Chapter 16 – Political Shi’ism in Lebanon

This is a serialization of the book titled ‘Crisis in Islam’. The full book and its Endnotes may be accessed here.


I have concluded that one of the most important outcomes of the birth of ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’ in Iran for the Arab world has been the birth of Hizbullah, because of the role this Party has played in the national and regional battles, exceeding its real size and exceeding military and political axioms that prevailed in the region for decades. The political and historical observer must stop to enquire about the reason for the success of ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’ in attracting the Shi’a public in Lebanon while failing in Iraq. This is what I will try to attend to here.

Shi’ism is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon. Jabal ‘Āmel, which is the mountainous region of Southern Lebanon, and whose geographical borders are differently defined in every age, has known Shi’ism from the fourth century AH. 1  Some would even go so far as to say that Shi’ism in Jabal ‘Āmel was born at the hands of the Companion Abu Dhar Al-Ghifāri. He used to get out of Syria to tour and talk with people in areas such as Jabal ‘Āmel before he was sent under arrest by the governor Mu’awiya Ibn Abi Sufyān to Caliph ‘Uthmān who exiled him to Ar-Rabdah 2  where he died alone, asserting the words of our Prophet: “God have mercy on Abi Dhar. He walks alone and he will die alone and he (will be) raised alone”. 3

Whatever the story, Shi’ism in Jabal ‘Āmel is as old as the Islam of people in those parts of Syria. In other words, it is not the result of the rule of Banu Hamdān in Aleppo or the Fatimid in Egypt or the Persian expansion, as some might imagine. We should not be surprised by this fact, as Al-Maqdisi, one of the historians of the fourth century, has been quoted as saying: “The people of Tiberias, half of the people of Qaddas (a town in the Jabal) and also half the people of the city of Nablus and most of the people of Amman were Shi’a” 4. As to the residents of Jabal ‘Āmel, the books of language and history and what they tell about themselves all point to one fact, that they originate from Yemen, as Banu ‘Āmela of Saba’ (Sheba) who migrated after the flood. Abul Fida wrote: “Banu ‘Āmel are a phratry from the Saba’, a Yemeni ancient Arab tribe which migrated from Yemen in 300 BC, after the flood and the destruction of the Ma’rib Dam and the end of the Kingdom of Saba’, and encamped near Damascus at a mountain known as Jabal ‘Āmela.” 5

Whatever the reality of the lineage, the only result is that the people of Jabal ‘Āmel are genuine Arabs who inhabited the region that was later named after them because of that long habitation, and that they were Shi’a early on in Islam. The realization of this fact is very important for understanding the reason where they stand today in the Arab-Zionist conflict first, and the reason for their difference from Iraq’s Shi’a second. This is because the Shi’a of Lebanon have lived all their lives in an Arab environment; they were surrounded from the north, east and south by Arabs: Sunni Muslims, Druze and Christians. That is, when they were persecuted by the Europeans Crusader invaders and by the Ottoman rule, which was unjust towards all peoples, they had nothing but their Arab identity to take refuge in. They found out before others that Arab nationalism is the right expression of their Islam and Shi’ism.

This is where the difference with the Shi’a of Iraq occurred, because Iraq’s Shi’a found in escaping from the religious persecution of the Ottoman a haven that brought them closer to the Safavid Shi’a state in Iran. Thus, the geographical adhesion and the large number of Shi’a holy shrines in Iraq have led to a long intermingling and intermarriage between Iraq’s Shi’a and Iran’s Shi’a. This gradually led to a growing sense among the Shi’a of Iraq of closeness to Iran. Thus, the Arab sense of belonging among the Shi’a of Iraq slowly weakened and was replaced by a sectarian affiliation, which found Iran closer to them than Syria, for example. There  is no doubt that the Ottoman rule and discrimination against the Shi’a has contributed in pushing them to this alignment. Furthermore, a large number of Iraq’s Shi’a chose to be registered as Persian subjects during the Ottoman rule to avoid being drafted to fight the wars of the Ottoman rulers. The Shi’a of Jabal ‘Āmel did not go through a similar experience having lived at all times in an Arab environment, and they were not forced by geography or history to depart from their Arab sense of identity. That is why we find the sense of Arab nationalism among the Shi’a public of Lebanon strong and distinct, contrary to that in Iraq. I do not mean by this a total lack of Arab national sentiment among Iraq’s Shi’a, because I have already shown that a number of distinguished national leaders in Iraq were Shi’a, but it was and still is an elite and not the public at large. The fact is that the Shi’a public in Iraq does not have great enthusiasm for belonging to an Arab nationalist project, as is the case with the Shi’a of Lebanon represented by Hizbullah and its popularity.

