Lebanon: Ayatollah Fadlallah’s Death and the Expansion of Iranian Hegemony


 No. 578    July-August 2010

  • Shiite religious leader Sayyed Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah played a leading role in the increasing Islamic radicalization of Lebanese Shiites and laid the foundations for Hizbullah’s ideology of violent struggle against the West and Israel. He endowed the need to employ violence with religious sanction.
  • When Islamic radicalism blew in from Khomeini’s Tehran in the 1980s and swept up the Shiites in Lebanon into jihad against Israel and the West, Fadlallah provided them with a guide. He served as a leading ideologue and supplied an organized doctrine for the mujahid who is ready to sacrifice his life for the Imam.
  • According to Fadlallah, “Death for those (Muslim fighters) is not a tragedy….Death has been transformed into a carefully calculated step that is not predicated on emotion. Death does not exist together with despair. The objectives and goals remain alive.” It came as no surprise that Fadlallah praised the murder of eight innocent Jewish students at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 2008.
  • Yet it is also true that Fadlallah displayed a measure of political courage in opposing the aspirations of Iran to establish an Islamic republic in Lebanon. Fadlallah was not prepared to recognize the status of Iran’s Khamenei as vilayat-i faqih (rule of jurisprudent) because he did not view him as sufficiently learned, and also because he opposed this principle that had been invented by Ayatollah Khomeini.
  • Fadlallah’s death removes one of the major obstacles to Iran’s quest to establish an Islamic republic in its own image in Lebanon. Indeed, Iran and Hizbullah are already acting to incorporate Fadlallah’s memory under their auspices, as though they were always a part of his flesh and blood.

The death of Shiite religious leader Sayyed Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah gave rise to a wave of eulogies, publications, and manifestos that continued even after he was brought for burial at his mosque in the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut where he preached, rather than in Najaf, Iraq, where he was born in 1935 and where his father and grandfather are buried.1

The general tone of the eulogists – devotees and critics alike – emphasized the moderate, scholarly, moral, and progressive aspects of his activity since his arrival in Lebanon in 1966. At first he operated in the shadow of Imam Musa Sadr, who led the Shiite community in Lebanon until his mysterious disappearance in summer 1978 in Libya. Seven months later, immediately after the Islamic revolution in Iran, Fadlallah became the most influential cleric in Lebanon.2

A Leader in the Radicalization of Lebanese Shiites

He played a leading role in the increasing Islamic radicalization of Lebanese Shiites and laid the foundations for Hizbullah’s ideology of violent struggle against the West and Israel that brought him to the television screens and front pages of newspapers throughout the world. In the 1980s, an irate Fadlallah poured fire and brimstone on the unbelievers, and endowed the need to employ violence with religious sanction.

In death he was transformed into the “sweet” Fadlallah who concerned himself with the status of women and gave women the right to stand up against wife-beating husbands. Fadlallah was a combination of the two, a man of many faces who managed to combine anger with grace. Yet Fadlallah knew full well that a smiling and moderate face would not enable him to attain the exalted status of marja al-taqlid (source of imitation) in the Lebanon of the 1980s. Islamic radicalism blew in from Khomeini’s Tehran and swept up the Shiites in Lebanon into jihad against Israel and the West.

Fadlallah provided them with a guide. He spoke their language and supplied them with an organized doctrine and the perfect ideology for the mujahid who is ready to sacrifice his life for the Imam. The Israeli entry into Lebanon in 1982 (and for a brief period that of an international force in Beirut) greased the wheels of an Islamic revolution in Lebanon, one in which Fadlallah served as its leading ideologue.

In his book Islam and the Logic of Force, which Fadlallah wrote “when shells are falling in the background and by candlelight” during the Lebanese civil war in 1976, he laid out the basic infrastructure. In his preface to the 3rd edition in 1984, Fadlallah explained the concept of terror which his acolytes were accused of perpetrating:3

Civilization (hadara) does not mean that one contends against a rocket with a stick, against a combat aircraft with a kite, and against a warship with a sailboat….Against the force of oppression, one rises up with equal force or superior force; for the legitimate defense of man, the soil, the nation or fate, all means are legitimate.

