TCS Daily


The Liberal Shia Cleric You Should Meet

By Michael Totten - January 22, 2007 12:00 AM

HARET HREIK, LEBANON - In the dahiyeh, the suburb, of Haret Hreik south of Beirut, where Hezbollah built its command and control center and the "capital" of its illegal state-within-a-state, lives Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini, a moderate Shia cleric with a doctorate in religion from Qom in Iran. From there, he steadfastly and publicly opposes Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah's doctrine of war and jihad. He uses the Koran and the Islamic religion as the basis for an alternative vision of peace, independence, and democracy for the people of Lebanon.

My translator Henry informed me that Lebanese journalists are no longer allowed to publish or interview Sayyed Husseini. Dissent from the likes of this man is intolerable and has to be smashed. Hezbollah issued its threats. After the two-year spree of car-bombs against journalists, threats from Nasrallah pack weight.

Foreign journalists, though, are allowed to meet with Husseini. Foreign journalists can't be managed and bullied the same way local journalists can. Foreigners like me are, so far anyway, outside the bounds of car-bombs and murders.

I met with Husseini in his modest apartment in the dahiyeh, within walking distance of the rubble that recently was Hezbollah's "Security Square."

"Mr. Mohammad is a doctor," Henry said in the car. "In the religion they call him al alama."

"Which means what, exactly?" I said.

"You heard about the imam Moussa Sadr?" Henry said.

"Of course," I said. The Shia cleric Moussa Sadr founded the secular Amal movement in the 1970s before he vanished forever in Libya.

"He is also alama," Henry said. "Mr. Fadlallah is also alama. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is not alama."

"Nasrallah ranks lower, then?" I asked.

"Yes," Henry said. "You will like Mr. Mohammad. He is a good man." He laughed when he told me Husseini looks like Hassan Nasrallah.

Husseini warmly welcomed us into his house. He did, indeed, look a lot like Hassan Nasrallah.

I sat on the couch and took out my voice recorder. Husseini sat next to me in his chair. Arabic coffee, cookies, and bananas were served. Henry translated as Husseini introduced himself.

"I am the author of 47 books," he said. "You can get them in the market."

"Are those books for sale here in the dahiyeh?" I said, wondering how far Hezbollah's smashing of dissent is taken these days.

"Yes," he said. "We have also some English books. The last book published is about violence and non-violence. This is a gift for you."

He handed me a copy of his book, one whose timing couldn't be better. He then handed me four more paperbacks wrapped in a large brown envelope.

"Thank you so much," I said and promised myself I would read them.

I turned on my voice recorder and started the interview.

"So," I said. "Why are you opposed to Hezbollah?"

"First of all," he said, "I am a peace defender. I have faith in peace. I am against the wars and the violence because of my faith. Any violence, any terrorism."

"There are a lot of people in the West who believe Islam is a religion of war," I said. "I don't necessarily believe that, but many do."

"Yes, I know. I published this," he said as he held up his book, "to explain the difference between the religion and those who are pretending to follow the religion. The proof of my words is that Mr. Bush said we must differentiate between the kinds of Muslims. I have faith in peace. That is why I am sitting with you. That I am Muslim and you are Christian doesn't matter because I believe in peace."

I'm not religious, but I'm "Christian" in the Middle East either way. Religion acts as a sort of ethnicity there, something you're born with and can never escape. Most Middle Eastern countries note religion on identity cards. "None" is not an option.

It's extraordinary how the violent extremists of the Middle East have managed to portray themselves as mainstream in front of Westerners. In some countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, perhaps at least the passive supporters of Islamists really are mainstream. In most places, though, they are not. Religiously moderate Muslims are easy to find in the Middle East, especially in modern countries like Turkey and Lebanon. But they get precious little attention in the media. Those with the rocket launchers and the self-detonation belts are more newsworthy and get much more press.

