There is a glaring contradiction between Hezbollah’s recent statements about the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih (the rule of the jurisprudent) and events in Iran. The reverberations of the events, regardless of their outcome, are being felt hundreds of miles away in Lebanon, specifically by Hezbollah. Far more than protesting a fraudulent electoral process, the Iranians who have chanted “death to Khamenei” have also taken a sledgehammer to the basic tenets of Hezbollah’s dogmatic universe.
Days ago, Hezbollah Member of Parliament and Minister Muhammad Fneish, lashed out at the party’s domestic critics, complaining that “attacking” Wilayat al-Faqih was an offense against Lebanon’s Shia, one that constituted “a violation of the freedom of belief.”
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah picked up where Fneish left off, saying, “the subject of the Wilayat al-Faqih and the Imamate is at the heart of our religious doctrine, and any offense to it is an offense to our religion.” Recognizing that his statement was a transparent bending of the truth, Nasrallah tried to outflank his adversaries by inserting a caveat: “[T]he lack of unanimous agreement among Shia on Wilayat al-Faqih does not prevent it from being part of our doctrine.” He ended by trying to have it both ways: “And so, in all politeness I tell you, say what you will in politics and stay away from offending our beliefs.”
In other words, Nasrallah paid lip service to the reality that the Wilayat al-Faqih concept remains an idiosyncrasy that many senior Shiite religious scholars have rejected. He has done this in order to claim its hold over all of Lebanese Shia, whom Hezbollah has used as a shield against condemnation of its agenda, behavior and weapons. Hezbollah is seeking to create a link between Lebanese Shia and Wilayat al-Faqih, making them subjects of Iran’s Supreme Leader, whether they like it or not.
However, as Saoud al-Mawla, an advisor to the late Shiite cleric, Sheikh Muhammad Mehdi Shamseddine, remarked in an interview with L’Orient-Le Jour this week, Wilayat al-Faqih, far from being a theological doctrine as Nasrallah contended, is a concept of jurisprudence, meaning that nothing prevents it from being challenged.
But Nasrallah’s trick is one that has served Hezbollah well. The party has always manipulated its hybrid nature to its advantage: it is an armed movement and a provider of social assistance; it is a military party but also a political one; and when disapproval intensifies, it defends itself by affirming its religious nature. Similarly, we are now told the Wilayat al-Faqih is a religious not a political question. Hezbollah media representative Ibrahim al-Moussawi practiced this line on a foreign journalist last month: “These are purely religious questions,” he told him. “The Wilayat al-Faqih is a concept that is central to Islam, but it was crystallized in the thought of the Ayatollah Khomeini… So you see that this is a purely religious question that has nothing to do with Iran.”
Aside from the fact that senior Lebanese Shia clerics--including the late Shamseddine and Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah--have rejected the concept as formulated by Khomeini, it is absurd to claim that it is a “purely religious” matter that has nothing to do with Iran. The mere fact that the wali al-faqih, the Jurisprudent, is today Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, makes it very much about Iran. All the more significant, Khomeini’s thesis relates specifically to Islamic governance, which means it is very much political.
The Wilayat al-Faqih claims worldly, political and social authority over all Shia. As scholar Hassan Mneimneh recently put it in an article on the Arab reception of the concept: “Wilayat al-Faqih entails the recognition of the absolute worldly authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader (Rahbar), in whom the ultimate executive, legislative, and judiciary powers [are] supposed to reside.” Mneimneh added: “In the early 21st Century Arab world, support for the imported Khomeinist doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih... within Shia communities is invariably synonymous with political allegiance to the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Hezbollah’s own experience lends support to Mneimneh’s remarks. Not only did Hezbollah seek Khamenei’s permission to enter parliamentary politics in 1992, but the party’s deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, has written in his book on Hezbollah that “the wali al-faqih alone possesses the authority to decide war and peace.” If this is the prerogative of the Supreme Leader—the head of a foreign state--then how can Hezbollah ever accept that the Lebanese government alone should decide on matters of war and peace? This only underlines that Hezbollah and a sovereign Lebanese state can never be compatible.
What did Nasrallah say when Iranians took to the streets shouting “death to Khamenei?” What an offense it must have been to his religious beliefs. Are we honestly being asked to accept that the Lebanese cease all criticism of the concept of governance underwriting Khamenei’s authority, when his legitimacy at home is being directly challenged in far starker terms?
Tony Badran is a research fellow with the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.