Middle East

The Party of God is Seeking Man’s Approval

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, gives a speech during a rally marking Jerusalem Day late last year. (Photo: Anwar Amro / AFP-Getty Images)

The formation of Hezbollah as a resistance and later as a political party is related with the hostile sociopolitical environment from Lebanon in the 1980’s. Some sustain that Hezbollah’s presence is connected with the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982. However, at that time in Lebanon there were many private armies — Christian, Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, and Druze. The issue was that the Shia community in Lebanon had long been dissatisfied with the manner in which they were treated by the Christians and the Sunnis. The outcome was a united Shia community against those who treated them as second-class citizens. Since Hezbollah received Iranian and Syrian support, it was only natural that other Shiite Islamic groups rallied around it.

The United Nations and the United States did not do anything to stop the Israeli invasion in Lebanon — a country already divided by its own sectarian fights — therefore the newly emerged group took action. At the time, its actions were considered legitimate taking into consideration the circumstances.

Hezbollah’s beginning aims were to support the Palestinian cause and to protect the Lebanese border with Israel. Being a successful resistance was the only way to gain a better sociopolitical position for the Shia’s in Lebanon.

The group has evolved since the Israeli retreat from Lebanese soil. It gained through elections eight seats in the Lebanese Parliament while still maintaining its armed wing. It is a mixture of legitimacy, gained through elections, and illegitimacy given the fact that in a democratic and sovereign state, there is no place for a party or group to have its own private army. It does create confusion and it gives the impression of a state within a state. Nevertheless, some of the European countries offer the benefit of a doubt to Hezbollah and consider its armed wing a legitimate resistance while the United States and Israel consider the group to be terrorists. Hezbollah and Israel are still in conflict because of Shebaa Farms, a tiny piece of land considered Syrian by the United Nations, but claimed to be Lebanese by the Party of God.

Former secretary of state Richard Armitage has openly called the Party of God the “A-team” of terror groups. Although it has not been proved with substantial evidence, Hezbollah is believed to have been behind a series of operations against Israeli and American targets in the 1980’s — the attack on the United States Marines barracks in Beirut, the car bombing of the American Embassy, and the kidnapping of Western   citizens. Apparently, it is credited with having inaugurated the current fashion of suicide bombing in the region.

While the first line of leaders, Sheik Sobhi Tufaili, Abbas al-Musawi and Husayn a-Musawi, have had a revolutionary message that called people to wage Jihad against the West, mainly the United States and Israel, the second line of leaders adopted a different policy. Under the guidance of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the present secretary general of Hezbollah, the group became an important pawn on the Lebanese political stage. The Party of God is determined to be a player inside the system, rather than one outside the system. Its greatest achievement as an outsider would be the success of its military actions and the support and sympathy of the public. But, as an insider its voice is taken into consideration, hence it has the power to change, or at least to influence domestic and foreign policy according to its interests.

As a political player, the party has a cohesive social oriented political platform. At the foreign policy level, they continue to support the cause of the Palestinians. On the domestic level, they have raised issues such as the elimination of the share of political power based on religious faith — one of the main reasons they began their struggle in the first place — and the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon or the inclusion of Lebanon into a bigger Islamic state, after the Caliphate model. The latter goal was somehow put in shadow in the last decade. Their major aim now is to obtain the legitimate recognition of the resistance, not merely a de facto resistance, but a resistance de jure — a decision that can be taken only by the Lebanese Parliament.

That’s a tricky issue. If the Lebanese Parliament legally recognizes the party’s army in the south, this decision will go against the government and president’s engagement to disarm all militias; pursuing the logical implications, such an act will also admit that Lebanon as a state is neither sovereign nor independent. Otherwise, why would a political party be allowed to keep its own militia and protect the state’s border, when that particular state has its own national army and militia? As a matter of consequence Hezbollah’s military presence as the guardian of Lebanon is only de facto acknowledged.

Within the Shia community, Hezbollah’s political rival is the Amal party. Musa al-Sadr, an Iranian cleric whose family is said to have originally come from Lebanon is the founder of the Amal (Hope) Party. The name itself suggests that the whole Shia Lebanese community hoped to gain more sociopolitical rights and a better economic status.

But, then Amal failed to support the Palestinians’ actions against Israel. On the contrary, they turned their weapons against them. Amal’s loss of popularity meant Hezbollah’s success.

Amal’s leader is Nabih Berri, a former lawyer now the speaker of the Parliament, thus the third man in state. Even with a leader that holds such a high-ranking position, Amal’s image did not improve over the years.

