Hizbullah and Lebanese Nationalism

Posing with Hezbollah Flag
Hizbullah and Lebanese Nationalism - Faysal Itani


This paper examines the background and ideology of Hizbullah and, from that, attempts to determine whether or not Hizbullah is a Lebanese nationalist party. Special emphasis is placed on the “Lebanonization” path on which the group embarked in the 1990s and its comparison with the party’s core ideology. The paper then contextualizes the group in Lebanon’s current crisis and identifies the political implications of Hizbullah’s character on the group’s role in the crisis.

Hizbullah and Lebanese Nationalism

Much has been written and said about Hizbullah—its origins, doctrine and evolution within Lebanon’s Byzantine political system. The rise of the group—from a band of ragtag militants to a sophisticated paramilitary organization and political party—is a remarkable development in itself. Hizbullah is the modern success story of political Islam—a party that enjoys deep popular support among its own constituency while simultaneously instilling awe in its enemies. Hizbullah’s war on Israel and its subsequent liberation of occupied Lebanese land have made it the hero of the Arab street and helped in casting itself as a champion of Lebanese pride and sovereignty.

Recent developments in Lebanon, however, signify a period of uncertainty for the future of the Islamic party, in particular for its status as an armed force but also for its political legitimacy in the eyes of many Lebanese. Hizbullah has involved Lebanon in an unpopular war and embarked on a campaign to overthrow its elected government. As of now this effort has met with little success and has generated considerable backlash from several Lebanese groups, resulting in a political crisis for Hizbullah and for Lebanon as a whole. Because this crisis is rooted in conflicting visions of Lebanon’s future and regional mission—and because it involves two opposing camps brandishing the national flag in that vision’s name—it is compelling to ask: is Hizbullah a Lebanese nationalist party? Do its worldview and strategy aim to protect and advance the national interest as an ultimate priority?

It is the author’s position that while Hizbullah’s relationship with Lebanon and its people is complex and multi-layered, it is not ambiguous. A close reading of the party’s doctrine and belief system demonstrates that Hizbullah is not a Lebanese nationalist movement, nor has it ever been one. In arguing this case, this paper will not attempt a critique of Hizbullah’s political vision on practical or normative grounds. The author’s aim is not to argue for or against Hizbullah’s ideology but rather to show that the nation itself is not Hizbullah’s ultimate focus, but rather a means to an end. This fact has important implications for public policy in Lebanon.

Nationalism Defined

An attempt to answer the paper’s main question must begin with a definition of nationalism. Much can be written on the concept of nationalism itself. It is not the author’s intention to attempt an epistemological exposition of the different schools of thought on nationalism. Nationalism in the sense that concerns the case at hand can be clearly defined: it is the idea of the nation as one’s primary affiliation and identity.[1] Another supplementary definition describes nationalism as “the policy of asserting the interests of a nation, viewed as separate from the interests of other nations or the common interests of all nations.”[2] Hizbullah’s status as a nationalist party will be measured against these definitions.

The Lebanese Shia

Hizbullah emerged in the chaos of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.[3] Its ability to mobilize popular support and organize an effective military effort was rooted in several factors. The first was the domestic political context in which Hizbullah emerged, namely that of the Shia Muslim population of Lebanon. Long ruled by a quasi-feudal network of wealthy landowners, they had little voice in public affairs until the 1960s, when an Iranian-born cleric by the name of Musa Sadr began to nurture a Shia political identity in Lebanon.[4] Hence, the Shia possessed at best a weak affiliation to the Lebanese state, a state that in any event had effectively ceased to function by the time of Hizbullah’s emergence. Sadr’s disappearance in 1978 under mysterious circumstances left a political vacuum among the Shia that Amal—the party Sadr’s political and social activism created—and its increasingly fragmented leadership proved unable to fill.[5]

It was in this political climate that Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. The Shia of Lebanon had long suffered from the presence of Palestinian militias on their land, which basically comprised South Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley.[6] Thus they initially welcomed the Israeli army’s destroying the Palestinian infrastructure in Lebanon. Soon, however, the continued Israeli occupation and a series of mistakes by the occupiers led to rising tensions with the Shia of Lebanon. That this tension and the clashes it produced broke out into a full-scale insurgency is partly due to developments in a distant, non-Arab country. These developments radically transformed the ideological map of the Middle East and subsequently that of Lebanon as well.

