In a display of bold journalistic integrity, CNN has shown Octavia Nasr the door for expressing respect for Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.
Fadlallah- who died on Sunday- was a Lebanese cleric widely seen as a spiritual inspiration for Hezbollah. There was a lot about Fadlallah not to like. Like most Muslim pedagogues, he held barbaric views on Israel. He argued justifications for suicide bombings, and accused Israel of exaggerating the effects of the Holocaust for political gains.
On the other hand, Fadlallah wasn’t all a bad guy- and not just in the ‘sure, he was a genocidal maniac, but he loved his kids’ sense. Like Hezbollah itself, he condemned the 9/11 attacks despite long having been stridently critical of American foreign policy in the Middle East (anti-Islamists love to claim that ‘no one’ in the Islamic world condemned 9/11). He was a critic of the Iran’s theocratic rule, arguing that Khomeini had gone too far by setting up any single cleric as the arbiter of religious truth, and opposed the spread of theocracy to Lebanon- despite heavy Iranian backing for Hezbollah.
Most importantly, he advocated a relatively progressive view of women’s rights, and justified his position in a way much more likely to resonate with Muslims than the typical Western hectoring. Fadlallah issued fatwas condemning female circumcision and honor killings. He advocated the equality of men and women, and their equal role in shaping society. He also issued a fatwa confirming the rights of women to defend themselves against physical and social violence, and condemning as un-Islamic male violence towards women or attempts to deprive them of their rights. He also believed that abortion was permissible in situations where the mother’s life was at risk.
Fadlallah was a sharp critic of the U.S., but there is a lot in his views on that topic that is hard to dismiss. He argued that the U.S. was using ‘terrorism’ as an excuse for imperial exercises in the Middle East- a view that is certainly understandable, given the former U.S. presence in Lebanon and the ongoing presence in Iraq. He accused the CIA of attempting to stir up trouble in the region, but one might expect such views from someone that the CIA allegedly tried to assassinate.
According to the New York Times:
Since the early 1990s, he adopted a more pragmatic tone, preaching against the division between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. He raised money for a sprawling international network of charities and willingly met with prominent Americans, including critics of his beliefs, and considered dialogue with the enemy an Islamic imperative.
So there was plenty about Fadlallah not to like, but if you’re a fan of the art of the possible and looking for signs of grass-roots progressive views and dialog within the Islamic world, there were certainly some things to respect about the man.
So following his death, CNN senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs, Octavia Nasr tweeted:
Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.
Twitter doesn’t allow for a lot of nuance, so following the controversy about this tweet, Nasr followed up with a blog post explaining that, as a Middle Eastern woman, she respected an Islamic leader who was willing to meet with people like her- Christian, female, Westernized- and engage in a dialog about the future of Lebanon and the Middle East. Fadlallah drew criticism from other Muslim clerics for his views on women and religious co-existence, and from Hezbollah for his criticisms of Iran’s growing influence, and its departure from its original goals and values. She expressed respect for a complex figure who stood out as a relative moderate, and sadness for the death of a human being she had met and spoken with.
CNN announced on Wednesday that they had parted ways with Nasr because “her credibility… has been compromised” by that act.
Unfortunately, she violated the primary commandment of reporting about the Middle East in the U.S.: Thou shall not attempt to introduce nuance.