"I hope that my voice will be heard in the world," Husseini said, "to separate between the two lines, the devil line, the killing line, the bad thoughts, terrorism, and the peaceful line, peace and love, living in dignity, all of that. I also hope that the State Department, and other people who can arrange this, would invite me and some of my friends to discuss the situation here in Lebanon. They think the Shia people here in Lebanon are all on Nasrallah's side. That is not right."

"Many Westerners believe that Islam and democracy are two separate things," I said.

"I wrote that question here," he said and lifted up his book, "along with the answer. What's the difference between Islam and democracy? The word "Islam" means Peace. It's all in here."

"I will read it," I said.

"Yes, yes," Husseini said, "it's for you. Plenty of answers to your questions you will find in my books."

I read his book, and he didn't actually address this directly. But it's obvious after reading his work that he doesn't think Islam and democracy are incompatible. He clearly favors democracy, and he assumes it self-evident that it's the best form of government. Dictatorship, he explicitly says, is just another form of violence and terrorism.

"Islam, in my definition, is the religion of peace," he continued. "It wishes and invites peace and brotherhood and is against violence. There are chapters in the Koran calling for Islam peacefully. The Islamic religion does not attempt to go forcefully, but attempts to go peacefully. We must differentiate between the Islamic religion and those who say they are Islamic. There are plenty of people among the Christians and the Muslims, Michael, who defend Christianity and Islam without knowing what Christianity and Islam are. Terrorism is not Islamic. Islam prohibits it. Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood - Islam is innocent of them. Everyone calling for damage, killing, and blood is not from the religion. It is not from God. This is from the devil."

"So why is Hezbollah popular in Lebanon?" I said.

I did not, and do not, mean to imply that Hezbollah represents the majority of the people of Lebanon. They do not. Hezbollah is, however, supported to one extent or another, and for a wide variety of reasons,. by perhaps 70 percent of Lebanon's Shia. Hardly any of Lebanon's Christians, Sunnis, or Druze support Hezbollah. Even Hezbollah's Christian "allies" in Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement insist Hezbollah needs to disarm and give up the jihad against the Israelis. What this means is that around 80 percent of Lebanon is against them to one extent or another.

"The terrorists and bloody movements get support," Husseini said. "Because my movement is peaceful and non-violent we don't have anybody supporting us."

He is referring here to support from outside Lebanon. Syria and Iran have never supported peaceful movements in Lebanon, and Westerners are mostly oblivious to fact that peaceful Muslim movements there (both Sunni and Shia) even exist.

"Hopefully you can help," he said. "We need support. What did Hezbollah do to become popular up until now? They had four hospitals in the dahiyeh. They had 30 madrassas, or schools. They had 30 foundations for supporting work for the people. Also they bring engineers, doctors, and they have plenty of money. They have a TV channel, radio, newspapers, soldiers. They are a country inside a country, a government inside a government. They have all the money. They have the force to do this. They pushed so hard to help the people that all the poor Shia and some of the rich support them. Also, in the South the same situation. They built hospitals there, and also in Baalbeck. All the Shia places where there are many people they spend money, money, money, money, money. Hezbollah pays for the people to build and repair their houses. So the two reasons are money and services. They use those to gather the people around them."

How can the likes of Sayyed Husseini possibly compete with Hezbollah's power and wealth? Most Lebanese Shia are unaware that Husseini's path is even an option. Hezbollah's very real smashing of dissent ensures that it stays that way.

"What is the solution to this problem?" I said.

"The problem here in Lebanon," Husseini said, "is that if we want to change we need an alternative. If you want to remove me from my position, you need to have a replacement, another person. The people who lived in Iraq with Saddam Hussein, they lived on Saddam's money and Saddam's services. When the United State army came to Iraq, they didn't give them the money. Here in Lebanon the Iranian money, for example, is paying for portable water tanks with Iranian flags on them. It is from Iran. If you want to take Iran out of Lebanon you must bring another one with a Lebanese flag on it."

