Jul 10th 2010

Octavia, Frances, and the Late, Great Ayatollah Fadlallah

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

"Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot." And so this is how an 86-letter Tweet ended the career of CNN's veteran Middle East editor Octavia Nasr.

I grew up watching Octavia on the then-fledgling CNN, Ted Turner's groundbreaking twenty-four hour cable news channel that brought the Intifada and Tiananmen Square into our homes, every half hour, around the clock.

To think an illustrious career could come undone because of respect paid to the "intellect and passion" of Ayatollah Fadlallah, "a surprisingly progressive thinker." Oh, I didn't say that. David Ignatius of the Washington Post did after his 2002 and 2004 interviews with the senior Shiite cleric in Lebanon.

Fire him too then.

An Israeli foreign ministry official quoted on Ynet thinks the fate of British Ambassador to Lebanon Frances Guy should be "interesting" to watch. Why? Because Ambassador Guy also thinks well of Fadlallah -- so well in fact, that she paid a moving tribute to him on her personal blog on the Foreign Office's website. A posting that was promptly removed a few days later.

In case you didn't see the touching eulogy, here is what the highly respected British career diplomat had to say about the late cleric whose progressive influence pervaded the Mideast and beyond:

"One of the privileges of being a diplomat is the people you meet; great and small, passionate and furious. People in Lebanon like to ask me which politician I admire most. It is an unfair question, obviously, and many are seeking to make a political response of their own. I usually avoid answering by referring to those I enjoy meeting the most and those that impress me the most. Until yesterday my preferred answer was to refer to Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, head of the Shia clergy in Lebanon and much admired leader of many Shia muslims throughout the world. When you visited him you could be sure of a real debate, a respectful argument and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person. That for me is the real effect of a true man of religion; leaving an impact on everyone he meets, no matter what their faith. Sheikh Fadlallah passed away yesterday. Lebanon is a lesser place the day after but his absence will be felt well beyond Lebanon's shores. I remember well when I was nominated ambassador to Beirut, a muslim acquaintance sought me out to tell me how lucky I was because I would get a chance to meet Sheikh Fadlallah. Truly he was right. If I was sad to hear the news I know other peoples' lives will be truly blighted. The world needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints. May he rest in peace."


In case you're wondering, the British Foreign Office sent me the "disappeared" text today.

I cannot imagine they are too proud of themselves for censoring the words of one of their senior diplomats because of myopic interest group politics. Israel and the United States consider Fadlallah a terrorist for his support of Hezbollah, the leading Lebanese resistance group that emerged after Israel's ill-fated 1982 occupation of Lebanon. And clearly they weighed in on Ambassador Guy's blogpost.

The Foreign Office then informed me that the UK government formally offered condolences in person, by sending an official to Fadlallah's Hassanein Mosque after his passing.

The Brits are not alone in this. According to a Fadlallah spokesman, the ambassadors of France, Belgium, Poland and Denmark also came in person to offer condolences at the mosque where Fadlallah was later buried.

Furthermore, the French and Spanish ambassadors, Michael Williams -- UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special coordinator to Lebanon -- and many other senior diplomats sent condolences directly to Hezbollah too.

Fadlallah's spokesman Hani Abdullah expressed outrage at the attacks on both Ms. Nasr and Ambassador Guy calling it "media terrorism by the Israelis" which he noted was "unusual in its magnitude" over a much-respected religious and spiritual leader in the region.

Over the years, Ayatollah Fadlallah had become a key personality for Westerners to visit. Many US students, former officials and congressmen had made this pilgrimage -- all left impressed.

UK Foreign Office Spokesman Gavin Cook noted Fadlallah's unique influence and position: "He was progressive in many ways - on women's rights and interfaith dialogue in particular - and was a unifying force across the region." Areas of disagreement then? Israel.

Quelle surprise.

While Fadlallah was clearly not part of the Hezbollah political organization and was viewed more as a spiritual leader for resistance in the wider Middle East, he opposed Israeli aggression in the region until his last breath and called for the liberation of all Israeli occupied lands in the region.

His spokesman Mr. Abdullah claims that the public campaign against Frances Guy and Octavia Nasr in the past few days has more to do with "the image of the Israelis right now. They are tainted after their attack on the flotilla and the war in Gaza. Because of that they are putting a lot of pressure on the Western media" to control their political narrative.

Once wonders though how desperate things have become for the Jewish state that they use valuable political chips over someone who was so widely regarded. Fadlallah's funeral could have passed with only a fleeting mention in the Western press if not for these two brazen attempts to silence speech.

The many Western diplomats who paid their respects after Fadlallah's passing, honored his causes in life as well. The Shia cleric's charities received computers and other equipment from these embassies - particularly for the 300+ handicapped people under Fadlallah's direct care.

Although Fadlallah remained on the list of terrorists designated by the US State Department, Mr. Abdullah claimed direct contact with at least one US official. According to him, three months after Israel's 2006 war against Lebanon, President Bush sent a US ambassador to meet with Fadlallah to discuss "poverty" - of all things.

Fadlallah told this envoy "We are ready to fight poverty with you because terrorism thrives in poverty." But he lamented that the US was culpable in causing much of this poverty in the region: "Ultimately you cannot provide the solution when you are causing the problem."

When I first visited Lebanon a year ago, people of all backgrounds recommended I pay a visit to Fadlallah, one of the true wise elders in a region filled to the brim with political malaise and corruption. My time was short here then - as it too often is even now - but I grabbed a headscarf one hot Friday morning and headed to the Hassanein mosque to see what all the fuss was about.

I climbed up the stairs to the spacious, well-carpeted ladies section, and mimicked the crowds in their ritual of washing their hands and feet before prayer. Choosing a discreet spot near a column, I sat and awaited the arrival of Seyyed Fadlallah.

The man who walked onto the podium was no fiery cleric -- he was gentle, soft-spoken, and clearly very weak. He looked older than his years and his voice was shaky. An attendant kept stepping forward to adjust his cape, which continued to slip off the same shoulder throughout the service.

Although I don't speak Arabic, the body language was interesting to observe. Before long I found myself sitting up -- Fadlallah was energizing himself with his every word. The man came alive with his convictions. And brought the packed hall along with him for the ride.

He was in the end, a man who died as he lived, transcended politics, and inspired hope, courage and dignity in both the East and the West. May he rest in peace.

Follow Sharmine Narwani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/snarwani

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