Understanding the Shi’a of Lebanon

One of the weaknesses in our government and in the news media is that they know little about the Shi’a and they know even less about the differences between the Shi’a of Iraq, Lebanon and Iran. Moreover, few policymakers are aware of the number of Shi’a in the whole Gulf region; there are large numbers in Bahrain, Kuwait and even Saudi Arabia–not to mention in other Arab and Muslim countries.

This is the first of three articles, and it explores the Shi’a of Lebanon . . . .

The Shi’a in Lebanon were never as extreme as the Khomeni brand of Islam.

In fact, the Shi’a in Lebanon were very modern, the young women did not wear the hijab or veils and even in the mosques, men and women often prayed together without walls between them. There was also no anger, fear or hatred against the United States. In general, the Shi’a of Lebanon were a peaceful, primarily agrarian community that fit well into the Lebanese Constitution that divided the government among the Maronites, the Druze, the Sunni and The Shi’a, with lesser posts being given to the Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox. Of course, there were also more urbane Shi’a of Beirut who were more sophisticated than their agrarian counterparts; this group tended to be more liberal, more western in style and more worldly. At times there were tensions between these agrarian and urban Shi’a, but when it came to dealing with those who attacked either group, they then became united and cooperated to a large degree.

A sea change took place among the Shi’a of Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1981. The Israelis came in, helped to destroy the government, the fabric of Lebanese life and chose to occupy the land of the Shi’a. The Shi’a asked them to leave, but when they wouldn’t, they began their guerrilla warfare. The Shi’a also felt that they’d been oppressed and not fully represented in the Lebanese government, so their fighting took on a double significance. However, they did not have the firepower, the organization of the Phalangists or the Israelis and thus, they were defeated in the early days of their battles to push the intruders out of their lands.

Then a new factor entered the picture, the Iranians. Many of the leading Shi’a clerics of Lebanon had studied at Najj’af in Iraq, some under Imam Khomeni who had been one of the leading educators there. They also had friends who had been part of the revolution against the Shah of Iran and who were now powerful in the new government. These men decided the Amal group was not militant enough and that their land had to be retaken from the Israelis and Phalangists. By now, to cover their duplicity, the Israelis had set up a phalangist, Maronite group in southern Lebanon and called it The South Lebanese Army–basically to occupy the southern 1/5 of Lebanon with the aid of Israel. Interestingly, the SLA had some Shi’a in it. Basically, those Shi’a needed jobs, and initially at least, there were few skirmishes between the SLA and Hezbollah.

The Shi’a, especially around Nabitayeh, Soar, Machgara became more alarmed, upset and wanted help. So, they called on their friends in Iran for help. Many Iranians, who saw themselves as Shi’a Muslims first, and as Iranians second, came to the aid of their fellow oppressed Shi’a; they saw it as a holy mission, part of their Muslim world view.

It is important to understand that though many in the West tend to exaggerate the differences between the Sunni and the Shi’a in Islam, this reflects their ignorance of Islam. All Muslims follow the Qur’an, the Holy Book of Islam, that was sent from God (the Arabic name is Allah, a name also used by the Christian Arabs) and all revere Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him) as a Prophet of God, along with Moses and Jesus. The only difference is that the Shi’a thought Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, should have succeeded the Prophet Mohammed, rather than Abu Bakr. However, in all fairness to Ali, he did not create a split, rather the agreed with the democratic majority when they elected Abu Bakr as the successor, Caliph as he was called, to Mohammed. Ali later became the 4th Caliph, but unfortunately, because of infighting in Islam, he was assassinated inside a mosque. This created a schism within Islam because his sons felt they should ask for justice on behalf of their father. The Mu’owaeeia family, who took control on the death of Ali, sought to protect and not punish the killers. This led to a feud with the sons of Ali. Finally, after several battles, a truce was arranged where Hussein, the son of Ali and the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed was to come make peace. Unfortunately, and tragically, he, his family and peace retinue were ambushed by Karbala. This was never forgotten, so the split, that originally was overcome by Ali, was opened again by this betrayal by Mu’owee has never been forgotten but has lessened emotionally over time. Nevertheless, every year, the Shi’a all over the world express their grief at the assassination of Hussein and his family with Ashura, where they some beat their backs with chains, others cut themselves, others whip themselves, all trying to relive symbolically the suffering of Hussein at Karbala. The Lebanese, prior to the Iranians coming in to Lebanon, never participated that strongly or that sufferingly in Ashura; however, since the advent of the Iranians coming in, Ashura and its severe practices have been more prevalent among some of the Shi’a. But in the world of Islam, there is a unity that binds all together beyond the Shi’a/Sunni past, so that there is a unity of a sort that may be more solid than even the Christian unity that exists between the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestants.