Hezbollah supporters will tell you that the state has never provided the basic necesities in the Shia regions on Lebanon. There is some truth to this. The problem now, though, is that Hezbollah often prevents the Lebanese government from delivering all of these things. They understand very well that what Husseini says is correct, that Hezbollah buys its power by providing services on their own. They have no chance of monopolizing Shia opinion if they cannot also monopolize community services. They can only build a state-within-a-state if they have their own parallel institutions. Hospitals and schools buy power and loyalty. Hezbollah would be endangered if the government were allowed to step in and do its job.

"All of those people," Husseini said, "most of them, who go to the protest downtown have no work to do. They earn 30 dollars per day."

"Being downtown they get paid 30 dollars a day?" I said.

"Yes," he said. "If they had work to do, they will not go down there. This is Iranian money, the green money. Nasrallah talked about it. We must exchange it with government money."

"But how do you do that," I said, "if Hezbollah blocks the government from coming here?"

"If we use peaceful means," he said, "without contact with Hezbollah it will be the best way. Many people come here and ask for my help. If people like me instead of Hezbollah could help them, they would have none of these problems. I am working to create a peace culture instead of a jihad culture. I am asking to go to the States to discuss these matters."

"How many Lebanese Shia think like you do?" I said. The number is only around 30 percent, but I was curious if he thought it might be higher, or what it might potentially be in the future.

"Every reasonable person thinks like me," he said. "The problem is they need support in the media to gather a big enough number of people. You have a responsibility to get us noticed in the media. The war began with words. Maybe peace can begin with words. I need your help, and I need contacts with human rights organizations in the West."

"What do you think of US policy in Iraq?" I said.

"The problem is not with American policy," he said, "but with the countries around Iraq. America did a good job for the Iraqi people. The problem is not only with Syria and Iran, but a clash between the old dictatorship and the Arab democracy. The countries around Iraq have radical dictatorships and they are against democracy. If democracy succeeds in Iraq it will be a good view for the other countries. That is why they are fighting."

"What do you think about Israel?" I said.

"From the human side," he said, "all of us are children of Adam and Eve. We wish to live peacefully all around the world. All people have the right to live in peace."

"Should there be a peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel now?" I said.

Most Lebanese want eventual peace with Israel, but at the same time they want the outstanding issues (and Israel's existence isn't one of them for most) resolved first.

"I push all people to go in peace," he said. "This is what Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad teach."

"So," I said, "should there be a peace treaty before or after the Shebba Farms, Lebanese prisoners in Israel, and Palestinian refugees have been resolved?"

"I want peace all over the world," he said. "So what I wish for the world I also wish for Lebanon. We have seen so much fighting, killing, and blood. More than our share."

It is worth pointing out once again that when Israel invaded South Lebanon in 1982 to evict the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the border, most of the Shia hailed the Israelis as liberators from Palestinian perfidy. This was their natural default position. The fact that they are Arabs and Muslims did not, as the conventional wisdom would have it, mean they opposed Israel's existence or wanted to fight the Israelis. Iranian agents infiltrated the region at the same time, relentlessly propagandized against the Israelis, and created Hezbollah from scratch. That is what opened this front in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"What does Hassan Nasrallah think about you?" I said.

"I don't care what he thinks," he said. "I care about what God and Lebanon think. I am living God's teachings of peace and love. I am working to help people. Jesus teaches I don't care you who are. I care about your suffering and illness. That is why I help you. I believe God is satisfied with my work because I am helping others. Lebanese people appreciate my work because I am working to gather the Lebanese and stop clashes between them. This is the right work for religious men. Religious men who ask for war and blood and terrorism are serving the devil."

"What do you think of George W. Bush?" I said.

"I thank Mr. Bush for helping the people of Lebanon by getting the Syrians out," he said.

Lebanese deserve most of the credit for ejecting the Syrians. If they hadn't demanded the withdrawal of the Baath regime from their country, Bashar Assad would still be ruler of Lebanon. Nevertheless, the US government put enormous pressure on Assad to withdraw, and some Lebanese have told me it was this pressure that gave them the courage to demand withdrawal in the first place.

