Analysis of Hizbullah fatally flawed by ideological blinkers and anti-Islam bias

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Nasr Salem

Rabi' al-Awwal 03, 1427 2006-04-01

Book Review

by Nasr Salem (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 2, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1427)

There are many lessons to be learnt from the success in May 2000 of the Lebanese resistance, led by Lebanon’s Hizbullah, in evicting Israeli occupation troops from most of southernLebanon. In its pursuit of liberation for occupied Lebanese territory, Hizbullah demonstrated a remarkable ability to base a military strategy on principled and targeted military activities against occupation troops and their Lebanese surrogates in the Southern Lebanon Army (SLA). But the victory of a military campaign does not depend solely on the cumulative effect of achievements on the battlefield. It also requires skilful mass mobilization, establishment and maintenance of grassroots support, and neutralisation of inter-group tensions that might otherwise ensnare the resistance in political minefields.

Ideological blinkers, thinly disguised anti-Islamic prejudice and an obsession with superimposing the “terrorist” stigma on expressions of Islamic activism have often led western analysts to obscure, conceal and deny the role mass organisation played in entrenching Hizbullah in the community, which ultimately contributed to its victory. Judith Palmer Harik’s new book,Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism, is an attempt to fill this gap in the literature on Hizbullah. Yet it also suffers from serious shortcomings and flaws that sometimes betray a grave ignorance of basic facts in the history of Islam and the Lebanon.

Harik sets the stage for her account of the evolution of Hizbullah by an introductory chapter in which she provides a brief overview of the Islamic resurgence that began to sweep the Muslim world in the 1970s. She also discusses Hizbullah’s position in this Islamic resurgence.

In this book’s thirteen chapters, Harik sets out to “examine the struggle between Hezbollah and the American administration over whether the former is a terrorist group or a resistance force fighting Israeli occupation” (p. 2). The process involved a multi-faceted approach. On the one hand, Hizbullah adopted a “military strategy against Israeli military forces inside Lebanon’s borders in which attacks against civilians meant to demoralize the government – a common definition of terrorism – had no place” (p. 2). This thwarted efforts to discredit Hizbullah as a “terrorist” organization. At the same time, an extensive and effective community outreach programme helped Hizbullah to strengthen its roots within Lebanese society. It designed an extensive network of social welfare and economic development initiatives to alleviate the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged. Basic social services, such as the provision of clean water, inexpensive or free healthcare, quality education at reasonable cost, agro-technical aid to rural areas and farmers, low-income housing, micro-lending and the like, helped Hizbullah to expand its base of loyal and committed supporters.

The beneficiaries of these services are mainly concentrated in the impoverished, predominantly Shi‘ite areas of the eastern Beqa’a valley, the South, and the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Dahiyeh, a collection of overcrowded shanty-towns and slums that stand alongside high-rise apartment buildings and form a so-called “Belt of Misery” on the south side of the capital. It was in the Dahiyeh that community service delivery by Hizbullah started in the 1980s. Garbage-collection in the Dahiyeh is one of the examples Harik gives of the monumental efforts exerted by Hizbullah to provide much-needed services. “Daily garbage collection to remove the mountains of refuse that had built up over the years began in 1988, replacing a basic government function in several municipalities,” Harik says. “This service continued for five years until the Lebanese Sanitation Department started to get back on its feet; however, and this is an important point, Hezbollah still trucks out some 300 tons of garbage a day from the dahiyeh and treats it with insecticides to supplement the government’s service” (p. 83; emphasis in original).

It is now clear that the outcome of any war depends not only on pitched clashes on battlefields. Hizbullah realised the essential role played by the media in the battle for the people’s hearts and minds. “By fielding an increasingly effective media team to videotape the general situation in the South and the daily attacks launched against the enemy, Hezbollah’s television station, al-Manar, became the favoured source of information for those who wanted to closely follow events in the South… Besides the obvious damage to the enemy’s morale, the television coverage also boosted Hizbullah’s national, Arab and Islamic revolutionary images to all-times highs in a region searching for heroes” (p. 133).

