Home-grown in Lebanon

Responding to the discussion on political Islam begun in the previous issue of Red Pepper, Bilal El-Amine considers the experience of Hizbullah in Lebanon

December 6, 2009
9 min read

It is no doubt commendable that Red Pepper has tried to tackle the thorny issue of political Islam and in particular the Iranian experience, a subject that is greatly misunderstood in the west, even in left circles. But unfortunately the discussion created more spark than substance. This can be attributed to both Alastair Crooke\’s rather abstract philosophical approach that often clashes with the reality of events on the ground and Azar Majedi\’s shrill response, which reduces the legacy of the Islamic revolution in Iran to ’30 years of bloodshed, oppression, misogyny, gender apartheid, stoning and mutilation’. One wonders how it is that women in Iran make up 65 per cent of university students under such conditions.

The Iranian revolution and the Islamic Republic that emerged from it are complex, and often contradictory, developments that defy neatly packaged concepts coming from both left and right in the west. It is interesting how the far right and many on the radical left in Europe and the US see eye-to-eye when it comes to Islamist activism. Both view it as deeply reactionary (‘Islamo-fascists’ is a common epithet between the two), with the pat explanation that the only reason that Islamists enjoy such a large following in the Muslim world is because of their ability to either brainwash their followers with religion or buy them off with their vast charitable networks.

The reality is that political Islam has a long and rich history that stretches back over a century, inspiring a wide range of movements across an extremely diverse landscape that stretches from Indonesia to Morocco. Painting this broad movement with a single brush confuses more than it clarifies.

Deep roots in Lebanon

Take the case of Hizbullah, for example. This Shia Muslim resistance movement in Lebanon is often carelessly lumped in with the Islamic revolution in Iran and is rarely seen as an independent entity with its own history and struggle. No doubt there are deep and foundational links between the Islamic Republic and Hizbullah, and Tehran generously funds and supports the Lebanese resistance, but that does not make them one and the same. Nor can it be said that Hizbullah is simply an offshoot or subordinate of Iran. Perhaps the most dynamic and effective social protest movement in the Middle East today, Hizbullah cannot be understood nor fully appreciated from a progressive point of view outside of its Lebanese context and history.

A brief look at Hizbullah’s emergence in the early 1980s and its consequent development into a mass party confirms that it is a home-grown movement with deep roots in Lebanese society. Hizbullah is the culmination of a long, against-all-odds struggle waged by Lebanon’s Shia against a matrix of foes who conspired to keep them locked in a cycle of occupation, impoverishment and political marginalisation.

Long before anyone had heard of Khomeini, Lebanon’s Shia began to take matters into their own hands to fight for dignity and justice, at first within the context of the Arab nationalist (and even communist) movements and later through activist Shi’ism. The move from the former to the latter was a conscious choice for many as the Arab nationalists and the left simply failed to address the sources of Shia discontent.

The streams that fed into the creation of Hizbullah were diverse and not in any way limited to Iranian influence. Some came out of the Palestinian struggle and Lebanon’s many left organisations, while others were university students influenced by the Iraqi Al Da’wa party, and a significant group split from the Amal Movement (another Lebanese Shia party established in the early 1970s).

Ideologically, Hizbullah was heavily influenced by Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a local cleric with a large following among Lebanon’s Shia, including a significant number of Hizbullah members. Mistakenly referred to as the ‘spiritual guide’ of Hizbullah (prompting an assassination attempt against him by the CIA in 1985), Fadlallah has a reputation for his liberal views on social issues and opposes the very idea of clerical rule.

Critical factor

The most critical factor in uniting these disparate forces was neither Khomeini’s influence nor Iran’s money, but Israel’s second occupation of southern Lebanon in the summer of 1982. It is simplistic to think that financial support alone can forge a capable and successful movement such as Hizbullah or even win its unswerving loyalty. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) stopped being effective and lost all semblance of unity precisely when it became known as the ‘richest revolutionary movement in the world’.

