The Neocons’ Fadlallah Problem

fadlallahOn Sunday, the influential Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah passed away in Lebanon. A source of religious guidance for thousands of Shiites, including many members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Da’wa Party (which he helped found), Fadlallah was well known for a number of relatively liberal views, such as his support for women’s rights, and fatwas against the brutal practices of female circumcision and honor killings.

Though he was an early supporter of Hezbollah (often mistakenly identified as “the spiritual guide of Hezbollah“), and justified the use of suicide bombings as legitimate resistance to occupation in Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere, he later criticized the group for its close relationship with Iran, and distanced himself from Ayatollah Khomeini’s system of velayet-e faqih (rule of the clerics.) He also strongly condemned the September 11 attacks as acts of terrorism. Though by no means a progressive (at the time of his death Fadlallah remained on the U.S. State Department’s list of designated terrorists), his unorthodox views earned him condemnation from more conservative clerics as a tool of the West to undermine Islam.

All in all, a fairly complex individual whose career, views and influence can’t really properly be conveyed by the single word “terrorist.” That is, of course, unless you’re a neocon. Marking Fadlallah’s death on Sunday, CNN Senior Editor of Mideast Affairs Octavia Nasr tweeted “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot..”

This was quite enough to cue outrage from the various precincts of the neocon blog/twittersphere, who went after Nasr for her egregious failure to reduce Fadlallah to an anti-Israel, anti-American terrorist bogeyman.

Responding to the uproar, Nasr wrote “It was an error of judgment for me to write such a simplistic comment and I’m sorry because it conveyed that I supported Fadlallah’s life’s work. That’s not the case at all”:

Here’s what I should have conveyed more fully:

I used the words “respect” and “sad” because to me as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman’s rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of “honor killing.” He called the practice primitive and non-productive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam. […]

Sayyed Fadlallah. Revered across borders yet designated a terrorist. Not the kind of life to be commenting about in a brief tweet. It’s something I deeply regret.

A good clarification, but almost certainly not enough to silence the sanctimonious whining.

The punchline here is that Sayyed Fadlallah was the religious guide, or marja’ al-taqlid, to numerous members of Iraq’s ruling Da’wa Party, including Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This means that they looked to Fadlallah as a source of religious authority on matters relating to correct Islamic life and practice, and committed to following his edicts on those matters. It also meant that, in October 2008, when Fadlallah (along with several other ayatollahs) condemned the U.S.-Iraq security agreement in its then-current form and decreed that any agreement should call for an unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the agreement had to be re-negotiated.

As I wrote at the time, the power of these ayatollahs to effectively scuttle an agreement of significant import to the security of the United States throws into stark relief what the Bush administration created in Iraq: a government dominated by Shia religious parties who take their guidance — and derive much of their legitimacy — from the opinions and edicts of a small handful of senior Shia clerics.

That aside, here’s the neocon logic, as best I can explain: When a reporter acknowledges the passing of a revered, if controversial figure in a way that doesn’t sufficiently convey what a completely evil terrorist neocons think that figure was — that’s unacceptable. But when the United States spends nearly a trillion dollars, loses over four thousand of its own troops and over a hundred thousand Iraqis to establish a new government largely dominated by that same “terrorist’s” avowed acolytes — that’s victory.