Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Fouad Ajami, The Vanished Imam: Musa al-Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986).

The religious and political literature of Shi‘ism, which is characterized by emotional aspirations overriding the facts of history, elevates the 12 imams to a status well above men and only slightly below God. Interestingly enough, this popular tradition of exaggeration and exaltation is very much in tune with the political fascination of academic and official circles in the US with ayatollahs, imams and mullahs — turbaned, bearded, shadowy Muslim zealots lurking behind all manner of upheaval in the Middle East, and responsible above all for “terrorism.” Fouad Ajami’s book on Musa al-Sadr appears within this context of popular exaggeration and exaltation, but Ajami’s version of history can be contested because the imam at hand is a contemporary figure.

Ajami’s study is very much in tune with what one can refer to as neo-Orientalism. According to this paradigm, Arabs are first and foremost Muslims. All ideological and political positions derive from sectarian affiliations. Socio-economic and political differences are irrelevant. Neo-Orientalists focus on Islam as the determining factor of events related to Arabs and they are especially obsessed with “terrorism.” The intersection of Islam and “terrorism” constitutes the politics of the Arab world. Ajami draws upon a widespread notion of a Khomeini-like figure within every Muslim country. The result is this overly simplistic account of the Shi‘i political movement in Lebanon. It reads like a sira — a mythical and epic biography. Thus, although Imam al-Sadr’s life in Lebanon lasted less than two decades, Ajami juxtaposes it with the history of Lebanon’s Shi‘a.

The juxtaposition is artificial and Ajami’s depiction of al-Sadr as a “saint” hailed by all Lebanese Shi‘a is extremely misleading. In 1978, when Imam al-Sadr “disappeared” at Libya’s hands, there was a popular slogan among the Shi‘a of Lebanon: Ayna al-imam ya ‘Arab? (Where is the imam, o Arabs?) This was the first line of a couplet, whose response was saraq al-masari wa harab (he stole the money and ran away).

In April 1986, after the US raid on Libya, two Shi‘i factions battled each other in the streets of the southern suburbs of Beirut. The conflict was over whether to post portraits of Qaddafi in a display of support. The pro-Qaddafi faction won, and announced a strike and demonstration in solidarity with the Libyan regime.

These two glimpses reflect the cynical mood that characterizes Lebanese political culture. It leaves no room for consensus concerning the credibility of political and religious leaders. Al-Sadr’s popularity owes much more to the Iranian revolution, Lebanese domestic policies and Shi‘i-Palestinian relations than to charisma and aura, two concepts Ajami invokes. Lebanese Shi‘i politicization and radicalization were the cause for the rise of Musa al-Sadr and not the result, as Ajami would have it. This process started long before al-Sadr’s arrival to Lebanon in 1959. In a typical generalization, Ajami asserts that “the Druze heritage was one of rebellion, that of the Shi‘a one of submission.” Needless to say, he takes no account of events such as the tobacco workers’ rebellion in Bint Jubayl in South Lebanon in the late 1930s, one of the earliest manifestations of workers’ organizing.

Ajami plays fast and loose with some basic facts of history. He characterizes the 1958 civil war as “an affair of West Beirut and of the Druze mountains.” In fact, Tyre was a major rebel center. Arab nationalist radicals there were able to spread their control over downtown Tyre and successfully expelled many of the al-Khalil family’s pro-Chamoun loyalists from the region. Ajami, whether out of ignorance or malfeasance, skips all these facts. Shi‘i radicals were also active in West Beirut in 1958.

Another feature of Ajami’s neo-Orientalism is his assumption that Lebanese Shi‘a constitute a monolithic political — even psychological — group. What else should we make of terms like “a Shiite psyche”? His emphasis on this theme leads him to stress taqiyya (dissimulation) as a uniquely Shi‘i phenomenon, although Druzes and Isma‘ilis probably were the first to practice it. In his role of authentic indigenous expert, Ajami told a Congressional subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East on July 15, 1986, that “the Sunnis are homicidal and the Shiites are suicidal.”

