Talking with Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah

Posted in Broader Middle East | 15-Sep-08 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

I did not feel nervous when I met His Eminence, Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah - just curious about how the meeting would be. It is not every day that I get to meet such an important religious figure for Shia Muslims throughout the world.

Before entering the gate of Sheikh's Fadlallah's residence, the man in charge of security verified if indeed I was expected and also checked the car. I remembered from last time that I had to go the through women's entrance where I would be searched and dressed with the abaya (long, black robe) over my clothes and I would be asked to put a veil on my head.

It wasn’t just that I thought I looked funny with the abaya and the hijab. Like most women, I started to look more carefully at the garment and discovered it was actually fashionable in a traditional way, as well as being a very new style to me. But I felt the veil was too tight on my head, and one literally could not spot a single hair from under it.

One of the doors kept opening and a man would call women to go and see the Sheikh. I thought that they were perhaps there to seek his advice, blessing or both and I was actually not far from the truth. The ladies - most were with their mothers, other relatives or friends - were there to ask the Sheikh to sign a paper for their upcoming marriages. In Lebanon there is no civil marriage; therefore, the Shias will go to Shia religious figures, the Druze to their own religious figures and so on. It is not necessary to go to Sheikh Fadlallah, but because he is the most senior Shia figure in Lebanon it is an honor to have him giving the blessing.

After getting the signature (during this time I imagine some advice the Sheikh could have given these women), the women come back to the room and all who were waiting their turn would wish them their best, or as they say it here, “Mabrouk.” I said it too, as noticeably all looked happy and proud.

After a while, one of the girls started a conversation with me, and by the end of it, I received an invitation to see her in Tehran where she will live with her husband after the marriage. Finally, I was invited to step into the lobby. I was glad to see familiar faces, and I felt truly welcome: Not because everyone kept telling me this, although it pleased me very much.

After I talked to someone I consider a friend by now, and I even managed to practice a little of my Italian, I was invited to move into Ayatollah's office. I remember having a sort of deja vu feeling for a split second. The Ayatollah was in the back of the room waiting, with his specific garments and black turban.

I admit that I started to feel intimidated by the whole setting, but there was no other choice than to move forward. I greeted the Sheikh and the others who were around, and I sat on one of the armchairs next to him. I liked the fact that as soon as we exchanged the first few words he looked me straight in the eyes. That is something that I do not see as often as I'd like to.

The interview was recorded on a video camera thus I had to put a tiny microphone on the abaya, and I was told that I would have a maximum of 20 – 25 minutes. In the end, the 25 were 30 minutes. I was rather surprised knowing that the meetings with the Ayatollah for the past few years were usually shorter and mostly for the foreign media, and I also knew that soon it would be prayer time.

I thought I would have time to ask at the very least five or six questions, although I had at least 20 or so in my mind. In the first question I referred to Hizballah as a political party and as a resistance; the former does not refer to Hizballah's armed wing but rather to what Hizballah and before that the movement started by Musa Sadr meant for the Lebanese Shia at a socio-economic level. It was a resistance movement meant to give them a voice in a state where the Shia voices were merely whispers ignored by all, starting with their own feudals. The Ayatollah is a brilliant rhetorician and a skilled linguist. His answers were long, but I could not interrupt him. I thought it would not only be impolite, but also I feared I might miss something important that he had to say.

The others around us who tried to tell him to give brief answers were not successful either. Even the translator made the summary of a summary; otherwise we would have needed more time. Time that we did not have. At the end of the meeting, the Sheikh signed one of his books for me. I left his office with more questions than I entered but hopefully there will be a next time.

Special thanks to Mohammad Amro and Hani Abdallah, and to everyone I met and talked to in Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah's office, His Eminence included.

WSN: Your Eminence, can we talk about the rise of political Shiism as a concept in the region? And I am asking this because we see Iran emerging as a regional power, and you also have Hizballah as a political party and as a resistance in Lebanon.

AYATOLLAH FADLALLA: The Shia is an Islamic and humanitarian party. They encountered several problems in the past and were prosecuted by many Islamic parties who followed a different doctrine or ideology. These circumstances generated in them a psychological dilemma which led to realistic and social cumuli shown in their relationships with others.

Hence, the issue of freedom, the freedom of choice and the freedom of faith essential to the Shiite course to lead a normal human life wherever they are found in the world.

Rejecting the countries of the West wasn't the cause of this negative attitude towards them based on the fact that in the past they (the Shias) used to visit the Western countries, seeking experience, knowledge and living opportunities especially due to the economic crisis. But the West, mainly Britain during the last century and after the fall of the Ottoman regime (which prosecuted the Shia as well), observed that there are problems between the Shia and other Islamic parties from the West due to the fact that they took over their countries, potential and resources which jeopardized the kind of life they were living.

Later on, we noticed that the Shia in Iraq just like the Shia in Lebanon were against the colonization – be it the French colonization of Lebanon or the British colonization of Iraq.

