The LA Times had an interesting article in its 2-06-08 issue by Borzou Daraghai (“Lebanon Cleric Advises ‘Modern Shiites’”). It’s a good tonic against the rising tide of Islamophobia engulfing the West in general and the US in particular. Just think of the hysterical reactions we have read about when a Muslim was elected to Congress and a high school dedicated to Arabic studies and language was opened in New York City.
The impression most Americans get from the popular, mostly right wing and conservative, media is that Islam is a backward religion run by medieval throwbacks to the Dark Ages. To counter such outlooks progressives can refer the neocons to the web site of the Lebanese cleric Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah. Now don’t expect a Marxist, but the GA has decidedly progressive views when compared to the Christian right in this country and many of the more backward looking reactionary Islamists.
What is a Grand Ayatollah? Well, an Ayatollah is someone so respected for his knowledge of Islam that his faith community (in this case the Shia branch of Islam) grants him that title. A GA is an Ayatollah the other Ayatollahs respect and elect as it were. He can pronounce fatwas, that is, give an authoritative interpretation of Islam for the faithful to model their behavior on. It is a nonbinding but very powerful statement of what is good conduct and vice versa.
GA Fadlallah is reported to have outraged “conservative” (i.e., culture bound reactionary) Muslims with his fatwas based on more enlightened and modern perspectives. Here are some examples. “A woman can respond to physical violence inflicted on her by a man with counter-violence as a self-defense measure.” The reactionaries considered this fatwa from the highest-ranking cleric in Lebanon scandalous. He also ruled against “using any sort of violence against a woman, even in the form of insults and harsh words.”
The GA is also quoted as saying, “The belief that it is disgraceful for the man to manage household tasks is derived from the social culture and not from Islam. Personally, I think that no woman would be obliged to bring her social life to a standstill just because she is being occupied with her children.”
What this shows is that it is NOT Islam per se that is to blame for the many negative characteristics selectively reported in the US press, but the surrounding cultural conditions and level of societal development. It is analogous to not blaming the democratic process because Huckabee won in some states.
GA Fadlallah is also politically advanced. He is opposed to US imperialism and at the same time to Islamic extremism. “I think,” he said, “the current Iranian president lacks diplomatic skills, and I think he creates problems for Iran.” Very diplomatically put.
As far as the notion of a worldwide Shia anti-Western movement is concerned, the GA says: “I don’t see there is a unity in the situation of Shiites in the world.” Marxists would agree since they see religious views as tempered by the economic and productive forces at work in a society.
He also has progressive views with respect to women’s rights to education stating that “Knowledge is a merit for man and woman equally, and the importance of acquiring it is identical to both of them.” The GA Fadlallah is an example of a relatively progressive voice within Islam. We in the West should be reporting on and becoming more aware of such voices.
The policies of the Bush administration and its military adventures and diplomatic fiascos in the Middle East and elsewhere only strengthens the hand of Islamic reaction. It is US policy that is responsible for the so-called “threat” of militant Islam and that makes the views of clerics such as GA Fadlallah and other liberal minded clerics more difficult to spread in the Islamic world.