It is also interesting to look at the experience of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a party of Iraqi Shia exiles founded on Iranian soil during the Iran-Iraq war. Even in such circumstances, Tehran was unable to mould the competing factions into a coherent party and today SCIRI is accused of cozying up to the US occupation in Iraq. From its inception, the overwhelming priority for Hizbullah was fighting the Israeli occupation, and resistance work in its broadest sense became the backbone of the party’s social and political work. The armed resistance is complemented by a comprehensive set of development and humanitarian institutions that are involved in all manner of activities, ranging from technical assistance to rural farmers to the recently opened high-tech cardiac centre serving the poor southern suburbs of Beirut.

These are classic social welfare agencies with an Islamist twist, such as the infrastructure and reconstruction engineering unit Jihad Al Bina, or the low-interest micro-credit agency Qard Al Hassan (among the largest in the region), or the extensive welfare agency Imdad, run largely by volunteers to assist the poor, among many others. The work of these organisations has profoundly transformed the lives of Hizbullah’s supporters.

Distinct paths

In the early heady days, as Hizbullah burst on the scene fired up by the Islamic revolution in Iran, the party’s founders (mainly clerics) could be accused of adopting uncompromising positions, such as calling for an Islamic revolution in Lebanon. But as early as 1985, before the party had even fully cohered, in one of its first public manifestos (known as the ‘Open Letter’), they were already qualifying their demands for an Islamic state, stating clearly that they didn’t intend to force their religion upon others.

With the end of the long civil war from 1975 to 1991, Hizbullah took further steps to accommodate itself with the Lebanese state and embarked on what is sometimes called a ‘Lebanonisation’ process by participating in the first post-war parliamentary election in 1992. Today, Hizbullah has ministers in the cabinet and has struck a durable alliance with Lebanon’s largest Christian party, something no one could have imagined even a few years ago. The party has also swept municipal elections where it has set an example of good governance – a concept barely known in Lebanon, where corruption reigns supreme.

The two distinct paths that the Iranian and Lebanese revolutionaries took only reflect the kinds of social forces that were involved and the terrain on which they operated. The differences in this case are stunning and naturally lead in very different directions.

The Shia of Lebanon entered the 20th century as a historically and structurally marginalised group that was dominated by feudal-like landowners and a compromised and conservative clergy. In Iran, Shi’ism had been a state religion for nearly 500 years and was almost synonymous with Iranian nationalism, which stretches back thousands of years. Iran’s clergy played a critical role in all of modern Iran’s major upheavals and, even in the darkest days of the last shah, they were respected, if not feared, by the authorities. Lebanon’s Shia may at best be a slight majority in their religiously diverse and divided country, while Iran’s Shia make up 90 per cent of the population, uniting many nationalities and ethnicities under its banner.

The opposite of fundamentalism

Context is critical when looking at Islamist movements, as appearances – and even the pronouncements of the activists themselves – can be deceiving. To judge and appraise Islamism based on its ideology alone misses these important details, particularly as Hizbullah has pioneered a pragmatic and extremely flexible current within political Islam that is increasingly being adopted by others, including Hamas and to a lesser extent the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Given their revolutionary Islamist roots and the incredibly challenging Lebanese political terrain, Hizbullah has mastered the art of tactical flexibility while remaining grounded in its core principles. Such a method is the very opposite of ‘fundamentalism’, the blanket label so often used to describe all groups that weave politics and Islam together.

It is tragic that progressives in the west continue to paint such a one-sided picture of Islamist political practice and fail to see the liberatory aspects of the movement. Due largely to Hizbullah’s leadership over the past three decades, the Shia of Lebanon live with some semblance of dignity, liberated from Israeli occupation and terror, secure on their land, with a far brighter future than anyone could have predicted.

For this, and of course for its two defeats of the supposedly invincible Israeli army (in 2000 and 2006), the party is rewarded with the enthusiastic support of millions of Arabs and Muslims across the globe. Such a movement deserves the support and solidarity of those in the west who stand for a just world.

If the European and US left cannot accept the idea that the struggle for a better world can take many shapes and forms, then they are the true fundamentalists.

Bilal El-Amine is a writer living in Beirut, Lebanon


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