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Clerics and Communists

Bashir Saade is a teaching fellow in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. His first book, Writing Nations: Hizbullah and the Politics of Remembrance, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab, The Shi’ites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism, and Hizbullah’s Islamists (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014), 350 pages, $49.95, hardcover.

In the West today, political Islam is mostly equated with ISIS’s spectacle of violence, and with the narrow, bigoted understanding of religion and society that inspires it. It will thus intrigue many readers to discover that the legacy of Islamic intellectual and political activity, from the turn of the twentieth century until today, bore the imprint of a complex interaction between Communist and leftist traditions. A recent book by two professors at McGill University, Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab, takes on the ambitious task of tracing the history of the sometimes symbiotic, sometimes confrontational relationship among Shi’i communities and clerics in Lebanon, along with occasional discussions of related issues in Iraqi politics. Based on a rich set of primary documents from both countries, the authors describe in great detail the rise and fall of the Communist experience in the region, the shortcomings of the left as it was gradually superseded by Islamic party formations, and the deep debt of the latter to the former.

The historical period under study spans from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century to the partition of the Middle East into states. The authors constantly shift between the era’s two geographical “stages,” the first being the south of Lebanon. Starting with the period of the French mandate in the 1920s, they narrate the social and political changes that took place in this Shi’a-majority region, transforming it from a trade center linking Palestine to the rest of the Ottoman Empire and Europe to a marginalized border area within the newly founded nation-state of Lebanon. The second major stage is the Iraqi city of Najaf, whose famous religious schools were an inevitable stopping point for any Shi’i scholar seeking promotion in the socio-religious sphere. But the city suffered a crisis of legitimacy in the aftermath of the creation of the Iraqi state under British colonial auspices in 1921. Again the authors lucidly map the formation of the state and its impact on various social groups, most notably the religious clerics of Najaf, who emerged from decades of malaise into a kind of renaissance in the late 1960s and onwards, after confronting the influence of the Communist Party and Marxist thought.

In Lebanon, key figures in the Shi’i community stand out as having resisted French occupation and aligned politically with a greater-Syria or greater-Arab state project—although their political claims were never fully clear, a result of the climate of uncertainty that prevailed not only for the Lebanese Shi’a but throughout post-Ottoman Arab societies—which helped make Arab nation-states an unchallengeable reality. However, Abisaab and Abisaab are not just interested in tracing the political history of an elite movement, but in a far broader range of socioeconomic issues that drove mass politicization. They closely examine the plight of the peasants of south Lebanon, along with their relation to a minority landed aristocracy and their rising political influence as they came into contact with a state that had previously ignored them.

What stands out in Abisaab and Abisaab’s book is their thorough analysis of the various cultural and intellectual changes that accompanied the rise of Lebanese social movements, the formation of political parties and organizations, and their relation to the modern state of Lebanon. The Shi’ites of Lebanon is partly an intellectual history of major political movements that developed at the intersection of different historical currents, and all the epistemological baggage of Western modernity that this entailed. This modernity brought new technologies and especially institutional and organizational novelties, such as the political party itself, that allowed these movements to mobilize resources and voice social demands differently from their “traditional” counterparts.

Moreover, this is a book about the struggle of a peculiar social class– the Shi’i clerics–to grapple with the political upheaval brought by the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of a modern state. The colonial legacy of French and British institutions triggered questions of culture and belonging, mostly framed by binaries such as tradition and modernity or religion and secularity. Marxism not only offered a language to understand the new socioeconomic setting of the state, capitalism, and colonialism; it also conveyed a notion of progress that destabilized the traditional consensus over what constituted “legitimate” knowledge of social reality. And just like other Western political ideologies, Marxism brought with it the framework of the political party in order to advance these ideas. Shi’i leaders drawn to Marxism increasingly found the complex balance among social, legal, and political authorities of premodern Lebanon as lacking the appropriate tools to respond to the changes remaking their society.

