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Opinion: What is Hezbollah? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In this November 12, 2010 file photo, Hezbollah fighters hold their party flags, as they parade during the opening of new cemetery for colleagues who died in fighting against Israel, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon.AP Photo/Hussein Malla

The controversy begins with the name Hezb Allah, Arabic for the Party of God. And the controversy is further deepened by what is implied by the name: the others, the ones who don’t belong to the movement of fire and brimstone, are Hezb al-Shaytan, the Party of Satan.

In the theology and practice of Hezbollah, there can be no mercy shown for other Muslims, let alone infidels beyond the boundaries of Islam. In a country like Lebanon, with eighteen religious communities, the theology of Hezbollah must be terribly problematic. The theology must twist and bend. There is a large Shi’ite community, perhaps the country’s largest, but no one can be sure. The Shi’ites are Hezbollah’s people, but what is Hezbollah—its doctrine and its people—to make of a strong Sunni presence in Beirut, Sidon, and Tripoli who vie for Islam itself, and return Hezbollah’s favor (and fervor) by considering Hezbollah’s warriors heretics carrying out Iran’s project in Lebanon?

What can Hezbollah make of the Christian churches—the Maronites, the Greek Orthodox, the Greek Catholics, etc?

The tribunes of Hezbollah equivocate—they are good at that. They are brigades of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist), the Iranian notion that in the “absence” of the Twelfth Imam, the leader of the Islamic Republic claims sovereignty over the believers, and Lebanese citizens at the same time. No room for ambiguity is left here; velayat-e faqih takes precedence. The pre-eminent leader of Hezbollah, the cleric Hassan Nasrallah, is bound by religious obligation (and old-fashioned ties of money and power) to render his loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Velayat-e faqih skipped borders and the Mediterranean to find its way into a worldly country that had not been known for its religious zeal. Lebanon laid down the foundations of a “sister republic.”

The Lebanese have always sought the patronage of foreign powers. The French had held sway among the pre-eminent Christian church, the Maronites. The Americans had had a run, their schools and religious missions, the weight of their power in the decades of the Cold War, held Lebanese of all denominations in awe. The Muslim Sunnis had the larger Arab states to fall back on: the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Iraqis during the years of Sunni ascendancy in Baghdad, and the Kuwaitis—they all gave the Sunnis a sense of belonging beyond the narrow confines of Lebanon.

The Shi’ites—the country’s hewers of wood and drawers of water—were latecomers to this game. Iran, the sole Shi’ite state in the House of Islam, was far away, separated by distance and language. To be sure, some Shi’ite mujtahids (religious scholars) knew of the seminaries of Qom in Iran, and of Najaf in Iraq, but on the whole the Shi’ites were a downtrodden community. Their lands in Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and the southern hinterland, were forlorn places, set apart from the glitter of Beirut and its polish.

The Israeli-Palestinian wars of the 1970s, and the upheaval in Iran that overthrew the dominion of the Pahlavis, altered the world of the Shi’ites of Lebanon. The winds of change were playing havoc with the Shi’ite. From their impoverished villages, they had been hurled into Greater Beirut. Some had fled the anarchy of south Lebanon, and the bravado of Palestinian gunmen. There was no love lost for Israel, but the Palestinians had worn out their welcome. Sustained with Arab oil money, and the prestige accorded a “revolutionary” movement in the international leftist circles of the day, the Palestinians had ridden roughshod over Shi’ite villagers in the south.

The Shi’ites, a community that had lacked guns and daring, had begun to stir. An Iranian-born cleric, Sayyid Musa Al-Sadr, who had made his way to Lebanon, had set out to organize the Shi’ites. “Arms are the adornment of men” proclaimed this charismatic figure who hailed from Shi’ite clerical nobility.. It was the fate of this singular man—I wrote a book about him, The Vanished Imam—to disappear in Libya in 1978, a victim of foul play by Muammar Gaddafi. But Imam Musa Al-Sadr, as his followers called him, had transformed Shi’ism in Lebanon from a tradition of lamentations and political withdrawal to one of activism.

Enter the more consequential figure in the Shi’ite world: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The cleric who returned to Iran from a long exile in Iraq was Persian, of course. But he was a pan-Islamic figure—to the oppressed, a redeemer. An eighth century Shi’ite prophecy known to Shi’ite believers everywhere was said to have foretold his appearance: “A man will come out of Qom and he will summon the believers to the right path. There will rally to him as pieces of iron, not to be shaken by violent winds, unsparing and relying on God.”

