Fadlallah and the Western media’s dangerous complicity

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Beirut’s southern suburbs to mourn the death of Ayatollah Fadlallah. (Matthew Cassel)

There is a lot to say about Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the Lebanese Shia Muslim cleric who passed away on 4 July 2010 at the age of 75. Unfortunately, much of what there is to say is being left unsaid for more of the same sensationalist reporting on this region and its people.

Fadlallah was a progressive Shia cleric, known for his defense of armed resistance and women’s rights. He was outspoken against Israel’s 22 year occupation of south Lebanon and cheered attacks against it. In 1985 the CIA is thought to have been behind a massive car bomb that attempted to take his life — it missed the Ayatollah killing 80 other Lebanese civilians and injured hundreds more. However, his support for resistance didn’t end with the Israeli invaders; Ayatollah Fadlallah also said that women have the right to use violence to resist domestic abuse.

The day after his death, Nasawiya, a feminist collective in Lebanon, wrote a post on Facebook telling Fadlallah: “Your feminist voice will be missed.” The post linked to an obituary by journalist Zeinab Yaghi writing in Arabic for the Lebanese daily As-Safir where she wrote of Fadlallah: “Women used to see him as a father” and that he “encouraged women to work.”

He was a leader for many Shia Muslims in Lebanon and elsewhere around the world. In Lebanon, a country divided along strict sectarian lines, he was a truly unique religious figure for the respect that he garnered from people of other faiths and the secular alike.

Most headlines in English-language media outlets have wrongly linked Fadlallah to Hizballah, the Shia Islamic resistance and political group in Lebanon. It is said that Fadlallah influenced some of Hizballah’s founders along with numerous other young Shias in the years leading up to and during Hizballah’s formation in the early 1980s. But in Lebanon it is widely known that, despite their mutual respect for each other, Fadlallah and Hizballah did not work together and even disagreed on many issues. Some of these fundamental differences stem from Hizballah’s close relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, whereas Fadlallah had long opposed the Ayatollah Khomeini-inspired clerical leadership of the country after its 1979 revolution.

This intentional mistake of linking Fadlallah to Hizballah should come as little surprise from a media that too often chooses sensationalism over accuracy when covering Lebanon and the region. As a journalist and photographer working in Lebanon, I know that European and US media are rarely interested in political or religious topics when the focus is not Hizballah. Ayatollah Fadlallah’s importance had little to do with Hizballah, and that was clear on 6 July 2010 when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to mourn his death.

Breaking from this sensationalist coverage was a blog post on the British government’s website by Frances Guy, the British ambassador in Lebanon (whose positions I’ve criticized in the past), which contained the following:

“The world needs more men like [Fadlallah] willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints. May he rest in peace. “

It was a very kind tribute to a religious leader based on Guy’s experience learning about Fadlallah and meeting him in Beirut. She even succeeded in not mentioning “Hizballah” once. I would happily link to the post had it not been removed “after mature consideration” by the UK Foreign Office who thought that Guy was being a bit too laudatory of a person who died under the “Hizballah leader” headlines. (Fortunately, what goes on the web stays on the web and you can find her post cached here.) Guy later wrote a new post expressing regret for ever writing the tribute:

“I have no truck with terrorism wherever it is committed in whoever’s name. The British Government has been clear that it condemns terrorist activity carried out by Hizballah. I share that view.”

Similar to Guy, Octavia Nasr, CNN’s senior editor of Mideast affairs, also offered her admiration for Fadlallah after his death over the social networking site Twitter:

“Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hizballah’s giants I respect a lot.”

Nasr, a Lebanese-American journalist who has worked with CNN for 20 years, later wrote an article regretting her tweet which was then removed; in her article she was sure to remind us which side she is on, using the words “terror” or terrorist” five times. I’ve followed her work with CNN and know that her reporting would hardly upset anyone in any recent US administration. Yet the one time she does, she loses her job as a result.

These blatant acts of censorship by western governments and media prove that showing an accurate or nuanced picture of the Middle East is not high on their agendas. After all, an accurate picture would show that western-waged and backed wars in this region are far from just, and therefore it’s easy to understand how resistance to them is widely supported. Not only did Fadlallah support resistance, but he also challenged the stereotype many have in the west of Islam as a religion intolerant of women’s rights.

Fadlallah was a leader that anyone even slightly familiar with this region could easily respect. The censored coverage of his passing in the west proves the complicity of our media with our government’s deadly and oppressive policies in the Middle East.

Matthew Cassel is based in Beirut, Lebanon and is Assistant Editor of The Electronic Intifada. His website is http://justimage.org.