Can the Obama Administration Learn from the Death of Ayatollah Fadlallah?
A senior editor at CNN lost her job for tweeting about him. Thousands of Lebanese Shiites poured into the streets to mourn him.
Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Fadlallah, often characterized in western media as the "spiritual adviser to Hezbollah," died of natural causes in Beirut this week at the age of 75. Many western leaders considered him a terrorist.
I've met Ayatollah Fadlallah, and he was no terrorist.
The CIA and other intelligence agencies tried to murder Fadlallah several times in the 1980s because they mistakenly thought he was responsible for the bombings of the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. But Fadlallah's survival only enhanced his reputation.
Apparently his aura continues to haunt the West. On July 7 Octavia Nasr, CNN Senior Editor for Middle East Affairs, sent out a tweet that she had "respect" for him and was "sad" about his passing. That was enough to get her fired.
Fadlallah held views with which I strongly disagreed. But dismissing him and other Middle East leaders as terrorists only makes solving problems more difficult. So far President Obama continues the same wrong-headed policies as his predecessors.
I interviewed Ayatollah Fadlallah in Beirut at the end of 2008. I had traveled to the region with actor/writer Peter Coyote to research an article that appeared in Vanity Fair. Fadlallah welcomed us to his compound in west Beirut.
Fadlallah made a dramatic entrance wearing dark brown robes and the black turban of a sayyed, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad. His hair and beard were already silver-grey. Shadows formed large crescents under his eyes. His dark raiments and worn visage belied his still sharp mind.
Fadlallah said he was never a "spiritual adviser" to Hezbollah. Hezbollah preferred Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a man with whom Fadlallah had many religious and political differences.
Fadlallah confirmed that the CIA and Saudi intelligence had tried to assassinate him with a car bomb in 1985. Eighty people died and 200 were wounded as the bomb blew up a Beirut apartment building. Fadlallah escaped unharmed. The CIA's participation was revealed in Bob Woodward's book "Veil." After the horrific attack, Fadlallah's followers hung a huge banner over the ruins reading, "Made in the USA."
Bob Baer, a former CIA field officer in Beirut, told me that Fadlallah was not responsible for the US Embassy or Marine barracks attacks. Fadlallah was falsely accused by Christian Phalangists and others anxious to demonize him in the eyes of the US military and CIA.
Despite the bombing, however, Fadlallah did not take reflexively anti-US positions. He opposed seizing American hostages during the Lebanese Civil War, for example, and actually worked to get them freed.
Fadlallah went on to build a network of hospitals, schools and other social programs that served Lebanon's impoverished Shia Muslim community. After the end of the Civil War in 1990, Fadlallah emerged as a highly respected cleric with ties to Hezbollah, but also with a fierce independent streak. Lebanese knew him as much for his religious fatwas opposing smoking and favoring women's rights, as for his ties to Hezbollah.
Walid Jumblatt, a Lebanese parliament member strongly opposed to Hezbollah's ideology, told us, "Sometimes Fadlallah sides with Hezbollah, sometimes not. Fadlallah has his own independent way of thinking. He always challenged the Iranian leadership in spiritual issues."
And that's an important point often overlooked in Washington. Just as Fadlallah and Hezbollah don't always agree, neither do Hezbollah and Iran. Hezbollah enjoys political and military support from Iran, but it makes independent political decisions. For example, Hezbollah no longer seeks to create an Islamic state in Lebanon.
But the US and Israeli governments choose to ignore Hezbollah's changed views.
Hezbollah initially favored a "one-state" solution in which Palestinians would control all of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Jews who were born or arrived in Israel after 1948 would have to leave. Such a "solution" is both unreal and immoral.
In recent years Hezbollah leaders began to face reality. They now say Palestinians must decide this question for themselves. "At the end, this is primarily a Palestinian matter," says Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah. "I, like any other person, may consider what is happening to be right or wrong.... I may have a different assessment, but at the end of the road no one can go to war on behalf of the Palestinians."
In short, if Israelis and Palestinians make peace based on a two-state solution, Hezbollah won't interfere. If Israel also withdrew from the occupied Golan Heights and Shebaa Farms, Hezbollah would focus on domestic Lebanese politics, not attacking Israel.
But neither President Obama nor Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have ever seriously explored talks with Hezbollah as part of a wider peace-making process. Instead, they lumped together Fadlallah, Hezbollah and al Qaeda as enemies in a phony War on Terror.
Fadlallah made clear to us that he opposed al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups. He was among the first Muslim leaders to condemn the 9/11 attacks on the US, for example. Hezbollah also strongly opposed the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on American civilians.
The US made a huge mistake by labeling Ayatollah Fadlallah a terrorist and trying to assassinate him. Fadlallah was a learned man who applied his understanding of Islam to politics. When we talked about the role of religion and government, justification for suicide bombings, or the history of Jews in the Middle East, we strongly disagreed.
Yet the US and Israel had similar disputes with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and both sides sat down for peace talks.
So far the Obama administration has made rhetorical criticisms of Israel without substantively impacting the Israeli occupation of Palestine. And when it comes to the War on Terror, the Obama administration prefers troop escalations, commando raids and drone attacks to undercutting the political appeal of terrorists by changing US policy.
Even before Obama took office, Fadlallah expressed concern that the new president would not break from the past. "U.S. presidents talk about supporting democracy," he says, "but in the Middle East, and the third world in general, they support the worst and ugliest kind of dictators."
Looks like Fadlallah may have been right.