Lebanon's Top Muslim Cleric: 'No Justice Means No Peace'

Heikh Mohammed Hossein Fadlallah's graying beard is turning a thick white, but his fundamentalist sermons are almost as fiery as they were during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

Sheikh Fadlallah is the imam, or chief cleric, for all the Shiite Muslims of Lebanon. But his reputation as a fundamentalist Islamic scholar stretches much farther, and in the West he is now considered "moderate."

His face is kind but stern, and stronger for having survived more than 10 attempts on his life.

In 1983, the United States accused him of blessing the suicide bomber who destroyed the US Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 - a charge he has consistently denied. In 1985, a car bomb near his Beirut office - later reported to have been planted by CIA operatives - killed more than 80 people.

Though not officially associated with Hizbullah, the Party of God, Fadlallah is considered by many to be the spiritual guide for the Islamic resistance to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon.

"This occupation has provoked an embarrassment for the occupiers, it has turned against them," says the sheikh, his black turban denoting kinship with the Prophet Muhammad. "Instead of shielding Israel, it is turning out to be a threat and a danger."

In an interview, Fadlallah says that "once the Israelis are out [of southern Lebanon], the Lebanese government should take control - nobody wants to take the place of the government." But until then, he implies, all methods of resistance are justified. "We're not advocating violence because we like to kill people," he says. "But when other people impose violence, when they occupy my country, I have to use violence to fight violence."

Israel and the US have often labeled Lebanon's Islamic resistance groups "terrorists," but Fadlallah says that "America perfectly understands that [resistance groups] are people who want to liberate their country. They are calling them terrorists because they take the side of Israel."

In Fadlallah's view, Israel and the US - because of its staunch support for Israel - are one and the same enemy. But he is also quick to make a distinction between the American people, whom "we're with," and the government.

Lebanon's Shiite clergy, like Shiites in Iran, reject the American-brokered Arab-Israeli peace process because they reject the existence of Israel.

"America is against the people of the Mideast, because it gives Israel the power against them," he says. "America only respects Israel's security. Why does it only think about the rights of Jews and ignore the rights of Palestinians? America is lying when it talks of the rights of the individual."

Muslims have no inherent religious conflict with Judaism, Fadlallah says: "We have different points of view with the Jews, but we don't want to fight them unless they fight us."

Still, he says, the growing influence of the pro-Israel lobby is likely to prevent any change of position from Washington.

"Israel is ruling America through the Jewish lobby," he says. "That is why America is not independent of Israel."

The peace process that Jordan's King Hussein and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat have signed with the Jewish state, he says, is doomed to collapse. "Justice makes peace, and as long as there is no justice, there will be no peace," he says.

"[This peace] is not right, and it's not real," he says. "The Jews didn't come to a deserted land, but a land full of people. What would you think if someone took over your land and said, 'Come and make peace.' Would you accept that?"

"King Hussein makes peace with Israel, but Jordanians refuse this peace. It is the same for Arafat," he says. "There is a big difference between the peace signed by leaders, and not made by the people."

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