Mats Wärn: Staying the Course: the "Lebanonization" of Hizbullah

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"I am no psychiatrist. I don´t know what is going on in their heads. I can only see what they do."

The Middle East scholar Augustus Richard Norton about studying
Islamist movements, at a seminar at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, 2nd February 1998.

1.0 Introduction

On February 19th 1998, an editorial in the Beirut Daily Star noted that a Western journalist who wanted to write a book on Hizbollah and made inquires about its potential on the market was told to forget about it. "They´ve gone legitimate", the response was, "and while the West might once have lapped up the bloodthirsty talks of kidnapping, the release of all its hostages has made it lose interest". Indeed, by recognizing the post-kidnapping and nowadays public Hizbollah, the Lebanese daily depicted it as "the least corrupt, most hard-working and most progressive, in some ways, political party Lebanon has ever seen"; claiming Hizbollah was "setting standards others would do well to follow". The Lebanese journalist and author Hala Jaber has furthermore noted that there is not "a single politician in Lebanon currently, from the extreme Christian camp to the Muslims and Druze, who does not defend the activities of the group´s fighters [against Israel in south Lebanon]. Despite the fact that many do not agree with Hizbollah´s ideology and political vision for Lebanon and may merely pay lip-service in the name of political correctness, they have all come to recognize and respect its combatants' opposition to the occupation" (1997: 74). In addition, overseas, the Washington-based Congressional Research Service, a think-tank providing information and analysis on behalf of the U.S. Congress, argued in September 1998 that the current Hizbollah ought to be seen as a legitimate guerilla fighting the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, instead of being regarded as a mere "terrorist organization" (The Beirut Daily Star, 2nd September 1998).

Puzzling as it may seem for anyone accustomed to other - maybe more gloomy and extremist - notions of the notorious Lebanese Islamist movement, the era of recovery in Lebanon - ravaged by sixteen years of civil war - has experienced a Hizbollah deeply engaged in parlamentarian politics and in the future course of the country. As a part of a trend commonly known as "political Islam", Hizbollah could well be considered as one of its more successful enthusiasts, at least in terms of gained recognition and legitimacy within the sphere where it is operating. The integration of Hizbollah into the Lebanese political arena triggers - from my own point of view - interesting aspects concerning the phenomena of political Islam. Firstly, on a theoretical level, there is a general issue of whether an Islamist ideology is compatible or not with the idea of multi-party politics and democracy - indeed wordly matters for divine harbingers. Several branches of the Islamist creed keep a sceptical eye on the merge between the sovereignity of God and the sovereignty of the people. And there is indeed, I believe, some reason to assume a present contradiction between the two. Undeniably, a case in point would be Hizbollah whose very name (Hizbollah is Arabic for "The Party of God") highlights a perception of absolutism and thereby a curious dualism as it has opted for integration into the pluralism of the Lebanese political system. Secondly, on a more empirical level, there is a question of how to understand the concrete agenda of Hizbollah in Lebanon and the region. A great number of scholars on Lebanon are nowadays talking about the "Lebanonization" of Hizbollah, meaning that the movement has at last faced the facts of the Lebanese heterogeneity and waived its calls for a more militant Islamism. On the other hand, Hizbollah itself denies that it has abandoned its basic platform, the ideological connection to the Islamic Republic of Iran and the activist vision of Ayatollah Khomeini. Neither does it renounce its claim that Israel can never be justified - that true justice and regional balance only can be achieved once the Hebrew state is history and no more. Hence, such a posture may as well appear confusing in the light of a post-civil war Lebanon, heavily engaged in the process of reconciliation at the same time as the Middle East region is entangled in on-going - although stumbling - negotiations aiming at putting an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The ambition of this thesis, therefore, is to provide an understanding of this perceived contradiction of an Islamist movement´s integration into a multi-party pluralist political system. How is this contradiction to be understood on a theoretical level? In addition, could such a theoretical approach provide any help in order to understand the integration - or so-called Lebanonization - of Hizbollah into the current order of Lebanese political life?

