The missing - or recovered - imam
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - When Iranian-born Lebanese cleric Imam Musa al-Sadr arrived by plane
in Tripoli on a hot summer day's in August 1978, he must've had no idea of the
saga that was about to begin.
The respected tall, green-eyed cleric had merely gone to Libya to mediate
between Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi and the chairman of the Palestinian
Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat. He hasn't been seen since.
After coming to power nine years earlier, Gaddafi had declared his country open
space for any resistance group wanting to fight Israel or the United States.
The PLO had plenty of bases in Libya
and benefited greatly from generous donations dished out, left-and-right, by
Gaddafi, who happened to be a good friend of Arafat.
At one point in early 1978, Gaddafi asked Arafat to hunt down, kidnap and kill
several members of the Libyan opposition, including ex-Intelligence director
Abdul Munim al-Husni. Arafat refused, infuriating Gaddafi who responded by
expelling the Palestinians from Libya, shutting down their bases, and cutting
off some US$12 million in cash assistance and $50 million in arms and
equipment. Arafat needed the money and protection badly, and asked Imam al-Sadr
to intervene on his behalf with Gaddafi. Since that day, he has neither been
seen nor heard from.
Sadr was not just a Lebanese politician who happened to die - or in this case
disappear - in unusual circumstances. His influence in the Lebanese Shi'ite
community cannot be emphasized enough.
Born in Qom to a Lebanese family from Tyre, his father was Grand Ayatollah Sadr
al-Din al-Sadr, a respected man within the Shi'ite community that spread across
Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. A distant cousin of his father is Mohammad Baqir
al-Sadr, the father-in-law of Iraq’s heavyweight Muqtada al-Sadr.
Musa al-Sadr studied in Qom, then obtained a degree in political science from
Tehran University in 1956. He returned to the religious seminary to pursue
additional knowledge in Islamic theology, becoming a turbaned cleric by the
Sadr began to write, preach and edit a religious periodical called Maktab
al-Islam (The Islamic Office). In 1960, he traveled to his native Tyre to
pursue a career in politics, religion and Islamic academia. A charismatic,
highly intelligent and visionary leader, he immediately proposed that he could
become a leader of Lebanese Shi'ites, who in the 1960s had no leadership and
complained of gross government neglect.
Beirut at the time, hailed as Switzerland of the east, was in a golden era of
tourism, infrastructure and services, while entire Shi'ite districts were
getting no more than 0.07% of the state budget.
Sadr emerged, by the mid-1960s, as a leader for "those who have no voice",
setting up his Movement of the Dispossessed to empower Shi'ites and represent
them before the central government in Beirut.
In 1969, he created and chaired the Supreme Islamic Shi'ite Council (SISI), and
in 1975 he founded a military wing for his movement, called Amal.
Civil war broke out in Lebanon that April, and Sadr sided with the Palestinians
in the south against Israel and various Maronite figures who were calling for
expulsion of Arafat from Beirut. Sadr became increasingly vocal in Lebanese
domestic politics, demanding a non-confessional state and advocating
inter-faith dialogue between Muslims and Christians on one front, as well as
Sunnis and Shi'ites on another.
On regional affairs, he was close to the Syrians and Iranians, and very
critical of then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who made a visit to Jerusalem
months before Sadr's disappearance in 1977.
Among Sadr’s disciples, who remain overwhelmingly loyal to him until this very
day, are speaker of parliament Nabih Berri and Hezbollah secretary general
Hassan Nasrallah. Both claim that he is still alive, somewhere in Gaddafi’s
dungeons, and both have pledged never to rest until he returns to Lebanon.
The mission of rescuing Sadr, now regaining momentum as Gaddafi’s state is
falling apart, has been on the mind of Lebanese Shi'ites since 1978. In June
1984, two Libyan diplomats were kidnapped to apply pressure on Gaddafi, and
when that did not work the Libyan Embassy in Beirut was blown up in July.
The turbulent 1980s - which witnessed the occupation of Beirut, exodus of the
Palestinians, outbreak of the first intifada (uprising) and end of the
civil war - briefly muted the Sadr case. It emerged in the early 1990s when
Berri, a former protege and now speaker of parliament, came out and boomed, "We
want to know what happened to the imam."
Very committed to their cause, both Amal and Hezbollah have curtly refused
dealing with Gaddafi or his regime until Sadr is released. Last year, they
lobbied to prevent President Michel Suleiman from attending an Arab summit in
Libya, precisely because of Sadr’s fate.
In 2000, they took the matter to unprecedented heights in the Lebanese media,
issuing a warrant for Gaddafi’s arrest in Lebanese courts, prompting the Libyan
leader to shut down his embassy in Beirut in 2003.
When a revolt broke out against the aged Libyan dictator this month,
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV and Berri’s NBN both dedicated their 24-hour broadcast
to the Libyan uprising, viciously attacking the colonel’s dictatorship
projecting its collapse. That media campaign did plenty to Gaddafi’s image,
topped with a similar one by Saudi al-Arabiya TV, conducted for completely
different reasons, and the Doha-based al-Jazeera.
Al-Arabiya is playing a very anti-Gaddafi tone because of the Saudi king’s poor
relationship with Gaddafi, who tried assassinating him three years ago.
Al-Manar and NBN, however, are doing it for Imam al-Sadr.
What makes the right all the more reasonable, as far as Lebanese Shi'ites are
concerned, is a snowballing rumor that Sadr is still alive and was spotted
being transported from a Libyan prison, hours after Gaddafi’s onslaught began.
That story ripped through Shi'ite districts of Lebanon like wildfire,
resonating especially strong in Sadr's native Tyre, where giant posters of the
imam have remained plastered over the city.
If alive, Sadr would be 83. Although all Shi'ite politicians are publicly
rejoicing at the story, given that it never fails to score points with
day-to-day people, many are still worried that Sadr's return - no matter how
unlikely - would greatly threaten their standing.
This applies to front-line politicians who are already worried that they cannot
compete with Berri or Nasrallah. A trio, Berri-Nasrallah-Sadr, would only make
life more difficult for these ambitious politicians. Many after all have built
their entire careers on asking the eternal question: "Where is the imam ... We
must find him!"
They have used and abused the Sadr case for more than three decades to win
votes during elections, permanently walking in his shadow and claiming that
they too, were speaking "for the dispossessed". A "missing imam" to them,
perhaps, is certainly better than a recovered one who still has fighting spirit
in him, and an appetite for politics.
Sami Moubayed is a university professor, political analyst, and
editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)