On shaving a cleric’s beard in Beirut

Hazem al-Amin

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Interior Minister Marwan Charbel’s statement that those who assaulted the four Sunni clerics in Beirut were merely drug addicts seemed naive and of little imagination or rather of no imagination at all. According to what we understand from the minister, these assaulters were not Lebanese but are people who committed that wrong act because they are contaminated by drugs.

Saying that the “Lebanese act” of some young men in the area of al-Khandaq al-Ghameeq in Downtown Beirut is a result of drug addiction implies a direct disregard of the Lebanese reality. Drugs would have prevented what happened, that is if we consider that drugs distort and dissipate reality. The sectarian par excellence act of shaving the beard of a cleric from another sect requires a good amount of awareness and determination that cannot be maintained under the effect of drugs. Currently in Lebanon, there is enough amount of this determination.

Sectarianism is the pinnacle of Lebanese awareness. Sectarianism brought together the alleys’ youths to display this “awareness” and translate it into acts similar to the act committed by young men in al-Khandaq al-Ghameeq. Before that, sectarianism was tested on the level of politicians’ awareness, and it felt like music to their ears.

‘Genius when it comes to sectarianism’

The Lebanese politician is a genius when it comes to sectarianism. He masters it in a manner that neighborhood thugs cannot master. He knows exactly where it resides and how it moves, and he knows exactly when to invest in it.

The act of shaving the beard of a cleric from another sect is graver than any other sectarian act even that of murder. Those behind it aimed to insult their rivals’ sentiment considering what a cleric’s beard represents in the game of sentiments. This act was carried out with awareness, and it does not fall within passing incidents. It also provides a basis for vengeance.

The insult here targeted an entire group. The sentiment of an entire group and not of the bed-stricken injured cleric was shaken.

A private message

Shaving the cleric’s beard at this time carries a very private message. There is an enormous body of media coverage stating that the Sunni sect in Lebanon has grown a beard and that this sect is on the path of becoming a “jihadi sect.” This media coverage invented an icon for this statement. The icon invented is Sidonese cleric Ahmad al-Assir. Assir’s long beard precedes his presence. The young men in al-Khandaq al-Ghameeq shaved the beard of a cleric passing by them instead of shaving the Sidonese cleric’s beard. Their act was a symbolic shaving of Assir’s beard. They have said that already. Few hours after the incident, it was leaked that the young men thought that the cleric passing through their area was “from Ahmad al-Assir’s group.”

The Lebanese politician is a genius when it comes to sectarianism. He masters it in a manner that neighborhood thugs cannot master. He knows exactly where it resides and how it moves, and he knows exactly when to invest in it

Hazem al-Amin

The media outlets which produced Assir leaked this news out of its need to shave the beard of its icon. Sects are malicious. They sense the need of producing what resembles them then they destroy it later.

But the “non-Salafi” Assir who does not have solid ties with clergy and who speaks out about “injustice against the Sunnis” did not achieve an infiltration in the street that is worth mentioning. Hezbollah journalists however often say otherwise. They have made a star out of the Sidonese cleric. They follow his moves from Sidon to Faraya, and their stories on him expect that he will topple Saad Hariri. This is what established the basis for the act of al-Khandaq al-Ghameeq youths.

Hezbollah’s wish, as expressed by the party’s journalists in Lebanese media outlets, for Assir to inherit Hariri and become the image of the Sunni sect cannot be fulfilled for many reasons. First of all, Assir’s adoption of a sectarian rhetoric has exposed itself. He is investing in an enmity with the Shiite. The Future Movement has preceded Assir in its hostility towards Hezbollah. Being a rival with Hezbollah exhausts rivalry with the Shiite without degrading it like Assir is doing. Sunni popular segments are more inclined towards using periphrasis when displaying rivalry to Hezbollah and its society because rude and impetuous sectarian expressions do not harmonize with its tendency towards tranquility.

“Assir’s audience,” whom the cleric transfers in the two famous buses from Faraya to Downtown Beirut and whom he uses to prevent Sidon merchants from selling their goods to Shiite passersby, now has limited boundaries despite the ululations made by media outlets funded by Hezbollah every time the cleric makes a public appearance.

Hezbollah failed in producing prosaic models of it in Beirut and Sidon. But its failure was less in North Lebanon. The feelings ignited by shaving the cleric’s beard in Beirut was received by the “Sunnis” in the North. These feelings clearly and effectively got involved in tensions there. The youths of Bab al-Tabbanah displayed them on the fighting axes with Jabal Mohsen where the Alawite group also does not care about the threat confronting it for being dragged in a sectarian struggle that it cannot endure.

Thus the Lebanese formula of sectarianism moved from a phase of tension which maintained its fragile balances to a phase of getting ready for the great breakdown. The field developments in Syria play a role in the latter phase. The more the Syrian regime’s situation shakes and the more the indications that events will not benefit the regime, the sectarian situation in Lebanon moves a step forward towards exploding.

It does not seem that anyone has the immunity to avoid this inevitable fate.

Christians who are supposedly a step further from this division are indulging in it. Here is Michel Aoun saying he believes “in the inevitable victory of Assad.” His party came up with an electoral law that reflects the extent of its desire to grow a beard confronting the many thick beards surrounding it.

Mr. Minister, sectarianism is a genius device. Saying that drugs drove the men to do what they did insults both sectarianism and drugs. Each has a task of its own that does not harmonize with the other. The first possesses the pinnacle of awareness and maliciousness while the second leads to the sectarian self’s exit.

This article was first published in Lebanese Daily Al-Hayat on March 26.

Hazem al-Amin is a Lebanese writer and journalist at al-Hayat. He was a field reporter for the newspaper, and covered wars in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza. He specialized in reporting on Islamists in Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Kurdistan and Pakistan, and on Muslim affairs in Europe. He has been described by regional media outlets as one of Lebanon's most intelligent observers of Arab and Lebanese politics.

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