The Middle East Channel

Lebanon's Salafi scare

Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a self-proclaimed religious authority with a bushy long beard, is no stranger on the Lebanese scene. His latest incarnation, from his mosque in the coastal town of Sidon, is as a firebrand political Salafist whose objectives transcend the confines of Lebanon.

He is part of a growing movement in Lebanon and other Arab countries in which the Salafists -- acting as guardians for Sunni interests -- are using the civil war in Syria to gain political power and revive the sectarian conflict with their historical foes, the Shiites. In Lebanon, sectarianism has been a primary feature of the country's politics for decades.

"For years, the Shias have been controlling and insulting us (the Sunnis)," Assir told me when I visited him at the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Sidon. "They control the security, the government, and politics. They pay Sunnis to back them to try to create fragmentation among us and they threaten us with a sectarian war ... We support the Syrian rebels. Here in the Sidon mosque, we raise money for those who come to pray for the Syrian rebels."

Assir's candor about his hostility toward Shiites is jarring, but reflects the same kind of sectarian strife I heard during a recent trip to Bahrain and the broader Persian Gulf. Some Lebanese remarked that Assir's confrontational rhetoric is new even for Lebanon, where, after decades of conflict among the country's multiple sects, the Lebanese settled on speaking delicately in euphemisms, calling their sectarian feeling "fitna," the word in Arabic for social disorder.

But no longer. Lebanon was never going to escape the fallout of Bashar al-Assad's civil war. It was always a matter of when and how. As the Syrian civil war rages across the Lebanese border, the public debate is raw, and Shiites and Sunnis speak openly about their mistrust for one another. The growing anti-Western, anti-Hezbollah, anti-Iran Salafist movement is flourishing in some mosques and in towns, particularly in northern Lebanon. Hezbollah, the party that has dominated the Lebanese government over the last year, is a particular target for its continuing support of Assad, as he orders the massacres of thousands of civilians.

"One of the features of the Arab spring was Sunni (power) and some Islamist forces feel that they don't have to deal with Iran and Hezbollah on an indirect level any longer. They can face them directly," Ali Amir, a reporter at Al Balad newspaper in Beirut, told me. Amir specializes in Sunni-Shiite relations.

In the Lebanese city of Tripoli, now home to thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the fighting, another Salafist imam, Selim al Rafei, is a rising power, who many say is more influential than Assir. On a recent Friday, in the background of posters congratulating the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, Rafei entered the all-male mosque (women are not allowed) to begin his inspirational Friday sermon.

"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," Rafei told the worshipers. "Why are they not supporting the Syrians? Because they are Muslims. The West and America are liars. Their lies are exposed and it is a lesson to our people. The only thing that is helpful for Islam is jihad. Jihad will give us back our dignity."

At the end of his sermon, Rafei congratulated President Morsi and said he "will spread Islam in Egypt and throughout the Arab world." Although there was no direct reference to Shiites, it was clear that Rafei's Islam is that of Sunni Muslims.

The connection between Assir and Rafei, if any, is not apparent. And it is difficult to assess the size of their following and that of other Salafist imams.

Assir recently has been in the media spotlight appearing on national television, denouncing Shiites and calling on Hezbollah to give up their weapons. He also leads protests in Beirut against Assad. During my stay in Lebanon, after his appearances on Al Jadeed (New) television, Assir's opponents attacked the television building, located a short distance from my hotel, and set tires on fire in protest. Assir has been making the case in the media that the Shiites across the region are trying to avenge the Sunni rise to power in countries such as Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood now holds the presidency.

The symbol of his grievances is a toy rifle, which he says a Shiite Iraqi businessman has mass produced in China and then distributed in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. There is an audio tape inside the toy rifle: after the sounds of rounds of gunfire -- "rat-a-tat-tat" -- a voice could be interpreted as saying, "Kill Saida Aisha." Aisha was one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad and is considered sacred by Sunni Muslims. According to Sunnis,  Aisha had an important role in early Islamic history, both during Muhammad's life and after his death. Regarded by many as his favorite wife, she was an active figure who was involved in continuing his message.

