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Lebanon: Hizbullah, a progressive Islamic party? - Interview with Joseph Alagha

"Hizbullah is the result of a long historical process... Hizbullah is not a monolithic movement, but rather a coalition of Shi'ite clerics... Hizbullah is more than 25 years old. 'The future is ours', to quote Nasrallah, and from a demographic viewpoint, he is very likely to be right." - Prof. Joseph Alagha, who teaches a the Lebanese American University, shares his insights on Hizbullah.

Joseph Alagha worked on his doctorate at the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM), Leiden, the Netherlands, and received his Ph.D. in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is presently Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the Lebanese American University. He is the author of the book The Shifts in Hizbullah's Ideology, published by Amsterdam University Press in 2006. His various articles on Hizbullah, Iran and the Intifada have appeared in academic journals such as Middle East Report, ORIENT, Studies on Islam, ISIM Review, Sharqiyyat and Soera.

Religioscope - Hizbullah is not only a product of the Israeli invasion of 1982. The movement is also the result both of the Shi'ite community's political mobilization and its Islamization. Could you explain the historical headlines of these two moments?

Joseph Alagha - Hizbullah has not appeared out of the blue as an Islamic resistance movement. It is the result of a long historical process that precedes the birth of Hizbullah as a structured group. Until the 1990s, the Shi'ite community had been under-represented in a Lebanese political landscape dominated by the Christians - especially the Maronites - and the Sunnis. Socially and economically, the Shi'a community has also been underprivileged. In the 1950s and 1960s, being a Shi'a Lebanese was still a kind of disgrace, tantamount to being a third-class citizen.

On December 30, 1957, the head of the Lebanese Shi'ite community, Sayyid Abdul Husayn Sharafeddin, died. The president of the republic, Kamil Sham'un (1900-87), asked Iran to send a new religious leader, and Imam Sayyid Musa al-Sadr (1928-78?) was chosen as successor. Ironically enough, this was the same president who called for the US Marines' intervention in Lebanon. Born in Qom, Iran, and an Iranian citizen, Musa Sadr was nevertheless of Lebanese origins. His father was Ayatollah Sadr al-Din Sadr (d. 1954), originally from Tyr. Musa Sadr was the charismatic clergyman who mobilized the Shi'ite community in Lebanon. In 1969 he was appointed head of the Supreme Islamic Shi'ite Council and fostered the establishment of social and economic institutions for the Shi'a community. His initiatives opened up many opportunities and progressively promoted the integration of that community into the Lebanese political system. Nevertheless, Imam Musa Sadr never used conceptions such as an “Islamic state” of the kind that Hizbullah would develop during the 1980s. His main goal was to integrate the Shi'ite community into the Lebanese system. It is also worth noting that Hizbullah's policy of infitah, or openness toward other Lebanese communities, developed after the Ta'if Agreement (1989), was largely influenced by Musa Sadr's thought.

In other words, the politicization of the Shi'a community took place under Musa Sadr's patronage and was built on social, political and even military foundations. In January 1975, a few months before the civil war started, Musa Sadr founded an Islamic resistance movement, Harakat al-Muqawama, better known under its acronym of Amal - Afwaj al-Mouqawama Al-Lubnaniyya. An interesting aspect of Musa Sadr's policy was his relations with the Greek Catholic archbishop, Mgr Grégoire Haddad, with whom he established the Movement of the Deprived, Harakat al-Mahrumeen. Amal actually derived from this movement, which has no Islamic identity.

The end of the 1970s coincided with the first Israeli invasion and the return of Imam Khomeini to Iran. This last event literally mesmerized the Shi'a community in Lebanon and deeply affected it ideologically. For the first time since the Prophet's time and Imam 'Ali, Shi'a were capable of establishing an Islamic state, and this success fostered the mobilization of the Shi'a community in Lebanon. I would like to stress the fact that even if Imam Sadr avoided the use of Islamic slogans such as those one can find in Khomeini's speeches, most of their discourses actually overlap. Indeed, both said it is a duty to fight against Israel, and presented similar combative stands. But it is important to highlight the fact that both Khomeini and especially Musa Sadr also praised the peaceful coexistence among Lebanese as a treasure that should never be given up. Khomeini developed a binary approach, opposing the oppressed and the oppressor, and this distinction allows the gathering under the same banner of Christian and Muslim Lebanese, for example.