The south of Lebanon, a region predominantly Shia is the battlefield for these two parties. Hezbollah’s social and educational programs, beside its role as Lebanon’s keeper has boosted its image among the Lebanese. Although, Amal’s policy is far more secular, the party is viewed within Lebanese society as highly corrupt, thus not suitable to be the major advocate of the Shia community. Its lack of stamina at the social level has also lowered the number of its supporters.

Israel’s retreat from Lebanon has brought the Islamic resistance a lot of admiration, respect and popularity in the Arab world. The party is an icon of the Arab resistance, in front of the so-called Zionist conspiracy. Its modest beginning as a Shiite Islamic group, among many other Islamic groups is history by now. Hezbollah is a political party with its own militia, its own laws and rules, a TV station (Al Manar), a radio station, a newspaper, various Web sites, and a strong financial position due to its successful investments over the years. The unknown lays in its ambition: does Hezbollah want to transform Lebanon into an Islamic state or is it merely looking for a bigger slice of the power pie?

Its political platform is strongly corroborated by its social activity. Although Lebanon is a small country the differences between the social classes is huge. On one side, you have the rich and the famous characterized by the opulence they show at every step, while on the other side you have people who have literally, no roof above their head, no social security support, no jobs and no real chances to surpass their present status. This situation is present not only in the small towns or villages, but also in Beirut.

What better way to show what a good Muslim you are than by helping those in need, as the Qur’an commands? Certainly, the Party of God took Allah’s commandments seriously.

Hezbollah’s strategy is to take action where the state is unwilling or unable to act. Charity is a pillar of the Muslim faith and a concept embedded in Hezbollah’s political strategy.

The welfare system it created improved the lives of thousands of Lebanese who were helped regardless of their religion, and brought more supporters, popularity and, very important in the Arab and Muslim world, loyalty to the party.

If Amal, the Shiite rival party, has become an elitist, thus more centralized and limited, Hezbollah has maintained its relationship with the people, as well as with the elites.

Syria and Iran, the two countries that have nurtured Hezbollah are still its most important allies and supporters. However, taking into consideration the firm position the party has acquired over the years, Iran’s mullahs and Syria’s president are not the ones who have the last word on what Hezbollah should do, or not. That is a positive aspect. An Islamic resistance with so much popularity acting merely as a puppet, with Syria and Iran as master puppeteers, would be more dangerous than it already is. However, Nasrallah proved to be a strong leader who is determined to demonstrate that his word matters.

Lebanon is a peculiar mixture of different cultures and religions, and the very existence of the state is based on a multilateral domestic policy, cooperation and tolerance. The challenge for the Party of God is to find allies who would like to see the end of religious confessionalism on the political stage. Under the present system, the president of Lebanon must be a Maronite Christian — a legacy from France, the former colonial power that ruled Lebanon until November1943; the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the Parliament must belong to the Shia community. This political arrangement is generally respected in official institutions and diplomatic positions, and even outside the bureaucratic official system. Hence, no matter how much popularity Hezbollah enjoys, it cannot have more than ten seats in the Parliament. At least, not without making alliances with other parties. But, that is very little in comparison to Hezbollah’s ambitions.

The neoconservatives in President George W. Bush’s administration are looking to expand the global war on terrorism with multi-pronged attacks against suspected fundamentalist bases, and apparently, Lebanon’s position is high on the list. The issue is that by targeting Hezbollah’s military bases the United States will provoke Syria, which is the protector of Lebanon. That may be the objective of President Bush, who has put Syria and Iran on the “axis of evil” list. Washington wants Syria to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programme, to cut its support to militant Palestinian factions, to secure the border with Iraq, and to withdraw its military and secret service apparatus from Lebanon.

Despite Syria’s maneuvers, attacking Hezbollah when the situation in Palestine has changed to an extent and peace talks are being accepted by the Sharon government would be a mistake. With Iraq as unstable and dangerous as it is today, the idea of using military force before surpassing all the non-violent methods of communication is going from bad to worse.

The Party of God has two alternatives: to continue its struggle mainly as a political party and to respect the country’s laws and Constitution by disbanding their armed wing, or to continue to play on both fronts and to assume the responsibility for seeing Lebanon put in danger because of them. It is highly unlikely that the Party of God will give up what it considers to be its core power, namely its militia; as for assuming responsibility for its actions, again this is not something that is common in the Arab world where when two parties are fighting, a third party is always blamed.

Hezbollah is a political party, but first and foremost, it is an Islamic resistance. Its future actions will clearly demonstrate what path Nasrallah has decided the Party of God should take.