1.1 A discussion on definition

Before penetrating the main subject of this thesis, I would make a short stop at the meaning and definition of "political Islam" or "Islamism". According to Najib Ghadbian, the notion of an "Islamic movement" contain all individuals and groups whose ambition is to change society along guidelines derived from Islam. Despite their differing "methods, approaches, styles, and substantive issues, they agree on the positive worth of Islam and the relevance of its basic concepts and values to the contemporary world" (1996: 59). Perhaps A. S. Sidahmed & A. Ehteshami are more specific when they argue that the "common underlying feature of contemporary Islamist movements is that they all believe in the 'cause' of establishing an Islamic state or order. The central theme in this process is that within the framework of this order the Islamic shari´a law would be thoroughly enforced" (1996: 9). Nazib N. Ayubi maintains that "radical Islamists" are those "who believe that Islam offers a total and comprehensive way of life whose adoption in our time is not only possible or desirable but also mandatory" (1997: 346). Having said that, however, Ayubi fails in defining the meaning of "moderate Islamists".

In any case, as the Holy Writ could be understood as a general frame of reference and guideline for political action for Islamists, they are often referred to as "fundamentalists" in the contemporary debate. It may be worth pointing out, however, that such an epithet is heavily disputed. According to Joel Beinin & Joe Stork, the notion of fundamentalism is "inescapably rooted in a specific Protestant experience whose principal theological premise is that the Bible is the true word of God and should be understood literally" (1997: 3). Thence, they argue that the term makes no sense in regard of Islam because all believing Muslims view the Qu´ran as "the literal (hence absolutely true) word of God as revealed to his Prophet Muhammad through the intermediary of the angel Gabriel" (ibid.). Rather, the big debate within Islamic thought concerns how the Holy Writ is to be understood and applied:

    'Fundamentalism' suggests the restoration of a pure, unsullified, and authentic form of the religion, cleansed of historical accretions, distortions, and modernist deviations. This is indeed how many Islamist leaders and ideologues present their ideas and the movements they lead. But it is a substantial error to conceptualize these movements as restoring an 'original' form of Islam. Rather, they seek to revitalize and re-Islamize modern Muslim societies (ibid).

Another scholar on political Islam, Robin Wright, likewise argues that "fundamentalism" resembles inflexibility and backwardness, hardly the "forward-looking, interpretive and often innovative attempts" made by Islamists when reconstructing the political order (1992: 31). In addition, according to Najib Ghadbian, "fundamentalism" signifies a downright bias: "with its judgemental tone", he notes, "and its implications of literalism, antimodernism, and fanaticism, [it] is a term for those who have already made up their minds about all Islamists and is therefore inappropriate for scholarly research" (1997: 7). On the other hand, R. Scott Appleby suggests that the use of such a term could be regarded as valid as it "describes the basic method of the modern leader who reaches into the sacred past, selects and develops politically useful (if sometimes obscure) teachings or traditions, and builds around these so-called fundamentals on ideology and a program of action" (1997: 4). Few Islamist ideologues would subscribe to the notion of "fundamentalism". As argued by the prominent Shi´ite scholar and ideologue, Sayyed Muhammed Husayn Fadlallah: "we Islamists are not fundamentalists the way Westerners see us.

    We refuse to be called fundamentalists. We are Islamic activists. As for the etymological sense of 'usuliyya (fundamentalism in Arabic), meaning returning to one´s roots and origins ('usul), our roots are the Qu´ran and the true Sunnah or way of the Prophet, not the historical period in which the Prophet lived or the periods that followed - we are not fundamentalists ('usuliyin) in the sense of wanting to live like people at the time of the Prophet or the first Caliphs or the time of the Umayyads...".1

I would to raise two points concerning this brief discussion on definition. Firstly, I agree with the authors who criticize the term "fundamentalism". As may already be noted, I do regard the term "Islamist" as suitable when it refers to these movements that in one way or another use the Qu´ran as a point of departure when interpreting the surrounding sociopolitical situation in order to form their ideological agenda - an agenda which most often includes, with more or less emphasis, the ambition of establishing an "Islamic state". However, I also believe that beyond the perpetual references to the Holy Writ, pragmatic decisions and stands usually claim considerable terrain. Thus there is a point in elucidating the rather rigid notion that the term "fundamentalism" may evoke. Beyond the obligatory reference to holy scriptures and sources, there is hardly any uniformity among these movements: Islamists come in a wide array of ideas, shades, characters and methods. Indeed, Islamist actors sometimes accept compromises and adopt influences from other creeds and ideologies to such an extent that observers - and even Islamists themselves - may question what is so particularly "Islamic" about the Islamist agenda. This leads us to the second point to be made: Due to the diversity, what actually is the agenda of Islamists? The general reference to the Holy Writ and the often heard ambition of raising an Islamic state may very easily appear as circular if not situated in a context. What is, for instance, an "Islamic state"? According to Sami Subaida, the distinction between the Islamic Republic of Iran and other more or less authoritarian states in the Muslim world is merely to be found in rethoric and personnel (1997). The same goes for Sidahmed who - when examining the Islamic regime in Sudan - rather bluntly conclude that "[a]n Islamic state is one governed by Islamists!" (1996). Is this claim valid? What is the raison d´etre of Islamist movements notwithstanding the Islamic rethoric?

