Hezbol­lah’s Mix of Prayer and Pol­i­tics

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Alia Ibrahim

BEIRUT ne rainy morn­ing in Jan­uary, Iti­dal Karim took her two ado­les­cent daugh­ters and 4year-old son and joined tens of thou­sands of other women dressed in black chadors to walk for miles through Beirut’s gritty sub­urbs. Ar­riv­ing at their des­ti­na­tion, they stood in a pool of mud and, al­ter­nately cheer­ing, beat­ing their chests and rais­ing their fists in a show of sol­i­dar­ity and strength, lis­tened to Hezbol­lah leader Hasan Nas­ral­lah speak on the an­niver­sary of the death of Imam Hus­sein, grand­son of the prophet Muham­mad and the most revered fig­ure in Shi­ite Is­lam.

The trip wasn’t easy for Karim. But she never con­sid­ered not tak­ing part in the com­mem­o­ra­tion of Ashura, as the day is known. That is a re­li­gious duty, and miss­ing it would be a sin. So would fail­ing to par­tic­i­pate in a demon­stra­tion called by Hezbol­lah, or not vot­ing for a spec­i­fied list of can­di­dates, or ig­nor­ing any other ac­tion or­dered un­der the re­li­gious com­mand known as tak­lif sharii.

“The tak­lif rep­re­sents the du­ties I must ful­fill,” Karim said. “If we are asked to par­tic­i­pate in a demon­stra­tion, then we must par­tic­i­pate, even if we’re sick, even if we have fam­ily obli­ga­tions.”

Rein­tro­duced in 1969 by Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini, the even­tual leader of the Ira­nian revo­lu­tion, the con­tro­ver­sial no­tion of tak­lif gives broad pow­ers to the faqih, or ul­ti­mate Shi­ite re­li­gious leader, who to­day is Khome­ini’s suc­ces­sor, Ira­nian Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei. Sup­port­ers are obliged to fol­low his com­mands, and dis­obey­ing him is con­sid­ered tan­ta­mount to dis­obey­ing God. As Khamenei’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Le­banon, Nas­ral­lah has the author­ity to is­sue re­li­gious com­mands, a power he of­ten wields as a po­lit­i­cal tool.

That’s what he is do­ing in the cri­sis that has em­broiled Le­banon since De­cem­ber. In ad­di­tion to giv­ing fiery speeches de­nounc­ing the Le­banese gov­ern­ment and ag­i­tat­ing for ex­panded po­lit­i­cal power, Nas­ral­lah is­sued a tak­lif to rally the Shi­ite com­mu­nity in solid, un­ques­tion­ing sup­port of Hezbol­lah’s de­mand for onethird of the seats in the Le­banese cabi­net.

Yet tak­lif is far from an ac­cepted prin­ci­ple of Shi­ite the­ol­ogy. Even in Le­banon, cler­ics de­bate its le­git­i­macy.

“Tak­lif’s use as a po­lit­i­cal tool has be­come al­most

Olike a mil­i­tary or­der, and it com­pletely con­tra­dicts the in­di­vid­ual’s sa­cred right of choice. Noth­ing should be im­posed on peo­ple,” says Hani Fahs, a cleric and mem­ber of the Shi­ite Higher Coun­cil, cit­ing a verse from the Ko­ran: “How can you en­slave peo­ple, born free by their moth­ers?” But Mohamed Sherri, an ed­i­to­ri­al­ist and talk show host on Hezbol­lah’s al-Ma­nar television sta­tion, dis­agrees. Ev­ery in­di­vid­ual’s choice to com­mit to re­li­gion en­sures that his or her rights will not be com­pro­mised, he says. And is­su­ing a tak­lif on po­lit­i­cal mat­ters is un­com­mon and lim­ited to “very se­ri­ous mat­ters.” But “once a tak­lif is is­sued, vi­o­lat­ing it is sim­i­lar to any sin, like mur­der or adul­tery, or not pray­ing or fast­ing.”

But be­cause tak­lif re­quires the be­liever’s com­plete ad­her­ence to the re­li­gious author­ity as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of God, says po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Wad­dah Shrara, au­thor of “The State of Hezbol­lah,” it gives Hezbol­lah an un­con­tested po­lit­i­cal weapon. And the move­ment has used it, is­su­ing a tak­lif call­ing on hun­dreds of thou­sands of sup­port­ers to take part in demon­stra­tions and sit-ins un­til the de­mands for greater power are met.

Huda Issa is a 37-year-old me­dia of­fi­cial with Hezbol­lah. For more than two months, she has spent more than 14 hours a day in one of the green-and-white tents that Hezbol­lah and its al­lies have planted across down­town Beirut in a bid to force the gov­ern­ment’s res­ig­na­tion. From un­der her thick black chador, she pas­sion­ately de­fends the con­fla­tion of re­li­gion and pol­i­tics un­der tak­lif.

“We don’t sep­a­rate” them, she says. “Democ­racy is not rel­e­vant here, it is not im­por­tant. Faith is more im­por­tant to us. We trust our lead­ers to lead us on the path of jus­tice.”

Though she wasn’t al­ways this de­vout, Issa has no doubt that she has cho­sen the right road, and she sees her­self as work­ing to­ward the cre­ation of a per­fect so­ci­ety. This is her tak­lif, she says.

Hezbol­lah’s re­li­gious in­flu­ence is hard to es­cape in Beirut’s south­ern sub­urbs. In what looks like a huge pro­pa­ganda cam­paign, the streets of Dahieh de­ploy mod­ern and tra­di­tional dis­plays cel­e­brat­ing both an­cient his­tory and the fu­ture ob­jec­tives of a revo­lu­tion­ary re­li­gion. Col­ored posters of young men killed fight­ing Is­rael are spread along­side white, black or green ban­ners quot­ing Khome­ini and Nas­ral­lah. Shops sell books, CDs and sou­venirs re­lated to Kar­bala, the city, now in Iraq, where Imam Hus­sein was mar­tyred in the 7th cen­tury A.D. His sto­ries are found in kiosks around ev­ery cor­ner. In­ter­spersed among them are hun­dreds of fundrais­ing boxes, which are in­tended, says Khadiya Sal­loum, who di­rects Hezbol­lahrun women’s or­ga­ni­za­tions in Beirut, to pro­mote the cul­ture of char­i­ta­ble giv­ing. “Even poor peo­ple can give some­thing,” she says. “This way they feel they are con­tribut­ing some­thing to the sys­tem.”

But what she sees as an in­no­cent tool for rais­ing aware­ness, Wad­dah Shrara con­sid­ers a bril­liant plan un­der­taken by Ira­nian intelligence in the early 1980s to re­con­sti­tute the down­trod­den Shi­ite class in Le­banon dur­ing the civil war, when the state was largely out of the pic­ture. “The mem­bers of this shat­tered com­mu­nity were given an iden­tity, power, money they could take that wasn’t con­sid­ered char­ity, lead­er­ship they could obey with­out em­bar­rass­ment, ev­ery­thing,” he said. “They didn’t build a state, they built a so­ci­ety that is the state of Hezbol­lah.”

The rein­te­gra­tion of the Shi­ites into the coun­try’s pol­i­tics is es­sen­tial to Le­banon’s fu­ture. But be­cause tak­lif is so en­tan­gled with a re­li­gious ide­ol­ogy that reaches far be­yond Le­banon’s borders, that rein­te­gra­tion is a daunt­ing propo­si­tion. Le­banon’s Shi­ites feel a loy­alty to Hezbol­lah that far tran­scends any sense of loy­alty to an ab­stract po­lit­i­cal state and gov­ern­ment.

Sit­ting in a con­fer­ence room at a Hezbol­lah-run re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tion where she at­tends classes, Iti­dal Karim says she doesn’t trust the Le­banese state. “I re­ally see noth­ing I could sup­port,” she says. “Dur­ing the war, when Is­rael was killing us, they were con­fis­cat­ing our weapons.”

What she be­lieves, she teaches her chil­dren. And with the re­sources of al-Ma­nar television and the guid­ance of Nas­ral­lah, posters of whom adorn the house, most of the job is al­ready done for her. “My son looks at me, sees what I am wear­ing, and he loves all the other women dressed like me. We’re the same,” she says.

The cen­ter’s lobby is bustling. A class has just ended, and women are pick­ing up their chil­dren from the nurs­ery. Be­neath a poster of Khamenei, shad­owed by Khome­ini, an op­er­a­tor an­swers phones that don’t stop ring­ing. A mother holds the hand of a lit­tle girl with curly hair, dressed in black trousers and a black sweater em­bla­zoned with the words “Oh Hus­sein.” An­other wo­man holds her 1-year-old son. A col­league asks the child whether he knows how to lament the death of Imam Hus­sein. He nods and starts beat­ing his chest.

In this cul­tural cen­ter, there is no Le­banese flag in sight.

ali­aibrahim1@gmail.com

BY MOHAMED AZAKIR

To­tal obe­di­ence: For Shi­ite women in Beirut, it would be a sin to skip Ashura, the day com­mem­o­rat­ing the death of Imam Hus­sein in the 7th cen­tury A.D.

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