In the West, the Hizbullah (Party of God) of Lebanon is among the most misunderstood and unjustly maligned organizations. It has been demonized and dismissed as a terrorist group whose only tenets are kidnapping and suicide bombing, when in fact it reflects a groundswell of response to tyranny, oppression and injustice. It is too much to hope that either President Bush or Attorney General Ashcroft will ever read this serious, academically sound and revelatory work, but anyone who wants to understand the whys and wherefores of Shia politics in Lebanon should make the effort. It is not easy reading, though for the most part the narrative is clear, with only minor errors in English. The problem for Western readers is that the Hizbullah message, while radical, even extreme, is based on a logic that makes a great deal of sense only after one understands the context of its argument.
Hizbullah as a political movement is relatively new, having grown out of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the politicization of the Shia population in the south of the country. They were victimized by the savage progress of the IDF towards Beirut, culminating in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the brutality of the subsequent occupation, which resulted in the destruction of scores of villages and the displacement of some 250,000 people. Even before the invasion, there had been a growing political awareness among the Shia, Lebanon’s largest and poorest religious community, resulting in the Amal (Hope) movement founded by Imam Musa Sadr. Taking a more militant stance, the Shia who followed the Hizbullah call to arms vowed to rid their country of the Israeli occupiers and their SLA collaborators by force, a goal finally achieved two years ago, after nearly 20 years of Israeli military presence.
The ultimate goal of Hizbullah has always been the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon based on the Iranian model. But, as this is completely “contingent on its feasibility as a political scheme” (p. 35), it remains something of a Chimera, given the opposition of all other Lebanese communities – Christian, Sunni and Druze – not to mention the vast majority of Lebanese Shia themselves (p. 35). For Hizbullah, “the Islamic state is not an end in itself but a means of fulfilling justice” (p. 49); and the primary aim of the party is to combat political oppression, a very old Shia theme. While secular states like Lebanon are held by Hizbullah to be instruments of oppressing the poor and dispossessed, they are to be dealt with by “internal dialogue” leading to eventual reconciliation. Taking a page out of Hobbes’s Leviathan, Hizbullah theorist Husayn al-Mussawi states that “an oppressive government is preferable to chaos [the State of Nature] because chaos is even more oppressive” (p. 23). Many governments of Islamic countries like Egypt, Turkey and Algeria are deemed “illegitimate and far more oppressive than the Lebanese state” (p. 24). In Lebanon, Hizbullah is allowed to function as a political force with representation in parliament and is generally held in high regard by most Lebanese, even the non-Shia, for its success in dealing with the hated Israeli occupation of the South, and its extensive programs of social welfare to assist those lowest on the economic and social ladder. Moreover, their leaders live very simply, in contrast to the lavish and corrupt lifestyles led by the traditional zuama (hereditary leaders) of most of the other Lebanese parties and sects.
The epitome of oppression is of course the state of Israel and the Zionist movement, which for Hizbullah (and many ultra-Orthodox Jews) represents “deviant Judaism” with its “illusion of racial superiority” (p. 173). Hand in glove with Israel in the Hizbullah “axis of evil” is the United States, which has unquestioningly supported the Zionist state in its oppression of the Palestinian people. Viewed from the daily experience of Palestinians and Lebanese, who have been brutally victimized by Israeli occupation, there is little which would argue against this perception.
The book is divided into eight chapters with an Introduction and Conclusion. Chapter one looks at the Hizbullah view of the oppressors versus the oppressed and the necessity of political accommodation with states, like Lebanon, deemed to be oppressive. Chapter two considers the Islamic State and the Hizbullah interpretation of democracy. Chapter three delves deeply into the Shia concept of the Wilayat al-Faqih (government by an Islamic judge) as defined by Ayatollah Khomeini, a cornerstone of Hizbullah political theory. Chapter four is entitled “Islamic Universalism and National Identity” while chapter five outlines “The Struggle with the West,” in particular the origins of Hizbullah’s anti-Westernism and what are seen as the Western conspiracy against Islam and the West’s double standards when dealing with the Islamic world.
Chapter six relates the history and logic of the resistance to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, focusing in particular on the “Centrality of the Notion of Martyrdom” that so permeates Shia theology and mentality. The murder of the third imam, Husayn, and his followers at Karbala (commemorated by the Shia every year on the tenth day – Ashura – of the Islamic month of Muharram) is viewed as the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of faith and principle, which all Shia are enjoined to emulate in their lives. Although most of the book was written before Hizbullah’s final success in driving out the Israelis and their SLA minions, the author deals with the aftermath of this momentous event in both the Introduction and Conclusion, in particular the fair manner in which the Christian minority of the South, many of whose members had openly collaborated with the occupiers, were treated by the victorious Shia forces.
Finally, chapters seven and eight look in detail at the attitudes of anti-Zionism and especially anti-Judaism. The latter is not “antisemitism” as it exists in the West, since Hizbullah has no argument with Jews who practice their religion, so long as their religious beliefs are not transformed “into political products that lead to the domination of others” (p. 168). It is with Zionism the oppressor of Muslims that Hizbullah takes strongest issue, the Israel that aims at subjugating and Judaizing the entire Fertile Crescent from the Nile to the Euphrates, “which is symbolized by the two blue lines on either side of the Star of David on the Israeli flag” (p. 141). Paramount among Hizbullah goals is the destruction of the state of Israel and the liberation of Jerusalem, something that will not be accomplished in “a day or two, a month or two, or a year or two, but in eras” (p. 167). As for the killing of Israelis by its own forces and by Palestinian suicide bombers, “Hizbullah rationalizes that it is not killing innocent civilians, but hostile, militant Zionists” (p. 143). Again, from the perspective of the victims of militant Zionism, it is hard to take issue with their argument.
The author has taken a very difficult, complex topic that is almost completely foreign to the average Western reader and made it as accessible as it could be without dumbing down the message. One may not agree with Hizbullah and all its aims, but one will not finish this book without gaining a much greater understanding of why its supporters think and act the way they do. Dr. Saad-Ghorayeb deserves the highest praise for her concise, thoroughly researched and richly documented study, which deserves the widest possible dissemination.