Hezbollah, the Lebanese Sectarian State, and Sectarianism

By Joseph Daher | Lecturer - Lausanne University - Switzerland | Apr 13, 2017
Hezbollah, the Lebanese Sectarian State, and Sectarianism
H. Nasrallah - Hezbollah rally - Jebshit, Lebanon 2-17-17

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state, and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...


 

One of the striking features of Hezbollah’s evolution since its establishment in 1985 is its changing attitude towards sectarianism and its growing integration into the structures of the Lebanese state. In its early days, the party was highly critical of the existing political system and the entrenched privileges of both Maronite and Sunni political classes. The 1985 founding manifesto of the party named the existing political system and its sectarian privileges as the root causes of Lebanon’s problems. As an alternative, Hezbollah advocated an Islamic form of government in the framework of Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision of Wilâyat al-Faqîh, stating the movement’s belief in Khomeini as the “single wise and just leader.” Despite this call for a theocratic state, the party was nevertheless aware of the concerns that many Lebanese might have, adding that its foundation would only be possible “on the basis of free and direct selection of the people, not the basis of forceful imposition, as some people imagine.”[1]

The position that Hezbollah initially had taken against the sectarian status quo began to change following its acceptance of the 1989 Ta’if agreement.

However, the position that Hezbollah initially had taken against the sectarian status quo began to change following its acceptance of the 1989 Ta’if agreement. While Hezbollah noted that Ta’if failed to eliminate the shortcomings of the old system, stating that it “maintains the Maronite system and reinforces the Israeli occupation,”[2] it nonetheless began to emphasize the importance of civil peace and state and institutional reconstruction rather than any fundamental change in the system. This acceptance was partly due to the organization’s greater weight in the political process — codified in the Ta’if Agreement — as well as its official recognition as a resistance movement that allowed it to remain armed while other militias were disarmed.[3]

The party was also affected by the changes in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), its main political, military, and economic ally. The end of the Iraq-Iran war and the death of Khomeini led to a more pragmatic Iranian foreign policy. Moreover, the increasing political and military domination of Lebanon by Syria, the intermediary through which arms and Iranian aid is funnelled, also played a role in pushing for Hezbollah’s integration into the Lebanese political system.

In this context, Hezbollah has participated since 1992 in all parliamentary and municipal elections, and from 2005 in all governments. Hezbollah’s participation in the Lebanese sectarian system was also accompanied by an increasing support for the implementation of neo-liberal policies.

Hezbollah’s gradual acceptance of Lebanon's sectarian political system was reflected in the new Manifesto of the party in 2009. Although it confirmed the position of the 1985 manifesto that political sectarianism was a major problem “which thwarts Lebanon’s reform and development,” the new manifesto postponed any change to the system until a non-determined future date. Until that point “homogenous democracy” — a term used to describe the sectarian system — would remain “the fundamental basis for governance in Lebanon, because it is the actual quintessence of the spirit of the constitution and the core of the Charter of the co-existence.” In this contradictory sense, political sectarianism was described negatively but the sectarian system itself was upheld as the basis of coexistence.

In addition, Hezbollah viewed with suspicion attempts to challenge the sectarian system from outside the parliament. Hezbollah did not participate or mobilize its members to take part in the demonstrations at the beginning of 2011, calling for an end of the sectarian regime, which started in February and at first numbered more than 3,000 people. The mobilization then grew to 10,000 and 25,000 people on 6 and 20 March demonstrations respectively.[4] On the contrary, Hezbollah, as well as other political forces, warned their members not to participate.

The party adopted a similar approach to the popular mobilizations that began at the end of the summer 2015 around the “campaign you stink,” which originally was triggered after a waste management crisis and then increasingly radicalized itself to challenge the whole sectarian and bourgeois Lebanese political system. In addition, Hezbollah, although it rhetorically supported the protests, initially accused protesters of being controlled by foreign actors and declared that the struggle against Takfiris and the Zionist state are the most important issues. Hassan Nasrallah argued that the party had adopted a “neutral position towards the movement because we don’t know its leadership, its project and objectives.”[5] As a way to resolve the crisis, the Lebanese Islamic movement supported the dialogue called by the Chair of Parliament, Nabih Berri, as well as the election of Michel Aoun, head of the F.P.M., as President of the Republic — initiatives that maintained completely the existing framework of the country’s sectarian and bourgeois system.

