‘From Mistake to Mistake’

A leading Shiite cleric discusses Iraq, suicide bombers, U.S. elections—and why he thinks George W. Bush should see a psychiatrist

That status could have a significant impact in Iraq, where young Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is spearheading some of the violent resistance to the American occupation. Fadlallah, 69, was born and educated in the Iraqi city of Najaf, and his opinions could influence the direction of the country’s majority-Shiite population—a group viciously oppressed by Saddam Hussein. “Fadlallah, for his followers, has a divine touch,” says Nizar Hamzeh, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.May 12 – Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah is one of the most senior religious authorities among Shiite Muslims. Based in Beirut, he won a wide public following for his role as the spiritual leader of Hizbullah, the militant group best known for its resistance to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. Fadlallah is no longer so closely associated with Hizbullah, but, in the hierarchical Shia world, his teachings still carry enormous weight.

Fadlallah met with a delegation of American editors in Beirut this week to discuss Iraq, suicide bombers and why he thinks President George W. Bush should see a psychiatrist. NEWSWEEK’s Arlene Getz was part of the group. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is the role of Islam in politics?
Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah: What is politics? Politics is based on the idea of giving a human being the opportunity the opportunity to live among others. Religion tells us that if you believe in God, you should love human beings. Therefore we believe that politics is part of religion. Religion wasn’t made for heaven, it is part of the earth. Religion [is] for us to serve people, not the other way round.

Do you feel that Moqtada al-Sadr is justified in his use of armed resistance [against Americans in Iraq], or do you prefer the more dialogue-oriented line of [Iraq’s Shiite leader] Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani?
We believe in the freedom of human beings, and we reject the occupation. I don’t believe Moqtada al-Sadr’s plan is to initiate violence, but I believe the methods of [U.S. administrator Paul] Bremer are what prompted [al-Sadr] to do it. Therefore we see violence as the reaction, not the initial action. We see America as a country that can occupy, but does not know how to administer. The United States keeps going from mistake to mistake. The issue of prison torture [at Abu Ghraib] is not the last mistake we are going to see.

Is there anything the United States can do to recover from the mistake at Abu Ghraib?
We consider occupation to be one of the highest forms of torture. The torture that we are seeing the pictures of in the media is the torture of individuals, but occupation is the torture of an entire people … The majority of Arab and Islamic people do not believe the United States is serious about the freedom of [their] peoples. They believe it to be one of the slogans used for dominating the region.

When we listen to President Bush we don’t find any convincing logic in what he’s saying. [But] we should be clear that we distinguish between the U.S. administration and the American people. We would like to be friends with the American people. Our problem is with the American administration.

What is your reaction to Bush’s argument that not all Americans should be blamed for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison?
I believe it was an inaccurate apology because the people who carried out these acts were carrying out orders … Bremer knew about it, but didn’t do anything about it until the photos showed up. These acts showed the American administration does not believe in human rights. I believe these practices encourage terrorism and don’t do away with it. The American people have good values; however the administration is not honoring it. The Americans should elect a person who represents these values.

Would you like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign?
I believe that Rumsfeld should have resigned. He offered an apology and an apology means [he should take] responsibility.

Should Bush also resign?
As the commander in chief of the armed forces, yes.

What are your views on the U.S. presidential race? And will you feel less well-disposed toward the American people if they re-elect George W. Bush in November?
The general impression in the Arab world about the American electorate is that it is the neoconservatives, the Christian [evangelicals], the Jewish lobby, the cartels that are using this administration to enrich themselves—these all are playing a role in [supporting Bush]. Do you believe that if someone is re-elected it gives him legitimacy? After all, the Palestinians elected [Yasir] Arafat, and there are certain sections in the United States that won’t deal with him …[Bush] regards himself as the second coming of Christ. I don’t believe he deals with things in an objective and rational fashion. I think we should send him to a psychiatrist before the election. With all due respect, of course—we respect ill people.

Are suicide bombers considered religious martyrs [who are guaranteed a place in heaven] when they attack civilians in Israel?
We don’t believe in killing civilians for political reasons if it’s not a state of war. I was the first Islamic figure to issue a fatwa [religious decree] after the September 11 attacks to say our minds and religion cannot accept this, that it was suicide, not martyrdom. Just an hour after the Madrid bombings, I issued a fatwa condemning this act and said it was not religiously sanctioned….

However, the problem is that Bush considers, with [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s agreement, that the Palestinian struggle for independence constitutes terrorism. Even though the Palestinians told Israel that if you withdraw from our land and live with us in peace, there will not be any shots fired. [The Palestinians] are saying that they are defending their homeland. As for the martyrdom operations [in Israel], they require an interpretation. Israel possesses the strongest weapons in the region. Israel uses F-16s against civilians in Gaza. When it wants to assassinate someone, it will fire a rocket into a crowded civilian place. It destroys the homes of Palestinians. It employs collective punishment [against the families of attackers.]

The Israelis have carried out every type of act against the Palestinians. The Palestinians only have light weapons. The Palestinians therefore have reached a point of desperation. They believe that they have to challenge the Israelis by using this method of turning a person into a human bomb. This is in order to get the Israelis to stop what they’re doing. You can’t look at this in an abstract fashion. If the killing of Israeli civilians is a crime, what about the killing of Palestinian civilians? The issue is that Palestine and Israel are at war, and the Israelis are using every method they can, and the Palestinians aren’t getting weapons from the United States.

What is your opinion of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry?
I have observed that Kerry is trying to address Jewish feelings by talking about his own Jewish heritage. I don’t believe politics should be conducted this way. [But] we have no problems with the Jewish religion. If you look at Islamic history for the last 14 centuries, Muslims have embraced Jews, given them scientific and economic freedom. Muslims didn’t oppress Jews the way the West did … The problem with Israel is political, not religious. America doesn’t accept a religion-based state [in the United States], but it insists that there be a Jewish state in Palestine. Why is there a double standard on this matter?

Lebanon has its own experience of occupation. Do religious leaders here have anything to teach Iraqis about resisting occupation?
There are no plans for Lebanese resistance fighters to move to Iraq. Any who might have done such a thing went there on an individual basis.

Do you see any alternative to armed resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq?
We believe that the United Nations is by and large acceptable. If the Americans would hand over its authority to the U.N., there is no need for an armed struggle.

Why is Islam now the world’s fastest-growing religion?
It is a religion that believes in intellect and all types of science. Intellect and science are the source of civilization. It doesn’t impose itself by force on other people … it doesn’t believe in violence unless violence is imposed on it from outside.

What’s the most important message you’d like to send Americans?
We do not believe in violence unless it becomes absolutely necessary. What we’d like to see is dialogue bringing us together. We should have peace through dialogue.