On Fadlallah

I happened to be in Beirut when the news of Sheikh Fadlallah's death hit the news a few days ago, although since I was there for a wedding, I did not don my reporter hat or stay for the funeral yesterday, as I had a plane to catch back to Cairo and then another for Casablanca. I won't comment on the man — take a look at what Asa'ad AbuKhalil said, or Rami Khouri — but do want to touch on the American perception of him.

In Fadlallah, one had a spiritual leader for millions of Shias who was neither an ultra-conservative nor an apologist for autocracy. He was the only Shia figure with the authority not only to counter the Vilayet al-Faqih doctrine now dominant (and state-endorsed) in Iran, but also the political quietism and all-out conservatism of Iraq's Sistani. Yes, he was a political radical by the standards of of American hegemony in the region — he opposed occupations, backed armed action against occupiers include suicide bombings — but in some respects at least preferable to the alternative religious leaders in the region. He was not simply "Hizbullah's spirtual leader" as so many American journalists, and the American government, apparently continue to consider him as, despite the obvious fact that Hizbullah's leadership looks to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatolah Khameini.

To be fair, the story is not so simple as Hizbullah having as marja Ayatollah Khamenei — it's more complicated than that, as many of Hizbullah's rank and file surely thought highly of Fadlallah no matter what the party line was, and Hizbullah grandee Naim Qassem was receiving condolences in Beirut last Sunday.

Do read David Kenner's piece at Foreign Policy, which touches on this ambiguity:

 

In 1995, Fadlallah declared himself a marja, the highest religious authority within Shiism -- a step that was opposed by the Iranian religious establishment, which saw Khamenei as the proper source of emulation for the Shiite world. Although both Iran and Hezbollah issued statements praising Fadlallah upon his death, they studiously avoided referring to him as a marja.
For this reason, Western claims that Fadlallah was "the spiritual advisor" to Hezbollah were particularly ironic: Although he was clearly influential, it was on precisely the issue of Fadlallah's ultimate religious authority that he and the Party of God parted ways.
Starting in the 1990s, Fadlallah began to preach a more self-consciously modern version of Shiism, placing particular emphasis on scientific and rational methods. He opposed the practice of self-flagellation on the Shiite holy day of Ashura, arguing that it accentuated sectarian differences in Lebanon rather than promoting coexistence. His rulings in the field of gender relations have also been important: He asserted that women were qualified to lead men in prayer and were fully capable of moving up the ranks of the Shiite clergy, up to the post of ayatollah. In 2007, he issued a fatwa saying that a woman could fight back in self-defense if she were beaten by her husband.
This debate was more than an internecine feud over religious principles -- it had important repercussions for the political balance of power within Lebanon's Shiite community. Fadlallah criticized Hezbollah openly at times, notably picking a fight with the group after it declared to its supporters that voting for the party in the 2005 parliamentary election was a religious obligation. He argued that such "perverted practices" would eventually delegitimize religious authority. His extensive network of schools throughout Lebanon, which enrolled 14,300 students in 2000, produces its own religious textbooks rather than use those approved by Iran's religious leadership.

In 1995, Fadlallah declared himself a marja, the highest religious authority within Shiism -- a step that was opposed by the Iranian religious establishment, which saw Khamenei as the proper source of emulation for the Shiite world. Although both Iran and Hezbollah issued statements praising Fadlallah upon his death, they studiously avoided referring to him as a marja.
For this reason, Western claims that Fadlallah was "the spiritual advisor" to Hezbollah were particularly ironic: Although he was clearly influential, it was on precisely the issue of Fadlallah's ultimate religious authority that he and the Party of God parted ways.
Starting in the 1990s, Fadlallah began to preach a more self-consciously modern version of Shiism, placing particular emphasis on scientific and rational methods. He opposed the practice of self-flagellation on the Shiite holy day of Ashura, arguing that it accentuated sectarian differences in Lebanon rather than promoting coexistence. His rulings in the field of gender relations have also been important: He asserted that women were qualified to lead men in prayer and were fully capable of moving up the ranks of the Shiite clergy, up to the post of ayatollah. In 2007, he issued a fatwa saying that a woman could fight back in self-defense if she were beaten by her husband.
This debate was more than an internecine feud over religious principles -- it had important repercussions for the political balance of power within Lebanon's Shiite community. Fadlallah criticized Hezbollah openly at times, notably picking a fight with the group after it declared to its supporters that voting for the party in the 2005 parliamentary election was a religious obligation. He argued that such "perverted practices" would eventually delegitimize religious authority. His extensive network of schools throughout Lebanon, which enrolled 14,300 students in 2000, produces its own religious textbooks rather than use those approved by Iran's religious leadership.

It also provides some juicy details about the 1985 CIA-backed attempt on Fadlallah's life, which Bob Woodward revealed (but misinterpreted since he continued to describe Fadlallah as an "archterrorist".)

In other words, Fadlallah was not just an important person, but a complex player who tried to stand aloof from politicking, even if he still had a political role. The fact that he spent some thirty years as a "Specially Designated Terrorist" shows the American foreign policy establishment rather black-and-white, un-nimble approach to the Middle East: an approach that it is the very opposite of the way Middle Eastern politics work most of the time. 

And the American media follows: CNN's Octavia Nasr has now been forced to resign because she tweeted sadness at Fadlallah's passing. The irony is that although she understood that he had had a positive role on some religious issues, she still identified him with Hizbullah. Here's her tweet:

"Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”

Do you think Deborah Solomon of the NYT will now resign because she finds the Irgun romantic? This resignation/firing is so stupid I'm tempted to think cash-strapped CNN wanted to let go a 20-year veteran and hire someone cheaper.