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Lebanon's Ayatollah Fadlallah, Shiites' (and Hezbollah's) Spiritual Leader

Looking Past Soundbytes and Stereotype

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Lebanon's Ayatollah Fadlallah

Lebanon's Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah isn't directly associated with Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party. But he's the spiritual leader of Lebanon's Shiites.

english.bayynat.org.lb (Fadlallay's Web site)

The Wall Street Journal usually devotes its "Weekend Interview" to reliable, if occasionally unorthodox, conservatives like Canada's Stephen Harper, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahuh ("Iran Is the Terrorist 'Mother Regime')" and Florida's Jeb Bush, or to business contrarians like Nouriel Roubini, the Forbes columnist.

Today it takes a seemingly different path, although not really: Lebanon's Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah (the Journal spells his name Fadlullah), spiritual leader of Lebanon's Shiites, and a conservative down to the threads of his black turban. If Fadlallah were to subscribe to an English-language daily, it'd probably be the Journal: The social platform of American conservatives and conservative Muslims, whether Shiite or Sunni, is indistinguishable.

From Irony to Respect

So maybe the choice of Fadlallah for a Weekend Interview isn't that daring after all, though Journal Features Editor Robert Pollock does his best to distance himself, by means of winks and irony, from Fadlallah. He puts quote marks around the word "emulation" when describing the esteem that grand ayatollahs like Fadlallah are held in by their followers. He describes the aging cleric as sporting "the requisite black turban" (it is more a signifier of scholarship and claimed descendence from the Prophet Muhammad than a “requisite”). And he feels compelled to add the word "allegedly" immediatley before Fadlallah's claim that Saddam Hussein in the 1980s "serv[ed]... the American strategy," though there's nothing alleged about the Reagan administration's support of Saddam Hussein's regime in the Iran-Iraq war or the administration’s knowledge, suggesting complicity, that the Iraqi dictator was using chemical weapons.

At any rate, by the end of the interview Pollock conveys more of a sense of being impressed than revolted by the man. (I got the same sense from the Washington Post's Robin Wright's long interview with Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, in Dreams and Shadows, her 2008 book; parts of the interview appeared in the Post).

Nuance Over Stereotype: What Fadlallah Believes

Fadlallah doesn't tell Pollock what he wants to hear. Everything Fadlallah says is consistent with Lebanese-Shiite orthodoxy. To Pollock's and the Journal's credit, the length of the interview allows nuance to be heard above the din of soundbytes and stereotype.

When Pollock points out that "many people associate political Shiism with Iran and a concept known as Welayat al-Faqih -- or Guardianship of the Jurist -- which has been used to justify the authoritarian regimes of the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameini," Fadlallah is quick to correct Pollock and the Western habit of confusing Iran's Shiism with Lebanon's. They're two different stories.

"I don't believe that Welayat al-Faqih has any role in Lebanon," Mr. Fadhlullah says without hesitation. "Perhaps some Lebanese commit themselves to the policy of the Guardian Jurist, as some of them commit themselves to the policy of the Vatican [Lebanon's large Maronite community is Catholic]. My opinion is that I don't see the Guardianship of the Jurist as the definitive Islamic regime."

It's not clear whether Fadlallah explained why not, or if Pollock even asked him. Lebanese history makes it clear: the country's sectarian fracture plays in its favor in this case. No single denomination, whether Maronite, Sunni, Shiite or Druze, has ever been able entirely to dominate the country, let alone establish anything like those authoritarian regimes asphyxiating the rest of the Arab world. Hezbollah, which entered the political process earlier this decade, could no more impose a theocracy on Lebanon than, say, Lebanon's Maronites, Syria's or Israel's military could impose their will. It's also why Fadlallah could make the claim, generally unquestioned in Lebanon, that he doesn't think that "Hezbollah has a project beyond Lebanon. Because it does not have the capacity to do so."

Fadlallah and the West

Pollock asks Fadlallah about the West. Fadlallah's answer:

We do not reject the West. But we disagree with some Western administrations. We believe that America is not the administration ruling America. America is rather the universities, the research centers and the American people. That is why we want to be friends with the American people with all their variation. I was the first Islamic figure to denounce what happened on September 11. I issued a press release after four hours saying that this affair is not acceptable by any mind, divine law or religion. What these people did was directed to the American people not to the American administration.
Pollock asks him about President Obama and hears "again an interesting answer":
I think that some of his statements show that he believes in the method of dialogue. But here is an important point: America is not ruled by a person, it is ruled by institutions. The question is what is the influence of institutions like the Congress and others on the president. Can the president, if he has private opinions, can he carry them out facing institutions and conditions challenging the administration? We, in the Arab countries or in the East, we don't have institutions. The ruler is one person or one family. Therefore the people cannot object.

We wish that President Obama tries with all his mandate to confirm the slogans he launched while still a candidate, that he tries with all power to make the world a field of dialogue not a field of war.

It looks like Lebanon's Shiites are detecting the same contradictions between Obama the campaigner and Obama the president.

Next page: Fadlallah on Bush and Israel.

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