Thus, when the Shi’a of Lebanon were under attack, many others from throughout the Muslim world came to aid them, as in their mind, they were one people–so Sunnis came from the Gulf, from Syria, from North Africa and Shi’a came from Iran, the Gulf , North Africa and even Asia and Turkey. Many of these new fighters came with Islam, but with their own ethnic customs and Islamic practices–which were often more conservative and more extreme, especially the Iranians, than were the Lebanese Muslims, Sunni and Shi’a.

Many of the Shi’a of Lebanon didn’t approve of this new influx of ideas and customs, but they did approve of the help in reclaiming their lands and autonomy. The Iranians brought the black chador with them, the stricter separation of men and women, a less democratic relationship within the community, with the clerics becoming more powerful and stricter then ever before and they also brought a new militancy and discipline than had been seen in centuries. There was resistance at first, but after seeing how successful and how organized things became, and the new voice they were achieving in the Lebanese national picture–they now had a force to be reckoned with, they became part of this new style of Shi’aism. They had strong groups in the south and especially in the old Roman style city of Baalbeck. They also had ties to Syria, because the Assad family is of the Alawites, a branch of the Shi’a that broke away from the orthodox Sunni of Islam. In the early days of this influx, the Iranians dominated the scene with their superior weapons, better training, discipline, commitment and numbers of fighters.

Later, as the Lebanese became more organized, they formed Hezbollah, the Party of God, as it’s known in the West. Though some of the cultural influence of Iran remained in place, as did the determination and pride (for the Shi’a of Iran had been able to withstand the most powerful nation in the world, America), the leadership and infrastructure were taken over by Lebanese. Some of the Iranians stayed on, and are still in residence to this day, some married Lebanese and others returned home.

As they became more organized, because of the many educated and politically aware Lebanese, Hezbollah became involved in Lebanese politics. They completely overtook old money families that made up Amal and became one of the strongest forces in Lebanon–much stronger than the formal Lebanese Army. However, they did not look to fight with the Lebanese Army, unless Maronite officers in the Lebanese Army tried to take them on. After a few minor skirmishes, the Lebanese Government, which had now once again, divided up the power between the Muslim and Christian groups, made clear that there would be no fight between the army and Hezbollah.

Importantly, Hezbollah also turned its attention to aiding the rest of Lebanon by working with hospitals, schools, colleges and universities; they were aware that education and health were important priorities if Lebanon was to regain its former position of intellectual, financial and political power in the Middle East, with its own diverse political and social structure.

The Americans came in to allegedly bring peace to Lebanon. Unfrtunately, they sided with the Phalangists and Israeli agents who wanted to dominate Lebanon. The Americans carried out military missions and supported Phalangist Maronite attacks on the Muslims (Shi’a and Sunni) and others who maintained working relationships with the Muslims (Druze, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and the Protestants). Hezbollah was the strongest group, so they took upon themselves to try negotiate with the Americans and to explain to them that the real trouble makers were the Phalangists and their Israeli allies. Unfortunately, as one American Colonel later told me, he was himself a Catholic, the Israeli and Phalangist influence in Washington, DC was so strong that even officers on the ground were not listened to in DC. Thus, the situation went from bad to worse; the American troops were told Hezbollah was the enemy and Hezbollah wanted the Marines out of Lebanon because they were there to support the hated Israelis and Phalangists. The Palestinians came into play, because they also hated the Phalangists and Israelis because of their massacres of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatilla . Finally, it all came to a head when the combined anti-Phalangist, anti-Israeli, and by this time, anti-American forces from all the other religious groups went to war to force the Americans out. This also included the Syrians who had allied themselves with Hezbollah and Amal. Finally, because of their alliance with the Phalangists,this culminated in the attack on the US Marine barracks in Beirut; causing the unfortunate death of many American Marines. Finally, the American troops pulled out of Lebanon and the place of the non-Phalangists was secure; the Phalangist and Israeli power base had been broken.