The Islamic Revolution and the Rise of Hizbullah

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew Iran’s unpopular monarchy and replaced it with a revolutionary religious regime. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s ambitions to export his revolution were stalled by Iran’s ruinous eight-year war with Iraq. Following the outbreak of war and the resulting stalemate, Iran’s leadership saw in Lebanon’s Shia, and their struggle against Israel, an opportunity to spread the revolution and with it the battle against the West and its Israeli ally. Thus, following the Israeli invasion, it deployed a contingent of its Revolutionary Guards to the Beqaa area in Lebanon, where the fighters came in contact with and proceeded to train and arm Lebanon’s Shia for a war against the Israeli occupation.[7] Hizbullah would go on to fight this war with considerable success, compelling the Israeli army to withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon in May 2000 and boosting the party’s standing among the Shia of Lebanon. Hizbullah was not the first or only party to mount a campaign of violent resistance to the Israeli occupation. But its discipline and commitment, coupled with the fact that the Israeli army occupied mainly Shia territory, meant that the bulk of the effort was borne by the Lebanese Shia and Hizbullah in particular. In parallel, ideological and strategic factors led Hizbullah to fight a series of battles with its Shia political rival Amal in the late 1980s over control of the sect’s politics and its urban base in the suburbs of South Beirut.[8] This fighting ended—along with Lebanon’s civil war—in a Syrian-brokered settlement culminating in the 1990 Taif Accords.[9]

At this point, Hizbullah faced a series of difficult decisions over the direction in which to take the party in the context of a Lebanese national settlement and the resumption of an institutionalized domestic political process. The election of Hasan Nasrallah as Hizbullah’s Secretary General in 1992 was to have profound effects on the choices made by the party and the subsequent path on which Hizbullah embarked in the 1990s. The Taif settlement in particular signified the consolidation of Syrian hegemony—ensured by the presence of 30,000 Syrian troops—in Lebanon and of Syria’s constraining influence on Hizbullah activities and strategy.[10] Although Hizbullah gradually accommodated itself to the changes brought by Taif and the Pax Syriana, it was under Nasrallah that the party began to display its penchant for pragmatism and to come to terms with the political realities of Lebanon. Nasrallah publicly toned down the Islamic agenda of Hizbullah and molded its image into that of a national resistance party fighting to liberate Lebanese territory from Israeli occupation. Nasrallah’s decision to allow Hizbullah to participate in Lebanon’s 1992 parliamentary elections represented another step in integrating the party with national affairs. He reasoned that political participation would serve “to prove to friends and foes alike that Hizbullah is not a group of combatant youths, but a popular trend with a vast base in Lebanon.”[11] This step can be said to have symbolized the beginning of the “Lebanonization” of Hizbullah.[12]

Nasrallah took a series of other steps in the following years to integrate further Hizbullah into the Lebanese mainstream and bolster its image as a national party with local concerns and interests. Especially prominent was his escalation of a massive social welfare and media program aimed at mobilizing and winning over the Lebanese Shia and funded primarily by the Islamic Republic of Iran.[13] Hizbullah’s construction group Jihad Al-Bina undertook massive development projects in South Lebanon, including supplying potable water to meet almost half of the area’s needs. Hizbullah also extended agricultural assistance to farmers among the economically disenfranchised Shia.[14] Efforts included a broad education program providing needy students with scholarships that in the year 2000-2001 amounted to over three billion US dollars.[15] Hizbullah further entrenched itself in Lebanese life through its network of licensed media outlets, including the TV station Al Manar, a host of newspapers and the radio station, Al Nour. This media wing continues to employ hundreds of people, broadcast Hizbullah ideology and commentary and attempt to win over the Lebanese.[16] Al Manar in particular garnered a wide viewership—particularly amongst Lebanese Shia—and was beamed by satellite across the world.