1.2 The debate on Islamists - making a point

Among the monotheist religions, Islam is the most monotheistic. In Islam, there are "no minor deities, and no 'Trinity' or other semblance of multiplicity in the essence of eternal omnipotence" (Ayubi 1997: 346). Such an all-embracing course of God is known as the doctrine of tawhid (oneness, unification, monotheism) (ibid.). This holistic notion of Islam is also manifested in the "three Ds", i.e., Islam as din (a religion), dunaya (a way of life), and dawla (a State) (Ayubi 1992: 68). As such, Islam penetrates all spheres of human life, private as public. Accordingly, as an Islamist movement, by its very definition, appears to adopt a holistic notion as a political agenda, it may well be associated with totalitarian ambitions. Several observers therefore question the compatibility between an Islamist ideology and the mass politics of democracy. For instance, as Sidahmed & Ehteshami argue: "there seems to be an inherent contradiction between the absolutist nature of Islamist ideology and the relativist character of democracy.

    It is a contradiction between a force that sees itself as a custodian of the divine message, hence as having a monopoly on truth, and a system built on relative truths and opinions. Second, even when an Islamist party endorses democracy, not just as a procedure but also as a concept and principle, it will not have the same value for them as it has for a liberal secularist. This attitude is intimately associated with Islamic Utopia (1996: 13-14).

Such a notion is common among a great number of scholars, politicians and diplomats who argue that the essential core of Islam is strongly totalitarian and thereby also rejects all other political ideologies. Any political participation and electoral success of these groups would thereby realize the scenario of "one man, one vote, one time". The historian Emmanuel Sivan argues, for example, that even though Islamist movements may protest against their governments for being non-democratic, they themselves "flatly reject democracy as predicated on man-made laws, and thence contradicting the law set by Allah, i.e. the shari´a...The reason for this is obvious: conformity with contemporary civilization in the domain of values is unacceptable a priori" (1990: 363). The Egyptian author and former ambassador Hussein Ahmed Amin has furthermore asserted that if "[the Islamists] do reach power, it will be too late. If we put them to the test and allow them to reach power, they will never share it. This applies to the Muslim Brotherhood as much to as any other Islamic faction or group" (qouted in Ghadbian 1997: 106).

This perceived contradiction, in essence, between the general vision and ambition of most Islamists and other ideals of power-sharing has of course had its repercussions in a more global setting. With the collaps of the USSR and with the Cold War to an end, Michel E. Salla argues that there is a rising notion that the "spread of political Islam marks the onset of a new cold war where the West´s liberal democratic norms are pitted against the religious revivalist norms of political Islam" (1997: 729). Thus, the conflict is posed in existential terms, as an upcoming battle between two incompatible paradigms. In 1993, Samuel Huntington launched his heavily debated "clash of civilizations"-thesis, arguing that Western values and interests will be increasingly challenged, particularly by the upspring of Islamists in the Muslim world (1993). The methaphor may have stemmed from the Middle East historian, Bernard Lewis, who has described the contemporary Muslim world as living through an era of hatred and violence directed against the West; "the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the world wide expansion of both" (1990: 60). The same notion, together with a popular emergence of Islamist movements, forced the New York Times correspondent Judith Miller to urge the newly elected Clinton-administration to take action against the Islamists, for "despite their rethoric commitment to democracy and pluralism, virtually all militant Islamists oppose both. They are, and are likely to remain, anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Israeli" (1992: 45). Her ringing bells were resounded by the editor of Middle East Quarterly and consultant to the U.S. State Department, Daniel Pipes, who in 1995 argued that "there are no moderates" among the Islamists; they are "[b]y nature anti-democratic and aggressive, anti-semitic and anti-Western" (1995: 48). Therefore, the U.S. should back up the regimes that fight them: "We should stand by the non-fundamentalists, even when that means accepting within limits, strong-arm tactics (Egypt, the PLO), the aborting of elections (Algeria), and deportations (Israel)" (ibid.: 57).2 Any change in foreign policy, Pipes maintained, aimed at accomodating these movements would be futile procedures, "because [Islamic] fundamentalists despise us not for what we do but for what we are" (ibid: 56).