Shi'a militancy, initiated by the work of Imam Musa Sadr, has thus been Islamized in the context of the Islamic emergence in Iran at the beginning of 1980s. The export of the Islamic Revolution was a success in Lebanon.
Hizbullah, as a religious ideology, started in 1978, but it was established as a movement somewhere between 1982 (the Israeli invasion) and 1985 (the declaration of the group's manifesto by Shaykh Ibrahim al-Amin), according to which event one refers to. In 1979, right after the 'victory' of the Iranian Revolution, the Hizbullah logo and name were created by al-Musawi, a Sayyid from Najaf, Iraq, and later the second secretary general of Hizbullah. Al-Musawi was the teacher of the current leader of the movement, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.

Religioscope - How can we define Hizbullah's DNA?

Joseph Alagha - Basically, one can describe Hizbullah as a progressive Islamic jihadi movement. However, the use of the term “jihad” should not lead us to think that Hizbullah is inherently a radical group prone to violence. Its primary purpose has been, of course, military, deeply linked with the resistance against Israel (al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya), but is not exclusively so. Beyond the fact the Party of God has been capable of associating Christian or Sunni actors in some of its political fights, Hizbullah's jihad is not a militant struggle aimed at toppling an infidel government, but essentially a moral effort to discipline oneself. It may sound anecdotal, but, in many respects, this philosophy of al-Jihad al-Akbar has been translated into political results. The movement has not only been spared the corruption that erodes the reputation of all Lebanese political organizations, but it has also developed an internal policy contributing to its transparency and limiting individual ambitions. Whereas in Lebanon officials are known for taking their chairs with them when leaving office, Hizbullah has a rotation policy whose aim is to avoid bureaucratic corruption. The movement's cadres have to regularly change their jobs (the rhythm varying according to the importance of the service), moving from one post to another.

Hizbullah is not a monolithic movement, but rather a coalition of Shi'ite clerics under the governance of the Council al-Shura, which is the higher decision-making body within the Party of God, composed of seven Lebanese 'ulama. Internal disputes and debates are common, notably because the system is based on belief, not on a soviet-style ideology, and virtually anyone within the party can challenge the rightness of decisions. This has even led to a split in the movement, when Shaykh Subhi Tufayli, one of the founding fathers and former first secretary of Hizbullah, left the movement after a confrontation with Nasrallah. The latter was elected secretary general of the movement, while Shaykh Tufayli deemed this position was his. Subhi Tufayli still sticks to the former Hizbullah's martial and deeply anti-Western narrative. However, the current head of Hizbullah considers this discourse out of date and highlights the movement's dedication to the national interest and its ability to compromise.

Religioscope - Hizbullah displays three identities increasingly at odds with one another: a religious identity, a political and Lebanese character, and a player in Middle Eastern geopolitics. Could you briefly map this triple identity for us?

Joseph Alagha - Hizbullah's ideological development can be divided into three phases. From 1978, with the arrival of Sayyid Abbas al-Musawi in the Bekaa valley, until 1984-85, when the institutionalization of Hizbullah took place, the Party of God is to be grasped essentially as a religious movement.

The second phase runs from the middle of the 1980s until the beginning of the 1990s. Although one witnesses at that time a mixture of religious and political ideologies, it is nevertheless clear that politics enjoyed the upper hand. I believe that the religious discourse was mainly a tool to justify the political stances of the movement. In 1991 Sayyid al-Musawi defended the notion of openness to other communities and encouraged the movement to engage its fellow Lebanese in order to integrate itself into the Lebanese political system and public sphere. One can observe a gradual Lebanonization of Hizbullah over the years. From the 1990s, the Party of God has planned a strategy of infiltration into Lebanese institutions. However, this does not mean that Hizbullah was a revolutionary party: it has not called for a radical constitutional change and recognized the Ta'if Agreement (1989), which sanctioned the end of the Civil War, the special relations between Lebanon and Syria, and the various political reforms.