[But the root of all this evil was not religious. It was socioeconomic. The Shi’a were oppressed, despite their majority status in Lebanon. Be sure not to get sucked into these convenient “religious” labels.]

Because of Hezbollah’s major role in this internal warfare, a major media campaign was begun against them in the United States and Europe by Israel and their Phalangist allies in Washington and in Lebanon. They painted Hezbollah as a “terrorist” group, even though their only goal was to oust the illegal occupying Israelis, the power grabbing Phalangists and the wrong-headed US from dominating their land! To the best of my knowledge, the Hezbollah have never launched incursions into Israel. They have been remarkably consistent in their commitment to drive Israel out of Lebanon, NOT to take the war to Israel itself. The Israelis then started bombing raids on Hezbollah headquarters and Shi’a villages, even attacking Beirut at times. The Phalangists also participated in sabotage when given the opportunity in league with the Israelis. The Lebanese struggled to put together a central government so that much of this could be kept under control and stopped. Finally, when it was apparent that the Israelis and Phalangists were planning a major campaign against Lebanon and the Hezbollah and their allies, the other Muslim and Christian groups, Syria sent in more troops to help bring stabilty to the region. At this time, many would like the Syrians to leave, but the spectre of Israel still hangs in the air.

Many in the West, especially because of major propaganda and lies by the Israelis and Phalangists, called this “an invasion by Syria.” Few knew that Syria and Lebanon were actually one country, Greater Syria, prior to the colonialist divisions of the Middle East following WWI. The French chose to split Greater Syria into two countries, landlocking the stronger Muslim Syria, and giving the seaports and best vegetation to what they called Lebanon, because there was a significant Christian population there. Even then, the French kept the Christians and Muslims apart by allowing only the Christians to attend the French schools and to learn French, the Muslims were relegated to only Arabic. Thus, the people of the region were aware of the centuries old unity of what the French made into the split, Syria and Lebanon–but few in the West, especially in the government knew, or cared to know, or to acknowledge this. Thus, the West was upset about this new Syrian presence in Lebanon, but the Lebanese, except the Phalangists, were happy to have them there so that the civil war could finally be brought to an end. Many in Lebanon accepted the Syrians at first because they helped to restore order. They are not well liked today because they are unsophisticated, oppressive, and sometimes violent. They have also encouraged the narcotics trade in Lebanon, especially the growing of hashish (this according to some; it is denied by the Hezbollah and the Syrians).

With the Syrian Army in residence in Lebanon, and its close ties with the newly formed government, made up of all the groups of Lebanese religious groups, then with the Lebanese Parliament in place, the Israelis now faced a more formidable foe. Thus, the new Israeli invasion never took place, and some of the moderates among the Maronites came to the fore and displaced those who were ardent Phalangists; these people helped to create a government of national unity that exists to this day.

For years, the Israelis had terrorized and dominated the south of Lebanon with their troops and their surrogate South Lebanese Army. Finally, having bought more sophisticated weapons and with more military experience, as well as having the security of the Syrians behind them, the Hezbollah fighters were able, without airplanes or helicopters, to ambush Israeli tanks and troop carriers, were able to down Israeli planes and helicopters and to defeat Israeli and South Lebanese Phalangist troops in major battles. The Syrians stayed out of these battles so as not to foment a war with Israel, but they were there so that the Israelis did not get past their 20 mile zone they had in south Lebanon. When they realized they were up against a group of fighters willing to die for their land, their country, and they were no longer just a band of rag tag peasants with antiquated Russian and East European weapons, the Israelis had enough; they abandoned southern Lebanon and their own South Lebanese Army. However, to this day, they have never forgotten their defeat, and their propaganda machine, and their lobbyists in Washington, DC and their allies in the major media of the US, have continued calling Hezbollah a “terrorist organization.” As was said in a past presidential campaign, “Where’s the Beef?” In truth, no evidence has been brought forward to prove that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. They can lay claim to driving Israel out of Lebanon, putting up schools, hospitals, providing social assistance and helping keep Lebanon intact, especially in the south. But to this day, no one in the US Congress can show how they are a “terrorist organization”,though these words are continually being mouthed by Bush and the Congress, as well as the clique of Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Cheney and now even by Powell.

