Recently an important Muslim religious figure passed away. During his life, he stated that the United States “probably deserved” to have been attacked on September 11th, 2001, and additionally blamed the attacks on the sins of American homosexuals, non-believers, and abortionists. He once proclaimed that God “does not hear the prayers” of Jews, and only prayers offered in the name of his Prophet warranted God’s attention. He denounced secular teaching in education, and was in favor of religious organizations one day taking over schools.
Now my question is this: Should CNN journalist Octavia Nasr have been fired for praising the life of this controversial religious leader? Nasr was fired, after 20 years of working at CNN, for tweeting “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot...”
What do you think?
Well, the religious leader I talked about in the first paragraph wasn’t Fadlallah. In fact, I lied about this leader being Muslim. The person described in the opening paragraph was, in fact, Rev. Jerry Falwell, who died in 2007. Jerry Falwell accused America of bringing about the Sept. 11th attacks through a host of sins. He once attacked civil rights by opposing the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and told a crowd that the Antichrist was walking the earth as a male Jew. He was in favor of religious control of American education. He hated homosexuals, and made such comments as “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals” and “Gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you.”
Yet after his death, news organizations did not fail to praise him for the good he brought the world. Paula Zahn of CNN, before introducing Christopher Hitchens to her show, said “you won’t believe what my next guest is saying about [Falwell’s] legacy.” Would CNN have introduced an outspoken critic of Fadlallah like that? Zahn opened by grilling Hitchens: “Falwell was controversial. Isn’t that a good thing? It gets people thinking and discussing and debating… I’m curious why you think he’s such an idiot. There were thousands and thousands of people who followed him and believed in him… ” On Fox News, Sean Hannity questioned whether Hitchens’ criticism went overboard because they could have hurt his family. Hannity said, “I know the good work this man has done… I know what he did for unwed mothers, I know what he did for alcoholics, I know what he did for drug addicts…”
It’s clear that for Jerry Falwell, the media was able to distinguish the good of his life from the bad in examining his legacy. And of course, we do this all the time for the dead. Ted Kennedy was remembered for being the Lion of the Senate and a great liberal champion, not for the Chappaquiddick incident that for the less politically-connected might have resulted in a homicide investigation. The Washington Post famously wrote about the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet:
“Mr. Pinochet was brutal: More than 3,000 people were killed by his government and tens of thousands tortured, mostly in his first three years. Thousands of others spent years in exile… It’s hard not to notice, however, that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America. In the past 15 years, Chile’s economy has grown at twice the regional average, and its poverty rate has been halved. It’s leaving behind the developing world, where all of its neighbors remain mired. It also has a vibrant democracy. Earlier this year it elected another socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, who suffered persecution during the Pinochet years. Like it or not, Mr. Pinochet had something to do with this success.”
When I asked my college friend Alison, who wrote her thesis on Chilean politics and studied abroad in Chile, whether Pinochet was on balance good or bad, she replied emphatically about her view: “There’s no balance there. CIA-installed dictator responsible for two decades of human rights violations, tortures and disappearances, not to mention dismantling of the press and ruining a democratic state for more than a decade to follow…” Allison also attributed Chile’s economic rise under Pinochet to the U.S. backing of his right-wing coup, and the cessation of our country’s destructive economic campaign against Pinochet’s Marxist predecessor, Allende. Yet she acknowledged that in the minds of other Chileans, he was not a dictator, human rights violations may not have occurred, and, regardless, he saved the country from communists who were being armed by Fidel Castro.
So were there any redeeming features to Fadlallah’s life that might have justified Nasr’s comments? It’s worth reading her side of the story:
I used the words “respect” and “sad” because to me as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman’s rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of “honor killing.” He called the practice primitive and non-productive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam
…Through his outspoken Friday sermons and his regularly updated website, Fadlallah had a platform to spread what many considered a more moderate voice of Shia Islam than what was coming out of Iran. Immensely popular in Lebanon among the various religious groups, he also had followers across the region including in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and even as far as Morocco in northern Africa.
Sayyed Fadlallah. Revered across borders yet designated a terrorist. Not the kind of life to be commenting about in a brief tweet. It’s something I deeply regret.
Indeed, Fadlallah was well-known to be liberal on women’s rights in Islam. He issued religious edicts against female circumcision and honor killings. He was also a champion of female education, and an enemy of violence against women. Here’s what Fadlallah had to say in a 2009 interview (my emphasis added):
Therefore, we believe that the woman has the right to learn and to attain the highest certificates. Her education would be a great benefit to her children, for she would raise them according to a methodological approach. Moreover, through her studies and researches and through her participation in teaching, the woman could be an effective participant in the development of knowledge, not only on the academic level, but also on the level of the society as a whole.
Therefore, I believe that it is the woman’s right, just as it is the man’s right, to get the highest levels of education. This is mentioned in the Holy Quran: “and say: O my Lord! Increase me in knowledge” (Taha:114).
