The Rise of the Salafis in Lebanon: A New Sunni-Shiite Battlefield
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, December 4, 2012
Jerusalem Issues Briefs Vol. 12, No. 28 4 December 2012
-The crisis in Syria has turned into a civil war where the two main
contenders are fighting for supremacy: the Sunni majority is trying to gain
back power from the Alawite minority that has ruled Syria since the late
-The direct involvement of the Lebanese Shiite Hizbullah militia on the side
of the Syrian regime against the Sunni rebels has ignited a sense of
solidarity among the Sunni community in Lebanon that has translated into
their active involvement in the fighting in Syria as well. The Sunni
community in Lebanon is assisting the rebels by sending weapons and fighters
and by providing a safe haven in Lebanese territory.
-In the wake of former prime minister Saad Hariri’s self-appointed exile to
Paris, the absence of moderate political leadership to act as a
counterweight to the Shiite movement has provided an opening for Salafi
leaders such as Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. Unlike in the past, the Sunni
community is being led by a new breed of leaders who do not belong to the
traditional political families.
-Assir’s confrontational rhetoric and his loud hostility toward Hizbullah is
new for Lebanon, where after decades of conflict among the country’s
multiple sects, the Lebanese settled on speaking delicately in euphemisms.
For the first time in decades, Shiites and Sunnis speak openly about their
mistrust for one another.
Shock Waves from the Syrian Civil War
Since the beginning of the rebellion against Bashar Assad, Lebanon has been
absorbing the shock waves resulting from the disintegration of the Alawite
regime in Syria. As the Syrian war has evolved into an ongoing war and
becomes a Sunni-Shiite conflict, there is little doubt that Lebanon could be
the first in a series of countries in the region to find sectarianism once
again at its doorstep. Indeed, the crisis in Syria has turned into a civil
war where the two main contenders are fighting for supremacy: the Sunni
majority is trying to gain back power from the Alawite minority that has
ruled Syria since the late 1960s.
The rebellion in Syria and the direct involvement of the Lebanese Shiite
Hizbullah militia on the side of the regime against the Sunni rebels has
ignited a sense of solidarity among the Sunni community in Lebanon that has
translated into their active involvement in the fighting in Syria.
The Sunnis Openly Challenge Hizbullah
The Sunnis in Lebanon have been exasperated by years of marginalization in
Lebanon, ever since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister
Rafik Hariri by Hizbullah operatives on behalf of the Syrian regime on
February 14, 2005. The Sunnis feel that Hizbullah has hijacked their victory
against the Syrian occupying forces in Lebanon. Indeed, the withdrawal of
Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005 was a direct result of Hariri’s
assassination. Still, instead of gaining influence in Lebanese politics, the
Sunnis lost power to Hizbullah, particularly since the 2006 war with Israel.
Hizbullah claimed to be the victor in that war and thus became the leading
political force in Lebanon.
Hizbullah’s reluctance to hand over to the International Tribunal in The
Hague four of its members indicted by the prosecutor as responsible for the
Hariri assassination added insult to injury to the Sunni community, which
was unable to force Hizbullah to comply with the tribunal.
Moreover, the Sunni community in Lebanon could not accept the humiliation of
its political defeat that resulted in being pushed to the bottom of the
Lebanese power pyramid in 2008 when Hizbullah succeeded in toppling the
government of Saad Hariri (son of the late Rafik Hariri) and installing a
new government dependent on Hizbullah parliamentary and political support.
Finally, the Sunnis could not remain aloof from what seemed to be an open
provocation by Hizbullah, which had decided at the directive of Tehran to
side with Bashar Assad and join forces with the Syrian regime and Iran in
order to quell a rebellion whose participants are mainly Sunnis.