Above all, the core of Hizbullah’s Lebanonization and its battle for hearts and minds has been its successful resistance against a resented Israeli occupation. It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of this achievement and the perception of it in the eyes of Lebanese. To them, the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon represented a major defeat for the seemingly invincible Israeli military and was hailed by Hizbullah as “the first Arab victory in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”[17] Admiration for the group’s perceived victory over Israel was by no means limited to the Shia, although the loose national consensus over Hizbullah’s war against Israel would begin to weaken following the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000.[18] Hizbullah itself made good use of its victory and the resulting political capital and pitched the resistance as a legitimate national endeavor as much as an Islamic one. Significantly, when other political figures began to question its continuing battle against Israel in the Shebaa Farms after May 2000, Hizbullah was quick to accuse its detractors of a lack of patriotism.[19]

Thus, Hizbullah made a series of strategic and tactical decisions—particularly throughout the 1990s—that carefully bolstered the party’s image as an integral part of the Lebanese nation. The party was able to cast itself as a protector of Lebanon and its people and as a mainstream participant in the country’s polity and society.


Islam and Al Wali Al Faqih

Hizbullah’s political choices, however, are only part of the picture. A solid understanding of who the group is and how it sees the world and nation is needed if we are to assess its status as a Lebanese nationalist party. For this, we must look to the statements and official doctrine of the party and not merely to its pragmatic choices in recent years.

Like many Islamist parties, Hizbullah holds Islam and its revelation through the message of the Prophet Muhammed and the Holy Quran to be the true and final message of God to mankind. Islam is seen as comprehensive and all-encompassing. For Hizbullah, political participation is integral to being Muslim—indeed, anyone who divorces himself from worldly affairs is not considered a Muslim at all. Thus, public affairs are at the heart of the Hizbullah reading of Islam and the Quran, both of which are seen as doctrines of worship with direct relevance to the individual, society and authority—including that of the state. It follows that the establishment of an Islamic state is by definition the ultimate goal of the true Muslim, as outlined in Hizbullah’s “Open Letter” of 1985. This state must, however, be established through free public choice and the consent of the governed as there is “no compulsion in religion.”[20] This statement was an early sign of Hizbullah’s coming to terms with the multi-sectarian fabric of Lebanon’s society and its demand for a modicum of pluralism.

Hizbullah adheres to the Shia school of Islam as an ideology rather than as purely a sectarian identity.[21] The sect emerged during a split within the ranks of Muslims over the succession of power in the Islamic Umma (the Islamic term for the universal community of Muslims) following the death of the Prophet Muhammed. A number of political and ideological developments led the Shia to adopt a doctrine of political quietism and aloofness from public affairs throughout most of their history. First, the Shia sought to protect themselves against persecution at the hands of the Sunni hegemony that prevailed throughout most of Arab history. Second, and more fundamentally, the Shia came to believe that a series of holy men, the Imams, were the only ones worthy of leading the Islamic Umma. The last of these Imams is believed by the Shia to have gone into occultation to return one day and establish justice for Muslims in this world, the implication being that until then it is pointless and wrong for Shia to involve themselves in affairs of the state—a doctrine known as quietism.[22]

All this was turned on its head with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini and his clerical establishment rejected Shia quietism, insisting that the time for political action was now. According to this philosophy, rightful rule rests with the Jurist-Theologian—or Al Wali Al Faqih—as the leader and commander of all Muslims. This doctrine, to which Hizbullah adheres, holds the nationality of this leader as irrelevant. His authority extends to all Muslims and transcends geographic and natural borders.[23] Indeed, for Hizbullah, Al Wali Al Faqih personifies the continuation of the spiritual authority of the Prophet Muhammed himself and that of the infallible Imams that followed him.[24]

Until his death in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini himself assumed this authority, to which Hizbullah pledged allegiance and obedience. This authority is now personified in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whom Hizbullah continues to hold as the true and final authority of the Islamic community—one whose leadership encompasses all Muslims and to whom allegiance is an “obligation and commitment.”[25] It is important to note that Hizbullah retains a margin of “maneuvering room” in operational and tactical decisions in Lebanon.[26] This includes decisions about alliances, participation in electoral politics and the nature and direction of the jihad against Israel. Nevertheless, final authority and legitimacy stems from Al Wali Al Faqih, who remains the “custodian of the entire nation of Islam and whose power of command is not confined to any circle within it.”[27] Thus, while Hizbullah retains the option of choosing the mode of confrontation and holy struggle with any enemy, it is Al Wali Al Faqih that designates who this enemy is and whether or not defensive jihad is obligatory for his followers.[28]

Thus, Hizbullah is not, as recent accusations charge, loyal to Iran and subservient to its national interest. Rather, the party pledges full allegiance to Al Wali Al Faqih, who happens to be Iranian. The relationship is rooted more in Hizbullah’s universalistic Islamist ideology than in any particular attachment to Iran as a nation-state.

