Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah
Lebanese Shi’ite women marching in Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah's Photo by AP
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Four years after the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah can credit itself with yet another achievement in its campaign against Israel: southern Lebanon is once again in its hands. According to various assessments, the Shi'ite organization has rebuilt its military capabilities north of the Litani River, where it has established a network of missile launchers any army in the world would be proud to possess. Furthermore, it has repaired the infrastructure of the Shi'ite villages south of the Litani that were severely hit in the war.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which was deployed to southern Lebanon in 2006 in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 - passed at the end of the war - was supposed to prevent such activity. In recent months, however, UNIFIL has been harassed by Shi'ite villagers in the southern part of the country who are apparently acting on Hezbollah's orders. The international peacekeeping force, particularly its French battalion, has been repeatedly humiliated by the local population. Villagers have hurled stones and eggs at them, and have even seized soldiers' weapons. UNIFIL's commander, Maj. Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas, this week asked the Lebanese government to protect his troops.

The confrontation Hezbollah initiated with the French contingent has renewed the internal debate in Lebanon - between the Shi'ite organization and the Al-Mustaqbal camp headed by Lebanese Prime Minister Said Hariri (and thought to be under French patronage ). While Hezbollah hinted that UNIFIL's French battalion is serving "foreign" (namely, Israeli ) interests, Hariri flew to Paris to conciliate President Nicolas Sarkozy and clarify that Lebanon is interested in keeping French troops on its soil.

'Not a knockout blow'

Thus, one of Israel's chief accomplishments in the Second Lebanon War - distancing Hezbollah from its northern frontier - is slowly vanishing. The Shi'ite organization, which was dealt a severe blow in the summer of 2006, has recovered at an impressive rate in the military, civilian and political spheres.

"It was not a knockout blow, but it was sufficiently painful to force Hezbollah to grow up," says Prof. Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria and Lebanon, the director of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and the university's dean of humanities.

"Since the war, the organization has been presenting a more controlled, a more restrained, stance," he says. "It's the kind of experience that makes you or breaks you. On the other hand, its scars from the war will lead it to think many times over before it tries to face off with Israel again."

In the last Lebanese parliamentary elections, in 2009, Hezbollah's political standing changed very little. Initially its leaders admitted defeat, but the organization actually lost only one seat when compared to the previous elections, while its Christian partner in the anti-West camp, former army chief Michel Aoun, increased his political strength and clarified that Lebanon's Maronites support Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, the group is limited by Lebanon's electoral system as the Shi'ites in that country are allocated a maximum of 27 parliamentary seats. Perhaps this explains why Hezbollah is steadily tightening its military foothold in Lebanon. The Lebanese army, which receives American assistance, avoids clashing with Hezbollah, which is also interested in maintaining "industrial peace" with the army.

For the moment, at least - despite the unprecedented rate at which it is arming itself - Hezbollah apparently is not looking for another round of fighting with Israel, preferring instead to focus on a gradual takeover of Lebanon. Still, it should be recalled that in early July 2006, a few days before the war broke out, the assessment in Lebanon was that Hezbollah was not interested in a confrontation with Israel.

The death of Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah

Last Sunday, Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah died in Beirut at the age of 75. One of the most important Shi'ite religious figures in the Muslim world, Fadlallah was regarded as one of Hezbollah's founders and as its spiritual leader in the 1980s. He was also one of the most fascinating Shi'ite religious leaders in the modern world. Although his religious rulings were a model for emulation for hundreds of thousands of followers, they also led to clashes with the Shi'ite religious institutions in Iran.

Born in 1935 in Najaf, Iraq, his father was a native of Lebanon. Fadlallah wrote poetry until the age of 12, when he began attending one of the city's Shi'ite madrassas (religious schools ). In 1966 he moved to Lebanon, where he engaged in religious studies as well as social welfare work among the Shi'ite community.

Displaying a marked interest in the status of women in Muslim society, Fadlallah argued that lack of equality between husband and wife ran counter to the Koran. In addition, he held relatively progressive views on abortions, maintaining that the procedure could be performed at any stage in the pregnancy if the fetus was endangering the mother's health.

On the topic of men doing household chores, Fadlallah wrote that the "social culture of ignorance, not Islam, is the source of the argument that a man humiliates himself if he does household chores." He even explained that Ali, regarded by Shi'ite Muslims as the first imam, used to help his wife Fatima (the prophet Mohammed's daughter ) with housework and that, when the prophet asked her to bake bread, Ali himself would clean the house and gather firewood.

Fadlallah also encouraged women to study Islamic religious law, to provide commentary on religious texts and to discuss such matters even with men.

While Fadlallah expressed total support for the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, he challenged the authority of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his entourage, and repeatedly warned the members of the Islamic movement to beware of charismatic leaders (specifically mentioning Khomeini in that context ) whose personalities overshadow the message they are supposed to be conveying to their public. In 1982, he began setting up a network of social service agencies in Lebanon, as an emissary of his spiritual mentor and role model, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Abul-Qassim al-Khoei, whom he regarded as the Marja al-Taqlid (a religious authority to be followed and emulated ) - despite the fact that Hezbollah and Iran considered Khomeini to be the Marja al-Taqlid.

Face-off with Iran and Hezbollah

Following Khomeini's death in 1989, the question of who would inherit the mantle of the Marja al-Taqlid in the Shi'ite world took on ever-increasing urgency. Fadlallah regarded Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei as his Marja al-Taqlid, as did many other people in the Shi'ite world. With al-Khoei's death in 1993, Grand Ayatollah Golpayegani of Iran became Fadlallah's Marja al-Taqlid. It was after Golpayegani died that the crisis between Fadlallah, Hezbollah and Iran really began to play out more openly.

Tehran proclaimed Ayatollah Sheikh Mohsen Araki, who was over 100 years old at the time, as the Shi'ite Marja al-Taqlid - a move intended to pave the way for the ascension of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (following Araki's death ). Fadlallah, however, announced his own support for Ayatollah Sistani, who at the time resided in Najaf.

At that point, Hezbollah declared its backing for Tehran's position and announced that its members must support Araki and must not regard anyone else as the Marja al-Taqlid. Araki died in December 1994; three months later, Iran declared Khamenei's appointment to that senior post.

Fadlallah argued that Iran was simply trying to bolster its own political-religious position among the Muslim Shi'ites; he continued to support Sistani, and as a result was severely criticized by other Shi'ite religious leaders. His mosque was banned and, on one occasion, shots were fired at his car.

Although he later reconciled with Hezbollah leaders, Fadlallah still kept his distance from them. Refusing to recognize Iran's leadership in the Shi'ite world, he maintained his religious autonomy and chose his own unique political path.