I would argue, however, that such "essentialist" notions of political Islam have fatal flaws.3 True, Islamists may well in essence reject the idea of multi-party politics and power-sharing as these issues do not correspond to their own definition of the ultimate divine order. Therefore, Lewis might have a point when arguing that Islamists "regard liberal democracy with contempt as a corrupt and corrupting form of government", but I would doubt his view that they are "willing to see it, at best, as an avenue to power...that runs one way only" (1996: 54). Such a notion obscures the fact that several Islamist parties and movements - like in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey - have chosen to abide by the rules of the game and played serious parts in the parlamentarian opposition. By doing so, they have - it could be argued - rather consolidated, or at least promoted, a democratic development. Equally important, the essentialist view does not acknowledge what ideological gains the Islamists may accomplish by accomodation, compromising and alliance-politics with other political groups in opposition, or maybe even with the government and the state itself. The essentialists thus provide a poor understanding, as I see it, to the current political integration of Islamist parties.

A central argument of this thesis - which challenges the essentialist view - is that Islamists, like any other political movement in the world, must face the dire reality of the world and make its agenda correspond to it. As Taji-Farouki points out, "there is frequently a significant dichotomy between the ideology of Islamic movements and their actions" (1996: 35). Glenn E. Robinson, for example, argues that Islamists, depending on context, may opt for democracy as a strategic choice. When examining the political participation of the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, Robinson assumes that it may not be made of "Jefferson democrats", but choosing "democratization has served its organizational and political interests" (1997a: 374). Perhaps the already mentioned Shi´ite mentor in Lebanon, Sayyed Fadlallah, is to the point when arguing that the "idea of 'popular sovereignity' is an idea that is foreign to Islamic thought because rule in Islam is a pregorative to God. It is God who appointed the Prophet; it is God who prescribed the general precepts for rule...Naturally we are not democrats, in the sense that we would allow the people to legislate in contradiction to God´s law" (qouted in Kramer 1997: 156). However, according to Fadlallah, the temporal world possesses a huge gap between vision and reality. Therefore, when choosing between "tyranny" and "democracy", he suggests that Islamists should opt for democracy because then they can

    exercise their freedom to spread Islam and revive it, and rally the people around it, and so advance the cause of Islam or achieve total control by will of the majority. Islamists would have no freedom under a dictatorial regime. This certainly does not mean recognition by the Islamists of democratic rule, either in thought or in practice. It is an accomodation to reality, and to the freedoms accorded to the Islamic movement (alongside non-Islamic movements) to contest one another (qouted in ibid.: 158).

Hence, as the political participation of Islamists may be understood in terms of strategic options and - as in Sayyed Fadlallah´s words - "an accomodation to reality", the question arises how this strategic option is to be understood. What is the nature of this dualism? Is there any theoretical approach to facilitate an understanding of this issue? If so, would such an approach help when examining the procedures of Hizbollah in the Lebanese context?4

1.3 The way to go

In this essay, I will argue that it is the political rather than the religious aspect of Islam that needs attention when situating this particular phenomenon into context. As any political movement, Islamists must provide a mundane agenda - beyond grand religious slogans - in order to establish a raison d´etre and enjoy popular consent. As Graham Fuller argues with respect to the FIS in Algeria:

    Despite frequent references by the Islamists to the Qur´an and the Shari´a as central to policy, it would nonetheless to be a mistake to judge the future of the FIS policies based on texts and scriptures alone. We should indeed pay close attention to the ways Islamists perceive the world, but in the end, Islamists are still required to live within the realm of reality and the dynamics - positive or negative - of modernization, whether it is philosophical congenial to them or not. In the end the question is not what Islam "says" (itself subject to immensely different interpretations) but what Muslims want to do (1996: 76).

That is, strategically speaking, an Islamist movement must face the various challenges inherent within the context where it is operating. Despite the common general pillars shared by most Islamists, the nature of their agendas and strategies are contingent upon these particular contexts and the challenges these provide. My central argument is thus that Islamists, depending on context, will interprete its religious agenda in such a way that will best provide a strategy for political benefits. In short, these movements will best be understood within the framework of sociopolitical structures and constellations of interests within which they are operating. Accordingly, as context becomes a vital part of my approach, the first part of the second chapter will form a theoretical effort to understand how state and society constitute each other. Furthermore, the following part of that chapter will concern the general political aspects of political Islam and why Islamist actors have chosen various ways of performance. As the specific aim of these essay concerns Hizbollah, I will devote the third chapter to its ideological heritage, i.e. its ideological connection to Shiite Islamist activism and the Islamist vision of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. As Hizbollah moreover is a Lebanese Islamist movement, my ambition in this chapter will also be to reconstruct Lebanon´s devastating experience of war, domestic breakdown and present reconstruction and reconciliation in order to allocate the role of Hizbollah and its ideological heritage. Finally, the fourth chapter will concern the way Hizbollah has chosen to adapt to the new political environment of Lebanon.