The Shahs were against Iran, which is a Shia country, during the Shah's regime because they considered the regime to be an American political tool. Also the Shah seized people's freedom, especially the Shias’. But there is a certain bond between the Shia and Iran that is of a theological nature, through the religious figures and not political ones.

After the Khomeini revolution in Iran, the Shia and other Islamic parties supported the revolution extensively since it represented the fall of the American policy with the fall of the Shah. This doesn't mean that the Shia outside Iran are linked to Iran in such a way that they would follow the political lines that Iran dictates. Not all the Shia support the Faqih regime; there are those who support Iran's political line and those who don't. For example, some of the Shia in Iraq support Iran's political line and some don't. This goes for the Shia in Lebanon and other countries in the world; they might not have the same political views as Iran although they meet on the religious level.

We know as well that the Shia in Lebanon who strictly follow the Faqih's regime are Hizballah that support Iran. They feel the need to face Israel along with United States, Israel's ally, to free their country and face Israeli raids on Lebanon. They are not like some organizations that get instructions and execute them literally. By the time they support Iran and they stand up against the American system, they consider themselves Lebanese fulfilling their role on the Lebanese political scene.

Now there's a Lebanese Shia party that doesn't follow Iran's political line, while they share the same position with Hizballah and the Amal Party on some political points.

WSN: Sir, can we talk about unity between the Lebanese after what happened on May 7 in Hamra and also in the Chouf?

AF: The way I see it, the events that have taken place in Lebanon lately were similar to others that had already taken place in the past many times.

We remember how the civil war in Lebanon started between the Christians and the Muslims and between the national movement and the Palestinians, with the right movement. But the Lebanese got together afterwards and reunited in participating in the government and in many political issues. This is what we noticed when war exploded among Christians themselves, when Samir Geagea led the war and General Aoun was leading the army for example. Many were dead from both sides, but the Christians reconciled afterwards, even if the political differences remained.

Therefore, the Lebanese history is a history of differences which is close to the coexistence among the Lebanese confessions. The problem of Lebanon is that it is the scene where all the regional and international intelligence services meet and where there are attempts to implement international projects in the conflicts among countries, like the conflict led by the United States and some European countries against Syria and Iran and organizations which are fighting Israel and which reject the US policy.

Even the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said that the Lebanese scene is the preferred place to implement the greater Middle East project. President Bush has even said that US homeland security is linked to Lebanon. Hence since its creation, Lebanon has been based on the confessional system, a scene of conflicts in the region through the liberties found in Lebanon, which didn't exist in any country in the region, be it religious, cultural or political freedom.

We notice how the Lebanese became reunited in this unity government after May 7 because they felt that the existence of this rupture would lead to the destruction of all of Lebanon. Like we say, the temple will fall on our heads.

Through the long experience of the political reality in Lebanon, we don't fear for unity among the Lebanese people, whether the Muslims and Christians join together or among each other in the same religion. There are differences in the political lines but there is coexistence in the social and economic aspects of their lives. Therefore we find that all the Lebanese agglomerations are mixed together and include many confessions at the same time.

WSN: In your opinion until when does Lebanon need a resistance alongside the Lebanese army?

AF: The Lebanese army doesn't have the capacity regarding the quality of the arms to confront any Israeli aggression, doesn't have the needed equipment like aircrafts or missiles or anti-raids missiles etc. Therefore, the army cannot face a future Israeli aggression or liberate the occupied territories like Shebaa Farms and plains of Kfar Shouba with its existing capacity. We know that the Army Commander and now President General Michel Sulayman while leading the battle of Naher al Bared asked for the help of Syria in providing ammunition and arms to the Lebanese army, which lacked all of this military equipment.

On the other hand, if the army wanted to start a war with another army, it should have the power to confront its enemy. We are aware that Israeli military power far exceeds that in Lebanon, but the resistance represents a street war and it's natural for Israel to weaken in front of this kind of fight, whereas it wouldn't in front of another army. Therefore, the Israeli power defeated the Arab armies but it got defeated by the resistance.

We notice that in the World War II, France wasn't able to defeat the Nazis with the French army, but with the French resistance.

WSN: In spite of the apparent calm, is it possible to have another conflict within the country? Would you say this is the calm before the storm?

AF: I don't believe there is a problem in the near future in this regard, because the circumstances which led to May 7 don't exist anymore. The Lebanese have learned their lesson that these circulating small conflicts among them are not in their interest. Therefore, I don't think there is a storm coming, so to say it's the “calm before the storm.”

Plus the international and regional axes which usually work on shaking up the security situation don't consider it to be in their best interest to disturb the situation, whether it be the Western or the Arab countries. The Lebanese, of all confessions, reject the civil war, thus we saw that the events of May 7th didn't turn into a global civil conflict. On the contrary; it was restricted and limited to certain regions.

Manuela Paraipan is WSN editor Broader Mittle East.