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Lebanese Shiite cleric calls for building inclusive state

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Lebanese Shiite cleric Hani Fahs said that the region must work toward peace, and citizens should work to build inclusive states.
Lebanese Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt (2nd L) stands along side Shiite Muslim Cleric Hani Fahs (3rd L) during a sit in to show support for the Syrian people at  in downtown Beirut, on February 22, 2012. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Hani Fahs is among the most prominent Shiite clerics with a moderate and civil discourse. He has maintained good relations with other Islamic sects and has made many efforts in the field of interfaith dialogue. He is known for criticizing both Sunni and Shiite sectarian projects in the region, has a long history of working with Imam Musa Sadr in Lebanon and visited Iran for a short time only to permanently part ways with the Islamic Republic, given his criticism of its work methods and of Hezbollah’s approach toward Lebanon and Syria.

Al-Monitor:  The political and social developments that have occurred in recent years shed light on the emergence of multiple and diverse “partial identities.” This has led to the disappearance of the inclusive identities of the past, which were influenced by nationalist and leftist ideologies. What is the alternative to the inclusive Arab or Muslim identity? Does this mean we will witness more political divisions in the region for sectarian and ethnic reasons? How can these diverse identities be involved and integrated in a state project?

Fahs:  The first reason for the pathological awakening of sub-identities is the weakness, or absence, of the state. States are reduced to one party, race or sect. In this type of state, the citizen resorts to fanaticism to get protection from his group. However, [this protection] can only be achieved through a strong and fair inclusive and sponsoring state. ... In such cases, a historical bloc with multiple historical affiliations, positions and experiences should be formed to achieve a historical settlement in a state open to developments. [All member of the bloc should] agree — despite all their differences — to expand the common ground and decrease and adjust divergences. This state must consecrate the concept of citizenship through the law and support a culture that educates people on identity, which is not an entity but rather a permanent consequence, complemented by the other party in the country and by evolution of knowledge.

Al-Monitor:  The worsening sectarian conflict in the region has changed several balances and alliances. What is your vision for the future of this conflict, and where will it lead us?

Fahs:  The violent sectarian conflict has always existed. Even if it dominated history for a long time it is bound to [eventually] lose in favor of peace and an inclusive state. [The inclusive state] does not eliminate differences but rather improves the management of differences and the treatment of their adverse effects. We are searching for the silver lining in every crisis. We are upset by the arrival of radical Islam to power, given that a religious party is always an extremist party, but we expect it to fail because it is ideological and not based on a practical plan, and it has no programs whatsoever. This kind of party falls among totalitarian parties that controlled the people and [somewhat] succeeded, but which [ultimately] fell because of a lack of freedom and justice. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt only accomplished loss and confusion and more lack of freedom. ... It is important not to take advantage of democracy or freedom to reproduce religious or secular tyranny.

Al-Monitor:  We have followed up on the rapprochement between the United States and Iran over the past few weeks. Currently, there is a lot of talk about a Saudi-Israeli convergence to repel the Iranian project. Are Israel and the United States no longer in the enemy zone of the regional people and states, in light of the ongoing sectarian conflict?

Fahs:  I never believed that there is a deep and clashing contradiction between Washington and Tehran; these two countries know their interests. Yet, there is a resolvable inherited crisis that emerged with the outbreak of destructive conflicts between the two over hostages, the Iraqi war, the occupation of Iraq by implicit agreement as was the case in Afghanistan and the Iranian contribution to the resistance against the Israeli occupation in Lebanon. … The situation reached its climax, the solution started to unravel and love prevailed over hatred. Iran went to Syria and the United States took hold of the Syrian chemical file. The Iranian nuclear file and the boycott were about to be remedied. This led to a reorganization of priorities, including in terms of Israel, since [President Shimon] Peres stated that “Iran is not an enemy,” which represent the real policy of Israel, not the anxious statements of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu who fears the waning of his popularity. In this scenario, Israel will have no reason pushing it to form an alliance with any Arab party, and Saudi Arabia is not stupid, nor is it strong enough to think about an alliance against the United States and Iran together, regardless of political maneuvers, in terms of resolvable differences.

Al-Monitor:  The different methods of Qom and Najaf in dealing with social and political issues revealed the existence of two different approaches within the Shiite sect. Accordingly, to what extent do you think that Najaf could set the basis for a civilian “Shiism” to face the Shiite political Islam project adopted by the Iranian government in the Qom seminary?

Fahs:  The dispute between Qom and Najaf on crucial issues was never deep. This is evidenced by the fact that the constitutional revolution in Iran was led by the Iranian scholars in Najaf and by others in Tehran who graduated from [seminaries in] Najaf. … Currently, one may fear that Najaf is being taken over by Qom in appearance, given Najaf’s vulnerability and the Iraqi authorities’ loyalty to Iran, since it is the Iranian authorities — and not the Qom seminary — that will actually take over Najaf and weaken it. ... One may pin hopes on the reformist academic and political movement in Iran to restore the relationship between Qom and Najaf, if Najaf is able to stand back on its feet. ... Otherwise, Qom will remain the strongest party, it will marginalize Najaf and place it under its control and that of the Iranian authorities, as long as the authorities in Iraq do not want to be independent without bearing hostility toward Iran.