Hezbollah has constantly opposed several proposals regarding the secularization of the state.

Similarly, Hezbollah has constantly opposed several proposals regarding the secularization of the state. Hezbollah has indeed declared its opposition to any kind of possible personal status civil law alongside Islamic Status law, and declared such proposals as being anti-Islamic, while MP Ibrahim Amin Al-Sayyid associated the promulgation of civil marriage with “an implementation of atheism.”[6]

Hezbollah Civil Society, or the Objective of Building a Particular Shiite Identity

Hezbollah has managed to achieve a position of hegemony over Lebanon’s Shiite population through a balanced combination of consent and coercion, based on the one hand through its provision of much needed services to large sections of the Shiite popular sector by its large networks of institutions and organizations affiliated with the party, and, on the other, through repressive measures directed against those who step outside the norms established by the party. In addition to this, the monopolization of the resistance against Israel by Hezbollah was also a major element in consolidating its hegemony among Lebanese Shiite population.

Hezbollah’s networks of organizations and socialization structures have been important instruments in strengthening the religiosity of its social environment. They have fostered the community’s adherence to Hezbollah as the embodiment of Islamic values (understood through a particularly distinctive variant of Islam). Islamization has been promoted by Hezbollah organizations and simultaneously employed as a means of disciplining elements of the Shiite population that have resisted this process.

Hezbollah’s networks of institutions and organization participated in the construction and development of a particular Shiite identity separate from other Lebanese constituencies.

Hezbollah’s networks of institutions and organization participated in the construction and development of a particular Shiite identity separate from other Lebanese constituencies. For example, all of the religious institutions and religious celebrations are thus used by Hezbollah to develop a wider religiosity within the Shiite population and a separate sense of identity set apart from the wider Lebanese society. Similarly, Hezbollah’s television channel, al-Manar, emphasizes its role as the communal voice of Shiites in Lebanon during its coverage and religious programming of the Shiite holy months. The iconography deployed in the schools under Hezbollah’s influence or control reinforces the religious and political content of images visible in the streets of Dahyeh, with a prevalence of Shiite religious images and portraits of Khomeini and Khameini.

Another major priority of Hezbollah’s intervention in civil society is the education and youth sector. The Educational Institute (al-Mu'assasa al-Tarbawiyya, founded in 1991) of Hezbollah is the institution that supervises the educational sector and is aimed at recomposing Shiite society (i'âda siyyâgha tarkiba al-mujtama') by producing “a new ‘mentality’" for a society participating actively in its own reconstruction, in resistance and in economic rebirth.[7] To this end, the party has established and directly operates a network of private schools.

A notable and important feature of Hezbollah’s religious perspective is the way in which social passivity and difference are stigmatized. All social practices that do not fit within the framework defined by Hezbollah are thereby branded as being unlawful (harâm), corrupted (mafsudîn), or shameful (‘ayb).[8] In this manner, Hezbollah propagates a worldview that encourages support and engagement with the party’s activities (as a necessary requirement of religious piety), while simultaneously ostracising those who deviate from these norms. Social behaviour thus adapts itself to the worldview of Hezbollah, and leads to high levels of conformity within Shiite populations.