When I visited Assir, he appeared calm, gentle, and composed. He told an assistant to fetch the toy rifle. Then he played the tape inside, which was difficult to make out, but the name Aisha was audible. "The Iranian project started all of this," he explained. "Iran's project is to establish the vilayet e-faqih (supreme clerical rule) in the region. I was with the resistance (the term he uses for Hezbollah), but now I am politically their enemy."

It would be easy to dismiss Assir and other Salafist imams, and in fact, some Lebanese intellectuals I met reduced their antics to a temporary phenomenon that will soon lose its luster.

That may well be true, but the Salafist opposition in Lebanon, which is aimed directly against the Iran-Hezbollah-Assad axis, reflects a more significant outcome of the Arab uprisings. 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. And they are using the Syrian civil war as the cause célèbre to fight the case for what they see as discrimination against all Sunni Muslims. Assir openly accuses Hezbollah of crossing the border into Syria to kill Sunnis involved in the uprising against Assad.

"Our mission started in Saida (Sidon)," he told Now Lebanon, a popular website." But our movement is spreading in different areas. The numbers are increasing because of the pain of injustice."

Even if Assir fades from the spotlight, his direct affront to Hezbollah is producing two outcomes that are significant on a larger scale: He is magnifying feelings of injustice on both the Sunni and Shiite sides, and he is also provoking a response that makes it difficult for Hezbollah to continue to control its Lebanese constituency.

Hezbollah is a party and movement that is extremely disciplined and organized. The Shiite Lebanese attack on a television station in response to Assir, brings to question whether this is just the beginning of a street protest movement that will be outside the control of Hezbollah, which needs to maintain order as the most powerful faction within the Lebanese government. Similarly, if Assir is issuing directives, what does this say about the established Sunni leadership, or lack thereof? Over the last year, with Saad Hariri, the former Sunni prime minister, away from Lebanon in Paris, figures like Assir are moving in to fill the political vacuum.

As the Syrian war rages on, and is increasingly interpreted as a Sunni-Shiite conflict by those who wish to exploit it, there is little doubt Lebanon could be the first in a series of countries in the region to find sectarianism once again at its doorstep.

Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute.

JOSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages

The Middle East Channel

Human rights and culture wars in the new Tunisia

The fate of two very different prisoners in Tunisia -- one Muammar al-Qaddafi's former prime minister, the other an unknown and irreverent cartoonist -- hints at the future course of this country that initiated the Arab Spring. The public outcry over the first case showed that many Tunisians consider respect for human rights to be integral to Tunisia's post-dictatorship identity. The relative silence over the second case shows that the strength of that human rights identity remains hostage to a difficult national conversation that has not taken place yet about free speech and religion.

As Qaddafi's rule over Libya was collapsing in September 2011, his prime minister, Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, fled to Tunisia and was immediately incarcerated. Mahmoudi applied for asylum, and President Moncef Marzouki, a veteran human rights activist, declared that Tunisia must not return Mahmoudi as long as he risked mistreatment and an unfair trial in a still-roiling Libya. But on June 24, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali of the Islamist Ennahda party announced the immediate transfer of Mahmoudi, while his asylum demand was still on appeal, saying Libya had given Tunisia assurances of fair treatment.

The ensuing outcry in Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly, including a vote of censure that nearly passed, had partly to do with a sentiment that Ennahda, the dominant member of the three-party governing coalition, was strong-arming rather than consulting its partners. Many Tunisians also saw the extradition as an act of realpolitik at the expense of the human rights values upon which the new Tunisia should be founded.

