Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hizbullah, a Western fascination

The killing of four Lebanese soldiers on Monday reawakens some old thoughts about a phenomenon I've watched over the years, one that should not be underestimated in determining how Lebanon is understood and portrayed abroad: the devouring fascination with Hizbullah that many Westerners living in and writing about the country have developed, so that the party typically fills center stage in their Lebanese considerations.

The Hizbullah link to the soldiers is not a tenuous one. Michel Aoun remarked that the deadly attack in the Bekaa Valley was a family matter. Perhaps it was, however such brazenness was possible only because the gunmen were acting with two things in mind: that in areas ruled by Hizbullah the army is fair game, so that even the killer of the helicopter pilot Samer Hanna last August managed to escape punishment; and that much of the northern Bekaa, beyond its geographical seclusion, is frequently off limits to the state, and even in some areas to Lebanese citizens, because Hizbullah has simply decided that it should be so.

This realization feeds into another, namely how little we tend to read, or hear, any real condemnation of this rather astonishing state of affairs from Western journalists, analysts, academics and others who write about Hizbullah. Of course, not all journalism or analysis needs to express sharp opinions, but over the years a double standard has been on display: The Western observer will often approach Hizbullah on its own terms, with laudable and reasonable objectivity; but he or she will almost never show the same detachment when addressing the Lebanese political system, which is routinely criticized as archaically sectarian and corrupt.

Where Hizbullah fascinates, and fascinates justifiably for being an interesting sociological phenomenon, the Lebanese political system, despite its paradoxical liberalism, tends to repel many Westerners for being an ersatz version of what they know, an inferior, aberrant knock-off of their own societies. I still recall over a year ago being asked to discuss Lebanon with students attending a course in Beirut. I had about an hour and a half to answer their questions, and an hour and 15 minutes of that time was devoted to Hizbullah. "Lebanon is more than Hizbullah," I feebly said at the end, but I had gotten the message.

Why this interest in Hizbullah, and why does this interest quite often morph into measured, even unmeasured, attraction? I can offer up several hypotheses, not mutually exclusive. First of all, for a Western journalist or analyst, Hizbullah is an easy story to sell to a publication or think tank. There are guns and strange bearded men, and both will grab an editor back home and a writer eager to show off his access to a closed world that is vaguely menacing. There is the legitimate fact that Hizbullah plays a definable role in Lebanon, so that it makes no sense not to cover the party. However, when was the last time a journalist sold a story on the inherent pluralism in Lebanese sectarianism? Once you've woken the editor up and told him that this defines Lebanon more accurately than Hizbullah does, he'll still choose the riveting clarity of a Hizbullah peg.

Hizbullah also benefits from the underlying contempt among many Westerners for the baroque Lebanese system itself, all nods and winks and clandestine compromises. Here is a party that can build institutions, that means what it says and says what it means, and that in many respects defines itself against the duplicity of the traditional politicians. More interestingly, it speaks for a once marginalized community, so that it presents several ingredients to spur Western sympathy and appreciation: a social cause, methodicalness in the pursuit of its objectives, an institutional structure transcending the narrow retail politics of most Lebanese leaders, rhetorical precision, and purported honesty.

And then there is authenticity. Hizbullah is widely seen as representing a truer Lebanon than the Lebanon of confused identities lying outside the party's realm. Remember how the media in 2005 translated the emancipation movement against Syria. For three weeks after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the story was that of a liberal Lebanon revolting against an illiberal Syria and its Lebanese peons, a rare occasion during the post-Civil War period when that narrative dominated. However, its fragility was highlighted on March 8, when Hizbullah organized its mass demonstration at Riad al-Solh square. Suddenly, interpretations shifted. The "real Lebanon" had spoken, observers said, and it had spoken with verve, so that the anti-Syrian demonstrators of the weeks before, with their Occidental pretensions and designer clothes, were now dismissed as creations of the Western media. Then March 14 came, confusing the observers further and resurrecting the liberal plot line, if not for very long.

The irony is that the very attributes that make many Westerners so belittle the Lebanese political and social order in Hizbullah's favor are actually present in Hizbullah in more concentrated ways. The Lebanese system is archaic, undemocratic and sectarian? Well then what do you call a Shiite Leninist organization, led by a leader who will probably remain in office for life, that calls itself the Party of God? And what reaction do one's Western liberal instincts provoke when that centralized religious party glorifies violent self-sacrifice and makes permanent armed struggle a centerpiece of its ideological mindset, mainly on behalf of an autocratic clerical regime in Iran, its Lebanese authenticity notwithstanding? As for corruption, those who see Hizbullah as spotless should learn a trifle more about the party's illicit networks, or those of individuals close to the party. In that regard, we can say that Hizbullah is as Lebanese as anyone else.

Hizbullah is an essential part of Lebanon, a reflection of the country's complex personality and a distillation of its flaws. That it is worthy of study is obvious, but only if one grasps two caveats: that the party, while an anomaly institutionally, so that it can implement many of its totalistic ambitions in an essentially pluralistic society, does not really represent a refreshing contrast to the less admirable aspects of Lebanon; and that Hizbullah remains a slim prism through which to comprehend Lebanese society. Indeed, to know the party, or to claim to, often seems an excuse some Westerners have of avoiding discovering the wider reality all around it.

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