Further Thoughts on Hezbollah

The following from Matthew Lyons, published a few days ago on Three Way Fight blog.

I have a week overflowing with both work and movies, so it may have to wait a few days for me to read this properly and let you know what i hink… but there’s so reason for you all to have to wait. Here is what Lyons has to say:

by Matthew Lyons mlyons@rci.rutgers.edu
[This essay was published on Three Way Fight (http://www.threewayfight.blogspot.com/), 26 August 26, 2006.]

“Defending my enemy’s enemy,” my attempt at a nuanced discussion of the recent Israel-Lebanon war, has been aired on several blogs and listservs and has gotten a wide range of comments, pro and con. These responses have challenged me to look at several gaps and weaknesses in the original argument as well as places where I just didn’t convey my meaning clearly. I offer these follow-up notes in the spirit of continuing discussion and learning. They’re organized around three sets of questions.

(Sources are listed at the end of this essay. For the online discussion of “Defending my enemy’s enemy” see http://www.threewayfight.blogspot.com/, August 3 and August 9, 2006; http://www.sketchythoughts.blogspot.com/, August 4 and August 6, 2006; and http://www.ideasforaction.blogspot.com/, August 4 and August 16, 2006.)

1. Given that Hezbollah has been the main force defending the Lebanese people against recent Israeli attacks, is it insensitive and out of touch to criticize Hezbollah’s politics now? Does this criticism feed passivity and inaction by reinforcing the common view that neither Israel nor Hezbollah deserves our support?

“Defending my enemy’s enemy” argues clearly that U.S. activists have a pressing responsibility to defend Hezbollah and the Lebanese people against Israeli aggression, the vastly greater threat. The essay was intended to counter two oversimplifications — first, the idea that the war was a simple conflict between Good Guys and Bad Guys and, second, the idea that we should denounce Israel and Hezbollah equally. I regret that the essay doesn’t present this second point as clearly and forcefully as the first, but it is there. Treating both sides as equally culpable certainly does lead to passivity, which in practice means passively supporting U.S./Israeli aggression.

At the same time, I don’t think it’s good organizing strategy to paint Hezbollah only in positive terms. Precisely because criticisms of Hezbollah are already widespread, we need to take a clear stand against the U.S. and Israel as the main aggressors while also addressing Hezbollah’s political flaws accurately and without demonization. If we want to mobilize protest and resistance, that’s a lot less out of touch than telling people their concerns about Hezbollah are either wrong or unimportant.

I hope it’s clear that this is not about trying to “dictate” Hezbollah’s politics. None of us is in a position to dictate anything to Hezbollah. It’s about trying to understand an important political actor and relate to it in an informed and principled way.

2. Given that three-way fight politics is largely rooted in U.S./Canadian/European antifascist activism, is it a helpful framework for understanding Hezbollah or other examples of political Islam in the Middle East?

The idea that there are significant right-wing forces radically opposed to both the left and global capitalist elites doesn’t just come from encounters with neonazis. If the concept of right-wing anti-imperialism has relevance anywhere, it’s in the Middle East. The Iranian Revolution was a wake-up call for me because it showed how militant, mass-based hostility to U.S. hegemony could take a right-wing form — and because so much of the U.S. left failed to understand this. Three-way fight politics is an attempt to go beyond old leftist categories because the old categories don’t adequately describe political reality today — including political Islam.

That said, there’s plenty of room for applying new categories badly, too. “Defending my enemy’s enemy” is pretty vague on exactly how the concept of a “revolutionary right” relates to Islamic political movements, so several caveats are in order. First, as Max argues on his blog “Ideas for Action,” political Islam has to be analyzed in the context of Mideast history and politics, not shoe-horned into a North American or Euro-fascist mold. Second, political Islam includes many different kinds of movements, organizations, and ideologies, which relate to the United States, global capital, local elites, etc. in a variety of ways. If “revolutionary” in this context means actively working to overthrow the established political framework, then only some Islamic rightist groups can be labeled revolutionary (and Hezbollah isn’t one of them).

Third, like any theoretical model, three-way fight politics is at best a useful approximation of reality. Saying that there are three major political poles doesn’t mean all forces can be divided neatly into three camps. We need to be mindful of movements — such as Hezbollah — that don’t relate to the three poles in a simple or static way. And we need to be willing to rethink our assumptions and categories where they don’t make sense.