As a result, the Sunni community in Lebanon is both openly and covertly
assisting the rebels in Syria by sending weapons and fighters and by
providing shelter and a safe haven in Lebanese territory. Tripoli in
northern Lebanon has become the Peshawar of Syria. The Sunnis in Lebanon
have become the facilitators of the rebels by transforming their territory
into a transit area through which fighters and weapons from Libya and other
Arab and non-Arab countries are crossing before entering Syria. More
interesting is the fact that the events in Syria and Hizbullah’s involvement
in the fighting have created a serious crack in the Lebanese body-politic:
The Sunnis are openly challenging the authority and power of Hizbullah.
The New Sunni Leadership Is Salafi
The absence of moderate political leadership to act as a counterweight to
the Shiite movement, which is sponsored by both Syria and Iran, has provided
an opening for Salafi leaders such as Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. Overall,
Lebanon’s Sunni community has been paralyzed, not just due to their leader’s
absence, but also by events that preceded former prime minister Saad Hariri’s
self-appointed exile to Paris. As a result, unlike in the past, the Sunni
community is being led by a new breed of leaders who do not belong to the
traditional political families that have provided Sunnis with generations of
politicians. They are leaders who identify themselves as being part and
parcel of the Salafi movement in Lebanon. Since the Lebanese Sunni community
finds no voice within the government or its traditional leadership, those
who are now speaking on its behalf are Lebanon’s emerging Salafi groups, who
by nature are more organized, more open to the media, and more assertive. In
the absence of traditional Sunni leadership, they are becoming the voice of
The last two turbulent years in the Arab world have shown that where
traditional Sunni secular or traditional leaders have failed to lead,
Salafis and other Islamic fundamentalist groups have emerged across the
region and stepped in to fill the vacuum. While not in power in most Arab
countries that have experienced the “Arab Spring,” the Salafis are present
and impossible to circumvent in the local political arena since they dictate
part of the national agenda that is based on the application of Sharia law.
In Lebanon, the Salafi movement is divided into multiple groupings, led by a
variety of sheikhs in both the south and the north. Salafis have maintained
a presence in northern Lebanon, most notably in the city of Tripoli and the
surrounding areas of Akkar and Donniyeh, for at least 50 years. The
movement, which is an extension of Arab Salafism, went almost underground
during the period of Syrian occupation in Lebanon, and made a small comeback
after Syrian troops left in 2005. It has enjoyed a major resurgence since
the beginning of the anti-regime Syrian uprising in 2011.
Salafis spread their influence in Tripoli by opposing the supporters of the
Assad regime, many of whom are Alawites living in the Jabal Mohsen area in
the northern part of Tripoli, adjacent to the main entrance to the harbor.
The detention of anti-Assad Islamist activist Shadi al-Mawlawi in May 2012,
and the Lebanese security forces’ killing of Sheikh Ahmed Abdel Wahed in
Akkar later that month, further mobilized the Salafis in north Lebanon.
Sheikhs such as Salem al-Rafei, Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, Zakariya al-Masri
and Raed Halayhel dominate the new Salafi scene. Their mosques continue to
be the main mobilization centers, through their Friday sermons and weekly
Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir
Ahmad al-Assir, 44, a Sidon-born Lebanese Salafi preacher from Rafik Hariri’s
birthplace, has become a lightning rod after he claimed he would be the
guardian of “Sunni interests” in Lebanon. Assir, a self-proclaimed religious
authority, is openly and loudly hostile toward Hizbullah, accusing it of
following the Iranian agenda of Ayatollah Khomeini and supporting the Syrian
government.2 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.3
Assir openly accuses Hizbullah of crossing the border into Syria to kill
Sunnis involved in the uprising against Assad. “For years, the Shias have
been controlling and insulting us (the Sunnis),” Assir told a reporter.