Even the U.S. media plays into this stereotyping by not allowing anyone from Hezbollah or the Shi’a to appear on a major TV or radio network show; the newspapers rarely allow any statements from them either. Thus, the stereotypes are allowed to persist, much to the detriment of better international understanding.

Thus, the stereoptyping of the Hezbollah as Iranian backed, as Syrian backed–which is true, in spirit, but not so much so that they are under Iranian or Syrian control or influence. The truth is that EVERYONE in the Middle East is “backed” by someone, unless they have their own nation-state. Sheikh Fadlallah and Imam Nasrallah have both made clear that they are independent operators, to the West and to the Syrians and Iranians. But the West, especially in DC and in the media, do not want to hear of this. Furthermore, the Bush administration has labeled Hezbollah a “terrorist group” without any evidence, just on the faulty examples and reasoning I pointed out earlier. The Bush group ignores all the medical, educational and humanitarian work Hezbollah does, in spite of the fact that the constitutionally elected and representative Lebanese Government recognizes them as an important part of the government and recognizes them as the guardians of the south of Lebanon against Israel. Even last week, President Lahoud, the Christian president of Lebanon, made clear that “Hezbollah is a respected part of Lebanon and responsible for ousting the Israelis. We support them.” Somehow, President Bush , Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Powell and their minders, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle and Feith, ignored the words of President Lahoud and those experts in the US State Department who support what President Lahoud and I are saying.

The Shi’a of Lebanon, who are most represented by Hezbollah, are more moderate than the Shi’a of Iran, much less militant in terms of enforcing heavy penalties against people who may break certain religious dicta and have no war with America. However, if Ashcroft, Bush, Powell and Rumsfeld continue their unwarranted attacks on Hezbollah and threaten military action against them, then I am sure Hezbollah will become antagonistic toward America and any of its allies who support an attack on Hezbollah.

During the advent of the Iraq invasion, a new group, whose PR man, Ronn Torossian also works for Sharon and for Israel , calling itself the Lebanese American Council for Democracy, has been mounting more lobbying and media attacks on the legitimate government of Lebanon (made up of Christians and Muslims in their own form of democracy), Hezbollah and Syria. The group is heavily subsidized by Phalangist Lebanese, pro Zionists and right wing evangelicals (Torossian is also the link between this new group and the right wing evangelicals). Thus, we see a new 3 pronged attack on Lebanon, the Shi’a and Syria from the fascist Phalangists, the Zionists and the far right evangelicals through this new group. This information comes to us from Washington insiders who keep track of the Middle East activities. This does not bode well for the future because the Shi’a of Lebanon will no longer allow themselves to be oppressed or made into second class citizens in Lebanon or in the Middle East because of their new educated, military and social status.

At this time the Shi’a of Lebanon are moderate, many with relatives and friends in America. However, if America attacks them further, either militarily, or through media or politically, they may help the more radical elements within the Lebanese Shi’a become more militant and more extreme. None of us who care for peace in the world, or who care about the Middle East, the Muslims, Christians, Jews and Armenians in Lebanon or the Middle East want this–but it could happen. Sheikh Nasrallah has made this clear, that he has no war with America, but Hezbollah and the Shi’a of Lebanon, will not countenance an attack from America, Israel or the Zionists.

If the American government is smart, they will try to learn more about history, they will understand why Syria is still in Lebanon and that Hezbollah is not a “terrorist” organization, but is a Shi’a reaction to terrorism, attacks and discrimination from the Phalangists and the Isrealis who tried, and failed, to dominate the Lebanese scene. To quote again from President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon, ” Hezbollah is a respected and legitimate part of the Lebanese people and government and is not a terrorist group.”

SAM HAMOD is an expert on the Middle East and Islam, he is a former Advisor to the US State Department; the former Director of The National Islamic Center in Washington, DC; taught at Princeton, Michigan and Iowa; he may be reached at shamod@cox.net