3. Is it accurate to describe Hezbollah as right wing?

Several people — including folks sympathetic to my overall argument — have questioned my description of Hezbollah as right wing. While I still think the label is accurate, the situation is more complex — and possibly more fluid — than what I presented before.

There are good reasons to be skeptical about the rightist label. Michael Karadjis is an Australian leftist who has long followed Hezbollah’s development and has spent time in Lebanon. In a comment quoted at length on Kersplebedeb’s “Sketchy Thoughts” blog, Karadjis argues that it’s a big mistake to equate the party’s policies with Khomeini-style fundamentalism. In the areas it controls, Karadjis reports, Hezbollah doesn’t enforce religious law, doesn’t impose special strictures on women but rather allows them to be visible and active, doesn’t persecute other ethnic or religious groups, and works with leftists rather than execute them (although Karadjis also cites one scholar’s claim that Hezbollah did kill a number of communists during its formative period, in 1984-85).

Several other points bolster this view. Since its first official declaration in 1985, Hezbollah has consistently said that an Islamic state can’t be imposed by force, but can be instituted only when a large majority of the people wants it. Hezbollah has promoted dialogue between Lebanon’s diverse religious communities and opposes the archaic system that apportions the country’s political offices based on religious affiliation. Unlike some Sunni fundamentalist groups, Hezbollah argues that the secularization of society is a much lesser injustice than Israeli occupation.

After interviewing Hezbollah women activists in the 1990s, Maria Holt wrote: “In the view of the women of Hizballah, women are accorded a strong role in society. They are permitted to acquire education, to work, to become leaders, and to have a political input. At the same time, however, a woman must not attempt to usurp the position of men in the society.” In Hizballah, “women are still excluded from the centers of power and accorded a status secondary to that of men.” (Holt, pp. 187, 189) This assessment is consistent with many right-wing religious movements, as I’ve discussed elsewhere (“Notes on Women and Right-Wing Movements”), but it’s probably fair to say that it’s relatively progressive given the larger context. And there’s evidence that women’s status in Hezbollah has been improving — in 2005, Hezbollah appointed the first woman to its political council, or politburo, which coordinates the party’s committees.

All of this sharply delineates Hezbollah from the cultural totalitarianism of Afghanistan’s Taliban or Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front, which has murdered women for not wearing the veil. You can make a good case that those groups represent a new form of clerical fascism, but there’s no way Hezbollah can be labeled fascist. Although its militant resistance to Israeli and western intervention has brought it a reputation for extremism, Hezbollah’s stance on a range of important issues is strikingly moderate.

But this is not the whole picture. First, although it accepts political pluralism in practice, Hezbollah still advocates an Islamic state, i.e. a theocracy, a policy it considers a religious duty. This state would look a lot like Iran’s, which Hezbollah considers the closest thing to a perfect political system anywhere in the world. Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, comments that Iran has “manifested success through its attention to freedoms, respect for opinions divergence, women’s rights and the management of state institutions” (Qassem, p. 236). Sounds like the old CP talking about Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Hezbollah’s ideological bond with Iran’s Islamic Republic is far deeper than, say, its alliance with Syria. Hezbollah-controlled areas are plastered with images of Iran’s religious/political leaders. In several recent antiwar demonstrations in Europe, according to Workers Left Unity Iran, Hezbollah supporters have clashed with Iranian leftists who raised the slogan “No to imperialist wars; No to Iran’s Islamic regime.”

Second, Hezbollah is formally subordinate to Iran’s supreme authority (originally Ayatollah Khomeini, now his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei), who the party regards as the religious, legal, and political leader of all Muslims worldwide. This doesn’t mean that Hezbollah is a puppet of the Iranian government — it actually exercises a great deal of political autonomy. It does mean that Hezbollah’s leaders seek Khamenei’s guidance or ruling on major policy questions or when they are deadlocked. Accounts vary as to how often this happens; Amal Saad-Ghorayeb cites Hezbollah’s decision to participate in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections as one example.

A third reason to call Hezbollah a right-wing organization is that its pragmatic pluralism doesn’t apply to everyone. On his “Sketchy Thoughts” blog, Kersplebedeb cites the case of a Lebanese gay man, Nasser Karouni, who sought asylum in the United States. Karouni argued that Hezbollah, which controlled the region where his family lived, considered homosexual sex a capital offense and had persecuted or killed gay friends and acquaintances of his. I would treat this report with a bit of caution: the source article lacks details or any specific dates after 1984, when Hezbollah was still taking shape, and this is the only reference I’ve found anywhere to Hezbollah’s policy regarding homosexuality. (Queer sex could presumably bring the death penalty in Hezbollah’s ideal Islamic state, if Iran’s penal code is any guide.)