Syria and the “Special Relationship”

Hizbullah’s relationship with Syria has been the topic of much debate both within Lebanon and among foreign policy-makers seeking to understand the dynamic between the Islamic party and Syria’s ruling Baath regime. Accusations in Lebanon surrounding the party’s links with Syria have been particularly bitter lately, given the tensions that have characterized recent relations between the two countries. Thus, it is important to examine this relationship more closely in order to ascertain or disprove Hizbullah’s status as a Lebanese nationalist party.

The thoroughly secular nature of the Syrian Baath regime ruled out an ideological convergence and partnership between Hizbullah and Syria at the time of the party’s emergence in the early 1980s.[29] Syrian President Hafez El Assad—who effectively ruled Lebanon throughout the 1990s—chose to tolerate Hizbullah as a tool with which to exert pressure on Israel and agreed to serve as a conduit for Iranian money and weapons bound for the party. His patronage was not, however, unconditional. Indeed, the Syrian-sponsored Taif Accord of 1991 was imposed on Hizbullah despite the party’s opposition to its principles.[30] In the years that followed—a period of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon often referred to as Pax Syriana—serious clashes broke out between the Hizbullah and the Syrian-installed Lebanese government in which Syria showed that it would not hesitate to use force to keep Hizbullah in line.[31] Syria also pushed electoral laws in Lebanon that undermined Hizbullah in some cases and entered into peace negotiations with Israel—a path to which Hizbullah is vehemently opposed.

Nevertheless, the relationship—and Syria’s support for Hizbullah’s war against Israel both before and after its withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000—endured for a number of years and continues to this day.[32] Announcements of support for Hizbullah’s resistance were frequent and pronounced throughout the period of Pax Syriana. Syria’s suspected involvement in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri seriously damaged its relations with several Lebanese parties. Yet Hizbullah remained steadfast in its praise for Syria—and the praise has been reciprocated. In the aftermath of the assassination of Hariri, following vocal calls from Lebanese for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and an end to its meddling in the country’s politics, Hizbullah organized mass protests to affirm the party’s appreciation for Syria’s role in Lebanon. Syria in turn has backed Hizbullah’s continued war on Israel and its opposition to Lebanon’s government.

This is not to say, however, that Syria’s loss of hegemony in Lebanon has not resulted in changes in the Syrian-Hizbullah relationship. Syria no longer retains the high level of control over Hizbullah that it once had.[33] Indeed, the current freeze in Israeli-Syrian peace talks, the pressure on Syria over its alleged role in killing Hariri, and Hizbullah’s increasing regional popularity, including in Syria, following its strong showing against Israel in July 2006 may imply that it is Syria that needs Hizbullah and not vice versa.[34] Syria’s beleaguered Assad regime might also be reluctant to jeopardize its much-needed relationship with Iran and may thus be obliged to continue providing material and political support to Hizbullah in Lebanon.[35]

What is clear is that Hizbullah’s relationship with Syria does not follow a slave-master dynamic (or vice versa). Hizbullah is not an ideological ally of Syria, nor is it a Syrian puppet, despite its reliance on the Assad regime for arms and materiel. There are reports that Bashar Assad himself may have personal admiration for Hizbullah party leader Hasan Nasrallah.[36] Regardless, the Syria-Hizbullah marriage has always been and remains a marriage of convenience and, increasingly, one of equals. The evolution of this bond will depend heavily on the shape of events in the region and within both Lebanon and Syria, but it is dubious to assert that Hizbullah’s interests in and vision for Lebanon are by definition linked or identical to those of the Syrian regime.

Hizbullah: Islamist, Nationalist or Both?

