Translated from Arabic by Dalia Khalil
Saqi (2010, first edition 2005), 463 pages
My only interaction with Hizbullah was seeing a young man with a bucket collecting for them in Beirut. He was standing beside traffic lights next to a beach in Beirut, Hizbullah’s distinctive yellow flag fluttering in the breeze. Naim Qassem is Hizbullah’s second in command and, despite reports of his death during the Syrian Civil War, he is very much alive and well (as this article from October 2014 shows). Hizbullah, The Story from Within is an insider’s account of Hizbullah giving details of its formation, its ideology, and its political, social, and military activities. Hizbullah, although a Shia group, was once popular throughout the Middle East for its successful battles against the Israeli army. However Hizbullah’s current involvement in the Syrian Civil War on the side of Bashar al-Assad has resulted in the party being viewed in a more sectarian light and has resulted in a collapse in support amongst Sunni Muslims.
Hizbullah is not an easy read, the prose is dense and turgid. Qassem attempts the impossible task of justifying Hizbullah’s policies in fundamentalist Islamic terms whilst still remaining open to Lebanese Christian, Sunni, and Druze membership of the party. For me the apparent openness of Hizbullah’s attempt to portray themselves as non-sectarian always crashes into the brick wall of Hizbullah’s justification of suicide bombings especially when they are used to target civilians. It seems as if Qassem’s version of Islam (and to a fundamentalist of any religion there are only two versions of a religion; a right version and a wrong version) is used not to see any humanity in his opponents but as a distancing device to justify their annihilation. Of course Israel is equally bad in this regard as the recent overkill in Gaza has shown.
Qassem believes that Hizbullah should be instrumental in building a “resistance society” whose main aims seem to place Lebanese society in a constant state of military readiness, “Hizbullah’s vision of a resistance society is one in which resistance takes place on all levels, be they military, cultural, political or media; it is resistance by the people and the fighters, by the rulers and the nation; it is resistance with a free conscience. We consistently advocate building a resistance society and do not believe in resistance groups.” (pp.52-53) Despite Qassem’s claims that a resistance society would be based on free conscience he doesn’t explain what should happen to the many Lebanese who do not want to be part of a “resistance society”. Qassem admits that Hizbullah wants to create, “…an Islamic state based on free public choice.” (p.82) Qassem’s voice is that of fundamentalist in that he sees no contradiction between democracy and a theocracy in a multi-religious state. Crucially freedom of conscience begins to vanish in relation to military jihad; the leader may be elected but once elected he must be obeyed (p.95).
It is in the issue of martyrdom that I find Hizbullah’s philosophy hardest to take. I can understand martyrdom in fighting to defend yourself or your country against a threat. But a main consideration must be trying to survive for the sake your own life as well as for family and friends. I can find no justification for suicide bombings (or “martyrdom operations” as they are called by their proponents). Qassem sees suicide bombings as giving Muslims a tactical advantage against superior opposition, “Martyrdom renders the military power threatening death ineffective, for such a menace acts only upon those who fear it, and is powerless in front of those who seek it.” (p.149) Of course such ideologues of martyrdom rarely see the immediate aftermath of a suicide bombing nor do they feel the pain of the victims’ or bombers’ families. If suicide bombings are so glorious why are many suicide bombers locked into to their bombs or handcuffed to the steering wheels of their vehicles? Why are immature youths groomed for such a role and why is it that poorer or foreign recruits are more likely to be sent on suicide missions than locals with standing in their community? I suspect that many of the people involved in organising suicide bombings use them as an outlet for their own psychopathy. Suicide bombings result in indiscriminate slaughter and I can’t find any justification for them. Of course Hizbullah’s outlook is inherently anti-Semitic and suicide bombings are seen as a justifiable disruption to the functioning of the Israeli state (p.300).
Qassem states that Hizbullah’s military power will only be used against Israel (p.153) but following Hizbullah’s significant intervention in the Syrian Civil War this has proven to be untrue. The decision to provide military assistance to the al-Assad regime has reduced Hizbullah’s position from that of the only Shia group popular with Sunni Muslims to being seen as merely another sectarian entity. While the damage to Hizbullah outside of Lebanon won’t concern them (especially as long as they keep receiving funding and equipment from Iran) it will be interesting to see if they have permanently damaged their status in Lebanon.
Theocracies (such as Iran) or states based on a single religion (such as Israel) are, by their very nature, sectarian and automatically discriminate against religious minorities. A Muslim in Israel or a Jew in Iran will always feel out of step with the rulers of the state (obviously a Muslim or a Jew might feel outside the mainstream in Ireland but at least there is a constitutional separation of church and state). Hizbullah have done good work in providing social services and charitable organisations in areas where the Lebanese state has been lacking. Their military prowess has been seen as vital to reducing the risk of further Israeli incursions into southern Lebanon (and Israel’s history in Lebanon has been shameful). Nonetheless Hizbullah’s justification of suicide bombings, their desire to remove all Jews from Israel, and their support of Bashar al-Assad, makes it difficult to see how they will improve the political situation in the region in the coming years.
Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk – The best book on the Lebanese Civil War
The Daily Star – Leading Lebanese newspaper