In Sidon, a coastal Lebanese city south of Beirut, a crowd of several hundred people gathered on Thursday night to protest Innocence of Muslims, the film allegedly created by some precarious mix of right-wing zealots and a soft-core porn director that has sparked violent protests from Tunis to Sanaa. This wasn’t, however, Lebanon’s main headline-grabbing protest. That took place the next day in the northern city of Tripoli, where one man was killed, and local KFC and Hardees franchises were burned down.
This demonstration was organised by a firebrand cleric who is emerging as an up-and-coming leader in the hardcore Salafist scene. But aside from the bluster, the crowd was not what you might expect at an anti-American rally. It seemed as good a place as any to get a sense of the quickly spreading worldwide protests set off by the controversial film. As it turned out however, the closest thing to an unfriendly encounter I had was being chided for not liking Rocky V.
When I arrived in Sidon, a quiet seaside city most noted for its soap museum and crusader castle, young men were busy making signs with slogans like “Freedom does not mean offending others” and “Enough! Why do you insult the Prophet of Islam?” Another man had stapled two flags to a large wooden handle: One was a handmade Israeli flag, the other a satin American flag preprinted with ripples, like the ones you might see at a suburban grocery store or neighbourhood cookout. It was very apparent that the crowd was planning on burning both.
A young guy named Firas walked up to me – the only Westerner at the rally – and asked why the US government would make such a film. Trying not to laugh at the idea, I explained that it was produced a group of barely literate Christian buffoons with a Handycam and an internet connection. “Oh, really?” he asked, looking confused and a bit let down. “But how did the government allow these people to make it?” I told him that, unlike Lebanon, the US doesn’t have a state-run censorship board.
“Amerikee?” asked another young guy named Adnan. Yes, I replied. He whispered to his friend about the upcoming flag barbeque and looked genuinely concerned. Both had long, finely groomed beards and wore dishdashas, and small white taqiyah caps. “Oh, I am so sorry for what we are doing later. We don’t hate you, we’re just angry about this film.” Then he asked me if I like boxing, Sylvester Stallone and the Rocky films. For the next 20 minutes he showed me a gallery of Muhammad Ali boxing highlights on his iPhone. His phone was also loaded with bootleg Adele and Rihanna live sets.
Before dusk a small stage and podium were set up, ringed by metal police-style barriers and a pretty serious sound system. It was a male-dominated affair, with a mix of hardcore Salafists, young children, a handful of guys in suits and bored onlookers from the neighbourhood. The hype man for the night, a stocky bearded man in black cargo pants, warmed up the crowd after sound check. “Everyone move up!” he yelled into the microphone. “And you, Mustafa!” he said, pointing to a friend toward the back, “Come closer!”
Then the dozen or so loudspeakers started blaring out a recorded nasheed – Islamic verses sung a cappella – for about ten minutes until the fiery Sheikh Ahmad Assir took the stage to loud applause. He’s not a megastar here as his core constituency is still small. You could think of him as the Young Jeezy of Islamist leaders in Lebanon – big but not Weezy-big.
It’d be easy to label Assir as a total nutbar with a muddled agenda. Earlier this summer he threatened Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the powerful Shiite militia Hezbollah, claiming in a widely broadcast television interview: “I will not let you sleep.” Some of Assir’s many detractors say he uses a dumbed-down rhetoric to stoke sectarian flames among the poor and uneducated. But some of his biggest supporters are engineers, lawyers, businessmen and doctoral students.
A Sunni preacher from south Lebanon and the son of a famous singer, Assir raised his profile by staging a month long road-closing sit-in, demanding that Hezbollah transfer control of its vast arsenal to the Lebanese state. I first met him in Sidon back in July, where we walked his German shepherd (named “dog”) and he rode around on a kid’s BMX greeting supporters. Hezbollah is by far the most powerful institution in Lebanon, and Assir’s demands were a stretch to say the least. But they did succeed in garnering him plenty of attention.
Assir’s Bilal Bin Rabah mosque is on the ground floor of a seven-storey apartment building. All of the apartments above it are now for sale, as are most of the apartments on the next block over. The neighbours are tired of living under the constant watch of mukhabarat, or secret police, who now monitor the area at all hours of the day thanks to Assir’s activities.
Rallies like the one on Thursday night are certainly worrisome on some level. But kids like those I met at the show exemplify Assir’s appeal and show that his supporters can’t all be reduced to the monolithic term “religious extremists”.
Assir’s speech was more or less your standard Islamist fare. Nothing groundbreaking was said, but the crowd left satisfied with their frustrations vented.
Among the bearded masses was a 35-year-old named Nader, who claimed to have four girlfriends, although he said two of them are “online only”. Unlike the more diehard Salafists at the protest, Nader seemed mostly concerned with getting laid and keeping his BMW in top shape. The two go hand in hand, he said. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most Westerns would agree with that statement.
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