An unusually sympathetic and understanding analysis of Hizbullah’s political thought

Developing Just Leadership

Laila Juma

Ramadan 14, 1436 2015-07-01

Book Review

by Laila Juma

Hizbullah: Politics and Religion by Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. Pub: Pluto Books, London, UK, 2002. Pp: 254. Pbk: £14.99.

The Lebanese Hizbullah is one of the best-known Islamic movements in the world. Since their emergence in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, their successful resistance to the Israeli occupation of the south of the country, their mature leadership of the Shia community in Lebanon, and their principled Islamic stances on Palestine and other key issues facing the Ummah globally, have made them highly respected by Muslims all around the world. Almost inevitably therefore, they have been maligned and demonised by Western governments, and little reliable and objective information is available on them.

This book, by a Lebanese academic at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, substantially fills this gap, providing a far better account and understanding of Hizbullah’s political thought than is offered by most English-language material. The key to this success is that Saad-Ghorayeb approaches her subject by looking at the context in which Hizbullah operates, and the assumptions and logic on which their understanding and policies are based, instead of judging them on the basis of Western understandings and assumptions.

Saad-Ghorayeb correctly identifies the key to the origin of the Hizbullah not so much as a response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but as the result of a process of the politicization of the Lebanese Shia, the country’s largest and poorest community, that had begun rather earlier, and which had already seen the establishment of the Amal movement by Imam Musa Sadr (who disappeared in 1978 while on a visit to Libya). This process had also been influenced by the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, which had a major impact in Lebanon, as elsewhere. In Lebanon, the influence was particularly direct because of the connections between Lebanese and Iranian ulama, forged in institutions such as Najaf.

Having said that, the Shias were undoubtedly the main Lebanese victims of the Israeli invasion. The Sabra and Shatila massacres and the bloody siege of Beirut have become the enduring images of the invasion, but scores of Lebanese villages were destroyed by Israeli forces as they drove savagely through the south of the country, and an estimated 250,000 people were displaced. It was in the context of the destruction and political impact of the Israeli invasion that Hizbullah emerged, as an alternative to Amal, as the main Shia political movement, combining a particular political approach with a determined stance of armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, a stance which forced Israel’s humiliating withdrawal from their self-declared ‘buffer zone’ in the south of the country in May 2000.

During this period, of course, the domestic political situation in Lebanon changed radically, through the breakdown of the post-invasion period, the civil war, and ultimately the formulation of a new constitution under the Ta’if Agreement of 1989, which substantially ‘normalised’ Lebanese politics. For all its emphasis on armed resistance to Israel’s continued occupation, Hizbullah also provided a principled opposition to the Ta’if accord for maintaining the sectarian basis of Lebanese politics, and in particular for perpetuating Maronite hegemony. At the same time, it also took the lead in representing Lebanon’s traditionally marginalised Shia interests within the new order, becoming what Saad-Ghorayeb characterises as "a ‘protest’ anti-system party" within the Ta’if order, and establishing itself as a major force in Lebanese politics since then.

Finally, the Hizbullah’s extensive programs of social welfare for those lowest on the economic and social ladders must also be mentioned. Like Hamas in Palestine, the Revolutionary Islamic movement in Iran, and other Islamic movements elsewhere, Hizbullah’s understanding of Islam encompasses not only political ideology and military jihad, but the provision of the needs of the weak and needy in society. This, combined with the humility, simplicity and selflessness displayed by their leaders, has also given them a particular place in Lebanese society, recognised not only by Shias but by other Muslims, and even non-Muslims, in the country.

Unlike most discussions of the Hizbullah, which see it primarily as a ‘terrorist’, ‘militant’ or ‘extremist’ anti-Israel movement, Saad-Ghorayeb succeeds in recognising all these facets of Hizbullah, and in developing an analysis of its work which explains and encompasses them all. Having discussed briefly the movement’s origins in her introduction, she takes as her starting point, in Chapter One, not its opposition to zionism but its position in Lebanon’s politics. The key question she addresses is how Hizbullah, a revolutionary Islamic movement inspired and modelled on that of Iran, can operate in an un-Islamic political order.

Her explanation is that, even within the post-Ta’if political order which Hizbullah refuses to legitimise, it is fulfilling its political objective of representing the "oppressed against the oppressors", highlighting that in ‘the oppressed’ Hizbullah includes all sectors of Lebanese society, not only Muslim or Shia. This understanding of the role of an Islamic movement, she considers, is what makes it possible for Hizbullah to operate within Lebanon’s political system, despite the fact that it is not an Islamic state as envisaged in Hizbullah’s political thought, pending the creation of an Islamic state when that becomes a realistic prospect. The result, she concludes, is a "juxtaposition of the ideological and the political" which has enabled the Hizbullah "to assume a politically constructive form and a politically mature content — the requisites for any party’s institutional longevity."

It is in the framework of this understanding that Saad-Ghorayeb then goes on to discuss Hizbullah’s political understanding at various levels in the core of the book. In Chapter Two, called "The Islamic State and Democracy", she discusses Hizbullah’s conception of the Islamic state, a central element of the movement’s thinking. She points out that, like the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Hizbullah aims to Islamise Lebanese society ‘from below’, and that Hizbullah leaders do not regard that as being inconsistent with a democratic state as they understand it. She points out that "although the implementation of an Islamic state is contingent upon its feasibility as a political scheme, it is still viewed as a religiously ordained necessity... In fact, the very notion of an Islamic movement that does not aspire to this goal is inconceivable."

In the next two chapters she discusses the Hizbullah’s understanding of Imam Khomeini’s concept of Vilayat-e Faqih, which is a cornerstone of their political understanding, and of its position as part of a global Muslim Ummah. Here she unfortunately shows some confusion in trying to reconcile Hizbullah’s commitment to the ‘pan-Islamic’ ideal of Vilayet-e Faqih (and its allegiance to Iran’s leader, Ayatullah Khamenei) with its ‘nationalist’ acceptance of Lebanese political realities. Nonetheless, her discussion of the influence that the leadership of the Islamic state has on Hizbullah positions is informative, particularly when read in conjunction with her own explanation of the Hizbullah’s ‘Islamic universalism’, as expressed in its own understanding of its title ‘Party of God’: "The Party of God is an expression for describing the multitude of believers generally. It is definitely not a closed group within this multitude who claims for itself the honour of affiliation to the Party of God, at the exclusion of other believers".

In the next chapter, Saad-Ghorayeb looks at "The Struggle with the West", explaining its deep-rooted and principled rejection of Western civilization, on both historical grounds and ideological ones. She explores various aspects of this anti-Western animus, from the rejection of its econnomic imperialism to its support for zionism and its cultural immorality and aggression. Although she covers most areas, she does not aim to explain Hizbullah’s position to Western readers, and so probably raises more questions by writing and publishing this book than she answers.

The last three chapters of the book look at Hizbullah’s understanding of zionism, Jews and Israel, beginning with the struggle against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and then going on to discuss also the movement’s more abstract attitude. She particularly emphasises the fairness with which Hizbullah has treated the region’s Christian minority community, which some might have regarded as being tainted by the actions of Israel’s proxy South Lebanese Army. She also explains the movement’s fundamental anti-zionism, and distinguishes it from western-style anti-semitism.

All in all, this book is likely to prove eye-opening for uninformed readers, coming to think about Hizbullah and its role as a leading Islamic movement in the Muslim world for the first time. It certainly questions many established Western preconceptions, without always providing corrective explanations of Hizbullah’s true position. Nonetheless, it will certainly prove to be a very useful contribution to the literature on this subject and this region.

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