Lebanon loses a giant

6 07 2010

by Patrick Vibert

Editor’s note, this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

Sayyed Fadlallah

Thousands of people from all over Lebanon and the Middle East turned out today to mourn the passing of Grand Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah, who died this past Sunday at the age of 75. The loss is big not only for Lebanon, but for the entire region, as Fadlallah was a highly revered and influential figure in the Shiite community and beyond.

Though he was known in the West for his tough stance against Israel and the United States, those that are familiar with the region know that he was frequently the voice of reason and pragmatism in Lebanon.

He was often cast as the “spiritual leader” of Hizballah, but that term is a bit of a misnomer. While Hizballah’s massive following in Lebanon no doubt revered Fadlallah, the organization’s upper leadership frequently proclaims Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei as their leader. This is in direct contrast with the fact that Fadlallah was often critical of the concept of walayat al-fiqah, which establishes Shiite holy men as politicians to rule over the people. Over the years, both Hizballah and Fadlallah have denied any direct affiliation with one another.

Before becoming the pillar of the Shiite community in Lebanon, Fadlallah was busy in Najaf helping to advance the equally marginalized Shia of Iraq. He helped form the Dawa party to give the Iraqi Shia some political influence. Today, the Dawa is one of the most powerful political parties in Iraq, and is headed by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Fadlallah’s death leaves a gaping hole in the upper echelon of Shiite leadership. Though Tehran has expressed its condolences for his passing, the regime has to be quietly happy at the removal of one of its most powerful critics. It is one thing for Ayatollah Khamenei to be criticized by the President of the United States, but the words carried much more weight when they came from a respected rival in Khamenei’s own religious community.

The leadership of the Shiite community is primarily based in Lebanon, Iran (Qom), and Iraq (Najaf). Ten years ago, Ayatollah’s Fadlallah, Khamenei, and Iraq’s Sistani and al-Khoei were the most influential Shiite holy men in terms of followers. But with al-Khoei’s death in Iraq in 2003, and Fadlallah’s death this week, only Sistani and Khomeini remain at the top*. This means that there are far less men capable of credibly criticizing Tehran than at any time in the past.

*Iran’s Khamenei and Iraq’s Sistani maintain opposing views in regards to religion and politics. Sistani seemingly goes out of his way not to get involved in politics, while Khamenei is of the opinion that the two are inseparable.

Perhaps another Shia scholar will step into the power vacuum that Fadlallah’s death has left, but right now it does not appear that any one person is ready or capable. Those Shia in Lebanon that are aligned with Hizballah’s ideology will continue to be influenced by Ayatollah Khamenei, while Fadlallah’s followers that are looking for new spiritual leadership will likely be divided between Ayatollah Sistani and Fadlallah’s successor as Grand Ayatollah of Lebanon.

Imam Musa Sadr

Fadlallah’s life resembled that of another Shia giant of Lebanon, Imam Musa Sadr. The two were only separated in age by six years, and like Fadlallah, Musa Sadr was born outside Lebanon (in Sadr’s case, Qom), but returned to his ancestral homeland to become a force in Islam. Both Sadr and Fadlallah were highly influential, and both worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the downtrodden Shia of Lebanon, establishing many social, educational, and charitable programs. Both were regarded as “moderates”, preaching science, reason, and cooperation between the sects. Both were commonly associated with Shiite militias either by fact (Musa Sadr founded Lebanon’s Amal Movement) or by rumor (Fadlallah was often linked with Hizballah).

Musa Sadr’s disappearance on 1978 trip to Libya is seen as one of the major events that precipitated the bloody downward spiral of violence that was the Lebanese Civil War. Some have written that if Sadr had been around, the relationship between the sects would not have deteriorated in the way that it did. Right now it is unclear how the loss of this monumental voice will go on to effect Lebanon and the greater Middle East, but the passing of such men frequently results in subtly vast geopolitical tectonic shifts that are only visible through the distant rearview mirror of history.




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