In the third phase, the era of the political programme, from 1992 to the present, Hizbullah has been integrating more and more into the Lebanese public sphere, even attempting to control it after the Second Lebanon War.

Hizbullah is a player on the Middle Eastern scene because of its relations with Syria and its special relationship with Iran. The latter is both ideological and religious. Hizbullah's link with Iran, and especially with Imam Ali Khamenei, president of the Islamic Republic between 1981 and 1989 and then elected supreme leader of the country, is based on the velayat e-faqih and its important military and financial support. Velayat e-faqih, literally “the guardianship of the jurisprudent”, describes the leading role of clergymen in political life. The acceptance of this principle by Hizbullah makes it, theoretically, a subject of the supreme leader of Iran. Iran has also been the main financial supporter of Hizbullah since its creation. In 1995, nevertheless, Ali Khamenei himself appointed two Hizbullah clergymen, Nasrallah and Yazbik, as his religious representatives in Lebanon. This decision allows Nasrallah's party to directly receive the khums, a form of financial support coming from religious taxation (about 20 per cent of income added to the traditional imposition of zakat) without having to channel it through Iranian foundations. This situation has partly contributed to Hizbullah's autonomy. It is therefore simplistic to assume that the relationship between Iran and Hizbullah is mechanical. Dynamic and evolving, depending upon formal and informal networks between Hizbullah's clerics and Iranian clergymen, the Party of God's affiliation with Iran is far more complex than a one-dimensional relation.

Hizbullah's relation with Syria is blunter and essentially pragmatic: with the supply of weapons requiring Syrian approval, the movement cannot afford but to maintain good and strategic relations with the Syrian regime.

Religioscope - The Syrian withdrawal has created a political vacuum in Lebanon. This situation has encouraged Hizbullah to highlight itself as the protector of the Shi'ite community rather than as a national party. What's left of Nasrallah's formula “From a Party of God toward a governmental party”?

Joseph Alagha - As long as the Syrians were in Lebanon, Hizbullah had no ambition to join the cabinet, i.e. the executive branch of the government, where decisions are taken according to a two-third majority vote in cases where there is no consensus. According to the Ta'if Agreement, like the Parliament, the cabinet is split 50-50 between the Muslims and Christians. Thus, the current cabinet contains 12 Christians and 12 Muslims. According to the Lebanese confessional balance, the Shi'ites could hope only to get a maximum of five seats. Therefore, at that time, Hizbullah saw no advantage in promoting such an agenda. However, the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 encouraged the Party of God to attempt to fill this political vacuum in order to influence the wording of the policy statements of the cabinet. And, in fact, this has been done rather successfully. Through only two ministers, the movement was able to make the Siniora government acknowledge officially and explicitly Hizbullah's status of a resistance movement. Tactically, this has been a very clever move.

The Party of God on its own could not control the main decision-making body, the Council of Ministers. Thus, showing its ability to participate in the Lebanese political game, Nasrallah has allied Hizbullah with the Free Patriotic Movement of the Maronite Michel Aoun. This alliance allows Hizbullah to achieve the one-third veto power in the Council of Ministers that would assure it control over political decisions. If the current government grants the movement this power, Hizbullah will have the means to block any political decision it disagrees with.

Religioscope - Do you believe that the last showdown has encouraged the movement to invest more cleverly in politics or, alternatively, to adopt a more combative position prompted by the so-called “victory” over Israel?

Joseph Alagha - Strategically, I do not think we can assert that there is still a direct confrontation between the Israeli Defence Forces and Hizbullah. Since fifteen thousand Lebanese soldiers and around twelve thousand UNIFIL troops are standing between the two antagonists, Hizbullah's fighters cannot directly engage Israeli soldiers on the ground anymore. Resistance has so far been the movement's raison d'être. If the disappearance of a direct threat from Israel proves to be lasting, it is most likely that Hizbullah will turn its jihad inwards, seeking to control the Lebanese public sphere.