Fadlallah did not content himself with referring the believers to his written philosophy that frequently contained single-minded ideas, expressed in some measure of double entendre and ambiguity. Life’s travails united everyone around his charismatic image. They expected clear answers from him and he did not disappoint them. From his mosque fortress he showed the way. His sermons and lectures riveted thousands of partisans who drank in his words with an unquenchable thirst. Similar to Khomeini’s technique, Fadlallah’s speeches were recorded on cassettes and disseminated throughout Lebanon, in this way reaching a broader public that did not necessarily read his writings or hear him speak in Beirut. His speeches and lectures were also disseminated as proclamations and “pocket books.”4

A Theology of Resistance

One of Fadlallah’s most important lectures published in this fashion was al-Mukawama al-Islamiya (“The Islamic Resistance”) against Israel. It was delivered in summer 1984 in the midst of Hizbullah’s armed struggle against Israeli forces in south Lebanon, and was intended to lay the theoretical base for the Islamic struggle against Israel.5 With militant Shiite fervor, Fadlallah analyzed the change that had come over the Muslims in Lebanon. Fadlallah complained that they had become accustomed to acquiescence, and accepted a political reality whose slogans –  “there is no room for change” and “Lebanon’s strength lies in its weakness” – were inexorable facts, spawning a generation of leaders that had no inkling of the term “resistance.” The result, said Fadlallah, was that “when Israel entered south Lebanon [to eliminate PLO terrorist bases], it was regarded as a savior…and it scattered sleeping pills that instilled upon the fatigued residents a sense of tranquility. But the pills quickly dissolved in their bodies…Israel began to disclose its true face that was concealed at the beginning.”

At a certain point a change occurred. “We did not have any experience in the struggle against Israel,” wrote Fadlallah, “but after the initial attempts we began to sense that the Israeli could be killed, he runs away, lives in fear. This surprised people…and provided them with strength.” Moreover “that woman who quaked with fear when she saw a soldier with his weapon confronting her…began to provoke and resist, because the legend of the (hitherto) unvanquished soldier collapsed. Here he was killed by a bullet and there by a roadside bomb, and all the people began to feel their power, a power that began to find new modes of expression. Since they did not have the ability to operate using classical means, they developed small-scale, guerrilla warfare. Against that, the enemy could not use tanks and planes. This is how our people in the south discovered their strength.”6

Death and Martyrdom

Fadlallah discussed the current Islamic struggle at length, without ambiguity. “Death for those (Muslim fighters) is not a tragedy and does not represent a psychological state choked with emotion. Death has been transformed into a carefully calculated step that is not predicated on emotion. Death does not exist together with despair. The objectives and goals remain alive.” Fadlallah voiced his opposition to “those who take issue with suicide attacks in Beirut, in the south, and other places (and argued) that they (the suicide bombers) lived in an atmosphere bereft of feeling and underwent brainwashing…when they contemplate sweet dreams and detach themselves from thought, sensing themselves suspended in the atmosphere of the Garden of Eden.”7

“The problem with psychology,” argued Fadlallah, “is that this science investigates concrete phenomena in laboratory conditions, whereas there are things you cannot understand unless you experience them….Someone who does not understand oppression cannot understand freedom, and someone who does not comprehend hunger cannot understand the screams of hunger, as the Queen of France said when the famished demonstrated opposite her palace and demanded bread. She asked the minister what they wanted. When he replied that they wanted bread, she said: ‘There is no bread and the bakeries are closed; why should they not eat cake?'” “Why did she say this?” asks Fadlallah, and he responded, “because she could not understand how a person could lose his bread; she never experienced something like this and therefore she could not understand why they wanted bread when they were hungry.” “The same is true with the psychologists,” determines Fadlallah, “those who research phenomena using what they have in their possession, such as epilepsy and nerve diseases. From their limited experience they cannot understand how a person can work on behalf of a cause that fills his heart, belief and essence.”8

Later, Fadlallah argued, “We do not see in this (self-sacrifice) the result of brainwashing or unconscious activity, as the intelligence services attempt to hint to the world. They do not want to present to the world the example of a person who wants to die by taking action on behalf of his liberty….They do not want the world to honor such a person, because this would constitute a problem for all imperialist governments.” For Fadlallah, “a person senses spiritual joy when he is going to die and is not, as the media describes him, the laughing suicide bomber. Such a person does not laugh facially and with his lips but in his heart, and not on the basis of the sweet dreams that he experiences, but on behalf of the objective that he knows that he can advance one step forward.”9

