A number of books and even more articles have been written on the mysterious disappearance of the charismatic leader of Lebanon's Shia community, Imam Musa al Sadr, on August 31, 1978, in Tripoli, Libya, notably Fouad Ajami's The Vanished Imam (Cornell, 1986) and Peter Theroux's The Strange Disappearance of Musa Sadr (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987). The study by Majed Halawi, A Lebanon Defied, we are told on the final page of the book, was a response to "the need to produce an account that the Shia community would consider an adequate representation of its modern experience in Lebanon." Needless to say, the author, self-described as "an independent consultant on Middle Eastern affairs" is himself a Shia. But then so is Fouad Ajami, though he is held in less high esteem by his fellow sectarians.
The underlying theme that unites the book is the story of Musa al-Sadr's rise to prominence, first in his own community and then in Lebanon and the world of Middle East politics at large, and the circumstances of his disappearance. At the same time, the history of the Shia population of Lebanon is treated in some detail, and an attempt is made to chronicle the rise of present-day Shia involvement in Lebanese politics as the direct result of the efforts of Imam al-Sadr.
That he had an effect on Lebanon and its Shia population is undeniable. That he would be welcomed back, even by his own community, should he suddenly reappear, is debatable. When he arrived in Lebanon from Iran in 1959 (as an agent of the shah, it is now known, though he began to disavow him after 1973), the Shia in Lebanon were the poorest, least-educated and most unpoliticized of the country's seven major sectarian groupings. They were also arguably the largest, though the author's own population estimate for 1988 (Table 2.1, p. 50), which put them at 1,325,000 out of a total of 4,045,000 (or 30+ percent) versus only 218,000 for the Druze (or S+ percent), is suspect. The general message of the author is that the efforts of the imam to lift the Lebanese Shia from this deplorable state were an unqualified success. That they have gained political influence can be seen in the role that the speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri, and his rivals within the community, Hizballah, play today in Lebanese politics.
But it is also obvious to anyone who knows Lebanon that the Shia are still overall the least advanced of its citizens economically and educationally. They prosper, as all Lebanese prosper, despite the effects of the civil war, but the divide which separates them from the other communities, especially the Christians, is still there, and Shia wealth is still concentrated in the hands of the old political families (e.g. the Hamadis, Haydars, Usayrans and Baydouns). There has been some redistribution of power, and perhaps some of wealth, but those Lebanese at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap are still Shia. The only difference is that the influx of poor Syrians during the war has given the country a new underclass that even the poorest of Lebanese can look down upon.
A major effort of Imam al-Sadr was to improve the self-image of the Lebanese Shia, known for generations as the Metawila (sing. Metwali), or followers of Ali, which had come "to acquire a whole pejorative host of connections, i.e. being uneducated, vulgar, sexually insatiable, promiscuous and threatening" (p. 77). To some extent this view still exists, most visibly in the numerous "Abu-Ali" jokes about stereotyped Shia shortcomings. But the days of the open vilification and villainization of the Shia and the Shia male in particular (as seen in Tawfik Awwad's 1975 novel, Death in Beirut) are over. One may debate the extent to which Imam al-Sadr was responsible for this change, but there is no doubt he made an impact, something which is all the more notable given his own tenuous links with a Lebanese heritage. Born in Qum in Iran to a family of religious elders, he claimed Lebanese ancestry from the villages of Maarakeh and Shahin near Tyre, but when he arrived in 1959 his spoken Arabic was minimal (though he later came to speak it very well indeed) and his Lebanese passport had to be issued by special presidential decree in 1963.
Until he created his own political party, Amal, the Lebanese Shia had none of their own, and those who were politically active were spread across the board from the communists and Jumblatt's socialists on the left to the Parti Populaire Syrien (PPS) and the predominantly Maronite Kataib (Phalanges Libanaises) on the right. With Amal, and Hizballah, they had their own political organizations at long last. According to the Maronite Karim Pakradouni of the Lebanese Forces, al-Sadr "made the Shia community conscious of the power of its numbers and history...and of its Lebanese identity" (p. 127). Like the Maronites, the Shia have no significant population concentrations in the Levant outside Lebanon. Unlike the Maronites, however, they had a large and powerful Middle Eastern base in Iran. The triumph of the Ayatollah Khomeini over the shah, which occurred several months after the disappearance of al-Sadr, gave further impetus to the politization of the Lebanese Shia and also to their fundamentalist Islamic identity.
Imam al-Sadr's principal appeal was that of a populist-a leader determined to "secure a greater share of the economic resources and political power for his community by cooperating with the legitimate Lebanese authorities" (p. 133). He was not a rabid revolutionary; rather he sought to achieve his goals through negotiation and reasoned argument. "His priority was for change through dialogue" (p. 164). It is hard to say what effect he might have had in bringing the Lebanese civil war to an earlier conclusion had he not disappeared from the scene. It is, of course, assumed by nearly everyone that he is dead, done in by Col. Qadhafi for reasons that are not very clear. The author offers no new theories as to why he was killed, and the general consensus of studies of this subject is that we will never know unless the Libyan ruler decides to tell us.
Thus there is really nothing in this book that is startlingly new. What is different is the approach the author has taken in an attempt to de-demonize the Shia in the eyes of the West and point out the reasons for their grievances, on the back of which Imam al-Sadr rose to power. The book is reasonably well written, though occasionally repetitious and obtuse, particularly in chapter 5 ("Myths and Praxis"). His account of history and religious demography is for the most part accurate, though when stating that following the Mamluke expulsion of the Shia from Kisrawan (the now entirely Maronite district northeast of Beirut) their presence in Mount Lebanon "was henceforth confined to small communities to the east of Jubayl (Byblos), surviving until today" (p. 21), he neglects the village of Raskhida much further north near Batrun on the border of the predominantly Orthodox al-Kura district. His map showing the "broad concentration of religious groups in Lebanon" is deeply flawed. Not only does it not indicate the Shia presence to the east of Jubayl just mentioned; it shows the Akkar district as entirely Sunni, when it is in fact 40-percent Orthodox and Maronite, neglects to indicate the Maronite enclaves on the border with Israel and the Greek Catholic villages of the northeastern Beqaa Valley, and indicates the Druze region of southeast Lebanon as Sunni. There are many other errors as well, but it is sufficient to say that the map would have best been left out.