Ayatollah Fadlallah dies

Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah has passed away in Beirut at the age of 74. He had been in poor health for some years, suffering from diabetes and heart problems. Fadlallah became famous (and, to his enemies, notorious) in the 1980s, for his role in channeling the message of Hezbollah to thinking young Shi’ites and to the world. He played a complex game, and it long fascinated me. I published a first short piece on him in 1985, and I explored him further in a 100-page study, finished in 1992 and accessible here.

In the years since I followed him, Fadlallah’s presence diminished. First, Hezbollah acquired a political leader, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, with a powerful presence of his own. Hezbollah became less reliant on Fadlallah, at least as a mobilizer within Lebanon. Second, Fadlallah drifted even further into the stratosphere of grand ayatollah-hood, well above party politics, including those of Hezbollah. Third, some rival Shi’ite clerics, especially in Iran, thought he was getting too big for his breeches, and worked to cut him down through nasty accusations of theological deviation. Fourth, the removal of Saddam Hussein from power breathed new life into the religious academies in Najaf in Iraq, and its clerics, such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, again began to loom large among Arabic-speaking Shi’ites. Fifth, Fadlallah’s poor health began to drag him down. His forte had always been the pulpit sermon, delivered in a controlled but fiery style, but in recent years, there wasn’t much flicker in his performances.

He was a permanent stop on the circuit for foreign dignitaries, some of them pursuers of Islamist “moderation.” They would see him (after stringent security checks), get their photo taken with the wise man, and come away pondering his elliptical comments. Last year Jimmy Carter turned up (photo), much to the chagrin of the State Department, and Noam Chomsky paid his respects last May (photo). Within Lebanon, he built a substantial empire of charitable institutions such as schools and clinics, many of them funded by wealthy Shi’ites outside the country. The institutions will long outlive him.

When I first published on Fadlallah in 1985, I wouldn’t have put a nickel on his dying a natural death. That same year, he was the target of a car bombing that missed him and killed over eighty persons. But Fadlallah was an expert in planting seeds of doubt, and over the years he dropped off the hit lists of Hezbollah’s enemies. Still, without him, Hezbollah would have had a much tougher row to hoe in the early years. He wasn’t responsible, as far as I know, for any one act of violence, but he justified quite a few of them after the fact. Up until today, he was on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of “specially designated nationals.”

Needless to say, when it came to Israel, he was uncompromising. I do think I treated him fairly and respectfully in my long study, and I made sure he received it—especially the subsequent Hebrew edition, which appeared as a monograph with his portrait on the cover. At the peak of his powers, he was truly formidable. It’s unlikely that Lebanon will be home to another figure quite like him again.

Rafiq Hariri, the movie

I won’t play the speculation game about the assassination yesterday of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Instead, I’ll recommend that you try to see the film which, I’m sure, will remain the most succinct statement of who Hariri was. I’m referring to the documentary portrait by the Syrian director Omar Amiralay, L’Homme aux semelles d’or, which I reviewed a few years back. The review was embedded in a longer treatment of several films, so here it is, extracted:

It’s an odd combination: Amiralay, a Syrian Marxist, better known for his films on intellectuals (Syrian playwright Sa’dallah Wannus, French sociologist Michel Seurat), has done Hariri. Amiralay was a bit hesitant about the idea, and the film includes sequences in which his mother warns him against criticizing the formidable man while his intellectual friends worry lest he be seduced. At first, Hariri, too, is not so sure he wants Amiralay to film him. Perhaps the filmmaker will use a camera to assassinate his character? As Amiralay discovered, Hariri is so wary of his image that he staffs a small library devoted to recording and cataloguing all of his media appearances.

Nothing to fear: Amiralay slowly succumbs to the allure of the great man of Lebanese politics. Here is Hariri standing on some kind of dock at night, a lone, receding figure, an enigma. Here he is in humble robes, in his mountain palace, ruminating on the meaning of his life. Here he is engrossed in the country’s business, at his sprawling desk in his private jet. Here he is looking out on Beirut from his penthouse office above the city, the solitary, self-made, self-contained man. Hariri engages in some self-deprecation, but his bottom line is clear: “I regret none of my economic or political choices.” “In this kind of duel between the man of power and the intellectual,” Amiralay has told an interviewer, “the intellectual always loses.” Amiralay is absolutely right: he has produced a subtle work of sycophancy of Hariri, of a Hariri excised from the complex nexus of Lebanese politics and Syrian hegemony.

But in its own way, the film tells something about the appeal of Hariri: he is the clean slate, a man not implicated in Lebanon’s wars, a super-contractor who tears down the past to build a new, antiseptic present behind reflecting glass. He is no Berlusconi, he insists; his money was made before he entered politics, outside the borders of Lebanon. He established Solidère because no one else would. In the cut-and-thrust with Amiralay, he argues perhaps his most important point: he did not need a political role, and if he sought one, it was only in a moment of vanity. Now it is a matter of fidelity to the idea of Lebanon.

At the end of the film, Amiralay brings his intellectual friends together around a table where they vent the usual criticisms of Hariri. He turned his money into power; he represents the old order; he is not a national figure, but a Sunni za’im, a sectarian leader. Perhaps this is meant to disabuse the viewer of any notion that this film is a testimonial. But could it be anything else? And might it be more than this: a longing to see Lebanon finally cleansed? The opening and closing scenes show Solidère’s cleansing of Beirut’s massive wartime dump. No evictions, no demolitions: just the clean-up.

If you’re serious about understanding Hariri, try to see Amiralay’s film. This is Hariri as he would want to be remembered, and it gives a real flavor of how he spent his time and money. The spell he casts over the skeptical Amiralay is strong testimony to his persuasive powers.

Pointer: Recently, Amiralay has made another film, a devastating critique of the regime in Syria, that played to great acclaim in Beirut last fall. Whether he can continue to do this and move back and forth from Syria is a very open question.