The above examination of Hizbullah reveals a group with a rich and complex worldview and philosophy. There is a tendency to take cognitive shortcuts when describing such groups, particularly because they may seem extreme, militant or aggressive. Hizbullah may be all these things, but it is much more.[37] It is at once an Islamist party with close ties to Iran and a local actor, fully in touch with the Shia of Lebanon and their interests, fears and aspirations. It enjoys generally positive relations with Syria, and yet has made itself into an important local player able to survive—if not quite thrive—without the support of its neighbor. Its successful resistance activity against Israeli occupation has earned it the respect of Lebanese. Its extensive social network and welfare activities have earned it legitimacy among its constituency, and it would thus be wrong to exclude Hizbullah from Lebanon’s politics or to shun it as an outsider divorced from the affairs of its countrymen. One may not share Hizbullah’s Islamic ideology or beliefs and may disagree with its praising Syria in light of recent developments in Lebanon, but the price of living in a free society is the tolerance of ideas and principles that one finds distasteful.

Yet this analysis is not intended as a critique of Hizbullah’s policies or ideology. The morality of Hizbullah’s cause and politics is a subject of much potential interest and debate, but it is not at issue here. Our concern is whether or not Hizbullah’s claim to being a Lebanese nationalist party, with primarily the interests of Lebanon at heart, holds water. This study defined nationalism as a sense of allegiance to the nation and a pledge to preserve and advance its interests above all others—the idea of the nation as the primary affiliation and identity. Hizbullah’s submission to the authority of Al Wali Al Faqih, regardless of the latter’s national identity and political office, places the interests and convictions of an Islamic clergy before that of the nation. Hizbullah may feel genuine concern for Lebanon—for its territorial integrity and the interests of its citizens—or it may not. Regardless, true authority, legitimacy and supreme leadership are embodied in an establishment with no accountability to Lebanon, its state or its political process. Lebanon happens to be the country in which Hizbullah arose and established itself, and Hizbullah has shown an ability to be flexible in accommodating itself to the realities of the nation and its citizens. Lebanon itself, however, remains a means to and end—noble or otherwise.

This does not imply that Hizbullah is a tool of Iran, nor that it does not enjoy a certain degree of autonomy within the context of Lebanon’s political system. Clearly it does, and will continue to do so as long as it can claim a modicum of support among its own constituency. Nor does Hizbullah’s not being a Lebanese nationalist party suggest that the affairs of Lebanon—particularly those of its Shia Muslim population—are of no concern to it. There are compelling reason to believe that Hizbullah is genuinely committed to the cause of liberating Lebanese territory. Hizbullah’s philanthropic efforts also speak to a concern for the well-being of its constituency, notwithstanding the fact that this commitment has translated into substantial political capital for the party. A lack of nationalism does not of course qualify a political party as immutably evil or treacherous. It does, however, imply the absence of a genuine nationalist sentiment toward the nation of Lebanon and a philosophy of working through Lebanon rather than for it.

The Implications for Lebanon

Having established that Hizbullah is not a Lebanese nationalist party, it is imperative to examine the implications for Lebanon’s current political crisis and Hizbullah’s role in it as well as for the party’s future in Lebanon. In order to do so, a brief overview of the current situation in Lebanon is warranted.

The roots of today’s Lebanon crisis are deep and complex. The underlying tensions that led to it have prevailed in various degrees throughout Lebanon’s post-civil war period. However, these tensions can be said to have boiled over with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005 in a massive explosion in the capital of Beirut.[38] The political developments that followed his killing drew the faultlines for today’s political standoff, which pits a Hizbullah-led opposition against pro-government forces.

Both the UN investigation into the assassination and many Lebanese pointed the finger of suspicion at the Assad regime and its Lebanese allies. Spontaneous public demonstrations began to form in the days that followed the bombing, demanding the full withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon and the truth behind the killing of Hariri.[39] These events—which came to be known as Intifadat al Istiqlal (or the “Cedar Revolution” in the West)—placed Hizbullah in an awkward position as a staunch ally of Syria. The party held its own demonstrations in the weeks that followed to show support for the regime in Damascus. Eventually a new government was elected towards the end of 2005 comprising anti-Syrians who worked to further undermine Syria’s political role in Lebanon and establish an international tribunal to try to the killers of Hariri.[40] Pressure mounted on Hizbullah to distance itself from Syria and, more importantly, to surrender its weapons to the Lebanese government and integrate its armed forces with the Lebanese military. Hizbullah became less vocal in its support for Assad, but disarmament talks with the government quickly reached an impasse as tensions over Hizbullah’s future mounted.