“They control 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….The Iranian
project started all of this. 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 Hizbullah), but now I am politically their enemy.”4
The latest manifestation of this hostility was Assir’s call for the removal
of Hizbullah banners from his home city of Sidon. Assir gave Hizbullah 48
hours to remove its posters commemorating the Ashura holiday from the
outskirts of Sidon. Hizbullah had been putting up posters of their leader
Hassan Nasrallah and other religiously-motivated works to mark the holiday
of Ashoura on November 24. Ashoura highlights the divisions between Sunni
and Shiite, as it commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of
Prophet Muhammad whom Shiites believe had his rights usurped while being the
rightful heir to lead the nascent Muslim nation after Mohammed’s death.5
Growing Shiite-Sunni Mistrust
As the Syrian civil war has spilled across the Lebanese border, the public
debate in Lebanon has become, unlike the past, open and often brutal. For
the first time in decades, Shiites and Sunnis speak openly about their
mistrust for one another.
The growing anti-Western, anti-Hizbullah, anti-Iran Salafi movement is
flourishing in some mosques and in towns, particularly in northern Lebanon.
Hizbullah is a particular target for its continuing support of Assad, as he
orders the massacre of thousands of civilians. In Tripoli, now home to
thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the fighting, another Salafi
imam, Selim al-Rafei, is a rising power who many say is more influential
than Assir. Yet there is no apparent connection between Assir and Rafei. And
it is difficult to assess the size of their following and that of other
In fact, the division between Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon is the widest
since the country’s civil war in the mid-1970s, characterized by
near-monthly armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli. Salafi
leaders have become a prominent voice in the anti-Hizbullah struggle and
Salafi clerics have taken a hard-line stance against Hizbullah.
Sheikh Assir’s actions, combined with that of other Salafi clerics in
Lebanon, could lead to a complete breakdown in the ongoing dialogue between
the sectarian groups. The sheikh is magnifying feelings of injustice among
the Sunni community while simultaneously challenging the core ideology
behind Hizbullah’s existence (Assir has stressed the fact that instead of
turning its weapons against Israel, Hizbullah has chosen to kill its Arab
brothers. This is the reason behind his call to Hizbullah to hand over its
weapons to the Lebanese state). As an emerging leader, for political rather
than religious reasons, Assir is setting a tone that will further distance
both communities from one another, with dire consequences.7
Finally, will Assir test his strength in the coming 2013 Lebanese
parliamentary elections? Sidon is well-known as the Hariri family’s
backyard, and a shift there would certainly shake up the broader Lebanese
political landscape. It is hard to imagine that Saad Hariri would welcome
the emergence of a Salafi cleric, a newcomer in Lebanese politics who lacks
the proper political “pedigree,” and who will assuredly be trying to walk on
Hariri’s traditional turf. However, with his prolonged absence and inability
to exert pressure on Prime Minister Najib Miqati’s Hizbullah-backed
government, Hariri risks increasing marginalization.
There could be a direct correlation between the decline in popularity and
influence of Hariri and an increase in Assir’s stature. Both leaders are
potentially vying for the same electorate, and Assir’s fortunes seem to be
tied to the inability of the Sunnis’ traditional leaders to provide adequate
leadership in times of crisis. Unless Assir is able to maintain momentum and
build a real institutional base of support that reaches beyond Salafis, he
will remain influential in Sidon, but nowhere else.8 But then, who could
foresee that the Muslim Brother Mohammad Morsi could become President of
Egypt and in a surprise move decapitate the whole Egyptian top military
* * *
1. Nadine Elali, “NOW’s Guide to Lebanese Salafism,” Now Lebanon, July 11,
2. “The Rise of the Salafists in Lebanon,” Aspen Institute, May 27, 2012.
3. Geneive Abdo, “Lebanon’s Salafi Scare,” Middle East Institute, July 17,
5. Alexander Corbeil, “Lebanon’s Salafists Challenge Hizbullah Dominance,
Foreign Policy Association, November 11, 2012.
6. Geneive Abdo.
7. Corbeil. Robert Fisk, “The Rebel Sheikh Defying Hizbullah to Take Aim at
Assad,” Independent (UK), July 9, 2012.
8. Daniel Harris, “Ahmed Al-Assir and Salafism in Lebanon,” Near East
Quarterly, June 26, 2012.
About Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli