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, who 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.”
Most of the buildings in Haret Hreik, at least those that weren’t damaged or destroyed during last summer’s war, look like this one
Henry drove me down there. When we passed under a bombed out bridge that marked the entrance to the area I sneaked a quick photo.
“Don’t take pictures!” he said. “Mr. Mohammad will take us on a tour after the interview. You can take pictures when you are with him. He promised me that we will do this.”
I asked him what would happen if the Lebanese army tried to enter Hezbollah’s de-facto sovereign territory.
“Hezbollah would not let them,” he said. “I don’t think they would fight, but Hezbollah would not let them. Some say the army would separate, that the Shia would leave the army. This may be right. It depends on the mission. Are they going there to fight the Shia? Or for peace?”
Traffic streamed north toward more Hezbollah-led demonstrations downtown. The army was deployed everywhere in Beirut outside of the dahiyeh. Lebanon had, and still has, the outward appearance of a garrison state.
“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 said.
“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 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.
“I believe that plenty of the Western people believe that there are two kinds of people,” Husseini said. “Some who believe in peace and God and some that believe in violence and the devil. While I was in Germany, I met a student. He told me that I am a Muslim, that I am a terrorist. I told him that he is the German, that he burned people. I said Why are you talking to me? I didn’t burn anybody. I told him also that I didn’t terrorize anybody, and that I was the first person to condemn what Osama bin Laden did to America on 9/11. I told him that we, the Shia people, in Iraq we were the first victims. Saddam killed civilian people, he cut off our heads, he blew up our houses. I told him that Hitler burned the Jews. Nobody in the world has done what he did. Then I told him we are the same. You are German, and you are not Hitler. I am a Muslim, but I am not Osama bin Laden.”
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, if they 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.”
Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini’s home office and library
“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.
“Are you with March 14, or are you independent?” I said. “March 14” refers to the anti-Syrian and pro-Western majority in the government, named after the enormous rally on March 14, 2005, that led to the withdrawal of the occupying Syrian army.
“I am Lebanese,” he said. “I am with Lebanon. My loyalty is to Lebanon. The Shia sect must serve Lebanon. We were born in this country, we live here, we grow here, we must serve and defend its independence and territories. I love Lebanon, and I am ready to serve my country. A man who does not help his country is not good for anything.”
“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.
Here, then, are copies of his business card in English and Arabic if anyone wants to talk to him. He understands some English, but only Arabic speakers will be able to communicate with him over the phone.
“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.”
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All photographs copyright Michael J. Totten