The ruling cabal of this new revolutionary theocracy were shrewd. They thought that they could overturn the Arab state next door—Iraq, a country with a Shi’ite majority but long in the grip of a Sunni tyranny. The bid for Iraq had failed. Lebanon offered an attractive alternative, a place where western hostages could be kidnapped and bargained over while still maintaining the fiction of Iran’s innocence.

Lebanon shared a border with Israel, and an American educational enclave, the American University of Beirut, the jewel of this crown, that dated back to the mid-1800s. This gave the revolutionary theocracy in Tehran the material for a campaign against the “oppressors.” There was economic distress aplenty among the Shi’ites of Lebanon. It was not hard for Iran, a large realm with substantial oil wealth, to find foot-soldiers in Lebanon. It had “salvation” to offer them, and economic sustenance.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard, in the mid-1980s, literally erected the Hezbollah movement. The newly urbanized among the Shi’ites took to this movement. It helped them conquer age-old inadequacies. It did not take long for “little Tehran” to rise in Beirut. The transformation was stunning. The chador was suddenly everywhere, as were the young bearded men and the clerics with black turbans who possessed immense power. The cult of “martyrdom” was sold to the gullible.

There was an Israeli presence in southern Lebanon. The warriors of Hezbollah struck at Israeli installations and checkpoints, which was where the suicide “martyrs” acquired their authority. The sort of young men (and some women as well) who would have gravitated to the trendy leftist parties of Beirut now made their home in the ranks of Hezbollah. Later estimates tell us that Hezbollah came to employ 40,000 people, and to school 100,000 children. This welfare network, in a country where the state hardly functioned, gave Hezbollah immense influence. Lebanon had its unwritten sectarian compact, the communities were left to care for—and dominate—their own.

Hezbollah turned topsy turvy the ways of Lebanon. Impoverished young men made their way to great power and influence. The current Secretary-General of the Party, the aforementioned Hassan Nasrallah, is without doubt Lebanon’s most powerful warlord. He makes and breaks governments, he has the control of a television station, and great wealth is available to him. But Nasrallah, born in 1960, had risen out of crushing poverty. He was born and raised in Karantina, Beirut’s most wretched slum. His father was a peddler of fruits and vegetables. He knows no foreign languages. He only spent a very brief period of time in the seminaries of Najaf. In the Lebanon of old, he would have been among the marginal and the despised. Holy warfare—and velayat-e faqih—has been good to him. His party has Iranian subsidies and it has the run of Beirut. It has come to “live off the land,” through racketeering, drug trafficking, and money laundering.

Of late, Hezbollah has thrown caution to the wind. It has entered the war in Syria between the Alawite dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad and the Sunni rebellion. Moreover, it now makes no secret of its role in that sectarian war. Hitherto, it had been silent and coy about its fighters killed in Syria. Their burials were discreet affairs, the announcements of their deaths said that they fell while performing “jihadist duty.”

But on April 30, after a journey that Nasrallah made to Iran, and a meeting with its Supreme Leader, the Hezbollah leader owned up to the role of his militia in that war. He warned the Syrian rebels that they cannot topple the Bashar regime, that Syria had friends in the world who would not let it fall into the hands of Western and Sunni Arab, powers. Gone was the need for concealment, Nasrallah was ready to risk an irreparable breach with the Sunnis in his own country.

A battle for the town of Qusayr, in the hinterland of the city of Homs, close to the Lebanese border, brought Hezbollah full-force into the Syrian war. In this war that keeps no secrets—our first YouTube war—the sectarian hatred could not be concealed. In video postings, Nasrallah and his soldiers are Hezb al-Shaytan, the Party of Satan, and Nasrallah an enemy of God and a servant of the dreaded Persians. And in the “social media,” on Facebook, there are postings of the Hezbollah fighters who fell in battle, their bereaved parents professing pride in the martyrdom of their loved ones.

The fallen are overwhelmingly young, from quaint villages that I knew in my boyhood. Back then they would have been simple boys trying to find their way in the world. Now they are being sanctified and exalted. Hezbollah has given them a mission, and the way to catastrophe.

* This article was originally published by Defining Ideas, an online journal of the Hoover Institute and can be found here.