Two months after 9/11, I was in a Beirut hotel when my telephone rang. It was Hezbollah calling. I had given them my room number earlier in the week, and they were finally contacting me, to arrange an interview with their organization. Through a separate contact, I also set up a talk with a cleric who was considered Hezbollah’s former spiritual leader, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. Fadlallah, who died today in Beirut, was once targeted for assassination, reportedly with the approval of the CIA, in a massive bombing that killed scores of people coming from religious services. To secure my interview with Fadlallah, his officials asked me to fax them my CV and an editor’s letter from San Francisco that vouched for my assignment in Lebanon.
“Take care of yourself, Jonathan,” my paper’s administrative assistant told me on the phone from San Francisco. Worried about my safety, this assistant had probably seen the 1999 Hollywood film “The Insider,” which has journalist Lowell Bergman blindfolded by gun-toting militants as he’s shepherded to an interview with Fadlallah. Lebanon’s bloody civil war, and more recent violence in Beirut, also foreshadowed possible danger, but Fadlallah was emblematic of a side of the Middle East that’s often absent from Western media: Moderate Islam. I wasn’t blindfolded when I entered Fadlallah’s compound in south Beirut. (The director of “The Insider” fabricated Bergman’s cloistering for dramatic effect.) Instead, I was led into a large room with high ceilings on the second floor, which had Rembrandt-like paintings of famous Shia leaders, including the Ayatollah Khomeini. Opulent chandeliers, an ivory-painted interior, and freshly shellacked hardwood floors gave the room the feel of a meeting place for dignitaries. Fadlallah was a Grand Ayatollah who wore a black turban that signified his descent from the Muslim prophet Muhammad. He entered the room, sat on a chair next to an interpreter, and invited me to ask anything I wanted for 30 minutes. The scene was unforgettable, and so were Fadlallah’s answers.
“If the United States comes back and maintains the rights of the populations around the world, then we would be friends with the Americans, because Islam asks us to be friends of all the world,” he told me.
Fadlallah said Muslims, Jews, and Christians could get along in the modern world, but in that interview, he also said there were caveats to achieving peace – that Israel needed to relinquish land it had taken in the 1967 war, that Washington needed to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that the United States’ foray into Afghanistan would backfire.
“I think the way that America is conducting itself in its war against terrorism will turn the world into chaos,” Fadlallah told me, adding that bombing of Afghanistan “will lead people to form revolutionary groups unrelated to each other, and they will all attack America. Then we’ll have a very hard time controlling them.”
The “we” in this case included Fadlallah, who was deeply critical of the 9/11 hijackers and their killing of civilians. “Who speaks for moderate Islam” is a question that is asked repeatedly around the world. For many people, the answer led them to Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.