And then there’s Jews. In her detailed explication of Hezbollah’s political/religious philosophy, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb shows that Nasrulluh, Qassem, and other Hezbollah spokespeople have repeatedly demonized Jews as evil, deceitful, cowardly, violent, and power-hungry. This bigotry is distinct from Hezbollah’s charge that Zionism is inherently oppressive (a position I share), although it infuses references to Zionism as “the most dangerous and malicious enemy of humanity” and the like (Saad-Ghorayeb, 142). Several Hezbollah spokespeople, including Nasrulluh, have also claimed that Jews either fabricated or helped to perpetrate the Nazi genocide.

I have to pause here and note that charges of antisemitism are routinely used to demonize Muslims and Arabs and to rationalize Israeli (and U.S.) racism, whose impact on Arab peoples has been vastly more devastating than Arab violence against Israelis. As I wrote before, Hezbollah does not exist to kill Jews and is not continuing Hitler’s work. It resists Israeli oppression but also — because of its underlying right-wing philosophy — promotes anti-Jewish stereotyping and bigotry. Not more and not less.

How do we put all of this together? Saad-Ghorayeb argues that Hezbollah has pursued a dual strategy, balancing its version of Islamic ideals on the intellectual level with a largely secular programme on the level of practical politics — a combination she suggests is unstable in the long run. Using different terms, we could say that Hezbollah offers a contradictory mix of radical theocracy and populist nationalism.

Hezbollah’s highly skilled leadership has navigated this tension, in part, through strategic shifts. The most dramatic of these took place after the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, when Hezbollah moved from revolutionary opposition to the Lebanese political system to a policy of trying to transform it from within. This shift was probably influenced (but not determined) by the rise of a more moderate faction in the Iranian government. Given the explosive nature of Middle East politics, it’s quite likely that Hezbollah will go through further changes in the years ahead.

(Matthew Lyons is a writer, parent, and archivist living in Philadelphia. His political writings have focused largely on right-wing politics and, more broadly, the interplay between social movements and systems of oppression. He is the co-author, with Chip Berlet, of Right-Wing Populism in America (Guilford, 2000) and a contributor to the Three Way Fight anti-fascist blog. For details, see his online bibliography at www.scils.rutgers.edu/~lyonsm/bibliography.html.)

Aima, Abhinav. “Hizbollah At Crossroads: From the Will of God to the Will of His People.” Middle East Studies Program, Ohio University, 2000. http://oak.cats.ohiou.edu/~aa342389/index.html
Halliday, Fred. “A Lebanese fragment: two days with Hizbollah.” http://www.opendemocracy.net/globalization/hizbollah_3757.jsp Hamzeh, A. Nizar. “Lebanon’s Hizbullah: from Islamic revolution to parliamentary accommodation.” Third World Quarterly 14, no. 2 (1993). http://almashriq.hiof.no/ddc/projects/pspa/hamzeh2.html
Hizballah. “An Open Letter: The Hizballah Program” The Jerusalem Quarterly 48 (Fall 1988). Slightly abridged translation of Hizballah’s first public declaration, 1985. http://www.ict.org.il/Articles/Hiz_letter.htm
Hizbullah. “The Electoral Program of Hizbullah, 1996.” http://almashriq.hiof.no/lebanon/300/320/324/324.2/hizballah/hizballah-platform.html
Holt, Maria, “Lebanese Shi’i Women and Islamism: A Response to War.” In Women and War in Lebanon, ed. Lamia Rustum Shehadeh. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.
Leonard, Arthur S. “Lebanese Asylum Seeker Wins Round.” Gay City News, 10 March 2005. http://www.sodomylaws.org/world/lebanon/lbnews009.htm
Qassem, Naim. Hizbullah: The Story from Within. Translated by Dalia Khalil. London: Saqi, 2005.
Saad-Ghorayeb, Amal. Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion. London: Pluto Press, 2002.
Shatz, Adam. “In Search of Hezbollah.” The New York Review of Books 51, no. 7 (29 April 2004). http://www.mafhoum.com/press7/190P8.htm
Workers Left Unity Iran. “The anti war movement, Hezbollah and the issue of political freedoms: A Statement from Workers Left Unity Iran” [2006]. http://www.pinteleyid.com/bavayz/etehadchap.htm


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