"How does Hezbollah prevent you from getting media coverage?" I said.

"I studied in Qom [in Iran] because Saddam was still in Najaf [in Iraq]," he said. "Iraqi Shia all had to go there and get their degrees. I wrote two articles in the newspaper talking about the real brotherhood between Lebanon and the USA and asking Lebanese Shia to open relations with the USA. Hezbollah worked to stop my ability to continue publishing in the newspaper. So I rely on foreign journalists to tell the world what I and my friends think."

"Has anyone ever threatened you?" I said.

"Yes, plenty of people," he said.

"Lebanese or Syrian?" I said.

"Lebanese and Iranian," he said, which slightly surprised me. Iranian threats inside Lebanon get perhaps no attention in the media whatsoever. This was actually the first time I had heard of it happening.

He took my hand and asked me if I would please put him in contact with institutions and human rights organizations in the West. He feels, and is, extremely isolated thanks to Iran and Hezbollah.

"I want to say one more thing about Lebanon," he said. "Because of my religion and the Lebanese situation at this difficult time I call for a reasonable Lebanese politics. Nasrallah said he would not have started the war if he knew what would happen. He must know, he must know, he must know that we heading toward war. Everyone will be responsible. I call on everybody to go back from being politically drunk to the reasonable way. Lebanese should not clash with other Lebanese and take the country to Hell. Those who run around the rim of Hell will fall in it."

Michael J. Totten is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. His work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Reason, the LA Weekly, Beirut's Daily Star, and the Australian edition of Newsweek. Visit his blog at MichaelTotten.com.


Categories:

7 Comments

THANK YOU
for showing some of the folks here a *different* view of Islam than they'd otherwise see or acknowledge
(because we all know Islam is the relgion of violence, right people?!)

Where Are The Clerics To Stand Up Against The Sick Racist Violence Of Fake Cult Christianity
We need some liberal clerics to stand up to the war mongering mass murderers in America: the child-abusing/woman rapist George W. Bush and his NeoCon worshippers on TCS. He's a god to many of the posters here on TCS. How many of many of you have George W. Bush tatoos?? "Complete Devotion to God George"...or something like that... I wouldn't be surprised since he is a demi-god to you out of touch hypocrites.

Bush and his kind are the reason the middle east has it's share of radical fundamentalists. If Iran has a lick of sense of course they want a nuke or two. With the sick Apartheid state of Israel right there threatening on one side and the racist zombie forces of the U.S. next door huffing and puffing, I hope they have the sense to find weapons to keep our racist rapist troops out of Iran.

TCS misses the mark again.

Racism.
Colonialism.
Religious nutcase fundamentalist fake Christian Crusaders.
Bigots.

That's TCS and NeoCons.
Out of touch dinosaurs.
Every article proves it.

More moderate Muslims must speak up
First, geez what the heck set off 'beatles1'? If they believe Bush, et al started all this or is the reason for the mess we are in then they need to go back to school or sue where they went for a lousy education, most especially for any world history course they took.

Second, I have debated by email several individuals that called themselves moderate Muslims. I believe from those debates that many Muslims truly wish to live in peace with the rest of world, most especially the USA. I asked why more moderates like themselves didn't speak out. I could understand how they might disagree with USA policy related to Israel but that was just a small piece in the overall puzzle in the greater conflict.

I was a bit surprised by their answers. One told me that dissent, especially speaking out against radical Muslims was frowned on or at least not acceptable behavior in many Muslim communities. Even in the US one might expect repercussions from others in the Muslim community if they spoke out.

They also explained that the Israeli-Palestinin conflict didn't help relations between the USA and Muslims generally, but the overall Muslim-Western culture conflict was based on far greater idealogical concerns.

The most troubling part of the discussion was the numbers we in the West face in this war. I suggested that from my reading only about 10% of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world supported jihad against the West. Each told me I was wrong, the number either participating or supporting jihad against the West, especially the USA was more like 20 to 25%. Do the math, that is more people than the total population of Germany and Japan at the start of WWII.

