A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, June 19, 2009

Holy War between the Nasrallahs: The Sheikh and the Cardinal

Despite all our attention to Iran, Lebanon is still there and moving towards forming a government in the wake of recent elections. Meanwhile a public feud has erupted between two prominent clerics, Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah of Hizbullah and the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Cardinal Sfeir, head of the Maronite church and a Cardinal in the Catholic Church hierarchy. The fact that Nasrallah's family name and the Cardinal's first given name are both Nasrallah (which means "God's victory") adds to the ironies of the clash of the clerics.

The latest round goes to Sfeir, who's commenting that "losers make excuses to justify their loss," referring to the fact that March 14 beat the Hizbullah-inclusive March 8 coalition in the elections (though Hizbullah's own representation stayed pretty steady). Sfeir — who is still pretty outspoken for an 89-year-old — fired off the first volley before the elections, warning that Lebanon's "Arab identity" would be endangered if the opposition won: meaning, of course, that Hizbullah is a stalking horse for Iran.

The sheikh fired back at the time that clerics should stay out of politics — seemingly an odd thing for a Shi‘ite cleric who heads a major political party to say, but maybe he just meant troublesome priests, not Shi‘ite clerics. After the elections Nasrallah (the sheikh, not the Cardinal) attacked Sfeir again for influencing the elections unduly.

Now the Christian community is defending Sfeir, or at least those on the March 14 side: Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea called Nasrallah's comments "an insult" and former President Amin Gemayel also criticized the attack on Sfeir, but as the Cardinal's comments show, he's capable of defending himself as well.

Anyway, the exchanges continue. It is a particularly Lebanese sort of quarrel, and the fact that both men have the name "Nasrallah" somewhere in their full names strikes me as particularly ironic.

NOTE: For 24 hours this post used the spelling "Nasrullah," till I noticed I've previously been using "Nasrallah": have changed it accordingly. I do plan to post on the transliteration issue soon.

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