Subsequently, Fadlallah argued that he never issued a fatwa (a religious ruling) permitting istishhad (self-sacrifice).10 However, given his concepts, his followers did not require a fatwa to understand how their guide was directing them. It came as no surprise, therefore, that Fadlallah praised the murder of eight innocent Jewish students at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 2008.11

Standing Against Iran in Lebanon

Yet it is also true that Fadlallah displayed a measure of political courage in opposing the bruising aspirations of Iran to establish an Islamic republic in Lebanon. As long as Khomeini was alive, Fadlallah tiptoed around the issue. Both sides needed each other to build the new Shiite society in Lebanon. Iran knew how to restrain its demands on Fadlallah and understood how to utilize his influence on Shiite believers in Lebanon and channel them to broad support for Hizbullah. Iran’s emissaries in Hizbullah respected the rules of the game that were set in Iran.

When Ali Khamenei replaced Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the rules were shattered. Ayatollah Fadlallah was not prepared to recognize the status of Khamenei as vilayat-i faqih (rule of jurisprudent) because he did not view him as sufficiently learned, and also because he opposed this principle that had been invented by Khomeini. Fadlallah also did not recognize the religious authority of Iran’s leader. He built up his own religious authority and in 1995 he was recognized as the marja al-taqlid. His office became a workshop for issuing religious decrees in the various spheres of life of the believers. His superior scholarship now found practical expression. The masses turned to him with questions and awaited his dicta. Hizbullah could not stand aside, and imposed organizational discipline on its members. Whoever sought to join Hizbullah had to (and still has to) recognize the religious and political authority of Iran’s Khamenei as the marja al-taqlid in Lebanon, as a religious obligation that the believer must fulfill.

Fadlallah rebelled. He was not willing to play Khamenei’s game, even when he was subjected to false accusations, based on fraudulent documents, that he had espoused heretical opinions. Heading Fadlallah’s opponents were Khamenei and his protégé in Lebanon, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah. The Hizbullah leader stayed away from Fadlallah’s home for several years and cancelled Fadlallah’s special security protection. Moreover, a senior Hizbullah security officer was even suspected of trying to assassinate Fadlallah. A Shiite religious figure close to Fadlallah described the bad blood between Tehran and Fadlallah: “All of the money Iran spent fighting Fadlallah was greater than the amount it spent on fighting Israel during all the years of the occupation from 1982 until the victory in 2000.”12

The Second Lebanon War in summer 2006 led to a rapprochement between Hassan Nasrallah and Fadlallah, whose house had been struck by an Israeli bomb. Iran, too, understood Fadlallah’s value in Hizbullah’s difficult moments and his role in assisting the movement in regaining mass sympathy when some blamed Hizbullah for the loss of their homes and assets during the war. Fadlallah was willing to hug Hizbullah leader Nasrallah, his former student, but continued to reject the vilayat-i faqih – a fundamental principle of the Islamic Republic. He persisted in his refusal to recognize the religious authority of the Iranian leader and Iranian aspirations to establish an Islamic republic in Lebanon.

Khamenei never forgave Fadlallah for this. In a letter of sympathy after his death sent by the Iranian leader, Fadlallah was called al-‘alam al-kabir and al-mujahid and by Nasrallah ab hakim and murshid hakim, but both ignored his status as marja al-taqlid. Nasrallah left no doubt with regard to the marja al-taqlid’s identity in his condolence letter when he mentioned in the name of the fighters, and the families of the dead, wounded, redeemed captives, and the entire resistance public that their marja was Iran’s Imam Khamenei.13 All this did not prevent Nasrallah and senior Iranian representatives from standing before Fadlallah’s coffin and reciting the fatiha prayer and for Hizbullah to take over the funeral ceremonies as if it were for one of their own. If Fadlallah were to have arisen from his grave, he would have been amazed and stunned by the manifestations of sorrow, mourning, and grief displayed by the Hizbullah leaders.

