How a hero to Muslims is a villain to the West

Ayatollah: Hezbollah's spiritual leader embodies the huge rift in perception between Americans and Arabs like few others.

Lebanon and Syria 2004

By Kathy Lally

June 10, 2009

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- He has a gentle manner, a long religious pedigree and a reputation for impressive scholarship in the Shiite world that holds sway in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.

The United States calls Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah an inspiration for terrorism, the spiritual leader of the militant Hezbollah organization and a man who has American blood on his hands.

Fadlallah, who wears the black turban of a descendant of the Prophet, embodies as few others do the vast chasm in world view between the United States and the Middle East, a clash in perception that is playing out in deadly ways across this region -- and especially in Iraq, where Fadlallah was born, studied and grew to leadership in the holy city of Najaf.

Nearly 20 years ago, according to various accounts and Fadlallah himself, the United States tried to blow him up in a failed CIA assassination attempt. Now, diplomats and scholars here say, they may have had him all wrong. Now they are discovering that Fadlallah broke with Iran about 15 years ago, taking a different path than Hezbollah, which remains tied to Iran and which the United States calls a terrorist organization.

If there is a chasm between the West and this region over the perception of Islam and over the Palestinian-Israeli issue, perhaps the gap is widest over Hezbollah. Lebanese, and Syrians, praise Hezbollah as a resistance movement, widely credited with winning a singular victory because Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon in May, 2000, after years of Hezbollah harassment.

In recent years, Lebanese say, it has evolved away from violence toward politics and social good. The party holds 12 of the 128 seats in Lebanon's parliament and in municipal elections held this month, Hezbollah candidates prevailed in Beirut's southern suburbs and in Shiite towns in the Bekaa Valley east of the capital.

Sheik Hassan Izzeddine, Hezbollah's main spokesman, said in an interview that Hezbollah is not pursuing a religious government.

"We want to see a government that has clean hands, that is honest and fair, deals with complete transparency and helps the citizenry," he said.

In 1983, the United States says, Hezbollah was responsible for suicide attacks that killed 17 at the U.S. Embassy and 241 at the Marine barracks in Beirut. In the Hezbollah hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, Robert Stethem, a Navy diver from Maryland, was murdered.

Fadlallah, the United States said, was a leader of Hezbollah and was among those blamed for the American deaths.

Western diplomats in Beirut acknowledge there is deep disagreement between the United States and Lebanon over Hezbollah and over Fadlallah. One of the diplomats described him as a theologian, not a politician, a highly respected scholar who is among the top 10 of the world's Shiite religious leaders.

"Maybe some of the old thinking about him should be revised," the diplomat said. "As the United States' understanding of the Shia has developed, there has been a new appreciation of him."

Just as America has misjudged him, Fadlallah says, so has it misjudged the region.

In search of 'dialogue'

The United States, he says, blames all of the world's 2 billion Muslims for the terrorism and extremism espoused by 10,000 of them. Its actions in Iraq, he says, display arrogance and disdain for Arabs. And it fails to understand how, for Arabs, the lack of resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict inflames everything, making them deeply suspicious of the U.S. government and everything it does.

"We don't have a complex about the American people or the West," Fadlallah said in an interview earlier this month. "We would like to see dialogue that would bring us together. We believe in recognizing the other and appreciating the other for what he is."

Fadlallah lives and works in a nondescript sand-colored building in the southern suburbs of Beirut, in the Haret Hreik neighborhood controlled by Hezbollah. The winding sidewalks are dotted with men in gray, cradling submachine guns. Some women on the streets wear veils, some don't. The streets bustle with commerce.

Fadlallah agreed to an interview with a group of American editors organized by the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins University. Bags, cameras and tape recorders were carefully examined by his assistants. Women covered their heads.

For Shiites, a religious man asserts leadership and achieves his rank by his scholarship and by his adherents, who give him the imprimatur of ayatollah by their belief in him and their willingness to accept his fatwas, or religious rulings.

Fadlallah is known here for quickly condemning the Sept. 11 attacks and the recent train bombings in Madrid. He created a sensation in Lebanon by supporting civil marriages, which are not allowed here, and cloning. He is modest about his authority.

While he says Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein, he says the United States is squandering its victory by ruling with a heavy hand, making mistakes that provoke violence.

"We see America as a country that can occupy but can't administer," Fadlallah said. "The American administration in Iraq is going from one mistake to another."

Arabs, he said, think that if the United States was serious about bringing peace and stability to the region, it would devote its energies to finding a solution to the Palestinian conflict.

"America sees no problem with the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people," Fadlallah said. "So the Arab and Islamic people do not believe the United States is serious about freedom. Therefore, they believe that slogan is a means for dominating the region and serving its own interests in the world. When we hear President Bush, we don't hear him talking sincerely."

An advocate of the U.N.

The best way to restore credibility and stability, he says, is for the United States to turn authority in Iraq over to the United Nations and to concentrate on solving the Palestinian issue.

"I think if the Security Council is given the necessary support by America there is no need for an armed struggle," he said, "because Iraqis and those around them don't consider the United Nations to be an occupier, and they probably can cooperate with the U.N. on a civilized basis."

Fadlallah, whose family was from southern Lebanon, was born in 1935 in Najaf, one of the holiest of Shiite cities. His father, Ayatollah Abd-al Rauf Fadlallah, was a Shiite cleric there.

A poet and academic prodigy who would become an implacable critic of Saddam Hussein, Fadlallah moved to Lebanon in 1966, opening clinics and community centers for the poor. There, he began to sound a theme of empowerment and change through Islam, inspiring the dispossessed and the emerging Hezbollah.

Nizar Hamzeh, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, says that as Hezbollah was forming in 1982, Fadlallah met the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who had led the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Khomeini urged Fadlallah and others to go back to their countries and foment revolution. Fadlallah, Hamzeh says, accepted Khomeini's leadership, although somewhat reluctantly because Fadlallah was far senior to Khomeini in scholarship.

Although Hezbollah respected Fadlallah as a religious leader, he said, Fadlallah was not a leader of the movement.

"Everybody missed that," Hamzeh said. "He did not join the party. And by the late Eighties he wasn't happy with the suicide bombings."

Khomeini died in 1989, succeeded in Iran by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was even less of a scholar than Khomeini, Hamzeh said.

"Fadlallah couldn't take it anymore," he said. "The student was worse than the teacher. It was a major difference between Fadlallah and Hezbollah."

'Moral authority'

Hezbollah, Hamzeh said, maintained its ties and allegiance to Iran. Fadlallah did not. Today, he remains an obstacle to the centralization of Shiite religious authority from Iran, though he still has ties to that country.

"He has moral authority," Hamzeh said, and is among the 10 most influential Shiite clerics, who now preside over Najaf and cooperate closely with Iran.

Tehran, Hamzeh asserted, pays for the upkeep of shrines in Najaf, Karbala and Kufa, and bodyguards organized and paid by Iran protect Iraq's revered Ayatollah al-Sistani.

"If you're dealing with Iraq," Hamzeh said, "you have to deal with Iran."

Fadlallah's message for the West is a simple one. "Justice lies in not blaming the actions of an entire people on a few," he said, urging West and East toward dialogue, understanding and even humility, especially from Bush whom he described in religious terms.

"He regards himself as the second coming of Christ. He doesn't look at things objectively. He believes God has sent him to this Earth to rule.

"I think we should send him to some psychiatrist."