On Sunday 13th September 2009, highly influential Shiaa Cleric Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah issues a fatwa from Beirut banning the normalisation of ties with Israel. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, a ‘fatwa’ being a binding religious decree, similar in effect to the one issued by Ayatollah Khomeiny in the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair in the 1980s.
There is nothing new in the basic position adopted by Sayyed Fadlallah. The normalisation of ties with Israel is a highly charged issue at a time when there is no movement on the peace process front and the Palestinian state remains inaccessible. The problem lies with the premise he uses to justify his position. From what I read in the Arab speaking press The fatwa consists of 4 points which mostly reiterate the right of the Palestinian to the entirety of Palestinian land and the duty of every Muslim to resist the ‘rape’(Ightisab) of the land as the future of the entire Muslim nation depends on it. It also encourages other clerics to issue clear instructions to the believers and adopt a proactive approach in supporting the Palestinian cause. Point 2 is the one I found most controversial, especially when Sayyed Fadlallah is known for his measured words and open mindedness (in relative terms of course).
While most Lebanese and Foreign media only focused on the headline and the message of the fatwa, the Lebanese daily Assafir and the online media outlet El-Nashra gave a more detailed account of the actual statement. Assafir reports that in point 2 of the fatwa the Sayyed Fadlallah: “And it is the responsibility of the Arab and Muslim People, which day and night read in the Holy Koran, the history of these Zionists to realise that they did not have the acceptance of God, so how could they gain acceptance among people”. El-Nashra goes further: “Their history is only one of killing some prophets and rejecting others while obstructing their path, so that they have always been a problem in more than one historical period and a problem for people in more than one part of the world.” He goes on to justify that: “When we talk about the history of the Jews, we are not judging them on their past, for the Koranic message is one that the responsibility for history lies with those who committed it. Instead we point out that the attitude of their ancestors still continues to this day, and that there is a unity and consistency in the immorality and inhumanity of their stance, regardless of the modern change in discourse”.(Apologies for any inaccuracies in the translation)
I am honestly puzzled by the tone of the Fatwa, even if we consider that Fadlallah only intended for it to be head among his followers. Firstly, I am surprised by the casual use of Jews and Zionists interchangeably in the text, which seems to scupper decades of Palestinian efforts to re-centre their struggle as a political one against a colonial entity instead of an eternal ethnic-religious fight. Secondly, the lack of attention to Western sensitivities with regards to anything perceived as anti-Semitic discourse with National-Socialist overtones might also indicate a shift towards an overall aggressive stance that only relies on support in the Islamic and Islamist heartland to achieve victory over Israel. This aggressive stance can only reinforce the Zionist message that Jews in Palestine are threatened in their existence. Them who have been successful at stifling any criticism of Israel behind the cloak of anti-Semitism while convincing the West of some tenuous continuity between the Holocaust and their conflict with the Arabs. Fadlallah’s fatwa will soon join the image of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al Husseini meeting Hitler in 1937 in the Zionist arsenal of propaganda.
Not being Muslim, I am neither the intended recipient of Sayyed Fadlallah’s message nor do I feel concerned by it. The position of Arab secularists towards the Palestinian issue should remain a principled yet pragmatic affair guided by the interest of the Palestinian people who have an inalienable right to auto-determination and the establishment of a fully independent state on the territories occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Other more creative solutions are up for discussion but this minimum is non-negotiable.