Shi'ites at War
Shi'ites at War
by Sabrina Mervin, researcher, French Institute for the Middle East, Beirut
Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburb, is deserted. The home of Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah is destroyed. For ten years, this major Shi’ite cleric had distanced himself from Hezbollah and Iran, and stood as an independent marja. He does share certain opinions with them, but others he des not. He is a member of what is called the hala islamiyya, the Islamic milieu that issues from the Shi’ite political movements that emerged during the 1960’s, first in Iraq and then in Iran. It is a monolithic milieu when seen from the outside but inside it is vibrant with debate and argument. It is this milieu that, under Israeli bombs, has joined ranks with Hezbollah. The hour is no longer critical of the Party of God, even if cloaked in fear.
For at this hour there are Hezbollah men who guard the suburbs, traveling up and down the streets on scooters and flagging down any suspicious vehicle. Most of them have sent their families to safety. “We are ready”, say the four fighters who invited us to tea. One of then has a photo of Hassan Nasrallah as wallpaper on his cellphone and his voice as a ringtone. They are infuriated by “foreigners” who support Israel and who want Arab regimes to betray the resistance. One can already predict that among the effects of the war will be the rise in popularity of Nasrallah in the “Arab street”. Nasrallah knows how to use his charisma and he uses a new manner of expression in his relentless speeches given before the start of the conflict. Calm, collected, and almost serene, he no longer uses invective or humor, but explains the situation and his actions point by point with an obvious desire for clarity and transparency. How long has it been since Arabs have heard talk like this?
We are prepared, repeat the young militants, ready to fight an asymmetric battle, inspired by their Iman, Hussein, who in 680 met martyrdom in Karbala while fighting to reclaim his rightful place against the Umayyad army. For Shi’ites, Karbala is here and now. A legend that repeats itself, now and forever, and that will not stop until the return of the Mahdi, The Awaited Imam, who will return to restore justice on earth.
Damascus. The suburb of Sayyida Zaynab, a center for pilgrimage to the mausoleum of the saint by the same name, the sister of Hussein and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Shi’ites traditionally flock here to make a pious visit. But today it is mostly Lebanese refugees whom one meets; they have moved into the sanctuary. I recognize a black-turbaned cleric who hails from a village along the Israeli frontier. He is a sayyid of the village, very learned but without excessive ambition, a approachable man who does not dabble in politics. We exchange news, he recounts his surprise at the warm welcome received from Syrians. He invites me to follow him, rather than to remain in the middle of the street, standing out like a foreigner with her head uncovered.
He goes to call on other clerics in a hotel catering to pilgrims. One is Lebanese, who lives in Qom where he teaches in a religious school. The other is Iraqi. There is nothing more commonplace than this type of meeting for those who are familiar with Shi’ite clerical milieus. Iraqis and Iranians have historical links going back to the Safavid dynasty. There are matrimonial alliances between clerical families that knit together the highest echelons of political and religious elite. There are also links between teacher and student, students enrolled in the same arduous curriculum for years, and among instructors. Within this tapestry, movement between large Shi’ite centers is interposed with affiliations and political persuasions. The landscape is even more complex when one considers the ideas being debated between neoconservatives and reformers, between supporters of Islamic regimes and liberal governments.
What is tangible, seen from here, is that the Lebanon/Hezbollah-Syria-Iran axis, even if it has a religious foundation, is completely political and represents a new front of refusal of US policies. In Sayyida Zaynab, as in Damascus, portraits of Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, and even Iranian President Ahmadinejad, the third partner, are springing up everywhere.
In the old Shi’ite quarter, the Muhsiniyyeh School is full of refugees. Arriving families are registered, fed, clothed and lodged with local families. There are at least 6000 refugees here. Hezbollah activists are in charge of coordination with local notables and the administration of the school. There is no doubt that the enthusiasm driving the Syrians to assist the refugees is going to knit relations between these two populations, who before had no particular affinity for one another.
The Muhsiniyyeh School was founded in 1901 for children without resources by a reforming Shi’ite cleric from what today is southern Lebanon. One of his descendents is a refugee here in this quarter. He’s a cleric who does not support Hezbollah’s positions. He shares with me the news of his family, of whom I am writing an account. His youngest son is in the United States, where he studies medicine. Has he renounced the turban?, I ask. "No, explains the sayyid, he will pursue his religious studies later."