Al-Sayed Mohamed Hussein Fadlullah:
The voice of the Ayatollah
Detecting the common threads
Profile by Omayma Abdel-Latif
"Each day is Ashoura and every land is Karbala," reads the black banner hanging at the gates of the house of the Grand Ayatollah Mohamed Hussein Fadlullah in Haret Hurik, a southern suburb of Beirut. The sentence is a reference to the persecution and killing of Imam Hussein -- the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed -- at the hands of the Ummayad rulers during the battle of Karbala. Fourteen centuries later it has acquired an added meaning: the incident is routinely invoked in writings and public discussions to explain how the daily siege and killing of civilians has turned every Arab city, from Jenin to Falluja, into other Karbalas. The analogy between the seventh century battle and the battles being waged across today's Muslim world could not be clearer.
It is precisely at such times, when the prognosis for Muslims is bleak and the collective weakness has been little short of stunning, that voices like that of Fadlullah, or Al-Sayed as his followers call him, draw attention. He espouses a vision of Islam that stresses diversity, tolerance, non- violence and defiance. Fadlullah, one of the most prominent scholars of Islamic Shia doctrine, holds an iconic status in the Muslim world for his great contributions to Islamic jurisprudence.
Born in 1935 in the city of Najaf to Lebanese parents, Fadlullah grew up in a family of scholars. His father, Ayatollah Abdel-Raouf Fadlullah, migrated to Iraq to complete his religious education in Al-Hawza Al-Deeniya (the religious seminary). Fadlullah followed in his father's footsteps and was the disciple of many celebrated Shia scholars, including Abul-Qassem Al-Khoei, Mohsen Al- Hakim and Mohamed Baqir Al-Sadr. Upon completing his religious education Fadlullah displayed great talent in interpretation and inspired a growing following of students. In 1966 he went to Lebanon to establish the Institute of Islamic Jurisprudence.
Over the years Fadlullah grew to become one of the most prominent scholars of Islamic thought. When Hizbullah emerged as a resistance movement during the 1980s, Fadlullah became its spiritual leader. His many writings on Islamic thought and political vision have inspired a large following across the Muslim world.
But perhaps Fadlullah's greatest achievement, his followers would argue, is the fact that he radically changed the ways in which religious scholars interact with their societies.
After a cursory security check we are ushered into a room modestly furnished with a few chairs and a table. Fadlullah is sitting in a corner wearing a black abayya and turban. He displayed an impressive knowledge of regional affairs and a deep understanding of the politics of dissent. His scathing criticism of the Arab political order came, therefore, as no surprise. Responding to a question about what went wrong with the Arabs, Fadlullah, mulling over his answer, explained that the roots of the crisis were manifold. The Arab regimes, he said, have damaged the political health of Arab societies.
"We face a general weakness of trust in the political system of our nation because these regimes have a passive conformity to outside commands." The malaise, he says, is internal and external.
"Arab regimes have not been able to take positions that represent the interests of their people, especially if those interests seem to threaten US policies. They have held the aspirations of their own people in contempt and therefore the US had few who could challenge it among the Arab rulers. Those rulers were mired in their little ideological wars and were unable to transcend localised and parochial concerns."
The Arabs, in Fadlullah's view, have never been able to achieve their collective independence because of the "designs on the strategic importance of their land by outside powers".
The result of such a bleak diagnosis was inevitably the Arab world living in what Fadlullah calls "a big prison". "Rulers claim that emergency laws are needed because they are in a state of war against Israel, but some have signed peace treaties with Israel -- yet emergency laws remained in place. I believe that most Arab regimes have used the Palestinian question as pretext to impose their oppressive rule," he states emphatically.
Fadlullah blames the conspicuous absence of any gesture of defiance on the part of Arab people against their rulers on the fact that the Arab people "never had a chance to think and act freely" independent of an intrusive state; a state dominated by security apparatuses rather than political institutions. This produced what Fadlullah refers to as a "troubled Arab reality", torn between those who want to throw in their lot with Washington and those who don't.
"I certainly don't think that all our problems come from the outside but I would not say either that all the problems were of our own making. We have been facing the same enemy whose designs on our land are well known to all of us; it is the same old game of colonialism, the name of the coloniser is just different each time."
"They (the regimes) have held the aspirations of their own people in contempt and therefore the US had few who could challenge it among Arab rulers. Those rulers were mired in their little ideological wars and were unable to transcend localised and parochial concerns."
Fadlullah, however, traces the present state of affairs of the Arab world to what he considers a clear line of imperial continuity that began with Ottoman rule, followed by the British and the French and now America and Israel. "I certainly don't think that all our problems come from the outside, but I would not say either that all the problems were of our own making. We have been facing the same enemy whose designs on our land are well known to all of us; it is the same old game of colonialism, the name of the coloniser is just different each time."
The new colonisers, he said, take advantage of Arab fragmentation, collective inaction and economic and military weakness. Institutions like that of the Arab League or the Organisation of the Islamic Conference have been rendered ineffective. "The Arab world has been pushed to the margins of Middle East politics and the US considers Israel to be the channel, the centre, if you like, through which all the countries in the Middle East have access to America."
The picture that emerges is one of a world rendered incapable of taking any bold initiatives. "Even when people protest for the most just of causes, they can only do so under siege at the campus or the mosque."
So are these societies are in need of reform?
Al-Sayed Fadlullah nods. But his understanding of reform is that people should be able to choose their leaders without any external meddling. They should, he stresses, be able to change those rulers if they fail and do not deliver on their promises.