It was not long ago that Ennahda's leaders, then in exile, were pleading with foreign governments not to forcibly send Tunisian Islamists home, where they faced unfair trials or worse under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

On June 25, while the constituent assembly was acrimoniously debating the extradition of Mahmoudi the day before, a court issued a verdict no less consequential for the course of human rights in Tunisia.

The Monastir appeals court confirmed the seven-year prison sentence of two young men for caricatures that "disturbed the public order" and "offended public morality." Although it was the first time since the Tunisian revolution that a court has sentenced anyone to prison for a speech act, this development slipped by unnoticed. Only a small circle of Tunisian rights activists mounted a defense of the two men.

Granted, the "speech acts" of Jabeur el-Mejri and Ghazi Beji are not the easiest to defend. Beji, an atheist, posted online an essay purporting to show "the ugly face of Islam," accompanied by lewd caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Mejri then cut and pasted some of Beji's work on his own Facebook page. Mejri has been in prison since March, while Beji fled to Europe and applied for asylum.

Unlike many Muslim countries, Tunisia has no laws criminalizing blasphemy. However, the courts saw fit to apply broadly worded penal code provisions left over from the Ben Ali era, in response to a complaint filed by an Islamist lawyer who had come across the online postings.

Those postings would probably offend, if not shock, a substantial number of their compatriots. But if that is the measure of speech that merits prison time, post-revolutionary Tunisia is about to surrender its hard-won freedom of speech.

A significant number of Tunisians are just as offended by imams who brand as infidels anyone who doesn't practice Islam according to their precepts. Some feel physically endangered by the actions that this kind of rhetoric might incite -- in contrast to Mejri's and Beji's fulminations, which one can avoid simply by shunning their web pages.

But no preacher has faced prosecution for his sermons or imprecations. When the Egyptian cleric Wajdi Ghounim visited Tunisia in February and proclaimed on the radio, "Every person who does not abide by the law of God is an apostate," the Ennahda party declared that freedom of expression protected his declarations.

The national assembly has also largely ignored the emerging double standard over what constitutes permissible speech about religion. But the issue may move to center-stage when that body's drafting committees present their proposed constitution, likely at the end of July.

In March, the Ennahda party averted a battle with modernists by announcing it would not seek mention of sharia in the new constitution, opting instead to keep the present formulation in Article 1 recognizing Tunisia as a republic whose "religion is Islam."

Now, a new culture war may be brewing between Tunisians who want the constitution to robustly affirm rights, as they are enshrined in international treaties, and many in Ennahda who want an article that would penalize those who "harm" what is "sacred." 

The old constitution proclaimed freedom of expression "according to the terms defined by the law." This condition allowed Ben Ali -- and President Habib Bourguiba before him -- to proffer that right with one hand and grab it back with the other. It would be regrettable if elastic notions of "harming the sacred" were to become a new basis for undermining free speech.

The row prompted by the extradition to Libya of Mahmoudi showed that many Tunisians want the post-Ben Ali state to be defined by human rights values. But the imprisonment of two atheists should provoke similar introspection: do Tunisians want constitutional and legal safeguards for free speech for all -- even speech that may be offensive to some, perhaps a majority -- drawing the line where international law draws it: at speech that incites to imminent violence or discrimination? 

Conservatives will argue that Tunisians share deeply held values that deserve protection from those who would offend or provoke. But while Tunisians may be more than 99 percent Sunni Muslim, they run the gamut from devout to non-practicing, along with a sprinkling of atheists, Jews, and Christians. If cultural diversity constitutes one of the arguments for tolerating differences within Western democracies, why should Tunisians, in their diversity, be deprived of this argument in favor of the full enjoyment of their rights?

One thing is sure: if legislators vote to impose respect for the "sacred" as a restraint on free speech, or maintain laws criminalizing speech that "disturbs the public order," you can bet that those in power will end up applying such provisions in arbitrary and political ways -- just as the dictator they ousted did.

Eric Goldstein is deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

SAMIR/AFP/GettyImages