Blog | February 2014

Hizbullah Between Islamism and Imperialism: Romanticizing Violence, Idealizing Categories?

by Roschanack Shaery


Many western and Lebanese academics have reproduced in their works the image Hizbullah projects of itself as a resistance movement and celebrate its anti-imperialist stance without however critically engaging with the politics of this particular type of identity production. In fact, such works reify the artificial dichotomy that both Western governments and Hizbullah have created between Islamism and imperialism. Although academics have successfully discussed that the perceived threat of Islamism in the West is deeply connected to Orientalism and to concrete desires of economic and political hegemony in the region, they have been less successful into deconstructing "resistance," and have felt less the need to analyze it on similar terms, showing us its hegemonic powers. This type of neglect has led into romanticizing violence and into idealizing categories produced originally in the world of party politics and policy making. I suggest that we must break out of this either-or category to have a better understanding of Islamic movements in the region and in particular of Hizbullah in Lebanon.

The party, it seems, has become an icon of anti-imperialism while it is presented as advocating social justice and an Islamic based democracy. In the Muslim world and among many of its educated citizens too, Hizbullah's General Secretary, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah was until recently regarded highly and many kept repeating that he is a man whose words need to be listened to, "he does what he says," is still his image. As an academic who has worked on the Lebanese Shi‘ite community for over a decade now and is now following events in Syria closely, I feel uncomfortable defending some actions of Hizbullah although I agree with many other democratic left colleagues in my field that Israel is a deeply troubling state and practices apartheid, that current practices of Zionism in Israel are deeply racist and that the United States is an imperialist power with hegemonic interests in the Middle East and has turned a blind eye on the Israel’s atrocities committed in Lebanon over and again. This said there needs to be a more nuanced presentation of Hizbullah which points to its weaknesses but also highlights the empowerment issues.

I want to suggest what Hizbullah calls the resistance society is idealized in its presentation as a holistic system providing meaning to its members and that this idealization is possible only if we ignore some of the coercive methods that Hizbullah is engaged in order to create what they call the Islamic mood/atmosphere. In an attempt to give Hizbullah followers dignity and to refute their stereotypes as terrorists, we shall not fall into the trap of taking away their agency and creating yet another stereotype of them as members of a cult, who function in a holistic system, where individual stories and their reasons for following Hizbullah all sound alike. When the stories do sound too much alike, it should be ground for questioning. It seems in a rush for cultural relativism, and the goal to undo the US and mass media's demonization of Islamism and to contextualize their anti-imperialist/colonial struggle, some of the rough edges of Hizbullah's resistance society is sidelined. I suggest that precisely this sidelining of these less appealing activities, intentionally or unintentionally, supports the US administrations' hegemonic projects in the Middle East. It leads in fact into academics providing the ground for the Western governments’ and humanitarian organizations’ clumsy support of the so called democratic individuals and movements in the region, as academics fail to make genuine democratic movements and activists be they other Islamists, secularists, and leftist, known to the West. We do not even write about a large section of the society because writing about Islamic movements is trendy. This has led to a situation where the West and humanitarian organizations have become the official supporter, expert, and voice of democratic movements in the Middle East.

As academics, we need to reclaim that space between imperialism and Islamism. By getting caught in and reproducing Hizbullah's anti-imperialist rhetoric we miss the opportunity to address an audience uncomfortable both with Islamism as well as with the US government's Middle East policy. It is exactly this either-or mentality that has resulted in a new type of radicalization of the Middle East. There is a clash of values, but none of these values should be taken as total, at least not in our writings. The examples here are but some voices that describe Hizbullah’s complex local politics beyond the image so far produced that those joining Hizbullah do so out of a sense of choice, the latter is a liberal category that many academics have so far used to distance themselves from functionalist interpretations prevalent in describing the reasons many join Hizbullah.

‘Ali is a man in his late 40s. Formerly part of the communist party, he joined the Lebanese Shi‘ite party of Amal during the Lebanese civil war. In a conversation about various neighborhoods in al-Dahiyya and the political affiliation of each neighborhood with either Amal or Hizbullah, he explains why he had moved from Harek Hurayk to Chiyah (a neighborhood controlled by Amal) in 2000:

“One night two tall Hizbullah men--like those you see on TV around Nasrallah-- knocked at our door. When we opened, they pushed us aside and entered. One of them told me you either leave this neighborhood within days or you leave Amal and join us. I had to leave, not so much because I am fanatic about Amal but because Hizbullah is like a mafia, once you enter you can't get out.”

