Lee Smith examines the life and death of Sayyid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the Lebanese cleric often described as the inspiration for Hezbollah. But it’s a little more complicated than that:
During the ’90s, Fadlallah had a falling out with Hezbollah and Iran. The sticking point was the concept of Velyat-e Faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, which held that the supreme religious and political authority for Hezbollah was Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Pride played an issue for Fadlallah, who was a true scholar—a marja al-taqlid, or source of emulation—for millions of Shiites around the world. Khamenei was a mid-level cleric whose stature rested on his ability to maneuver among allies and adversaries in Tehran.
While Fadlallah railed against the Iranians, Hezbollah started buying off Fadlallah’s Lebanese followers and instructed them to follow Khamenei. Lebanon’s 2006 war with Israel brought destruction to the Shiite community as well as Fadlallah personally, whose compound and institutions were bombed.
Hoping to show a unified Shiite front, Iran and Hezbollah’s General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah rebuilt Fadlallah’s empire with $12 million in reconstruction funds. His death, however, revealed the shallow nature of the alliance. Hezbollah’s official statement upon Fadlallah’s passing paid him honor as a defender of the resistance against the Zionist entity and a great Islamic scholar, but did not acknowledge his status as marja. Nasrallah himself could not help but launch a final dig when in his own speech after Fadlallah’s death he described Mr. Khamenei as “at the forefront of our greatest marja’s.”
Hezbollah is already scrambling to co-opt Fadlallah’s legacy. According to sources in the Lebanese Shiite community, it’s seeking control of an estimated $2 billion worth of the late scholar’s business enterprises, including hospitals, schools, orphanages and restaurants. Yet Iran and Hezbollah cannot conceal that they and Fadlallah were on different sides of an issue—Iranian influence in Lebanon—that is of great strategic importance to the future of the region.
In a strange postscript to Fadlallah’s death, CNN fired its senior editor for Middle East Affairs after she announced that she was “sad” about the passing of Fadlallah, for whom she had great “respect”. The editor, Octavia Nasr, later explained that she understood Fadlallah support for terrorism, but admired his progressive stands on women’s issues, such as his opposition to honor killings.
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