It is against this backdrop that Hizbullah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese-Israeli border in July 2006, provoking a war that killed hundreds of Lebanese and resulted in heavy damage to the Lebanese economy and infrastructure. Hizbullah managed to hold out against Israel for several weeks and emerged a victor in the eyes of its supporters in Lebanon and beyond. Other Lebanese, however, including the government, were resentful of the damage sustained by the country and saw Hizbullah’s continued war on Israel as dangerous adventurism rather than legitimate resistance. Accusations flew back and forth, with Hizbullah being accused of complicity with Iran and Syria and the government of protecting US and Israeli interests. Hizbullah soon embarked on a plan to overthrow the Lebanese government and replace it with one in which Hizbullah and its allies would have veto power over major national decisions. Mass protests were organized toward this end and continue until today, with the opposition refusing to drop its demands and the government vowing to remain in power. Hizbullah’s demonstrations and announcements say little about Islamic ideals and nothing at all about Al Wali Al Faqih. Instead, the opposition brandishes the flag of Lebanon and speaks out against sacrificing Lebanon to foreign interests. Its opponents contest that Hizbullah is acting not in the interests of Lebanon but of Syria and its patrons in Iran. Regardless of one’s views on the current political crisis, the tone of the opposition—led by Hizbullah but also comprising some Christian and Sunni Muslim groups—is for the most part strictly Lebanese, emphasizing national sovereignty, the protection of Lebanon from Israeli aggression and the importance of Hizbullah’s participation in Lebanese policy-making.

How can this be reconciled with the earlier examination of the party and the paper’s rejection of Hizbullah as a Lebanese nationalist party? The answer lies in the distinction between Hizbullah’s core leadership and its mass following among Lebanon’s Shia Muslims. As seen above, Hizbullah has expended much energy and resources on providing the historically disenfranchised Shia with services, protection against Israel and—perhaps most importantly—a strong and clear political voice in Lebanon’s confessional system. These are the sources of Hizbullah’s support among its constituency. Lebanon’s Shia are overwhelmingly concerned with their interests in Lebanon and the direction of the country, not with the decrees of Al Wali Al Faqih and the Iranian clerical establishment. They see Hizbullah as a source of dignity for the Shia sect but also for Lebanon itself in its struggle to liberate and defend its territory from Israeli occupation. It follows that the message the party propagates as an opposition movement must resonate with its constituency if it is to have any political impact—hence the emphasis on the national interest as opposed to militant Islam and the rule of Iranian clerics. Hizbullah, as we have seen, is not nationalist. But many of Hizbullah’s supporters may very well be.

This distinction has important implications for the political struggle in Lebanon today as well as for the country’s future. Hizbullah’s achievements in social services and the liberation of Lebanese land are impressive and even admirable. It has however become clear to many Lebanese that the party’s continuing status as an armed force crafting an independent foreign and military policy poses a significant threat to the physical and economic security of Lebanon and the authority of its elected national government. A political party that pledges allegiance and obedience to an unaccountable actor—and a foreign one at that—is problematic in itself. Its existence as an armed entity outside the powers of the Lebanese state is doubly so. Yet any attempt to disarm Hizbullah, with its hundreds of thousands of supporters, by force would most definitely lead to civil war in Lebanon, which poses an acute dilemma for the Lebanese state.

It would seem that encouraging a gradual evolution in Hizbullah and among its leadership is a wise option. If the group undergoes a transformation in its philosophy or worldview, it may ultimately switch allegiance from Al Wali Al Faqih to Lebanon itself. Even if the party refuses to disarm, this would go a long way towards allaying the concerns of other Lebanese about Hizbullah’s loyalties and long-term vision. Changes in party politics and strategy are by no means unprecedented. Islamist parties have in the past undergone significant transformations, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to participate peacefully in politics and give up armed struggle. Yet to ask Hizbullah to withdraw allegiance to Al Wali Al Faqih is to undermine the very core of its philosophy, indeed its very existence both ideologically and politically. It goes far beyond asking or hoping for a change of tactics and approach. It is akin to asking a committed communist to withdraw endorsement of the cause of the proletariat. This author remains skeptical towards the possibility of such a change in the ranks of Hizbullah and towards basing national policy on hopes of it coming about. This is not to say that a complete revision of core principles among Hizbullah’s ranks is not a possibility—only that it remains a distant one at best.