It is not within historical integrity for anyone to claim that the reason for this difference is the policy of the Ba’ath, which pitted the Shi’a public in Iraq against it. Perhaps the policies of the Ba’ath during the thirty years of rule did not help to change this reality, but its roots are deeper and older than the Ba’ath Party rule. This fact may explain to the observer of the Iraqi political scene the reason for its lack today, and in the absence of the Ba’ath, of a single party that embraces an Arab nationalist project, at a time when almost all of the Kurdish parties are nationalist parties. Furthermore, the Ba’ath in Syria is allied with Hizbullah, which counters the claim that the Ba’ath was responsible for the Shi’a departure from the Arab nationalist project. And let no one say that the Ba’ath in Syria is different in ideology to that in Iraq. They are identical in ideology and practice but only differ on leadership.

The Shi’a of Lebanon lived for centuries treated as second-class citizens. The Ottoman state discriminated against the Shi’a. The Christians received the protection of the French, which gave them a large share in managing Lebanon even before the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Shi’a in Lebanon remained oppressed for a long time. However, this situation began to change in the twentieth century, with education and the religious Marji’iya playing an important role in alerting people to their rights and to the means adopted by the other peoples of the world to achieve these rights.

The first credible political Shi’a organized movement in Lebanon was the Amal (Hope) movement. Musa As-Sadr, who was head of the Supreme Shi’a Council in Lebanon, launched in 1975 what he called ‘The Movement of the Deprived’ (Amal) to defend the Shi’a in Lebanon in facing the continuing Israeli attacks on south Lebanon amid lack of protection from the Lebanese failed state, preoccupied with corruption and political deals. The relationship of ‘Amal’ with the Shah of Iran was, as expected, good as the Shah was the only Shi’a ruler in the world and Musa As-Sadr had come to Lebanon from Qum with the blessing of the then Shah, who must have played a major role in granting As-Sadr Lebanese citizenship in record time.

It is no wonder that when Khomeini ruled Iran in 1979, he was not so keen on As-Sadr, and this disaffection was increased by the rejection by the latter of the theory of ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’, which Khomeini brought as the only solution to the Islamic state. This disaffection was exacerbated by the lack of response by Khomeini to the demands of ‘Amal’ to make Libya return Musa As-Sadr, whom it detained and most probably killed later, though Khomeini had a good relationship with, and a big influence on the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddāfi.

In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and swept through the south and reached Beirut, in the first invasion and encirclement of an Arab capital since the Sykes-Picot time.6  The South was boiling and ‘Amal’ was not able to cope with the invasion because it was not actually established on revolutionary bases, and continues even today in not being revolutionary. There was a need for the birth of a movement to fill the void created by ‘Amal’ which claimed to confront the Zionist attack, but failed to do so. Political necessities create events. And so it was that Hizbullah was born, a unique phenomenon in the Arab politico-religious history.

This is because the young Lebanese Shi’a were not really much interested in the theory of ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’ and its feasibility, because their problem was confronting the barbaric Zionist invasion which was swallowing their land, history and culture. These young revolutionaries in southern Lebanon and Beirut did not find an Arab political regime or nationalist movement able to give them the support they wanted in order to carry out the task of confronting Zionism. But they found what they sought outside the Arab world in Iran, where Khomeini was declaring at every opportunity that ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’ considered World Zionism the epitome of world imperialism and the enemy of the oppressed. The Shi’a of Lebanon were oppressed and victims of that Imperialism which had occupied their land and crushed their villages and burned their figs and olives! This means that Hizbullah was not born because it really believed that ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’ was the solution to the nation’s problems, but it was born because it wanted to solve the nation’s problem which was threatening its existence, and found that ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’ suited this, and so it adopted it.

