Hezbollah's Mix of Prayer and Politics

By Alia Ibrahim
Sunday, April 1, 2007

BEIRUT One rainy morning in January, Itidal Karim took her two adolescent daughters and 4-year-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 one-third 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 like 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 Hezbollah-run 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.


Alia Ibrahim is Beirut correspondent for Dubai TV.

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