Hezbollah’s vision of these religious codes and norms also sets itself up as “authentic” Islam. A distinctive feature of this ‘authentic Islam’ is a specific Shiite identity that is demarcated from Sunni and Christian populations. One illustration of this is the content of school textbooks used in Hezbollah schools. In the history textbook ‘Nahnu wa Târîkh’ (Us and History), for example, the history of Islam is taught in a manner that is highly sectarian and Shiite oriented. The Umayyad government is described as corrupt and unjust, while the penetration of Shiism in Lebanon in the region of the Jabal ‘Amil is characterised as the real or authentic territory of belief. This particular status of Jabal ‘Amil is specific to Hezbollah’s schoolbooks and is not present in other history books of Lebanon. The Abbasid Caliphates are also portrayed very negatively in showing their cruelty and injustice and presenting them as the assassins of the descendants of Imam Hussein, and Jaafar Sadiq (the sixth Imam of Duodeciman Shiism). The decline of the Abbasid Caliphates is explained as the logical consequence of their injustice and their taste for pleasure. Catherine Le Thomas argues that “although the story always condemns personalities and dynasties, and not a religion or a particular sect, this nevertheless contributes to underline the boundaries and limits between Shiite and Sunni and to trace the founding moments establishing this boundary.”[9][10]

The Intervention in Syria

Hezbollah has tried to legitimize and justify its military intervention in Syria alongside Syrian regime’s forces by providing various reasons (e.g., as a fight against Takfiris, as a means of protecting the project of Resistance, etc.), but notably by the use of a religious and sectarian Shiite discourse among its members. Hassan Nasrallah, for example, stated that Hezbollah needed to intervene in Syria to defend Shiite villages by sending Hezbollah soldiers to the border. He also stressed Hezbollah’s role in protecting Shiite religious symbols like the mausoleum of the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, the Shrine of al-Sayyida Zaynab, in Damascus, stating that “has been already targeted many times by terrorist groups.” Sayyid Nasrallah added that this is a very sensitive issue, given the fact that certain extremist groups have announced that if they reach this shrine, they will destroy it. And reports indicate that Hezbollah soldiers wore headbands with ‘O Husayn’ written on them.[11]

Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria was presented to its supporters and to the Lebanese Shiite population more generally as an “existential battle” ... 

More generally, Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria was presented to its supporters and to the Lebanese Shiite population more generally as an “existential battle” against the Sunni extremists characterized as “takfiris.” This discourse was echoed by Hezbollah soldiers in Syria, as with one 18-year-old fighter who said that he joined Hezbollah to wage jihad in Syria, because it was his religious duty and the duty of every Muslim to fight there. He described what is happening in Syria as “a repetition of what happened over 1,000 years ago during the battle of Karbala,” adding that “the takfiris in Syria were attacking our holy sites, our Mouqadassat, which are our most sacred places, such as the Sayyida Zeinab pilgrimage site. We could not let that happen.”[12]

There has also been an increase in the display of banners, photos, and songs glorifying Shiite religious symbols in Shiite neighbourhoods, which previously appeared almost exclusively during the Ashura. Social media outlets teemed with videos and pages calling for the defence of religious shrines in Syria and praising young Shiite who died in a jihad to protect them. In the Ashura celebrations of 2013, slogans such as “Hal Min Nâsirîn Yansurunâ? Labbayki ya Zaynab!” (Is there any supporter to stand up for us? we are all for you, Zeinab!), “Oh Zaynab! We are all your Abbass!” and “We swear by Hassan and Hussein, Zaynab will not be captured twice!” were raised to call for the defense of the Zaynab shrine that is protected by Hezbollah and other Shiite sectarian groups from possible attacks of opposition armed groups in Damascus.[13]

Despite the denial of Hezbollah’s leadership, the involvement in Syria by the Shiite Islamic movement increased the level of sectarianism and sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite communities in Lebanon

Conclusion

Hezbollah played down its original radical opposition to the Lebanese sectarian political system following its entry into parliament and participation in government along sectarian lines, in contrast to its continued rhetoric and populist criticism. Hezbollah’s initial objective was to establish an Islamic regime, despite the near impossibility of such a task given the multi-confessional reality of Lebanese society. From total refusal of involvement in the sectarian system, the organization has been progressively integrated into the system as one of its main actors.