Folks like 'beatles1' can scream and call other Americans names,they can attempt to place blame on whom they believe is the obvious but Bush isn't the enemy we face. I guess for people like 'beatles1' we have to lose a city to a nuke before they get it.

How about posting titles that make sense? Start with that.
Priceless. This is the best one yet:

>"the child-abusing/woman rapist George W. Bush and his NeoCon worshippers on TCS"

I have never heard of charges of child-abuse for GWB and I believe you have Bush confused with Clinton for the rape charges LeMule.

Other than that, a great start to a rant!

>"How many of many of you have George W. Bush tatoos??"

Count me in. I will place it next to my Beatles1 tattoo.

>"Bush and his kind are the reason the middle east has it's share of radical fundamentalists."

Yep. No radical Muslims in the Middle East before Bush. Everyone was just flying kites, holding hands, and singing songs around the campfire. Good times...

>"If Iran has a lick of sense of course they want a nuke or two."

Yeah, because their leader is perfectly sane. You can tell you don't read much LeMule.

>"With the sick Apartheid state of Israel right there threatening on one side and the racist zombie forces of the U.S. next door huffing and puffing, I hope they have the sense to find weapons to keep our racist rapist troops out of Iran."

Never mind that Iran was virtually ignored until they began development of nuclear weapons.

I do like the racist zombies. Tell me, are they racist because they discriminate against the living?

>"Racism."

Virtually unknown by Middle Eastern cultures before the coming of the evil Americans.

>"Colonialism."

Yep. Those Muslims never built empires of their own or attempted to colonize anywhere they were not wanted.

>"Religious nutcase fundamentalist fake Christian Crusaders."

Ah, the Crusades. I wouldn't expect morons such as yourself and the other Islamofascists to let go of something that happened hundreds of years ago.

If you are speaking in modern terms then the Crusaders, the ones attempting to spread religious dogma, are the Islamofascists. Sorry, I shouldn't let logic and truth undermine your rant.

>"Bigots."

You repeat yourself. I am sure that the forces of Islamofascism would create a world where all are equal... except for women, children, blacks, Jews, Christians, homosexuals, etc.

>"That's TCS and NeoCons."

I actually see TCS as more libertarian. I doubt you can make the distinction considering your intellectual deformities.

>"Out of touch dinosaurs."

Ah, but fake Mr. Vietnam Flashback isn't stuck in the past at all eh? You can almost see the Brown Acid in your postings.

>"Every article proves it."

I hate all absolute statements.

Who the heck is this guy?
I've just googled "sayyed husseini". And there doesn't seem to be a single reference to this fellow other than an impressive number of pages written by Michael Totten. No one else seems to have heard of him

If the thrust of the article is, let's throw some weight behind this influential but suppressed voice of moderation so we can get some momentum going, let's be aware that apparently he has yet to attract his first follower. Other, of course, than Mr Totten.

Check him out and see what you think.

Very interesting...
Indeed many a link refers to Totten's interview. You might be on to something here Roy. Here are some other links:

This dude interviewed him but doesn't seem to state anything you couldn't find in the Totten interview:

http://www.mcc.org/news/news/2006/2006-09-01_peacemaker.html

Other than that you can go to his own website but you need a crash course in Arabic.

MEMRI did not turn up a single hit for the name nor did Amazon (since he wrote so many books). It would be a shame if this was a fake when there are actual moderate Muslims out there.

The nonviolent approach
It looks like he's real to me. The web site you found has his photo, talking with this Mennonite fellow doing the interview. But I can't imagine with a message of nonviolence he has much of a following among Lebanese Shiites. With something like zero followers he's as obscure as a person can be.

The strategy worked against the British in India. But it won't work against Israel. Turn the other cheek and they'll take over the OTs and southern Lebanon as well. Wouldn't you agree their aim is to hold everything up to the Jordan and the Litani? It's hard to be nonviolent with someone who just wants your land.

TCS Daily Archives