Al-Monitor:  The collision of Sunni and Shiite political Islam projects in recent years, specifically in Syria, exacerbated the sectarian crisis and made it very difficult to solve the Syrian crisis. What is your take on the possible solutions to the Syrian crisis? How can these solutions be realized?

Fahs:  The illness of Syria, Egypt and other countries are despotism, corruption, the abolition of the state with power, the abolition of religion with the state [political interferences], the abolition of the state with religion, the abolition of pluralism by removing religious and ethnic groups, destructing secularism with sectarianism and tribalism, converting nationalism into chauvinism and using external parties to show power over internal parties. This illness started as the project of Muhammad Ali Pasha to build a state model in the 18th century in Egypt that was foiled. Based on that, [the illness] must take a long period of time before recovery is achieved in each of the revolting Arab countries, even relatively. In Syria, the period of time will be longer, more complicated and more painful for many reasons. [These reasons] include Syria’s complex pluralistic history, its location among Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, the lack of natural resources that entice the great [powers] to find quick and deep solutions and the regime’s focus and success in making the financial cost of freedom higher than that of despotism. Syria needs an Arab and international conference that is similar to the Yalta [Conference of 1945], but with different conditions. It needs a modern Marshall Plan and many historical and successive settlements. The solution is probably to form a temporary Syrian system on the order of the Lebanese system that is based on sectarian quotas, until [the situation in Syria] becomes stable, settled and starts to evolve politically and legally toward a pluralism preserved through unity — I mean an Alawite president with limited powers, a Christian vice president, a Sunni prime minister and a balanced parliament.

Al-Monitor:  In your writings, you have called for establishing a civil state, and you have mentioned that religion cannot lay the foundations of a state and vice versa. Does this mean that you believe secularism is a substitute for a religious government? How can one reconcile religion and a civil state, amid contradictory social and political perceptions?

Fahs:  I am calling for a civil, modern, democratic and pluralistic state based on citizenship, rights, law and human rights to necessarily preserve religion from the evil of some pious people who randomly mix religion with the state, just as some sort of extreme secularism has mixed them. Islamists want to build a state based on religion, which damages them both [religion and the state], while some extreme secularists wanted to produce religion through the state. The best option is to separate religion from the state. In Europe, the state and Christianity were preserved by liberating [the state] from the church and liberating the church from itself. We want this sort of separation, without separating religion from individuals and even society. We defend the conviction we have with scientific evidence that Islam does not describe a state, but rather it describes a society, by saying that the state is a social necessity, and necessities can vary. The modern state is the one that responds to current needs.

Al-Monitor:  In the past days, we've heard news about suicide attacks carried out by Shiite jihadists in Syria. This is a new development in terms of suicide bombings, which have usually been conducted by Sunni Salafists. Does this mean that we are now facing a reality where radical Shiite Salafism has been produced to counter radical Sunni Salafism?

Fahs:  I am not here to support or condemn this, but those who first conducted a suicide attack — called martyrdom — after Israel occupied Lebanon, were Shiites, including two of my cousins. Given that the jurisprudence has power, I believe that it has the ability to respond to any adventurer or extremist who wants to cover his conduct by a fatwa. In history, Christianity did not escape from the burden of this behavior, which is political, not religious. I guess that the Sunnis have a juristic opportunity to politically circumvent Sharia, because the period of time distancing the people from the four references — imams of the four Sunni schools of law — is long. However, it is necessary for Shiites to limit the power of sources of emulation — Marja’ Taqlid — to take them away from politics. Taking part in the killing and violence amid an absence of sufficient, accurate and legitimate evidence may eventually produce counter effects, such as what we saw happen in the history of revolutions controlled by the lust of murder and victory through fear, and what we hear of the rising voices of the families of Hezbollah’s fighters killed in Syria.

Al-Monitor:  You have made great efforts in the interfaith dialogue project in Lebanese society and in the region in general. How do you assess the ongoing developments in interfaith relations in the Middle East? Is there any possibility to activate dialogue and a constructive relationship following the worsening of the sectarian crises?

Fahs:  I have not and will not call for interfaith dialogue between religions, as the conflict is among people who practice religion in extremist mode, not among the religions themselves. In my view, dialogue must be up to the challenges, not to remain a mere trend that attracts the enemies of dialogue, so they pretend to conduct it, taking hold of it and thwarting it. So, there must be independent institutionalization, because conflicts have worsened and it is no longer enough to conduct dialogue occasionally. Peace must be created and expanded, and the power of moderation must be seen through organization. Therefore, there must be an institution that turns dialogue into a science, culture, action and harmony between theoretical awareness and the way to address all possibilities and states of conflicts on the ground, and to focus on systems of common interests, which raises awareness regarding common ideas and values. It is necessary to be aware of the danger that dialogue becomes an issue limited to academics, because it will result in contradictions and narrow similarities. Also, dialogue shouldn’t remain as an issue relevant [only] to political leaders, because they will ruin it. There is no objection if they want to take advantage of it, and be prepared to bear its consequences and protect its movements from afar.

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