Fadlallah: One Country's Hero, Another's Terrorist

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Lebanon's top Shiite cleric and one of the sect's most revered religious authorities died Sunday after a long illness. He was 75. Robert Siegel talks to Mohamad Bazzi, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a journalism professor at New York University, about the life and legacy of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The death of a leading Shiite cleric this week is a reminder of how one country's hero might be seen elsewhere through a very different lens. The Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was known here as someone linked to the Lebanese Shiite movement, Hezbollah. The writers of his obituaries have been at pains to point out that he was not that group's spiritual leader, as his detractors often claimed.

His support of the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, also his opposition to Israel - sometimes tinged with a trace of Holocaust minimalization - all that led to his being branded as a terrorist leader. But that is hardly how Fadlallah was seen in Lebanon, where he lived - or, for that matter, in Iraq. That's where he was born, and where he was extremely influential among Shiite Muslims.

Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. He joins us from there.

And tell me, how would you describe Ayatollah Fadlallah?

Mr. MOHAMAD BAZZI (Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Well, Fadlallah was the most senior cleric in Lebanon. He was a grand ayatollah, which meant that he was the most senior position in the Shiite clergy that you can reach. He had followers in Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain - even as far away as Pakistan. So his reach and his writing and his religious rulings really extended beyond Lebanon and into the entire Muslim world, anywhere where there were Shiites looking for a senior cleric to emulate.

SIEGEL: He justified the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, also suicide attacks against Israeli troops in Lebanon. But he criticized the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. What was his view of the use of violence in these cases?

Mr. BAZZI: He was one of the first Muslim clerics to criticize and -completely criticize the 9/11 attacks. He argued that the kind of wholesale targeting of civilians that al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden were engaged in was not permissible under Islam. He argued that you had very specific situations where you could carry out suicide attacks against military targets. He also sanctioned suicide attacks against civilian targets within a general state of war between two sides. But he rejected the kind of willful targeting of civilians that al-Qaida was engaged in.

SIEGEL: If he was not, as was pointed out in a couple of obituaries, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, what was his relationship to Hezbollah?

Mr. BAZZI: Well, he was definitely an inspiration to many of the young men who formed the core group of Hezbollah in the early and mid-1980s. They were inspired by his sermons. They were inspired by his writings. The issue is that he never really took on an operational role in Hezbollah. He was this emerging Shiite cleric who put the theological justifications of suicide bombings, talked about both the broad issues of how you approach a conflict in a war, and also talked about everyday life issues.

So he was an inspiration on both the larger level and the smaller, everyday level.

SIEGEL: I read, though, that he was at least as influential - if not more so - with the Iraqi political party, the Dawa Party, the party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Mr. BAZZI: In some ways, he was even more influential to the Dawa Party than he was to Hezbollah, and that was because he had a long relationship with Iraq and with the Shiite community in Iraq.

He was born in Iraq to Lebanese parents. He lived there for the first 30 years of his life, and then he moved to Lebanon. And he continued his relationship with Iraq and with the Dawa Party - again, not in an operational role but in this spiritual role. And the Iraqi prime minister, Maliki, was in Lebanon this week to pay condolences to Fadlallah's family.

SIEGEL: Mohamad Bazzi, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BAZZI: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mr. Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He's also a journalism professor at New York University.

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