In the Fatwa we issued, we intended to clarify the Islamic position towards the right of defence. The Quranic verse says: “If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him”. (Al-Baqara: 194).
If the man attempts at exploiting the woman’s weaknesses and there is no other way to prevent him from attacking her, then she has the right to face him in the same way to protect herself against his violence.
The man might sometimes feel the pride of his machomismo. So, he might break either her hand or her leg or cause her severe physical damage.
Therefore, in this case, she has the right to face him with the same weapon he is using.
Some men rejected this fatwa, claiming that that it shakes marital life. I replied that it is man’s violence that shakes this relationship.
I advise the woman to protect her family; however, if there is no other way by which she can defend herself, she has the right to train herself and to possess the power that enables her to wage a counter-attack.
I believe that self defence is a human right for any person, whether male or female
Nasr qualifies in her explanation that Fadhallah had plenty to be criticized for, from his support of terror attacks on Israel and against the United States (he was accused of helping planning the attacks on military bases in Beirut), to denouncing the U.S.’s foreign policy in the Middle East and perhaps galvanizing anti-U.S. groups as a result. He did not, however, like Falwell, ever justify the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., and emphatically rejected the Al Qaeda terror plots. As Mohamed Bazzi, adjunct senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, put it:
“He was one of the first Muslim clerics to criticize and -completely criticize the 9/11 attacks. He argued that the kind of wholesale targeting of civilians that al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden were engaged in was not permissible under Islam. He argued that you had very specific situations where you could carry out suicide attacks against military targets. He also sanctioned suicide attacks against civilian targets within a general state of war between two sides. But he rejected the kind of willful targeting of civilians that al-Qaida was engaged in.”
So how should we decide whether to pay respect to the controversial dead, or judge others for doing so? We should recognize the legacies of the dead by weighing the “good” and “bad” actions of an individual’s life, coming up with a net sum. Yet in attempting to adhere to some objective measure of the magnitude of a positive or negative action, we must also consider the (valid) preferences of the individual griever, which act as a multiplier on the factually-occurring individual acts. I say “valid” preferences because this only works if we have similar moral systems, and thus the multipliers could vary in size based on the person, but not vary in sign. If you value the death of innocent people with a positive multiplier, whether you should mourn for specific war criminal X or Y is a secondary debate. Under this calculus, we would be broadly accepting of any individual person’s decision to pay respects to a vast array of controversial dead.
Most people who grieved Ted Kennedy’s death probably thought that his legislative achievements were enough to warrant him the high honors he received. Yet I would not, for example, begrudge Mary Jo Kopechne’s parents for any inconsiderate thoughts, because obviously they might rightly assign to their daughter’s death a high multiplier, which would cancel out Kennedy’s good deeds. Some (apparently) forgive Pinochet for being a cruel dictator for (arguably) contributing to Chile’s present-day success. Perhaps those place a higher multiplier on economic progress, and attribute Chile’s current prosperity to Pinochet. But if his victims’ families fail to forgive him, along with everyone else, that’s OK with me as well. Many Americans forgive Jerry Falwell for hating homosexuals and blaming them for the 9/11 attacks, while serving as an inspiring religious leader for millions. Some of those homosexuals that he damned to Hell might not change their opinion of him just because he died.
So why couldn’t CNN accept Nasr’s personal value judgment of greatly appreciating Fadlallah’s legacy of defending women’s rights in the least progressive corner of the world, enough to push him in the net positive (for her) and express her respect at the occasion of his death? Were his other crimes so terrible that they could not be outweighed by any personal value system with a heavy emphasis on women’s rights? Was Fadlallah’s life was so utterly irredeemable that his mourners, unlike Kennedy’s or Falwell’s or even Pinochet’s, unlike those of all the Confederate generals we name highways after and those of KKK founders we name high schools after, do not have any ground to stand on whatsoever? Do I need to answer these rhetorical questions?
CNN said Nasr’s credibility as a reporter and editor had been jeopardized by her tweet. I say CNN would not have fired a reporter for pointing out the good deeds among the bad for a host of other controversial figures. Nor would CNN have fired (I hope) a journalist for donating to a political campaign–it was not the act of expressing a private opinion, but of expressing an opinion that CNN did not feel was valid. As a news organization, CNN should be particularly sensitive to firing reporters because the public disagreed with their reporting conclusions, editorials, or their personal opinions. CNN singled out Nasr because she praised a not just a controversial leader, but a controversial Muslim leader.
In this surreal political environment where the U.S. refused to join the U.N., E.U., and even Russia and China in demanding an independent investigation into the Gaza flotilla raid, and where American politicians formed a bipartisan bloc ranging from the bigoted and stupid Sarah Palin to the craven Harry Reid to urge against the Ground Zero site mosque proposal, CNN could have made a stand for the spirit of the 1st Amendment. Instead they fanned the flames by unjustly firing Nasr, and generated more animosity from the Muslim community.