It is not belief in ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’ which drove Hizbullah to Khomeini, but the fact that ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’ was the only political movement then that made confronting Zionism its objective. Hizbullah, in other words, did not arise from the belief in ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’ to confront Israel, but the need to confront it was what drove Hizbullah to ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’. Understanding this fact is very important for the understanding of the relationship between Hizbullah and Iran as a state, and the difference between that relationship and the relationship with the faqih. Hizbullah is an Arab Party, not a Persian one, and this resulted in differences in the positions that the Party had to overlook for the sake of the larger issue.

One of those differences was in the relationship with the Shi’a Parties in Iraq. At a time when Iranian intelligence is active in supporting and controlling these Parties, Hizbullah is not comfortable with establishing strong ties with Shi’a Parties in Iraq as the sectarian affiliation demands. But the political ideology in which the Party believes in opposing Zionism, forces it to keep away from these Parties because of the ties between those Iraqi Shi’a Parties and Zionism that are voluntary and direct and not out of ignorance or by proxy. It is no secret to those who have followed the relationship between Hizbullah and the Iraqi Shi’a Parties, that the Secretary-General of Hizbullah, Sayyid Hassan Nasrullah, has not acknowledged the role of a single political figure of Iraq’s Shi’a in any speech during the past ten years. He avoided meeting any of their men visiting Lebanon regularly in search of a conference or an opportunity to clean their dark faces.

For this reason, Hizbullah’s relationship with Iran is complex. It is not reasonable to simplify it either with general phrases or with a superficial analysis based on an event or a particular incident, because it is more complicated than that. When Hizbullah finds that there is nothing wrong in following the example of the Iranian ‘faqih’ and his fatwas and opinions, it would be basing it on the belief that the faqih is the basis for the project upon which the Party was established, in that the Party’s existence is linked to the fight against world imperialism in the immediate form of the State of Israel. In this, the Party is fully linked to the faqih and the institutions around him like the Revolutionary Guards. But the Party is not linked to the Iranian State and finds itself free even to disagree with it. The Party may one day find itself at odds with the Iranian state if, for example, the plan of those in Iran who are termed by Zionists as ‘moderates’, represented today by Rafsanjāni and/or Rouhāni, dreaming of reconciliation with the United States, goes ahead, even though this possibility does not seem feasible today as long as the faqih still holds the reins of affairs. But in theory the possibility exists that the state of Iran may reconcile with Imperialist Zionism someday if the moderates’ line prevails.

We need to pause here to respond to the charges levelled at Hizbullah accusing it of being a hireling and a vassal of Iran. These charges mostly come from those who stand in the anti-Shi’a camp, and the existence of this camp is not in doubt, just as there is an anti-Sunni Shi’a camp. The irony is that those who accuse Hizbullah of being an Iranian stooge do not find anything wrong with the glorification of the Ottoman Empire and loyalty to it. They are right in that if they were convinced that Islam is a universal religion and that no nationality should have guardianship over other nationalities, which would make the Ottoman Turkish rule acceptable and legitimate as the personification of the Islamic State. Some of them went so far as to advocate following the ruling Justice and Development Party ‘AK Parti’ in Turkey because of its religious roots, although the said Party is allied with Zionism and recognizes it. If that is the case, what is wrong with having a Persian, Chechen or Pashtun Caliphate? In other words, where is the fault if Hizbullah wants to follow the example of an Iranian Muslim leader if it is acceptable to follow the example of a Turkish Muslim leader?

