Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Empowered, Lebanon's Sunnis Gird for a Fight ; Militants and Islamists Gain Influence, Inspired by the Uprising in Syria

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Empowered, Lebanon's Sunnis Gird for a Fight ; Militants and Islamists Gain Influence, Inspired by the Uprising in Syria

Article excerpt

As parts of Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community have become emboldened by events in Syria, Islamists and militants have seen their influence swell and the rhetoric has grown increasingly aggressive.

As segments of Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community have become emboldened by events in Syria, Islamists and militants have seen their influence swell and an increasingly aggressive rhetoric has found a more receptive audience.

Many Lebanese Sunnis identify closely with the mostly Sunni rebels fighting against the regime of Syria's president, Bashar al- Assad, an Alawite. At the same time they feel deprived, forsaken by the state and subjugated by other factions. Building off this anger and inspired by the gains of Syria's rebels, they have become more vocally hostile toward Hezbollah, the Shiite party; the government, dominated by Hezbollah; and the Syrian regime.

"I believe Sunnis are coming out of chains," said Omar Bakri, a radical Sunni cleric who lives in Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city, after Beirut. "The blood of the innocents in Lebanon and Syria, we are not going to let it go without accountability."

Addressing a rally of protesters blocking roads this month, Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, the Sunni sheik regarded as the founder in Lebanon of the puritanical Salafi movement, railed against the enemies of the Sunni community. "They want to make us slaves, they want to control us with weapons like Bashar al-Assad does," he said. "We are targets."

While the anger is not new, the Sunni community has long been hindered politically by a lack of leadership, cohesion and organization. But this is changing.

Slowly, leaders are emerging. One is Sheik Ahmad Assir, a Salafi cleric from the southern city of Sidon. His opponents dismiss him as attention-grabbing, but Mr. Assir's readiness to confront both Hezbollah and the influence of Syria and Iran in Lebanon resonates with many who are frustrated by the status quo.

"When the pain from the Iranian domination increased, people saw honesty and truth in what we believed, so they joined us," Mr. Assir said. Like some other hard-line Sunni Islamists, Mr. Assir refuses to call Hezbollah by its name, which means the Party of God in Arabic, referring to it instead as the Iranian occupation or the Iranian project in Lebanon. Others call Hezbollah the Party of Satan.

In relatively short order, Mr. Assir has built up a legion of devout militant followers. Across the country, his fiery speeches draw thousands, overriding the geographic divisions that separate the country's scattered Sunni enclaves.

"Sheik Assir is the voice of all people -- Muslims, Christians, Druze -- because he is against Hezbollah's weapons," said Khaled al- Masri, a protester at the rally in Tripoli.

When Mr. Assir's movement first drew attention last year, he emphasized that it was peaceful and unarmed, in contrast, he said, to Hezbollah. In recent months, though, his supporters have fought gun battles with opponents, and gunmen now accompany the cleric in public.

Late last month, Mr. Assir himself dressed in fighter's apparel and clutched an automatic rifle as he stood guard at his Sidon mosque. He has claimed that Hezbollah members have established an armed presence near his mosque and warned that they may be looking to attack.

"Our carrying of arms was a reaction to being surrounded by armed groups when the Lebanese security forces did not come to our rescue," Mr. Assir said in an interview. "After being attacked by the Iranian occupation, we declared that we will retaliate to any attack against us. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.