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Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Man in Nasrallah's Shadow: A Profile of Sheikh Naim Qasim

By Sami Moubayed (from Terrorism Focus, August 22) - Sheikh Naim Qasim, the deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah, is one of the most interesting politicians in Lebanon. He is also one of the most under-covered by the Western media because he remains overshadowed by the towering influence of his boss, the charismatic 46-year-old Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Yet the life and career of the number two man in Hezbollah is important since he is the leader who would likely lead the controversial party if Nasrallah were to step down or get killed by Israel. Sheikh Naim Qasim was born in the Basta district of Beirut, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood, in 1953. He was originally from the village of Kafar Vila in South Lebanon. His father had come to Beirut as a young boy, searching for a better life like so many Shiites of his generation, working at his uncle's bakery in the Lebanese capital. The Shiites at the time were overwhelmingly poor, underrepresented in the Lebanese parliament and their areas were greatly underdeveloped.

When Qasim was born, his father was working as a taxi driver in Beirut. Qasim recalled that his father would start his work day at 6 am and remain behind the wheel until 8 pm, struggling to earn a living for the young Qasim, his three brothers and one sister. Honest and reliable, the father transported money and goods to customers around Lebanon, earning enough money to buy a house in the Msaytbeh neighborhood, which the family moved to when Qasim was 14. Qasim's father was illiterate but insisted that his son receive a proper education to compensate for the lack of schooling in his own childhood. At school he excelled in French and chemistry. The young Qasim then studied at the Department of Education at the state-run Lebanese University (al-Rajul, March 1, 2005).

While still in school, Qasim became interested in religion and Islamic studies. No member of his immediate family was a cleric. At a young age, Qasim went to the local mosque during Ramadan where he was influenced by the clerics of the Shiite community. He began doing his own research into scholarly Islam and journeyed to different parts of Lebanon to attend lectures and read about Shiite history. By 1983, Qasim had decided to wear the turban of Shiite Islam. He was 30 years old. This decision, he recalled many years later, was a "revolution" in his life. He added, "many things changed [after I became a cleric], such as the way of life, the nature of relationships and the degree of social interaction. There are many restraints that come with the turban" (al-Rajul, March 1, 2005). When asked what he would do if all the restrictions that came with his political and religious office were suddenly lifted, he immediately replied: "I would walk in the streets," claiming that since 1992 this is something he has been deprived of doing at will due to the security restrictions of his job in Hezbollah (al-Rajul, March 1, 2005).

When the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, Qasim joined the Amal movement of the Iranian-born cleric Imam Musa al-Sadr. He became active in student politics while studying at Lebanese University and rose among party ranks, becoming "deputy officer" of ideology and culture in Amal (http://www.naimkassem.org). He parted from Amal after the "disappearance" of the party founder Musa al-Sadr in 1978 and devoted his time to research and deeper understanding of Islam. When former members of Amal founded Hezbollah in the early 1980s, Qasim joined their ranks but did not become an active member until 1989. Under the first secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, Qasim became deputy president of the Executive Council. When Abbas al-Musawi became secretary-general, Qasim was chosen as his number two man. Six months later, however, al-Musawi was assassinated by the Israelis and Hassan Nasrallah (only 32 years old at the time) replaced him as secretary-general. The decision to bypass Qasim and choose Nasrallah, who was seven-years his junior and less experienced in political affairs, remains a topic of controversy until the present. It is believed that this was the doing of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Akbar Khamenei due to Nasrallah's connections to Tehran. Qasim, on the other hand, is not as well connected to Iran, although he is allied to the Islamic regime there.

Currently, in addition to his political office, Qasim is the media man for Hezbollah. He is also dubbed the "Hezbollah intellectual" for the numerous books and articles that he has authored, in addition to the interviews and seminars that he gives (al-Arabiya, August 4, 2004). Qasim says that he did not start writing until 2001. Before that he had lectured extensively but never had the time to devote himself to composition (al-Arabiya, August 4, 2004). His first book was a collection of 10 lectures he had given on Imam Ali, the fourth grand caliph of Islam. Recently, he wrote a book about Hezbollah in Arabic, and in 2004 it was translated into English and published by Saki Books in London. He then wrote a book about the holy Shiite ceremony of Ashura, following it with a book on good manners, and is currently writing a book on "how to strengthen one's will power" (al-Rajul, March 1, 2005). He confesses that he reads a lot of books on education and psychology, but prefers to read politics from newspapers and other media outlets, unlike Nasrallah, who repeatedly said that he spends his free time reading political books authored by the Israelis, mainly the biographies and autobiographies of the political and military leaders of Israel (Ya Lesarat Ol-Hoseyn, August 10).

With regard to his personal life, Qasim says that all of his children are religious but none are considering a religious career, except his youngest son, who is 15 years old. He adds that he will not influence his son's choice of lifestyle or career, saying that his son must navigate his life on his own (al-Rajul, March 1, 2005). At the signing ceremony of one of his books, Qasim thanked his wife for her support, something that raised eyebrows within religious establishments as uncommon for a turbaned cleric. Qasim commented on the matter saying that "I support the rights of women" claiming that women's rights are a must in proper Islam. He adds, "She [in reference to women] is not a slave. She is not only there for delivering children. She is a human being in every sense of the word. She has full rights" (al-Rajul, March 1, 2005). In his own words, his wife is "educated and intellectual," proudly saying that she used to lecture on various matters and was very active in public life but had to limit her public activities in order to raise their children. When asked about friends he commented: "Nobody lives without friends" (al-Rajul, March 1, 2005). He lamented not having time to see his friends regularly or to spend quality time with them, due to the amount of time his work consumes, pointing out that even when he wants to see his mother, he has to fix an appointment with her in advance.

Looking back at his career, Qasim says: "I feel that I can no longer differentiate between myself and the party. The crossovers are very strong. I cannot imagine myself without Hezbollah" (al-Rajul, March 1, 2005).

Dr. Sami Moubayed is a Syrian writer and political analyst. He is the author of many books on Syria including Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000 (Cune Press 2005).
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