It follows that Lebanon’s main focus ought to be on Hizbullah’s status as an armed militia unaccountable to the Lebanese state and, more specifically, on the political situation and popular support that allows it maintain this status. Current and future Lebanese governments should work peacefully to undermine Hizbullah’s reasons for maintaining its militia and thus its ability to command support for this armed status. This will require a complex, multifaceted approach towards the Lebanese Shia in particular—and towards resolving Lebanon’s conflict with Israel—that is beyond the scope of this paper. The author’s point is that Hizbullah is not a Lebanese nationalist party and is unlikely to become one, and that the Lebanese must work on winning the hearts and minds of the party’s supporters in full awareness of this fact.

Notes & References

  1. Lowell W. Barrington, “‘Nation’ and ‘Nationalism:’ The Misuse of Key Concepts in Political Science,” PS: Political Science and Politics 30, no. 4 (1997): 713.
  2. Kenneth W. Terhune, “Nationalistic Aspiration, Loyalty, and Internationalism,” Journal of Peace Research 2, no. 3 (1965): 277.
  3. Adam Shatz, “In Search of Hizbullah,” New York Review of Books 51, no. 7 (2004): 2.
  4. Judith Palmer Harik, “Between Islam and the System: Sources and Implications of Popular Support for Lebanon’s Hizbullah,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 40, no. 1 (1996): 44.
  5.     AnchorIbid.
  6.     AnchorAugustus Richard Norton, “Changing Actors and Leadership Among the Shiites of Lebanon,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 482 (1985): 115.
  7. Shatz, 2.
  8. Magnus Ranstorp, “The Strategy and Tactics of Hizbullah’s Current ‘Lebanonization Process,’,” Mediterranean Politics 3, no. 1 (1998): 118.
  9. Shatz, 9.
  10. Ranstorp, 117.
  11. Ibid., 116.
  12. Ibid., 103.
  13. Ahmed Hamzeh, In the Path of Hizbullah (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004), 60, 63 and 65. See also Ranstorp, 124; Shatz, 8.
  14. Hamzeh, 51–52.
  15. Ibid., 56.
  16. Ibid., 59–60.
  17. Shatz, 3.
  18. UNSC Resolution 425 marked Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanese territory, according to the United Nations. However, Hizbullah insists that Israel still occupies a strip of territory known as the Shebaa Farms, and proclaims the continuation of the struggle to liberate Lebanese land to this day. For more on the Shebaa Farms controversy, see Hamzeh, 96–98.
  19. Judith Palmer Harik, Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004), 153.
  20. Naim Qassem, Hizbullah: The Story from Within (Saqi, 2005), 21–31. This contrasts with rival party Amal’s identity as a party for the Shia of Lebanon as opposed to an ideologically Shia party.
  21. Ibid., 32.
  22. Harik, 8–9.
  23. Qassem, 55.
  24. Ibid., 53.
  25. Ibid., 56.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid., 57.
  28. Islam distinguishes between the defensive, or lesser, jihad and the greater jihad. The former is the obligation of all Muslims to defend the Islamic community from aggression, by military or other means. The latter refers to the “jihad of the soul,” or the struggle through which one aspires to be a devout and proper Muslim.
  29. Shatz, 3.
  30. Ranstorp, 117.
  31. Ibid., 119.
  32. Qassem, 241.
  33. Hamzeh, 146.
  34. Ibid., 147.
  35. Ibid., 150.
  36. Shatz, 3.
  37. It is certainly possible that there exist divisions within Hizbullah itself over the direction in which to take the party. Yet Hizbullah has been remarkably consistent in its public positions, and this analysis proceeds on the basis of known facts rather than speculation on internal developments within Hizbullah. That topic in itself however merits further examination.
  38. For a full description of the developments leading up to and including the assassination, see Nicholas Blandford, Killing Mr. Lebanon (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006).
  39. For an overview of the protests and subsequent political developments, see Oussama Safa, “Lebanon Springs Forward,” Journal of Democracy 17, no. 1 (2006): 1.
  40. Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in the weeks following the assassination.
FAYSAL ITANI was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, where he completed his undergraduate studies at the American University of Beirut. Upon graduating, he left his country to work in the Persian Gulf for two years before resuming his studies at Georgetown University, where he obtained a certificate in American government. After a brief stint as a Washington intern he enrolled at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, pursuing concentrations in strategic studies and international economics.