Abisaab and Abisaab show clearly that for the Shi’i Muslims of Lebanon, Marxism proved to be the most seductive worldview for a reassessment of both cultural identity and political action, because it provided a necessary vocabulary to denounce state oppression and stark social inequalities. A beautiful chapter entitled “Communists in Ulama’s Homes” details the tempestuous encounters between several Lebanese clerics and their students, whose Marxist ideas caused some to adopt historical materialist conceptions of the world. Marxism became both a toolkit for organized political action and, according to the authors, a philosophical framework in which questions of faith and metaphysics could be posed. The extent of Marxism’s influence is evident in the lives of the three sons of the marja’ Sayyid Muhsin al-Amin, a prominent south Lebanese jurist, all of whom flirted with Marxism in different ways. One son, Hashim, studied in Najaf and came back a staunchly atheist, Marxist intellectual, only to revert back to religion, as he relates, after his experience with Lebanese Communists. Sayyid Ja’far clashed with the state in the name of several activist movements and was later imprisoned, an act he imputed to betrayal by the Communists, from whom he distanced himself for the rest of his life, although he remained dedicated to peasant social causes.

Another Lebanese cleric’s son, Husayn Muroeh, had a more turbulent experience. He traveled to Najaf to study religion and quickly grew concerned with adapting notions of “Enlightenment” and “progress” in the context of Islamic tradition. Reading these notions through the lens of anti-colonial struggle, he became a convinced Marxist, and by the 1960s Muroeh was one of the chief ideologues of the Lebanese Communist Party. Muroeh moved back and forth between the secular world of leftist activity in Damascus and Baghdad to the clerical one of Najaf. As Abisaab and Abisaab put it: “In Baghdad, he would change his appearance by taking off his religious garb and turban. On his way back to Najaf, he would don them again” (70). Muroeh is representative of a larger spirit of intellectual questioning that originated with the Nahda (“awakening”) of the late nineteenth century, when both internal reform and Western influence began to reshape Arabic writing and philosophy. The Nahda’s intermingling of literature and politics left a long legacy: so many of the clerics of Najaf were also poets, it was almost part of the religious curriculum, and Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, one of the pioneers of modern Islamic politics from the 1970s on, was the author of several collections of poetry.

Based on interviews with Lebanese Communists, Abisaab and Abisaab show that party members used the Ashura ritual, an annual commemoration of the martyrdom of Husayn, Muhammad’s grandson, to inspire awareness of social issues. In one instance, when Labor Day coincided with the tenth day of Muharram, which marks the last day of mourning for the killing of Husayn in Karbala, the Communists turned the Ashura into an all-out demonstration against the state, couched in terms of oppression and injustice drawn from both the Shi’i and Marxist repertoires. Years later, the founder of the Shi’i party Amal, Musa al-Sadr, and Hizbullah would do exactly the same thing. Such political syncretism is highly reminiscent of Communist mobilizations in Italy and their relation to Christian rituals and practices, as described by David Kertzer in his book Comrades and Christians.

Whereas Lebanon’s Shi’ites, whether through Communist or clerical efforts, were largely excluded from state power, leaving them mired in identity crises, in Iraq, Communist Party members made up a majority of Shi’a, and came very close to controlling the state. As a result, the relation between Communists and Shi’i jurists was much more confrontational, as the increasingly powerful party pressed for agrarian reforms that would weaken the class of large landholders. The religious class’s independence from politics was supported historically by an alliance with these powerful landowners, who assured the former’s financial security. As Abisaab and Abisaab recount, Iraqi Communists were at the forefront of resistance against British colonialism in the 1940s. Personal Status law reforms under ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim, whose 1958 rise to power was largely due to Communists’ revolutionary efforts, marked a further threat to the clerical class’s management of private and public life. Likely as a result of their relative power, Iraqi Communists were more comfortable than their Lebanese counterparts with blending a Shi’i identity with progressive or leftist understandings of social change. Abisaab and Abisaab quote extensively the poetry and other writings of Iraqi leftist militants and intellectuals, who used Shi’i historical motifs such as the battle of Karbala, or the figures of Husayn or Ali.

