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Moderate or radical? The cleric who defied Western stereotypes

The disconnect between Western perceptions of Lebanese Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah and the way that those in the Middle East viewed the 'marja' exposes the fault lines dividing the West from a region it has often failed to comprehend.


First, a senior Middle East editor in the US lost her job. Then, the British ambassador to Lebanon had a blog posting stripped off the UK Foreign Office Web site in a flurry of diplomatic apologies and palliative post-postings.

Days after Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah’s July 4 death, the list of casualties and faux pas just keeps growing. And with every justified, censored or revoked tribute to the Shiite cleric, the fault lines that divide the West from a region it has sought, but often failed, to comprehend become more apparent.

Trouble began shortly after Fadlallah’s death, when CNN journalist Octavia Nasr was fired for posting a tweet expressing her respect for the senior Shiite cleric. British Ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy then shot into the headlines when her blog entitled "The passing of decent men" sparked a furore. The offending posting was promptly stripped off the site, followed by the usual official explanations about differences between personal and state views.

In both cases, technology took the rap. Nasr conceded that a man as complicated and nuanced as Fadlallah could not be “summarized by a 140-character tweet". Guy’s new blog is, tellingly, entitled “The problem with diplomatic blogging”.

The problem, however, does not rest at Twitter’s doorstep. It lies, according to Mohamad Bazzi, a New York-based adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in the disconnect between how the Middle East is viewed by the people on the ground and by those in Western capitals thousands of miles away.

“Quite simply, yes, there is a disconnect,” says Bazzi. “It’s partly because there is this attempt to fit Fadlallah into a category of ‘militant cleric’ or ‘Hezbollah spiritual leader’ or ‘Grand Ayatollah of the pro-Iranian Shiites’ - and he doesn’t fit into any of these neat categories.”

Shortly after Fadlallah’s death, obituaries in the US and European press routinely referred to the cleric as the “spiritual leader” or “spiritual advisor” to Hezbollah, a term that David Kenner, writing in the influential Foreign Policy Web site, dismissed as “particularly ironic”.

Forced out of home, Shiite acquiescence revised

The life and work of Lebanon’s most respected Shiite cleric was as complex and nuanced as the heterodox, conflict-ridden region of his origins.

Born in 1935 in the Shiite holy city of Najaf in Iraq, where he completed his early religious studies, Fadlallah moved to Lebanon as a young man. He lived in eastern Beirut until the early days of the Lebanese civil war, when he was driven out of his home - along with thousands of other Shiite residents - and forced to flee to the Shiite-dominated southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital.

The “searing experience of being forced out of his home” in 1976, according to Bazzi, proved critical in steering the cleric’s interests toward issues of national resistance and Shiite empowerment.

In his seminal 1985 book, 'Islam and the Logic of Force,' Fadlallah sought to reverse centuries of Shiite acquiescence and political withdrawal. “One must face force with equal or superior force,” he wrote. “If it is legitimate to defend self and land and destiny, then all means of self-defence are legitimate.”

Fadlallah’s “all means” bestowed religious legitimacy upon suicide bombings during a state of war. "There is no difference between dying with a gun in your hand or exploding yourself," he wrote. "What is the difference between setting out for battle knowing you will die after killing ten [enemies], and setting out to the field and knowing you will die while killing them?"

In 1983, when twin suicide bombers attacked separate US and French military buildings, killing 229 US and French troops, Washington held Fadlallah responsible for the attacks, a charge he denied. The fiery Shiite cleric was promptly blacklisted by the US as a terrorist.

Two years later Fadlallah survived an assassination attempt, masterminded by the CIA in a plot uncovered by leading US journalist Bob Woodward in his book, “Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA”.

Can women pray wearing nail polish?

The nuances of Fadlallah’s teachings - apparent to his followers across the Muslim world but not, apparently, in the West - began to emerge following the death in 1989 of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

While Fadlallah had supported the doctrine of wilayat al faqih - or “guardianship of the jurist” - under Khomeini, he began to move away from its precepts after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei succeeded Khoemini as Iran’s supreme ruler. “Fadlallah did not respect Khamenei’s religious credentials – and rightly so,” explains Bazzi.

When Fadlallah declared himself a marja – the highest religious authority in Shiism – it was not recognized by either Tehran or the Lebanese Islamist oganisation Hezbollah, since the latter considers the Iranian clerical establishment its spiritual guide.

For the West, Fadlallah’s moderate influence was most apparent shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when the influential cleric was one of the first Muslim religious figures to roundly condemn the wholesale slaughter of civilians advocated by groups like al Qaeda.

But for his followers, Fadlallah’s rulings on women’s rights were truly ground-breaking. A 2007 fatwa, or edict, supporting a woman’s right to defend herself against social or physical violence was criticized by several conservative Muslim clerics. Fadlallah’s roster of fatwas supporting women’s rights ranged from rulings forbidding female circumcision and honour killings to edicts permitting women to pray wearing nail polish.

Fadlallah’s death - a more radical ideology?

By all accounts, Fadlallah was a complicated figure, and not always a particularly savoury character with regard to the US and Israel. Until his death, the cleric remained a vocal opponent of the Jewish state. Former CIA case officer Robert Baer put it best when he told Foreign Policy magazine that Fadlallah "wasn't our friend, let's get that straight. But that doesn't mean he was a master terrorist."

In what could yet be another ironic twist in the life and death of a man the West never fully understood, some analysts warn that Fadlallah’s death paves the way for a more militant, Iranian-influenced strain of Islamic ideology to gain ground in Lebanon.

“To Hezbollah, the departure of Fadlallah is an opportunity to co-opt local Shiites – traditionally aligned with quietist Iraqi religious leaders – to the more militant ideology espoused by Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” wrote David Schenker, director of the Program in Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in the US daily The Christian Science Monitor. “Should Hezbollah succeed, it will strengthen Tehran and further erode Washington’s influence in the region.”

That’s an analysis that could be summarized by a 140-character tweet and hopefully not cost someone their job.

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