The birth of Hizbullah was a big event in Lebanon, which quickly transcended the borders of Lebanon to become a powerful force in the Arab-Zionist conflict. The Party has benefited from the experience of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which contributed to its training and equipping and developed a military doctrine unknown to Arab armies or liberation movements active in the twentieth century. This ability to develop previously unknown strategy and tactics has had a significant impact on changing the rules of the game of the Zionist enemy. The latter was used to relying on its striking air force which enabled it to bomb the battlefield without interception from any resistance force; after which it could send its ground forces on “a stroll” to take Arab land after their air power has neutralized defences and crippled the capacity of the troops exposed without air cover. But Hizbullah created new rules of war to which the Zionist enemy has not been able to adapt to this day. The defeats of the Zionists in the war of liberation in 2000 and the 2006 war are testimonies to that fact. This is because the People’s Liberation War had acquired a new concept with Hizbullah, which the Israeli army does not have the ability to deal with yet. Air force, which is suitable for hitting airports and fixed bases and large armies, has little impact against small groups of fighters moving in tunnels. Israeli advanced tanks are unable to cope with missiles carried by youths with the hearts of men. But most of all it is Hizbullah’s success in the use of missiles that are no less, if not more serious, than the Air Force in inflicting losses on the enemy at the lowest financial cost and without the need to train pilots and maintain the infrastructure needed by them.

Since the aim here is not to explore Hizbullah’s ability to fight as much as it is to prove its uniqueness to the rest of the religious movements in its transfer of jihadist theory from slogans to real use against the single enemy of the Arab nation, I would just say that Hizbullah has been a unique phenomenon which has changed the rules of the conflict.

There is another matter that Hizbullah added to the Arab national project. By confirming the Arab national nature of the battle and its transcending of geographical boundaries, and by entering with the Syrian army to resist the Zionist terrorism at the hands of the gangs of Syrian Free Army, the Islamic Army Al-Qaeda, An-Nusra, and others who openly boast of their Zionism, Hizbullah has created a new reality at a time when the Ba’ath project in Iraq and Syria failed.7 The involvement of Hizbullah in the civil war in Syria on the side of the Ba’ath not only confirms the Party’s belief in the unity of the battle and national destiny, but it cancelled the Sykes-Picot borders, sparking the ire and the objection of the Zionists outside Lebanon and inside it, because Zionism considers the Sykes-Picot borders sacred, inviolable and could not be scrapped even if one of its products is the ‘watermelon‘ Republic of Lebanon.

But in spite of all my deep appreciation for Hizbullah and the sacrifices it has offered and its exemplary dedication to the defence of the Arab nation, I still have more than one question regarding the possibility of contradiction between its loyalty to the Arab national project and its Islamic alignment, which is not necessarily Shi’a. The reason for this question is the Party’s position on ‘Hamas’ which the Party found itself, just as Iran itself found, unable to be decisive on when Hamas betrayed Syria and supported the Muslim Brotherhood which took up arms against the national state in Syria and contributed to the civil war and destruction of Syria. 8  Even though Hamas chose to stand with the enemy of Hizbullah’s ally, the Syrian state, Hizbullah did not sever relations with Hamas nor did it even criticize its disgraceful behaviour. Hizbullah continued to support Hamas arguing that it was in essence anti-Zionist.

However, this duality cannot last long. Religious Movements, including Hamas and Hizbullah, are based on the concept that religious affiliation comes first. This is what Hamas did because its adhesion to the Muslim Brotherhood movement was its base, and even preceded the goal of the Liberation of Palestine. This is because the religious goal of the project, whatever it is, is to establish a theocratic state and not  achieve peoples’ liberation, as we secularists understand it. Therefore, the establishment of a religious state in Gaza would be enough for Hamas for a long time and it may keep silent about the liberation of Palestine objective if it would lead to a secular Palestinian State. That was the case with the Muslim Brotherhood when it ruled Egypt for a short period. They claimed that confronting Zionism could be postponed until the state building is achieved, and that respecting the humiliating treaties with the enemy was necessary in order to build that state. It is not surprising that they failed, because the general public were not interested in building an Islamic state as much as they aspired for freedom, liberty, the right to work, ensuring education, health and a minimum of a decent living.

Where will Hizbullah stand if it were to be tested whether it stands with the Arab national project or with the Persian project, when the authority of ‘Wilāyet Al-Faqih’ in Iran ceases to exist and Iran becomes, as it is entitled to, a strong nation-state in the region?




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