Missing from Harik’s examination of the various community services provided by Hizbullah is a look at the judicial, arbitration and conflict-resolution services. During the formative years of the party in the 1980s, Hizbullah’s court system was at times used to adjudicate disputes between citizens living in areas under its control. These Shari’ah courts are presided over by ulama, and managed to a certain extent to impose a measure of order in these areas during the lawless years of the civil war. More importantly, they also help the party to impose discipline and restraint on its members. The courts have handed down rulings and punishments in cases involving transgressions, misconducts and wrongdoings by party members. They continued to operate, primarily as an instrument of internal party discipline, even after the end of the civil war and the re-establishment of the state court system. Hizbullah’s mediation and arbitration efforts also helped resolve blood-feuds between Shi‘ah clans, especially in the Beqa’a Valley. The failure to deal with Hizbullah’s internal court system and quasi-judicial community services stems partly from the fact that such a discussion would touch on the internal organizational structure of Hizbullah, a theme that falls completely outside the scope of Harik’s work.

The range of community outreach efforts implemented by Hizbullah also included a diplomatic drive aimed at Lebanon’s Christians. Among these were efforts to prevent a cycle of retribution after the retreat of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon. In a conspicuous display of moral mettle, Hizbullah made sure that there were no reprisals against Christian villagers in the former “security zone” which used to be patrolled by both the SLA militia and the Israeli army. “Hezbollah leaders also let it be known that they considered the civilian population [in the occupied areas] as having been held hostage to a few misguided individuals and in no way to blame for the Israeli occupation.” In this context the author quotes Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary-general, who announced a year before liberation: “Whether Muslim or Christian, the majority of people in the “Security Zone” are an oppressed people … they are our kin and we fight for their freedom” (p. 136).

After Israel’s retreat in May 2000, Hizbullah refused to disarm and become a purely political party. Hizbullah’s leaders realise that the party’s military muscle, especially its arsenal of Katyusha rockets, is a powerful deterrence for Israeli aggression against Lebanon or against Hizbullah itself. They have also insisted on continuing their armed activities until the liberation of the Sheba’ah Farms, “a strip of water-rich territory 25 kilometres long and eight wide that constitutes about two percent of Lebanon’s total area” (p. 139). After September 2001,Washington became actively involved in exploiting these issues to galvanize international pressure on Lebanon in an attempt to ensure that the days of Hizbullah as a group with an armed wing were numbered. Eventually, internal Lebanese divisions over the issues of disarmament and the Sheba’ah Farms got tangled with the crisis that has gripped the country since the assassination on February 14, 2005, of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Although Harik’s book ends before these latest developments, her account remains essential for understanding the current impasse that is threatening to rekindle the civil war.

Despite this book’s strengths, one is stunned by the number and types of factual errors that dot it. A full catalogue of these would make the book look more like E. P. Thomson’s famous “Orrery of errors” (see his The Poverty of Theory: or an Orrery of Errors, Merlin Press, 1996), and is far beyond the scope of this review. Only a few errors are noted here to demonstrate the grievousness of some of these inaccuracies.

Hizbullah’s actions are described as being partly inspired by “a literal interpretation of God’s words as expressed in the Koran” (p. 1). The fact is that Hizbullah adheres to an ideology shaped by Usuli Shi‘ism, which rejects the method of literal interpretation of the Qur’an en toto and advocates an interpretive method that includes ta’wil (allegorical interpretation). Hizbullah’s leaders are not “all students of the same seminary [hawzah] in Najaf, Iraq, where Khomeini had studied” (p. 16). Many of them are indeed graduates from Najaf, but many others are not. Shaykh Na’im Qassim, deputy secretary-general of the party, for instance, studied in Lebanon under a number of Shi‘ah scholars, foremost among them Ayatullah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. Moreover, the late Imam Ruhullah Khomeini “studied” in Iran, mainly at the Qum hawzah, and “taught” at both Qum and Najaf. Also, Hizbullah did not launch its campaign “against Israel in southern Lebanon in 1985” (p. 19), but much earlier, as shown by spectacular operations such as the suicide car-bombing of the Israeli military headquarters in Jall al-Bahr, Tyre (southern Lebanon), carried out by Ahmad Qassir shaheed on November 11, 1982.