Musa al-Sadr was never the man Ajami wanted him to be. He occupied a rather minor role in the history of Shi‘i politicization and mobilization in Lebanon. Even the Shi‘i clerics were not that enthusiastic about him. Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, the powerful present-day Shi‘i leader, told this writer in August 1985 that he always regarded al-Sadr with suspicion. Christian circles promoted him as a new “star,” to use Fadlallah’s expression, which discredited him in the eyes of many of his co-religionists.

Certainly al-Sadr did play a role in Shi‘i politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He took advantage of Shi‘i alienation from their traditional leaders (zu‘ama). He himself was aided by a noted Shi‘i za‘im Sabri Hamadi of Baalbak, a brother-in-law of Kamil al-Asad and a key rival to the al-Asad family’s monopolization of Shi‘i political representation. It was rumored that Hamadi’s bodyguards and bullies (qabadayat) dressed as ‘ulama’ to help elect al-Sadr to the presidency of the Higher Shi‘i Muslim Council in 1969. Hamadi’s role in assisting the emergence of al-Sadr is almost ignored in Ajami’s book.

Al-Sadr was good at keeping his finger to the wind. He alternated between traditional Lebanese politics, as in the 1974 by-election in Nabatiyya, and the radical slogans of the left. But he was never able to attract Lebanese Shi‘a away from the Marxist and Baathist Lebanese and Palestinian organizations. As hard as Syria and Fatah tried to boost al-Sadr’s credentials by arming his militia and by urging some of their Shi‘i supporters to join Amal, the loyalty of Lebanese Shi‘a remained by and large with the left up through the end of the 1975-1976 phase of the war.

This period of the war dealt a blow to al-Sadr’s efforts to monopolize Shi‘i political representation. He exposed his aspirations as a traditional za‘im in religious attire by relinquishing his previous radical slogans. What seriously diminished his role and influence was his allegiance to the Syrian regime of Hafiz al-Asad, an aspect denied by Ajami. He joined a small, Syrian-created front (al-jabha al-qawmiyya) along with other pro-Syrian parties and gangs, and supported the highly unpopular Syrian invasion of June 1976. This provoked a joint Palestinian-Lebanese crackdown on Amal’s bases which eliminated them in two days. Amal, and al-Sadr personally, were held responsible for the massacres that followed the fall of al-Naba‘a in 1976, a result of a deal al-Sadr struck with the Phalangists. Until his disappearance in 1978, al-Sadr was primarily identified as simply one of many pro-Syrian leaders in Lebanon.

His absence was far more decisive than his presence on the Lebanese scene. It came as Lebanese Shi‘a, disenchanted with the conduct and slogans of the Lebanese and Palestinian left, were looking for a new political formula. It also coincided with the Iranian revolution. The context became appropriate for comparing al-Sadr’s fate with the “hidden” Twelfth Imam. But Ajami goes too far in claiming that al-Sadr’s appeal today inspires the suicide attacks of Shi‘i radicals. In fact, all the suicide attacks were perpetrated by members of radical organizations such as Hizballah, Amal and Islamic Jihad, none of which share Amal’s admiration of al-Sadr.

One note about the book’s blatantly one-sided and insufficient bibliography is necessary. Ajami relied first on interviews with a handful of al-Sadr sycophants, who cannot be considered objective and detached authorities. Secondly, he used US diplomatic dispatches. Notwithstanding the “prestige” of this source, all these declassified dispatches simply recounted Lebanese newspaper accounts of events.

Ajami’s version is contradicted by facts of Lebanon’s contemporary history. Nevertheless, in an era of scholarship on “terrorists” and saints, the book is finding its audience in the US, in the government as well as in academia. Daniel Pipes, reviewing it in the Wall Street Journal, was very pleased. That should be indicative.

How to cite this article:

As'ad AbuKhalil "Ajami, The Vanished Imam," Middle East Report 144 (January/February 1987).
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