On Aug. 31, 1978, Sayyid Musa al Sadr, the controversial, Iranian-born Shia Muslim cleric and chairman of the Lebanese Higher Shia Council--who, to his Lebanese devotees, was not only a political leader but also an Imam, a "saint"--disappeared in Tripoli, Libya, while on his way to meet with Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi. Since then, despite numerous inquiries, the circumstances of his disappearance have remained a mystery.
Was Sadr killed by Kadafi's agents, as many have guessed, to create confusion among the Shia of Lebanon and thereby to weaken the opposition to the Palestinian forces in that country? If so, to what further end? Regarding such questions, the reader is not likely to come away much the wiser. Nor is the story, as Fouad Ajami states, "told here to pin down, once and for all, the 'real' Sayyid Musa al Sadr or Imam Musa al Sadr," the man behind the legend. Rather what emerges from this complicated yet wholly absorbing narrative is the political life of a man who so radically altered the thinking of his adopted people that his impact on them did not become fully evident until his "absence."
In the process, Ajami, a gifted scholar of contemporary Arab affairs and himself a Lebanese Shiite of Iranian ancestry, provides an insightful account of Lebanese political history from the Shia viewpoint.
Sayyid Musa al Sadr came from Iran to Lebanon in 1959 at age 30 to take over the duties of a retiring cleric in Tyre; but, clearly, more was expected of him. As the son and grandson of politically active ayatollahs in Qom, with hereditary ties to both Iraq and Lebanon, he was the scion of "one of the most celebrated clerical and scholarly families" in the Shia world. To boot, an imposing man of 6 feet, 6 inches and a "dazzling speaker" with "striking looks and magnetism," he was a natural leader among a people who had traditionally been quiescent, downtrodden and fragmented.
Although the Shia ranked, numerically, among the three major sects of Lebanon, along with the powerful Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims, politically, they had remained--both in the interior Bekaa Valley and in the coastal cities, particularly Beirut--a "marginal community," burdened with "a sense of historical disinheritance and dispossession." Indeed, of all the sects in the Lebanese polity, the Shia was the only one that lacked its own "institutional body."
Within a decade, Sadr managed to rectify that. Appealing to "men of differing temperaments and purposes," he forged a "broad coalition," resulting in 1969 in the creation of the Higher Shia Council with himself as its chairman. About this time, too, the Shia of Lebanon "discovered" in him "their first Imam."
Thereafter, Sadr's mission, essentially, was to bring the Shia "out of the hinterland" by overthrowing their "tradition of political quietism and withdrawal." The council, moreover, provided him with a platform for his religio-political message: al din (religion) had also to encompass al dunya (the world). "Faith was not about ritual, but about social concerns, about the needs of men."
"In a country of sects," Ajami writes, Sadr had become not only a "preeminent cleric," but "the country's most compelling figure. The years 1974 and 1975 were his."
By then, however, Lebanon was embroiled in a civil war, which changed the situation drastically. Militarily weak, Sadr entered a mosque, fasted, and advocated a policy of nonviolence. But Sadr, as Ajami states, "was no Mahatma Gandhi, and Lebanon was not British India." Within days, the fast was broken, and Sadr acknowledged the existence of a Shia militia: Amal ("hope"), an auxiliary of the Lebanese army in the south.
With this step, Ajami adds, Sadr "crossed the Rubicon." In a nation at war, "he had to play by the new rules." His people needed "an armed force of their own."
Sadr, however, was "no leader of men under arms." In 1976, Maronite militiamen drove out a large Shia population from Beirut. Then in March, 1978, when Israel entered Southern Lebanon in a "large-scale drive" against Palestinian forces, the "principal victims" were the local Shia. It was at this juncture that Sadr, on the advice of Algerian authorities, visited Libya.
Up till then, Ajami states, the Shia of Lebanon had still been "relatively quiescent." But with their Imam's "absence," that changed inalterably. Under the leadership of Sadr's two radical successors, Amal leader Nabbih Berri and Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah (who preached that "strength" and "force" are "attributes beloved by God"), the newly armed Shia became even more militant. The Shia "bid for the country" was about to be made.
In 1983 a "relentless war" erupted between the Shia and the Israeli occupiers, resulting in the retreat of Israeli forces. "The Shia," Ajami writes, "turned out to be even more formidable enemies of Israel than the PLO." Then the following year, West Beirut, "the traditional haven of the more privileged Sunni community, fell to the Shia squatters and urban newcomers."
Numerically now the dominant sect, with 40% of the country's population, and militarily strong and backed by Iran, the Shia of Lebanon were, finally, in a commanding position. The problem, however, was that the country now was also in ruin.