Harik’s lack of knowledge of basic facts in Islamic history is inexcusable. An egregious historical error appears on p. 8, where Harik claims that the Umayyad caliph “Muawiyah, assassinated [Imam] Ali in 661 [C.E.].” One wonders what happened to Imam Ali’s assassin, Abd al-Rahman ibn Muljam al-Muradi, who killed the fourth caliph as part of a conspiracy hatched by the Khawarij that also aimed to eliminate Mu’awiyah and Amr bin al-’As, the governor of Egypt. Furthermore, it is not true that “a current developed within the Wahhabi religious establishment known as al-salafiyyun” (p. 20; emphasis in original). The fact is that Wahhabism is a branch of Salafism, itself an extension of an earlier school of thought known as Ahl al-Hadith, which developed during the Abbasid period, rather than the other way around.

The author’s ignorance of party politics in the Middle East is no less appalling. The Ba’ath party’s motto is not “Arab unity from the Atlantic to the Gulf” (p. 11) but rather “One Arab Nation, With an Immortal Mission, Unity – Freedom – Socialism” (Ummah ‘Arabiyyah Wahidah, Dhata Risalah Khalidah, Wahdah – Hurriyyah – Ishtirakiyya). Hizb al-Tahrir was not born “in the crisis setting that followed the 1967 war with Israel” (p. 12); it was founded by Shaykh Taqiy al-Din al-Nabhani, a judge in Jerusalem, in 1953.

But nothing equals the bizarre fact that throughout the book Harik betrays an abject ignorance of Lebanese life and history; after all, this book purports to be about a significant chapter in recent Lebanese history. The Lebanese Shi‘ite movement Amal was led by Hussein al-Hussayni rather than Nabih Berri (as Harik claims on p. 22) before the disappearance of Sayyid Musa al-Sadr, the movement’s founder, in Libya in September 1978. Hussein Musawi cannot be described as a “leading cleric in Amal” (p. 22): he is a school-teacher by profession, and has never been turbaned. In addition, Musawi was a leading figure in Amal until 1982, when he broke away from Amal during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, not after al-Sadr’s abrupt appearance in Libya, as the author implies again on p. 22. It is true that “Health facilities are woefully inadequate considering the size of the population in the dahiyeh and its expansion” (p. 83); but Harik’s list of hospitals in the area mentions only “the crown in the burgeoning network of Islamic institutions – al-Rasul al-Azam Hospital/mosque complex” as well as “only two other private hospitals operating there, one built in association with Sayyid Fadlallah – Bahman Hospital – and another for Hezbollah” (p. 83). This list leaves out at least two other hospitals in the area that are older than the said institutions, and were established in the 1980s and 1990s: al-Sahel Hospital, a private hospital founded in the 1970s by the late Dr Fakhri ‘Alameh, and al-Zahra’a Hospital, an institution founded in the 1970s by Sayyid Musa al-Sadr and associated with the Supreme Islamic Shi‘ite Council in Lebanon (al-Majlis al-Islami al-Shi‘i al-A’ala fi Lubnan). The census in 1932, conducted under the French Mandate, did not find that “Maronite Christians were in the majority” (p.17), but rather that they constituted less than 30 percent of the populace. Finally, it is a slap in the face of historical truth to say that according to the 1943 ‘national pact’ (an unwritten agreement to distribute power based on a confessional quota system) “seats in parliament were determined on a presumed 50-50 ratio between Muslims and Christians” (p. 17). Actually the ‘national pact’ allocated seats in the legislature on the basis of a ratio of six-to-five, favouring Christians over Muslims. That is why the number of seats in the Lebanese parliament was always a multiple of eleven until the end of the civil war in 1990 . The Ta’if Accords, which put an end to the civil war, introduced a 50-50 ratio, but it is a travesty to say that this “was a change in the ratio of Muslim-Christian seats in parliament in the Muslims’ favour” (p. 45). Clearly, what the even distribution of seats introduced by the Ta’if Accords establishes is parity between Muslims and Christians.

The list of such errors can easily be extended ad nauseam. Its many faults notwithstanding, Harik’s work remains important. It breaks new ground in the western literature on Hizbullah by shedding light on the group’s mass mobilization efforts and social safety net. It will remain so until a better work, which strives for accuracy in historical details and fact, joins the burgeoning literature on Hizbullah. Overall the tenor of Harik’s approach is valid, but Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism must be read with a large pinch of salt when it comes to details.

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