The reform process, according to his understanding, extends to other spheres. "We need to change the ways in which we engage with the world. We need to recognise the other; to have the freedom to think and express those thoughts and to renounce violence as the sole path to achieve our aims."
Violence, he stressed, should be a last resort employed only in order to defend oneself against clear military aggression. "It should be done only against those who impose it on us," he stressed. According to this understanding, occupation represents the worst forms of violence.
"We consider that the US occupation of Iraq, like the Zionist occupation of Palestine, is an act of aggression and sheer violence even if not a single bullet was fired." Continuing in an angry tone, he asked: "What is more violent than putting a whole people under siege, persecuting them and not allowing them to control their economic and political resources?"
When the discussions shifts to the situation in Iraq, Al-Sayed Fadlullah takes time to formulate his thoughts. He still maintains his connections inside Iraq and has a wide network of contacts with important players on the Iraqi political scene.
Fadlullah is scathing in his criticism of the way the US is handling the situation.
"They haven't learned their lesson yet," he said, his frustration evident. "While they can occupy any country with brute force, they just don't know how to run it and because they are unable to understand the Iraqi people, they went from one crisis into another. They created conditions that are more ripe for anarchy and lawlessness than stability."
He has doubts over the US's real intentions in allowing the UN a bigger role in shaping the future of Iraq. The US, he believes, will not allow the UN to act independently on the Iraqi issue. The US perceives the UN role to be confined to lending legitimacy to the occupation. "It [the UN] did legitimise the occupation of Iraq when it gave the US the status of an occupying power just as [the League of Nations] did with the British and the French when they were given a mandate over countries of the Middle East. The US wants to remain indefinitely because Iraq will be a launching pad from which it will seek to impose its designs on the region," he added.
This, Fadlullah believes, explains why the largest US embassy in the world will be located in Baghdad -- to safeguard Iraqi oil fields.
The deteriorating situation in Najaf and Karbala and the possible showdown between US forces and the followers of Muqtada Al-Sadr, the young Shia leader, was a cause for concern.
Fadlullah defends Al-Sadr's movement, saying that it did not adopt violent means but rather carried out its protests in a peaceful manner. Fadlullah put the brunt of the blame on the occupation forces that pushed Al-Sadr into a corner, forcing him to resort to violence. Due to provocative measures such as the closure of Al-Hawza newspaper and the arrest of some Al-Sadr followers under the pretext that they had murdered a rival cleric a year ago, Al-Sadr was forced into a showdown he did not want, said Fadlullah.
Although Al-Sadr represents sections of the Iraqi Shia, Fadlullah insists that his movement should be seen as part of a larger Islamist national movement in Iraq. The common thread, he said, which runs through Najaf, Falluja, Al-Sadr City and Al-Adhamiya, is that there is a national mood against the occupation. "One cannot describe this mood as Sunni in Al-Adhamyia and Shia in Najaf, it is all part of a national movement and I believe this is a sign that Iraqi nationalism is on the rise," he said.
Fadlullah was not surprised by Al-Sadr's pro- Palestine rhetoric because it is inevitable that "any Islamist movement" would lend support to the Intifada in Palestine and the resistance in southern Lebanon since "these are the only two rays of hope in the darkness which engulfs the whole Arab world".
Does he think that the confrontation between US occupying forces and Al-Sadr followers would open the way for a long-awaited fatwa (edict), inciting Shia to rise up against the US occupation?
There were certain circumstances, he answered, which led those who might issue the fatwa to believe that violent confrontation was neither realistic or helpful. "People were torn between their rejection of a ruthless regime and the US occupation."
But there need not be a fatwa for people to rise up against the occupation, Fadlullah said. The occupation, he continued, has in fact prepared the ground and created the conditions for the people to rise against it without having to issue any religious fatwas.
He also does not believe that any sectarian- based power sharing would be "a realistic one". The Iraqi Shia, he pointed out, are not a monolithic group. There are secularist Shia and the Islamist Shia, just as there are secularist Sunnis and Islamist Sunnis. Ballots, he said, should be the final arbiter, not sectarian loyalties. "People vote according to which political party they belong to and not according to which sect they are from. The occupation tries to institutionalise sectarianism in Iraq although it talks about establishing democracy. But the US knows only one kind of democracy -- the democracy which serves its interests and not the interests of the people."
Arab rulers, Fadlullah explained, do not seem to have learned the Iraqi lesson. "They are still reeling from the terror unleashed on them by US plans for reform. They are in a state of confusion because they have relied heavily on the US as their patron and protector but the US is a pragmatic country that puts its interests above anything else. The relationship it maintains with these regimes is a utilitarian one. Saddam brought horrors upon his people and was a pawn in the American game to hit liberation movements and wreak havoc in the region so that America could lay its hands on the Gulf and its oil resources. He served a purpose and his job was done."
Fadlullah believes that in seeking to create a viable Arab order Arab regimes need to contemplate the Iraq experience. Such an order, continued Fadlullah, should be based on equity, tolerance, political freedoms and the need for rapprochement with the West on a global level. Muslims, therefore, should reach out to other nations and initiate dialogue. "We are not calling for a dialogue with governments in the West, but rather with peoples."
The West, he said, is not just about governments and policies; there are cultural and religious entities with which Muslims can engage.
"Dialogue should be the basis for our communication with other cultures. There should be dialogue amongst Muslims themselves, and between them and Christians. There should be also dialogue with the Jewish people which tackles everything, except, of course, the question of Palestine, because this is a question of war and peace and not an issue for intellectual exercise."