Death Removes an Obstacle to Iran

Fadlallah’s death removes one of the major obstacles to Iran’s quest to establish an Islamic republic in its own image in Lebanon. As long as the erosion of the Lebanese state continues and the central government fails to impose its authority in the regions under Hizbullah control (southwest Beirut, southern Lebanon, and the Beqaa Valley), Iran’s efforts to realize its strategic objectives in Lebanon will intensify. This process may be expected to accelerate now that there is no longer any figure of political or religious stature among the Shiite community in Lebanon that can challenge or obstruct Iran and its emissaries in Lebanon. This also applies to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who formally holds the most important Shiite position in the Lebanese state.

During his life, Fadlallah prepared no disciple or heir who could fill his shoes. This is not the Shiite custom. Iran as well will not seek to groom any Lebanese heir to Fadlallah who might later compete with Khamenei. Interest in Sheikh Afif Nabulsi,14 a minor cleric from south Lebanon, as a possible successor to Fadlallah does not appear serious. It would appear that Shiite believers will have to turn to Ali al-Sistani of Iraq or Ali Khamenei in Iran.

Nevertheless, Fadlallah’s office continues to operate under the direction of his son, Ali, to offer advice and guidance to the believers. Fadlallah’s website announced immediately following his death: “To the emulators of the late religious authority, His Eminence Sayyed Muhammed Hussein [Fadlallah]: it is permissible to continue to emulate a deceased (marja) based on a fatwa of a living religious authority who fulfills all the conditions of such a post and who deems it permissible to continue to emulate a deceased (marja). Furthermore the office of His Eminence is considering issuing a detailed explanation of the issue. Meanwhile, we will continue to answer your inquiries in accordance with the opinions of His Eminence.”15

While Fadlallah’s many institutions will continue to operate in the coming months, as time passes, it can be expected that his son, Ali, will find it difficult to raise money and to continue to operate his father’s network at its current capacity. The main concern of Fadlallah’s successors will be the unbridled efforts of Iran and Hizbullah to take control of the widespread Fadlallah network, which he built up over many years. Iran and Hizbullah are already acting to incorporate Fadlallah’s memory under their auspices, as though they were always a part of his flesh and blood.

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Notes

1. Two unusual events were the tasteless words of Brtish Ambassador to Beirut Frances Guy regarding Fadlallah’s personality, followed by her apology, and the surprise firing of CNN correspondent Octavia Nasr after her words in reaction to his death were publicized. Kim Ghattas, “Ayatollah Fadlallah Tributes Divide Opinion,” BBC News, Washington, July 10, 2010.
2. On Fadlallah’s initial path, see Shimon Shapira, Hizbullah, Between Iran and Lebanon (Tel Aviv: HaKibbutz HaMeuhad, 2000), pp. 102-105, 120-123, 130-131 (hereafter, Shapira); Jamal Sankari, Fadlallah, The Making of a Radical Shiite Leader (London: Saqi, 2005).
3. Shapira, p. 152.
4. Shapira, p. 156.
5. Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, al-Mukawama al-Islamiya, June 18, 1984.
6. Ibid., pp. 4-6.
7. Ibid., p. 16.
8. Ibid., pp. 17-18.
9. Ibid., pp. 18-19
10. Interview with Fadlallah, al-Mustaqbal, Paris, July 6, 1985.
11. Shimon Shapira, “Lebanon’s Ayatollah Fadlallah and the Mercaz Ha-Rav Yeshiva Attack in Jerusalem,” Jerusalem Issue Brief, vol. 7, no. 35, March 10, 2008.
12. “Facts About the Relationship between Fadlallah and Hizbullah,” www.alshiraa.com, July 7, 2010.
13. Al-Manar television, July 5, 2010.
14. David Schenker, “Passing of Shiite Cleric Fadlallah Spells Trouble for Lebanon,” Christian Science Monitor, July 9, 2010.
15. The web site of the religious authority Sayyed Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah – english.www.bayynat.org.lb.

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Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira

Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Military Secretary to the Prime Minister and as Israel Foreign Ministry chief of staff. He edited the Jerusalem Center eBook Iran: From Regional Challenge to Global Threat.