1.4. Sources

Two years ago, in 1997, I defended my BA thesis which also concerned Hizbollah (Wärn 1997). Like that one, this MA thesis is based upon a field study that I conducted in Lebanon, April-June 1998. My aim was primarily to interview spokesmen of Hizbollah and various observers - scholars, journalists, politicians and others - about the political affairs of Lebanon. Naturally, interviews offer the advantage of raising questions that are not to be found in the literature and thus make it possible for the student to adress the specific problems of concern. For various reasons, some of those interviewed asked not to be named. Their wishes have of course been complied with. Unfortunately, Lebanon is still a country at war, and although the public debate is far from being entirely curtailed, it may leave a great deal to be desired. Noteworthy, however, is that despite a certain amount of self-censorship, the public debate contains a wide range of differing views, even those being critical to the state authorities and its national policy. As an independent and bold Lebanese journal stated two years ago, the newspapers of the country may be influenced by political actors both inside and outside of Lebanon, but "the Lebanese press probably remains the freest and most lively in the Arab world."5 Perhaps this is worth to keep in mind when taking part of interviews, mainly to be found in the last chapter of this thesis. I have also made use of newspaper articles from Lebanese, Israeli, European and American dailies.6 In addition, a large bulk of the sources consists of academic literature, both concerning the theoretical as well as empirical parts of this essay. It ought to be noted, moreover, that I do not speak Arabic. Hence, I have been at the mercy of translators. Concerning the interviews, merely the ones with spokesmen of Hizbollah were conducted in Arabic. However, I received qualified assistance from a professional interpreter often appointed by the movement. The other interviews were conducted in English.

With respect to the views of Hizbollah, I will naturally use the material from my own interviews with its spokesmen. Nonetheless, I have also borrowed a number of qoutes from the literature, i.e. from interviews conducted by various scholars and journalists. In line with the era of information technology, I will also refer to various texts the movement provides on internet. Moreover, further on in this study, the reader might believe that I will refer to the - already mentioned - Shiite Lebanese mentor Sayyed Fadlallah as more or less a spokesman for Hizbollah. This matter needs modification. Sayyed Fadlallah is not a part of Hizbollah (a point he strongly emphasized before I even had started the interview with him). However, as an Lebanese ideolouge on political Islam, he holds high esteem among Islamists all over the region, but especially within Hizbollah. Thus, concerning general views on the situation for Islamists in Lebanon, I will refer to Sayyed Fadlallah as a reliable source of opinion, representative even for Hizbollah. As the deputy secretary-general of Hizbollah, Sheikh Na´im Qassem, is reported to have said: "All the Islamic views and principles that Hizbollah embraces are shared by Fadlallah...The political stance with regard to common Islamic issues is also similar between the two. It is natural for us to have many common views so that the outside observer will find it difficult to distinguish between us, because our Islam is one" (Jaber 1997: 68).





1 Interview in Journal of Palestine Studies XXV, no. 1 (Autumn 1995), p. 62.

2 In regard of 'deportations', Pipes is referring to Israel´s expulsion of 400 alleged members of Hamas into an uninhabited area of south Lebanon in 1992.

3 I have borrowed the term "essentialist" from Michel E. Salla who argues that it refers to these scholars "who use a limited number of conceptual categories and apply these universally in their analyses of political Islam" (1996: 730).

4 With respect to the aspect of democratization, however, it ought to be noted that this study does not concern this phenomena as such, as that subject would be far beyond the scope of this essay. I will not, for example, estimate the degree of "democracy" in Lebanon or its potential for democratization. My point, nonetheless, is that Islamists might regard a process of democratization - in terms of inclusion and political pluralism - as a fortunate way of gaining influence and promoting their values and agenda.

5 The Lebanon Report, no. 4, Winter 1997.

6 In regard of the Lebanese dailies and journals, I mainly taken use of The Beirut Daily Star and Monday Morning (a weekly magazine), both of which are published in English. With respect to the Israeli press, I have mainly studied the English editions of the two dailies Ha´aretz and The Jerusalem Post.


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