even though they know what the significance of the killing of Hariri to the Sunnis. They call it an Israeli tribunal and say who ever will come near us we will do this and that. How does this impact sectarian relations?

Then there is the arrogance in their rhetoric in their media outlets during sectarian occasions. In sectarian occasions they use charged and arrogant rhetoric of classifying people as Ashraf an nas/the most honorable of people while calling others villains and traitors. Accusations/ classification of people threats and ultimatums? This is in addition to daily street abuses that are perpetrated by their supporters. What is the result of all of that? Let’s deal with this without name calling and accusing the person highlighting these reasons of being an agent of imperialism. I call on all rational people to get involved and see the reasons and say we should do something about it for the sake of the country. I have spent a letter previously to the secretary general of Hezbollah before about this. But nothing happened. And the hegemony of [Hezbollah] over all segments of the [Lebanese] government. They say we are a resistance we do not get involved in internal politics. They intervene in everything. We can’t choose a mayor if they don’t approve of it. If we want to enter a hospital we need them. They arm whoever they want. They reach any position in the state apparatus. They support whoever they want. When people [the Sunnis] see that there is unequal treatment, what does this do? This aggravates sectarian tensions.

Then there is the issue of the Arab Spring. Their focus is on Bahrain. The population of Bahrain is only 600,000! There is injustice in Bahrain- the victims are the Sunnis and the Shia as well. There is wild exaggeration in coverage. It is item number on the news at their media outlets. We saw on TV that the [Shia] protesters drove into the police with their cars and SUVs and killed police officers- they still supported the Arab Spring in Bahrain but not in Syria. There are thousands of massacres in Syria. They give an absolute support for the Alawite Assad. How come? What explains this? Is it because they are Shia they will support or deny support? There are massacres in Syria, Korans are burnt, women are raped what do they say? They say don’t bet on the fall of the Assad regime, we will burn the whole region? What is the result of all this? Will that increase [sectarian] harmony? Their focus on the issue of the smuggling of weapons to the Syrian opposition. They accuse the Future Movement and the Salafists, MP Khalid el Daher and his supporters of smuggling. It’s all lies and fabrications. The [Lebanese] judiciary said there is no smuggling of weapons. [A clip from al Manar, Hezbollah’s TV station, is played accusing Sunni figures of weapons smuggling to Syria] What is the impact of this focus on the Sunnis- on Akkar and Tripoli?

 There is a reaction to all that. Therefore we see some hardliner Sunnis resort to accusations- digging into the Shia religious literature, saying Shia are worse than the Jews, etc. This is all a reaction to all these causes. If you slap a person and you get no response from the slapped person- that means the person in dead. The reaction is expected even if when it sometimes is harsh and misplaced. Therefore, I call on all who care about the well-being of Islam and Muslims who care about the well-being of Lebanon to get involved and deal with the causes of the tensions. I am not going to privilege attacks on me for bringing up these matters. I am not going to respond of silly accusations of being a traitor and an American agent. I call on all the rational level-headed people to focus on these reasons and not try to pre-empt the discussion of the reasons for the tensions by resorting to name calling and charging the speaker with working with the West against the interests of Muslims. That is not helpful. I will not defend myself against flimsy accusations. I hope to always be one of the people who say the truth always without regard to false accusations.”

 There are serious sectarian tensions in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world. The words and actions of Sheikh al Aseer are perceived tas adding to these tensions. However, the man’s analysis of the Shia-Sunni relations is worth a close look- an examination to determine where he is coming from and the nature of his message. Is he just like the other Sunni clergy who are demonizing the Shia and attacking their doctrine and practices and attacking them as a faith group for who they are and their beliefs? A close examination of his sermons is proof that it is not the case. The man is different from the numerous Sunni voices who have spoken on the Sunni-Shia relations and emerged strongly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq- one sees and hears those personalities on YouTube and on the numerous satellite stations that have mushroomed out of nowhere in a very short period. Al Aseer has systematically laid out a list of specific grievances, grounded in behavior and not in doctrine, as reasons for the sectarian tensions.

The influence of Al Assir and the durability of the Assir phenomenon is debatable. But if one measure of the phenomenon if the number of events held by Al Assir throughout Lebanon and media attention to the phenomenon, it is safe to say that Al Assir has outgrown being one Sheikh from the city of Sidon with limited presence and appeal. The Al Assir phenomenon, on the face of it, seems like a growing phenomenon and policy makers need to understand it for what it is versus for what it is thought or believed to be- just another “angry Shia- hating Salafist with a huge beard.” Also, those who wish to counter and resist the Al Assir phenomenon need to read and understand his message. Only by reading his message, from his own words, can one understand what he stands for and the basis of his appeal that seems to be bound to grow. This is the link to the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-KFf7fs-xo


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