What are current relations between Iran and Lebanon? What has been the import of Iran’s revolution on Lebanon’s Shi‘i community? These were the questions we put to Ahmad Baydoun, poet, man of letters and professor of history at the Lebanese University, in Boston in late October.
Baydoun’s answer came in the form of reflections on Lebanese Shi‘ism, its historical, cultural and political components. More lecture than interview, more history than political analysis, Baydoun’s commentary was designed, at least in part, to correct the impression that “le Shiisme amelite” the Shi‘ism of the Jabal ‘Amil area in southern Lebanon, is nothing more than an offshoot of Iranian Shi‘ism in its contemporary form. The correction has more than historical significance, as Baydoun’s comments demonstrate.
Baydoun carefully distinguished between the religious and cultural origins of Lebanese Shi‘ism, its political form in contemporary Lebanon, and relations between the Lebanese Shi‘i community and Iraq and Iran in the period since 1975.
The seminal connection for Lebanese Shi‘a, according to Baydoun, was not with Iran but with the Shi‘ism of Iraq. It was the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala’ that attracted the students/scholars who spend years in study and prayer at these spiritual centers of Shi‘i learning, graced with spiritual meaning and accessible to members of a common cultural and linguistic community.
Pilgrims of the faith did not fail to travel to Iran. Those who were fortunate enough to get to Najaf would often go to Mashhad in Iran. Once there, however, they encountered a language few of them were equipped to understand, and a form of religious expression that was equally foreign to them.
Baydoun underlined the point in a manner that situated Lebanese Shi‘i experience in a sociopolitical as well as religious setting. Reviewing the differences that characterize Sunni and Shi‘i Muslim practice, Baydoun recalled that the Shi‘a of Jabal ‘Amil were far closer to Sunnism in a sense than they were to the Shi‘a of Iran, whose religious practices often shocked them as extreme. Yet, as though to temper this categorical judgement, Baydoun recalled that historically the Shi‘a of Jabal ‘Amil had been welcomed in Safavid Persia in a manner that contrasted favorably with what they found in an Ottoman Sunni environment.
Turning to more recent developments in the politicization of Shi‘ism in Lebanon, Baydoun spoke of Imam Musa Sadr. Here, too, political Shi‘ism developed before the role of Iran became prominent.
The leader of the Lebanese Shi‘i community was of Iranian origin. But it was not his Iranian origins that distinguished him so much as his knowledge of and commitment to Lebanon’s Shi‘i masses. A quick student of the Lebanese political scene, he was at no time a “fundamentalist” in outlook, according to Baydoun. His entourage included Christian as well as Muslim intellectuals. It was the introduction of religious expressions that had previously been little known or practiced among Lebanese Shi‘a that recalled on a mass level Musa Sadr’s Iranian experience. To recognize this dimension of his legacy is not to reaffirm the roles of Iran or Iranian Shi‘ism in Lebanon, in Baydoun’s view.
The attempt to exploit this relationship at the present time is evident and obviously undesirable, according to Baydoun. It confuses what are separate if related developments, including the civil war in Lebanon, the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war. All these together created a new situation as far as Lebanese Shi‘ism is concerned. It is no longer relations between religious/spiritual communities that are involved, but relations between one such community and a state whose alliance proved to be a strategic necessity.
Baydoun made clear that the Lebanese civil war left the Shi‘i community disillusioned as well as unprotected. Musa Sadr’s policies toward the end of his life proved sorely inadequate. The military weakness of the movement he had founded, Harakat al-Mahrumin (Movement of the Dispossessed) contributed to its political weakness at a time when the Shi‘i community carried the major burden of the war. Against this background, and with the growing sense that they were being used as the cannon fodder of virtually every political party with which they had been allied in the civil war, the Iranian revolution and the emergence of Khomeini appeared to promise alternatives.
Reviewing the situation of other political groups and communities in Lebanon, Baydoun noted that the Sunnis were allied to the Palestinians, the Christians with the West and with Israel, left-wing parties had their Palestinian, Libyan and sometime Syrian connections, along with the Soviet Union. Only the Shi‘a were alone. They had the sense of being the most threatened and vulnerable community in the civil war, according to Baydoun. In this context, an Iranian role found favorable support. And the Iranians themselves were not passive, as Baydoun put it. They took the initiative; they were cooperative.
Emphasizing the religious and spiritual influence as opposed to the purely political, Baydoun indicated that it was by no means clear as to what the legacy of this connection might be. It is possible that the integration of certain relatively recent and — for Lebanese Shi‘ism — novel expressions of religious life will prove transitory. As to the rest, much will depend on Iranian policy, on the possibility of Iranian pullback from an assertive regional role, and on Lebanon’s political future.