The Lebanese sectarian system, and sectarianism more generally, are one of the main instruments used by the Lebanese ruling sectarian parties, including Hezbollah, to strengthen their control over the popular classes and keep them subordinated to their sectarian leaders. Sectarianism needs to be seen as constitutive, and reinforcing, of current forms of state and class power. Along these lines, sectarianism should be understood as a product of modern times and not as a tradition from time immemorial.

In light of these developments, Hezbollah does not constitute a challenge to the Lebanese sectarian system or even to the region, as its intervention in Syria to assist Syrian regime forces demonstrates. On the contrary, Hezbollah sees this system in much the same way as any other sectarian political party — as a means of serving its own interests. This is particularly important given the various social and political forces that have attempted to unify Lebanese popular classes beyond sectarian identities. Hezbollah has sought to collaborate with other Lebanese elites in opposition to these anti-sectarian forces, despite some political differences, especially during periods of heightened social mobilization.


[1] The Vice President of the party Naim Qassem declared in 2016 that the preferred option for Hezbollah is an Islamic state, as stated in the Manifesto of 1985, but this should not be imposed against the will of the population and therefore is not an option today in Lebanon as a majority would refuse it.

[2] Cited in Lina Khatib, Dina Matar, and Atef Alshaer, The Hizbullah Phenomenon, Politics and Communication (London and New York: Hurst and Oxford University Press, 2014) 57.

[3] Mohammad Zigby, Bullets to Ballots: the Lebanonization of Hizballah (Master), (McGill University) 41.

[4] Marie Noel Abi Yaghi, “Civil mobilisation and peace in Lebanon, Beyond the reach of the ‘Arab Spring’?” Accord, Issue 24 (2012), accessed March 29, 2017, http://www.academia.edu/1987158/_Civil_Mobilization_and_Peace_in_Lebanon....

[5] “Al-Sayyîd Nasr Allâh: al-sa’ûdîyya tatahamul mas’ûlîyya hâditha mona … mârab tarsam itijâ al-hal fil-îyyaman… wa al-hudûr al-rûssî mû`athir bi-massâr ma’araka sûrîyyâ… wa narhab bihi,” September 26, 2015, accessed March 29, 2017, http://www.alahednews.com.lb/115781/7/السيد-نصرالله-السعودية-تتحمل-مسؤولية-حادثة-منى..مأرب-ترسم-اتجاه-الحل-في-اليمن..والحضور-الروسي-مؤثر-بمسار#.VgpazST3Bsu.

[6] S. Mikaelian, “Overlapping Domestic / Geopolitical contests, Hizbullah, and sectarianism” in J. Al-Habbal et al. (eds.), The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (London: Pluto Press, 2015) 171.

[7] Mona Harb and Robert Leenders, “Know The Enemy: Hizbullah, ‘Terrorism’ and the Politics of Perception, Third World Quarterly 26, 1 (2005): 187

[8] Mona Harb, le Hezbollah à Beyrouth (1985-2005), de la banlieue à la ville (Paris and Beyrouth: Karthala and IFPO, 2010) 185.

[9] Catherine Le Thomas, Les écoles chiites au Liban (Paris: Karthala-IFPO, 2012) 229.

[10] Despite this fact, at a political level, Hezbollah continues to maintain and nurture relations with parties which have different religious bases and identities; for example, Hamas, a Palestinian Sunni political movement and an offshoot of the Muslim Bortherhood (MB), or the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), headed by General Michel Aoun, based in the Christian population and Hezbollah’s closest ally in Lebanon.

[11] Nicholas Blanford, “The Battle for Qusayr: how the Syrian regime and Hizb Allah tipped the balance,” Combating Terrorism Center, August 27, 2013, accessed March 29, 2017, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-battle-for-qusayr-how-the-syrian-regi....

[12] Mona Alami, “Meet one of Hezbollah's teen fighters,” Al-Monitor, January 2016, accessed March 29, 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/01/lebanon-hezbollah-teen....

[13] “Gendered Ashura’ in Dahieh,” Boumet Beirut, November 6,2013, accessed March 29, 2017,  http://boumet-beirut.tumblr.com/post/66206697272/gendered-ashouraa-in-da....