Shia clerics losing influence in Lebanon and Iraq
The situations in Lebanon and Iraq are similar in many ways. The regimes in both countries are based on sectarian and partisan quotas and they both suffer from Iran’s hegemony.
However, if Lebanon is hostage to Hezbollah and lies in the shadow of one turban, that of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, Iraq is dying under the weight of dozens of militias that make up the Popular Mobilisation Forces, most of which are loyal to the mullahs’ regime in Iran, with one section of the forces belonging to what is known as the Islamic Resistance to legitimise its direct dependence on al-Quds Force and its commander Qassem Soleimani.
Another important difference is the existence in Iraq of a religious authority that has influence in supporting or rejecting the performance of governments. In Lebanon, there isn’t one influential Shia authority who can determine the community’s political line.
That is due, in part, to Iran’s influence via Hezbollah, a party founded by a fatwa from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the early 1980s. This Iranian meddling prevented the rise to authority of any Lebanese Shia jurist or cleric, as is the case in Iraq.
The case of Mohammad Hossein Fadhlallah, who died in 2010, for example, shows he started his political journey with the trans-border Islamic Dawah Party. He became a jurist for Hezbollah but resigned after Khomeini's death. His resignation was not because of the convergence of Hezbollah’s conduct with Iranian policies but apparently for personal reasons.
Fadhlallah’s ambition was to become a Shia “Marja,” a recognised religious authority, and he considered himself as qualified for that as Khomeini's successor, Ali Khamenei. So Fadhlallah abandoned the Iranian track and turned his attention to Shia authorities, such as the al-Amine family, in Lebanon who had not been involved with Hezbollah.
Lebanon’s Shia Islamic Council was founded by Musa al-Sadr. Following his disappearance in Libya in 1978, council Vice-President, Mohammad Mahdi Shams al-Din, who died in 2001, took over. Both leaders did not want to have anything to do with the velayat-e faqih in Iran or with Iranian politics.
The next head of the council, however, Abdul Amir Qabalan is a supporter of Hezbollah and an agent of Iranian policy. Among his achievements was relieving Sayed Ali al-Amin of his position as a legitimate Shia judge because Amin considered that Hezbollah did not represent Lebanon's Shia but, rather, Iranian policy.
Since the death in 1952 of Sayed Mohsen al-Amine, the last Shia authority for Lebanon and the whole of the Levant, Lebanon has not had an influential Shia authority. Amine was known for his brave position against Shia practices on Ashura.
During his time, there was another Shia authority, Abdul Hussein Sharf al-Din, who died in 1957. After those two authorities, Sadr appeared. Sadr was from Iran and he had a political purpose. He founded the Movement of the Disenfranchised, which evolved into the Amal militia, now headed by Nabih Berri. Amal was opposed to the recent demonstrations and tried to thwart Lebanon’s Shias from participating in them.
Nasrallah, who publicly declared his loyalty to velayat-e faqih in Tehran, and Hezbollah, which is virtually a part of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have not won the support and respect of Lebanon's Shias as a whole.
Its popularity among Lebanon’s Shias was fuelled by pure material gains, such as salaries, free medical care and free education, generously dispensed to the Shia residents of Beirut’s southern suburbs and of other Shia areas.
This is a reason behind the blind obedience of the party’s followers to the party’s instructions during Lebanon’s crises which were the cause of the recent uprisings.
Nevertheless, and despite this blind obedience, the country’s Shias demonstrated with other Lebanese citizens and broke the barrier of the sanctity of Hezbollah as the party of resistance to Israel.
During the protests, slogans accusing Nasrallah by name and his parliamentary bloc of corruption were brandished. Of course, Iran’s mouthpieces, such as Al-Alam and Al Mayadeen, declared the uprisings to be part of a conspiracy cooked up by foreign embassies in Lebanon. The same charges were levied against demonstrators in Iraq.
The situation in Iraq is quite different from the one in Lebanon in terms of the influence of Shia clerics on Iraqi society and in terms of the existence of religious celebrations through which Shia Islamist parties have dominated the Iraqi collective mood.
Shia clerics preached patience on corruption and poor services and the worsening conditions of the country to show perpetual sadness on the unfortunate fate of Imam Hussein during the walk to Karbala.
Such a situation cannot last forever because people have urgent needs that must be met. Shias in Lebanon may, for a while, be content with their freedom to perform their religious rites and rituals. They may, for the sake of sectarian unity, accept, for a while, to close an eye on Iranian hegemony and even accept the sentiment of Nasrallah when he said: “Our beloved leader and our Hussein of modern times is Sayed Ali Khamenei.”
Iraq’s Shias may, for some time, overlook the destructive behaviour of the Iranian militias and may not react to the Iranian ambassador’s derogatory remarks about Iraq, as if it were an Iranian colony. They may overlook the presence of Khomeini’s and Khamenei’s pictures everywhere, as if the rights of the homeland and of citizens meant nothing, but only for a while.
The demonstrations in Iraq brought down the sanctity and the prestige of religious authorities. These authorities and their turbaned henchmen have been selling and buying Iraq for 16 years. Similarly, demonstrations in Lebanon have broken Hezbollah’s grip over the country. The Lebanese are no longer willing to swallow the party’s excuse of personifying the armed resistance to the occupier.