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Hizb Allah, Party of God
Posted on Oct 3, 2006
By Nir Rosen
In the wake of Israel’s 33-day war with Hizballah, the 24-year-old Islamic movement has become the most popular political party in the Middle East. Here’s why that shouldn’t worry us.
Over 1 million Lebanese gathered in a vast square in a southern Beirut suburb on Sept. 22 to celebrate their country’s largely successful campaign against Israel. Seyid Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizballah, risked his life by appearing in public after Israeli leaders had sworn to kill him, and spoke to his adoring supporters in Lebanon and around the world.
Many children were given the day off from school, and buses ferried supporters from all over Lebanon for the victory celebration. Lebanon had endured 33 days of war, and not only was the Shia Hizballah movement undefeated, it had achieved a near parity of casualties with the Israeli military—a first in the history of Arab-Israeli wars. In an Arab world whose leaders were dictatorial, mendacious and corrupt, who made false promises and were beholden to the United States, Nasrallah was renowned for his integrity and for maintaining his movement’s defense of Lebanon at all costs. It had made him the most popular leader in the Arab world.
Women, children and men waved the flags of Lebanon and Hizballah from outside the windows and sang in jubilation as they waited in traffic. Also on display were the flags of Palestine and Palestinian movements, Lebanese Christian movements, the Communist Party, Sunni and Druze movements, as well as secular nationalists. Although many of the celebrants were men with beards or women whose hair was covered, many were not. There were youths in trendy attire, girls in tight jeans with hair exposed and who had turned their Hizballah T-shirts into stylish form-fitting fashion statements.
Stuck in the crowds with my seven-months-pregnant American wife, we opted for a better view from the balcony of an apartment building above the crowds. When the singing of Hizballah songs and the Lebanese and Hizballah anthems had ended and Nasrallah began his speech, the women on the balcony with us shrieked as though at a rock concert and ran into the living room to confirm on the television screen that it was indeed him. They waved their arms and started to cry, and a frisson of emotion ran through the men in the room.
Square, Site wide
Nasrallah not only spoke to his natural constituents, the Lebanese Shia, but he also singled out the inhabitants of Palestine, Syria, Iran, Kuwait and Bahrain. He told his audience that they were sending a political and moral message to the world that Lebanon’s resistance was stronger than ever. Their victory was a victory for every oppressed, aggrieved and free person in the world, he said, and an inspiration for all who rejected subjugation or degradation by the United States. He mocked Arab leaders for not using their oil resources as a strategic weapon, for prohibiting demonstrations, for not supporting the Palestinians and for kowtowing to Condoleezza Rice. He extended his people’s hearts, grief and empathy for the Palestinians who were being bombed and killed daily, and whose homes were being destroyed while the world, and in particular the Arab world, was silent.
Surveying this massive crowd of boisterous people—the men and women, the teenagers and the small children, celebrating their identity and their steadfastness together with music—I knew this was not the stuff of religious fundamentalism or terrorism. I was struck by how the reality of Hizballah differed from its distorted image in the West. For although Hizb Allah, the Party of God, is undoubtedly of Shia origin, it is in fact a secular movement, addressing real temporal issues, its leaders speaking in a nationalist discourse, avoiding sectarianism and religious metaphors. They participate in politics, compromising and negotiating, and do not seek to impose Islamic law on others. Proof of this is readily available in Hizballah strongholds, where many of their followers are secular, supporting Hizballah because it represents their political interests and defends them.
Throughout the country, women in chadors walk beside scantily clad beauties. Along Lebanon’s highways, or what is left of them, billboards celebrating Hizballah’s “divine victory” over Israel share advertising space with posters depicting half-naked women wearing jeans or lingerie. Hizballah may have preferences, but unlike the authoritarian leaders of the Taliban or Saudi Arabia, it does not impose them.
Nor has the movement shown a long-standing inability to reconcile with its enemies. Most strikingly, in 2000, after Israel’s withdrawal from the Lebanese territory it was occupying, the thousands of Shia and Christian collaborators suddenly found themselves vulnerable to retribution and street justice from understandably aggrieved Lebanese. On strict orders from Hizballah, however, the vast majority were not touched. Rather they were handed over to the Lebanese army, dealt with by the Lebanese government and imprisoned and amnestied prematurely, in a move that offended many Lebanese. Nevertheless, today they can be spotted in towns in the south; everyone knows who they are, and they remain unharmed. Hardly the actions of a violent fundamentalist terrorist organization.
And what was so unreasonable about Hizballah’s demands? The movement insisted it wanted Lebanese prisoners to be freed by Israel, all of Lebanon’s territory to be evacuated by Israel, and for the Lebanese army, which had never defended Lebanon, let alone its south, to come up with a national defense plan. Thirty years of proven Israeli brutality and 60 years of Lebanese government neglect of the south gave Hizballah a raison d’etre its leadership insisted it did not want.
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