Sheikh Maher Hammoud is an influential Sunni Muslim cleric based in Sidon, Lebanon. He is one of a handful of senior Sunni clerics who has defied the prevailing political current and sided firmly with Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Islamist movement that draws most of its members and supporters from Lebanon's Shi'ite community. 
This interview was conducted in Sidon on November 17 and 26.
Mahan Abedin: As a prominent Sunni leader, how do you justify supporting Hezbollah's political position in Lebanon?
Maher Hammoud: We consider support for Hezbollah and its resistance - with its instigation to the ummah [global Islamic community] to rise and stand up against the arrogant schemes and its call for the unification of Muslims - a religious duty. What Hezbollah offers the Islamic nation as a whole is far greater than any classification of Sunni and Shi'ite; especially in the light of thestrategic importance attached to Hezbollah by the United States and Israel.
Hezbollah's effect on Lebanese political life and more broadly on the morale of the ummah can't be reduced to any sectarianclassification. Although Hezbollah has [mainly] Shi'ite members, and that is considered a weakness, there are bigger considerations that make this issue insignificant and in any case,Hezbollah is trying to overcome this weakness by building a more diverse support base.
MA: Do you believe Hezbollah has an agenda that goes beyond "resistance"?
MH: No, I don't believe that Hezbollah has a hidden agenda. I think the notion of a so-called Shi'ite crescent is all a bunch of lies made up by the weak and the agents. Everyone knows that the Shi'ites in Iraq are different from those in Lebanon and both are different from those in Iran and that they don't share the same culture, let alone the same scheme.
Without a doubt, some Iraqi Shi'ite [political forces] are part of the American project, whereas the Islamic resistance in Lebanon is working hard against the Israeli-American project; therefore the two fronts can't form a united scheme. The only scheme I see is the promotion of the theme of the inevitability of the demise ofIsrael, and the work that is done towards achieving that goal. That goal is an absolutely pure Islamic one that can't be classified into insignificant sectarian categories; and considering that this is a divine premise which is inevitable, we are sure that it will be achieved only by those approved of by God.
MA: How likely is another Lebanese-Israel war in the near future?
MH: I don't believe a war with Israel is imminent. The Israeli enemy will not provoke skirmishes that might lead to a war until it discovers the secret of the Cornet missiles that destroyed the Israeli tanks and it ensures that Hezbollah doesn't have anti-aircraft missiles or a credible air defense strategy. The fact that Hezbollah is making strategic breakthroughs in the intelligence sphere as well as in the technical sphere and it is discovering Israeli secrets much faster than Israel is uncovering Hezbollah's secrets, delays the possibility of war.
MA: How would another Hezbollah-Israel war affect the political situation in Lebanon?
MH: We should handle the ramifications of the crisis wisely, because the devils of politics have partially succeeded in turning this crisis into a sectarian one. We should mobilize our efforts in countering the "sectarian" myth and presenting the Islamicresistance as a strategic asset for the Muslim ummah as a whole. The ramifications of Hezbollah's strategic military and politicalbreakthroughs will affect Muslims the world over.
MA: What is your view on the events in the Nahr El-Bared Palestinian refugee camp back in May-September 2007? Who was behind the confrontation?
MH: We stress that the war on [the militant group] Fatah Al-Islam did not require this level of destruction. Note that when [Hezbollahsecretary general] Sayed Hassan Nasrallah said the camp was a red line as a way of protecting the Palestinian civilians, the Americans issued an order to destroy the camp. This was mainly a response to the Sayed's speech as well as a way of achieving other goals, chiefly the displacement of Palestinians. As for those who came to the camp, they definitely wanted to wage jihad against Israel, but their political simplicity and doctrinal intolerance on the one hand and the might of the conspiracy on the other - along with many other factors - turned them into a tool of the "sectarian" plan.
MA: To what extent are the Palestinian camps vulnerable to penetration by so-called "extremist" forces?
MH: We see progress on this issue. Those groups are becoming less effective and fewer in numbers by the day and we are working with the faithful to change those people's opinions and make them see the vastness of Islam and set a list of priorities where fighting the Israeli enemy and its agents is number one along with confronting any other occupation force. As for those with whom we differ in political opinion or in religious beliefs, we open the door of discussion and we don't disagree on false fronts that would lead to great evil.
MA: What is your precise role in the Ein Al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp? Are you a mediator between the radical groups and the government?
MH: Yes, many events forced me to assume the role of mediator. But with God's guidance, the people we intervene for are not extremists in the way the media project. As a matter of fact, the media fabricated a lot of this to attract the public's attention, with a view of turning public opinion against impoverished Palestinian refugees.
MA: What are your views towards the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiyah?
MH: Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiyah are our friends and family and despite the fact that I left the community over 30 years ago, I still share the same culture and the same ideology and I still recommend the same books we studied in the Jamaa and I still feel close to them despite their dreadful mistakes.
We always advised them through letters and through meetings, but their latest stances and positions can't be ignored. They have become extremely sectarian and prejudice has blinded them to the extent that they have deviated sharply from their original goals. The problem is that they have convinced the public that their stands are Islamic, but the truth is they are based upon sectarianissues and closed-mindedness which narrowly define Islamicprinciples and values based upon false interests and the benefit of [Jamaa] leaders.
But this doesn't mean that I don't think that the Jamaa can't mend its ways, especially after the victory of the [Islamic resistancemovement] Hamas and in light of [Hamas'] cooperation withHezbollah and Iran, which will in due course lead to criticalstrategic developments that would lead to them [ie, Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiyah] backing down whether they are willing or not.
MA: What are the long-term prospects of inter-sectarian Islamist cooperation in Lebanon?
MH: We are very optimistic things will be clarified in the future and everyone will head towards a productive cooperation on a clear and stable basis God willing.
MA: How do you see the long-term strategic orientation of Lebanon; will it be pro- or anti-Western?
MH: Of course, the whole region, alongside Lebanon, is diverging from American policy. There are seven major global and regional signs that point towards the decline of American power in this region: 1) [US President Barack] Obama has backed down on all of [George W] Bush's major foreign policy slogans; 2) Renewing American hegemony on the false premise of "democracy" and "freedom" promotion has been completely blown off course; 3) Both the Europeans and Americans are eager to engage Syria; 4) The Saudi clique led by Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud has departed the scene and made way for a new and more enlightened foreign policy elite; 5) Convergence of Saudi and Syrian views on Lebanon; 6) The growing strength of the "resistance" in Iraq and Afghanistan; 7) Iran's success in advancing its peaceful civilian nuclear program.
As for the internal situation, there are at least five hopeful signs: 1) [Druze leader] Walid Jumblatt's rapprochement with the "patriotic" forces in Lebanese politics [ie, the opposition]; 2) Exposure of the lies told by witnesses to the United Nations special tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Harriri; 3) The estrangement of 14 March parties; 4) The decision by [Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harriri] to pursue a more compliant and flexible policy toward Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement and the wider opposition; 5) The political success of the Islamic resistance and Hezbollah's decision to refrain from seeking further political office in the wider national interest.
1. To learn more about Maher Hammoud visit his website.
Mahan Abedin is a senior researcher in terrorism studies and a consultant to independent media in Iran. He is currently based in northern Iraq, where he is helping to develop local media capacity.
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