Modern Shi’i politics emerged in the heyday of Iraqi Communist power, with the formation in 1957 of the Islamic Da’wa Party, before spreading to Lebanon in the 1970s. It was also then that a small group of clerics, especially Baqir al-Sadr and his Lebanese student Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, criticized the Communist old guard’s failure to attract younger generations and espoused more actively leftist language. It is interesting to note that even these pioneering figures of contemporary political Islam never officially aligned themselves with political parties such as Da’wa, signaling the persistence of the clerical class’s traditional remove from direct politic engagement. Abisaab and Abisaab provide a detailed analysis of this tension between quietism and activism within the clerical class, a conflict that would push al-Sadr to think of new ways to “institutionalize” the notion of marja’, which had traditionally represented leading scholars of Shi’i jurisprudence. This also may have been a strategy to assume a leadership role that transcended party structures, as seen first with Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran. Under al-Sadr’s influence Najaf, once perceived as a symbol of cultural stagnation, became the region’s main center of Shi’i political contestation. Young Shi’i students of religion came from Lebanon and elsewhere to study with al-Sadr, who developed the first full-fledged Islamic critique of Marxism and other materialist conceptions of history and philosophy.

In a very Gramscian vein, Abisaab and Abisaab show that the structure of the modern political party became the locus for social change in the fight to either capture or at least confront the colonial state. Baqir al-Sadr, they write, “realized that for any Islamist movement to compete with communism, it would have to address economic relations, state legislation, and social justice” (97–98). In the 1960s another cleric, Sayyed Musa al-Sadr, an Iranian with Lebanese origins, was more forceful in leading and developing the party structure in Lebanon that came to be called Amal. Musa al-Sadr built on leftist social concerns, but was accommodating of the sectarian arrangement of the state against which Communists had traditionally fought. Abisaab and Abisaab argue that Musa al-Sadr wanted to preserve the authority of the clerics, thus his creation of the Supreme Islamic Shi’ite Council. The authors’ reading of Musa al-Sadr as “augmenting religious difference” in Lebanon is rather pessimistic, and it should be remembered that Musa al-Sadr took active part in all kinds of political dialogue and religious initiatives, not to mention his involvement in the Cenacle Lebanais, an intellectual society founded in 1946 that brought together eminent Lebanese scholars, both lay and religious, for seminars and conferences. Yet it is definitely true that after the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr in Libya, the later Amal became as thuggish as the rest of the militias active in the Lebanese civil wars from 1975 to 1990.

The formation of the organized Islamic resistance against Israel under Hizbullah marks a turn in Shi’i politics in Lebanon. Abisaab and Abisaab explain well the rise of Hizbullah, whom they call “advocates of political and public religion,” and how the group is “adapting Khomeini’s theory of wilāyat al-faqīh (deputyship of the jurist) to fit the local aims of their liberation movement against Israel” (126). Hizbullah demarcated itself from Amal as being solely focused on fighting Israel. The political history that the authors survey is exhaustive, but one important highlight is the difference between Communist and Islamist appeals to resistance, given that the Communist Party was also involved in actions against Israel, especially in the 1980s, along with other pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel organizations. If both Communists and Islamists were known for their moral rectitude, the former gradually weakened because of its feeble response to the Israeli occupation, while Hizbullah emerged as far more effective.

The important point here is that the general culture of Communists and (at least Shi’i) Islamists have very much overlapped and it was the effectiveness of their political praxis on the ground, of interacting with the state or mobilizing through political parties, or even engaging in militant actions, that made both groups more prominent. The rest of the book focuses mainly on explaining Hizbullah’s relation to the Lebanese state and their political environment in the post-civil war era, their successful resistance against Israeli occupation, and the liberation of territories in 2000. In outlining the different forms of public Islam prevalent in Lebanese society today, the authors engage in a complex theoretical discussion of modernity’s compatibility with politicized Islam. Although in line with the book’s major themes, this contrasts curiously with their earlier attempts to understand how political actors themselves engaged with the ambiguous concept of modernity, shifting instead to the authors’ own view of whether Islamists are “modern” or not.

On a broader level, the authors accomplish three important tasks in thinking about the political experiences of postcolonial states. First, they argue that understanding, preserving, or even “modernizing” the legacy of Islamic politics requires close study of the histories of the various states in the region that came to be known as the Middle East. The second task, one that this book does very well, is to show the extent to which Islamist ideologies and political practices are less dependent on some fixed, ahistorical doctrines or strains of Islam than on the various socioeconomic contexts in which these movements emerged. Finally, they show that grappling with the very idea of modernity is a more complex and urgent challenge than either rejecting or affirming religious identifications.

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