Middle East

Ayatollah Fadlallah tributes divide opinion

Shias watch Ayatollah Fadlallah's funeral pass through Beirut
Image caption Thousands watched Ayatollah Fadlallah's funeral procession in Beirut

A Shia cleric dies in Lebanon and a CNN journalist gets fired for her tweet praising him while a British ambassador is made to apologise for eulogising him on her blog.

It could be yet another story about the pitfalls of new media but it is really about the complexity of Middle Eastern politics, the passion it stirs and the nuances that get lost in the debate.

For Shias in Lebanon, Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah was a revered cleric and he is being mourned by thousands who saw him as their religious reference, or marjaa'.

Condolences also poured in from the region, from Jordan's King Abdullah - a Sunni - to Iraq's prime minister and the ruler of Kuwait.

But Ayatollah Fadlallah was also named in 1995 by the US treasury department as a Specially Designated Terrorist under a presidential executive order.

Image caption UK ambassador Frances Guy says she regrets any offence her blog caused

He was seen as one of the key founders of the militant group Hezbollah. His name was associated with a suicide attack against the US Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 which killed 241 Americans, among other violent actions ascribed to Hezbollah.

Ayatollah Fadlallah denied being Hezbollah's spiritual father and never acknowledged any involvement in the bombing. But crucially, he never denounced the attack either.

His writings often sought to justify the use of violence, starting with the preface to his 1985 book, Islam and the Logic of Force.

"Civilisation does not mean that you face a rocket with a stick or a jet-fighter with a kite, or a warship with a sailboat," he wrote.

"One must face force with equal or superior force. If it is legitimate to defend self and land and destiny, then all means of self-defence are legitimate."

So a senior US official in Washington told the BBC he was dismayed and surprised when he read the blog entry by the British Ambassador to Lebanon eulogising the cleric.

Under the title "The passing of decent men", Frances Guy wrote that: "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."

Apology

She also indicated she felt lucky to have met Ayatollah Fadlallah.

Her blogpost has been taken down by the Foreign Office, though it can still be read in full on Ayatollah Fadlallah's website.

Mrs Guy has now written an apology on her blog to clarify that: "I have no truck with terrorism wherever it is committed, in whoever's name. The British government has been clear that it condemns terrorist activities carried out by Hezbollah and I share that view."

She had not directly praised Hezbollah in the blog. As ambassador she has met political representatives of Hezbollah, with the blessing of the Foreign Office, something which had incensed Washington. The US does not differentiate between the military and political wings of Hezbollah.

Octavia Nasr, the CNN journalist who was fired, said in her tweet she "respected" Ayatollah Fadlallah as one of "Hezbollah's giants".

Image caption CNN's Octavia Nasr wrote of her "respect" for Ayatollah Fadlallah

In her retraction, Mrs Guy added she was sorry that "an attempt to acknowledge the spiritual significance to many of Sheikh Fadlallah and the views that he held in the latter part of his life has served only to further entrench divisions in this complex part of the world".

Ayatollah Fadlallah had indeed moved on, in some way, from the 1980s. He was increasingly known for his moderate social views in support of women's rights, he had denounced the attacks of 11 September 2001 and welcomed Barack Obama's election. His relationship with Hezbollah and Iran was also troubled.

So should the West have moved on as well?

The nuances of Ayatollah Fadlallah's positions were clearly not enough for either the US or the UK to officially change their views about the cleric and the actions he is thought to have been involved in.

But some argue that the US may have missed an opportunity by not engaging an influential cleric who could have helped to reduce the appeal of fundamentalism in Lebanon but more importantly to counter the influence of Iran.

Robert Pollock, an opinion editor at the Wall Street Journal, interviewed Ayatollah Fadlallah in 2009 and wrote that the cleric had "a disarming twinkle in his eye", but also said that the cleric was clearly no friend of the West, America or Israel.

"I find these adoring comments about him naive, but I also don't believe that positive observations about him should be off limits," Mr Pollock told the BBC.

"He was certainly a better influence on Lebanon than the agents of Iranian influence who will now try to claim his legacy."

Indeed in the West, controversy about the reactions to his death has overshadowed the more important debate now taking place in Lebanon about who will succeed Ayatollah Fadlallah as a marjaa'.

Ayatollah Fadlallah opposed the concept of Velayat-e-faqih, an Iranian invention which gives unchallenged authority in politics and theology to the Supreme Leader - currently Ali Khamenei. Iran, meanwhile, never recognised Ayatollah Fadlallah as a marjaa'.

So while Ayatollah Fadlallah did not hold an official position and cannot be replaced in the same way that a judge or minister would be, Iran will likely seek to promote its own favourite to lead Lebanon's Shias.

"Admittedly, US policymakers have typically not been players in the arcane world of Shia clerical politics," wrote David Schenker from the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy.

"How ironic, though, that Fadlallah - a man who Washington labelled a terrorist in 1995 - stood as the last bulwark against near total Iranian hegemony in Lebanon."

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