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 late 1950s.
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.
This article appeared in Asia Times on February 28, 2011.