Sahar is a multazima, a Shi‘ite woman who publicly adheres to Hizbullah's notion of piety. Her cousin Fatimah had introduced me to her as I was conducting research on Hizbullah-run private schools where Sahar used to be a teacher. After a long conversation with Sahar, where she passionately explained how joining Hizbullah has transformed her life in positive ways, Fatimah and I left the house. Immediately after Sahar closed the door, Fatimah told me:

Please don't believe a word of what she is saying, this isn't the truth, Hizbullah members knock on everybody's door here and offer them money so they wear this style of hijab and say these things. They knocked at our door too. Sahar needs money, her sister in Canada doesn’t send enough and she can't find a job otherwise. I know her, she used to be so different, this is all nonsense what she is repeating.

A Shi‘ite woman who had a small eatery in Bir al-‘Abid (a Shiite neighborhood as well) told me she was warned several times by Hizbullah members to remove some posters from inside her store as well as the sign of her restaurant which depicted a non-muhajiba woman. The owner, herself muhajiba and considering herself deeply pious and engaged in weekly Husayniyya activities removed those items in fear of losing her business but complained to me about the coercive methods in Hizbullah controlled areas where according to her:

Hizbullah is creating a two class system, those who follow Hizbullah and enjoy higher living standards than those who don't and fall out of any social network.

Controlling the public space, cleansing the neighborhood from political opponents, threats of cutting social services, and physical punishments, are some of Hizbullah's coercive methods to create an image of a homogeneous and committed followers in al-Dahiyya. While other non-Shi‘ite political factions engaged in similar activities during the Lebanese civil war, and control the voting voices through cash payments, provisions, and social services, Hizbullah is the only Lebanese party who has been saved from academics otherwise critical eyes in this respect.

I heard plenty of such stories during my 13 months of stay in Beirut. Some are certainly true, some may not. I am aware that iltizam is a public performance of piety and that the question of intentions and inner motives is a complex one. I am also not suggesting that Hizbullah is utilizing social services to attract followers. The story is obviously more complicated than this. I merely want to point out that there are frictions in this resistance society and that the story of Hizbullah is incomplete if we shy away from its less appealing practices to create its ideal society. And it is exactly in its practices and visions of its ideal society that I see myself diverging from Hizbullah, despite sharing its anti-imperialism.

Do democratic leftist academics accept Hizbullah's agendas and visions of a moral society? Do they believe that in the long run the Lebanese system will balance out what they believe to be Hizbullah’s less attractive projects while allowing for its more appealing programs to come to action? What is the reason to believe that Hizbullah has abandoned its goal to establish an Islamic State in Lebanon? In an attempt to present Hizbullah as modern  some scholars play into a western hegemonic discourse of progress in which the establishment of an Islamic state does not fit. Therefore they downplay the possibility of an Islamic state by pointing to the improbability of it in the Lebanese context and continue with fitting Hizbullah’s projects and practices into liberal categories. 

In other words, what do we defend when we defend Hizbullah in front of a Western audience? Is it simply that we emphasize the right of self defense and highlight Israel's atrocities in Lebanon and in Palestine? Do we awe its social services when put in the context of Lebanon's failing state? Or are we admiring also its vision of a moral society and public ethics according to their interpretation of shari‘a that is ultimately what all of Hizbullah's actions are geared towards? When defending Hizbullah do we also agree that Islam is superior to Christianity? That hijab is an indispensable part of a woman's dress?

I respect those academics who agree with Hizbullah's political and social program, but I address those who appropriate Hizbullah's anti-imperialist rhetoric all the while decontexualizing it. All I want to suggest here is that there needs to be room for critique of Hizbullah without being labeled conservative, pro-Zionist, or biased secular. That if we do not entirely agree with Hizbullah's program, we can instead point to other existing anti-imperialist voices in the Middle East. The debate need not to be a zero-sum game between Hizbullah's Islamism and US's brand of imperialism. In fact, academics should not reproduce the actors' rhetoric. The boundary between secularism and Islamism, and between imperialism and Islamism, leaks and within those ideologies there are many shades. For me at least, some are more appealing than others.


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