“Islam seeks believers that are aware and intelligent, not zealots who are slaves to their hallucinations.”
The quotation comes from an address by Musa Sadr, an Iranian-born cleric, who, until his mysterious disappearance in 1978, acted as a key leader of Lebanon’s Shi’ites.
Here are two other quotes from Sadr: “We reject opportunism, political shenanigans, alliances with the devil and the tactic of leaning the way the wind blows.”
And: “Islam is not a boutique from which to reap profits. Nor is it [a means of] pressing people into our service, as is the method of religious organizations and foundations.”
In this previously unpublished address, Sadr describes the Iranian Shi’ite sociologist Ali Shariati as “the source of our inspiration” and echoes Shariati’s castigation of the mullahs.
Sadr talked of “keeping Lebanon safe” and trying to raise the living standards of Shi’ites who represented the poorest segment of society at the time.
Coincidentally, the text of this address was emailed to me at the same time as Hassan Nasrallah, the current leader of Hezbollah, was making a speech justifying acting in the service of President Bashar Al-Assad’s campaign against the Syrian people.
What would Sadr have said about Nasrallah’s decision?
One can only guess. He would certainly have been concerned about dragging Lebanon into a dangerous adventure beyond its control.
One could speculate with some confidence that Sadr would not have regarded the preservation of the Assad dynasty as a cause worthy of fighting for. Sadr was suspicious of the true nature of the Assad regime and, despite being assiduously wooed by Hafez Al-Assad, never took the road to Damascus.
He would have been aggrieved by the death of hundreds of Muslims, among them some 150 Hezbollah militants, in the battle for Qusayr.
Most importantly, perhaps, Sadr would have taken exception to Nasrallah’s decision to act on orders from Tehran. According to the Iranian Kayhan newspaper, the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah entered he Syrian civil war “in response to the injunctions” of Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei.
This is in contrast with Sadr’s constant efforts not to become an instrument of influence of any foreign power, including his native Iran. It was in fact this issue, more than any other, that caused his eventual break with Iran under the Shah. His refusal to obey orders from Tehran led to the end of Iran’s financial subsidy and political support. But Sadr was not swayed; he had become the leader of the Lebanese Shi’ites and learned to think and act in the interests of Lebanon, rather than Iran.
As a journalist, I met Sadr several times over the years and witnessed how he slowly morphed into a full-fledged Lebanese leader. Towards the end, even his Persian accent had acquired a Lebanese edge.
Nasrallah’s decision to involve Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict is questionable on a number of accounts. To start with, the Hezbollah leadership was never officially consulted on the matter. Nor was the Lebanese government, which Hezbollah is a partner in, informed of this. Needless to say, the Lebanese military also was not consulted. This led to a situation where a private army, controlled by a foreign power, is using bases in Lebanon to participate in a foreign war.
Thus there is no indication that a majority of Lebanese, or even a majority of Lebanese Shi’ites, approve of Nasrallah’s adventurist behavior. In fact, the information we have from Beirut and the south indicates growing unease among the Shi’ites.
There are also indications that some within Hezbollah itself are unhappy about Nasrallah’s strategy. To be sure, most Lebanese Shi’ites feel close to Iran and approve of intimate relations with whichever regime is in place in Tehran. But friendship is one thing and servility another.
In its mini-war with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah lost some 600 men. Its losses in Syria have already topped 300, according to reports. Hezbollah guerrillas are trained for hit-and-run warfare. They are not suited to seizing and holding territory, something that Assad needs to do if he is to regain chunks of Syria under rebel control. The current pattern of fighting indicates that Assad is using Hezbollah elements as cannon fodder, enabling his Alawite units to capture Sunni-majority territory. In other words, Hezbollah is being used as an instrument of ethnic cleansing against other Muslims—something that Sadr would never have approved of.
For years, Nasrallah tried to cast himself as a champion of Islam or, if that was too much, at least of Arabs. Now, however, he is no longer behaving even as a communitarian leader. He has been exposed as one of General Qassem Suleimani’s pawns in Lebanon and Syria.
The difference between Sadr and Nasrallah is that the former was principally concerned about Lebanon and, more specifically, its Shi’ite community, while he latter is a pan-Shi’ite militant who sees Iran as his ideological motherland.
Nasrallah is behaving like those Communist leaders who regarded themselves as mere agents of the Soviet Union. With the fall of the Soviet Union, all those parties disappeared. However, the Communist parties that had retained a degree of independence from the USSR survived, notably in France, Portugal and Spain.
Nasrallah would do well to study the examples set by two other clerics.
The first is Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, now regarded as the principal Marja’a Al-Taqlid (Source of Emulation) for Shi’ites. For more than a decade, Sistani has steadfastly refused to sacrifice the interests of Iraq at the altar of political ambitions. Rather than fanning the fires of sectarian war, Sistani has used his immense prestige to help detoxify Iraqi politics. Despite endless solicitation, he has refused to intervene in Iran’s presidential elections.
The second example, is that of the late cleric Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, who was regarded as Hezbollah’s principal religious leader. Throughout his life, however, Fadlallah acted as a Lebanese Shi’ite leader rather than an accessory to the Khomeinist regime’s dreams of conquest.
What Nasrallah is doing is bad for Shi’ites, bad for Lebanon, bad for Hezbollah, and ultimately bad for Syria and Iran as well. He has become entangled in what Sadr called “diabolical schemes.”