The issue of weapons is a complex one, linked not only to the efficiency of the resistance, but also to the very definition of Hizbullah. The movement is aware that, if it wishes to be fully integrated within the Lebanese political landscape, it will eventually have to lay its weaponry down. In my understanding, Hizbullah is trying to buy time without having a clear long-term agenda yet, except to dominate the Lebanese public sphere and national political arena.

Religioscope - Within the political theology of Hizbullah, what is the legitimacy of the democratic process? How can it combine in the same agenda of nationalist claims and recognition of democratic requirements, and the velayat e-faqih?

Joseph Alagha - In this context, the velayat e-faqih describes the subordinate relation between Hizbullah and the supreme guide of the Islamic Revolution, currently Ali Khamenei. It does not imply subservience to the Iranian government as such. Imam Khamenei has been a proponent of the Party of God from the very beginning, when he was deputy minister of defence under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1992, Ali Khamenei authorized and supported Hizbullah's participation in the elections (a move, by the way, strongly disapproved of by the radical trend embodied by Subhi Tufayli). The party defends democratic principles within an Islamic framework, such as political pluralism or the concept of Shura, that is to say, a consultative council.

There is no contradiction between a somehow reformed velayat e-faqih and a pluralistic and multi-confessional society like Lebanon, in the sense that the Iranian version of this principle cannot be applied in this environment. Whereas a shaykh like Subhi Tufayli would not accept the idea of being ruled by non-Muslims, Ali Khamenei and Nasrallah are aware that the Lebanese framework requires compromises. Hizbullahi have demonstrated that they are capable of making concessions not only on the political ground, but also religiously and sociologically. The current sit-in in the centre of Beirut, for instance, creates a situation at odds with Islamic practices as they are understood in Iran: a gathering composed of Christians and Shi'ites, and women - veiled or not - and men side by side, sleeping in nearby tents.

Religioscope - In order to stress its commitment to Lebanon and adapt its ideology, sooner or later Hizbullah will have to split with Iran, its main source of inspiration and financing. Can the movement achieve this task without losing both its soul and its might?

Joseph Alagha - I believe Hizbullah itself does not know the answer to this question. In spite of all the religious statements, the movement has been pleased to reach such a prominent position within Lebanese society. The survival of the movement is not so closely linked to the fate of Iran. In Lebanon, each building has a backup generator in order to deal with the capricious supply of electricity; Lebanon is Hizbullah's backup generator. Moreover, contrary to many observers' assessment, Hizbullah is not so financially dependent on Iranian backup. As mentioned earlier, the movement has the right to collect religious taxes without having to channel them through Iranian foundations. The Party of God would be far from being short of money even if Iran stopped financing it.

Hizbullah is more than 25 years old. “The future is ours”, to quote Nasrallah, and from a demographic viewpoint, he is very likely to be right. A recent speech of Nasrallah stressed the idea of rebirth. He did not say it on the day Muslims celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, but waited until Easter. The analogy between a movement reborn after years of struggle and the Christian theology of resurrection was not accidental.

To answer your question and to put it bluntly, Hizbullah is optimistically postponing the problem.

Religioscope - There are some Shi'ite clergymen who are opposed to Hizbullah in Lebanon. One can think of the Mufti of Tyr, Ali al-Amin, or Shaykh Hani Fahs. What are the grounds of their divergence with Nasrallah's movement?

Joseph Alagha - Beyond these two individuals, there are actually many clergymen voicing their disapproval of Hizbullah's policy. Ali al-Amin, for instance, has been quite critical of the refusal of the movement to lay down its weaponry. Even if al-Amin is very marginal in the Lebanese scene, Hizbullah is embarrassed by this opposition. Mufti al-Amin enjoys a high rank among the Shi'ite sect, together with the legitimacy conferred by his black turban, meaning that he is descended from the Prophet. Another important figure is Shaykh Mohammad al-Hajj Hassan, who comes from the Bekaa valley. He founded the Free Shia Union in Beirut and is very vocal against Hizbullah, expressing his loyalty to the cabinet and highlighting the fact that the Party of God does not represent all Lebanese Shi'a. But basically, Ali al-Amin, Hani Fahs and al-Hajj Hassan have very few followers among the Shi'a community. Altogether, they may represent two to five per cent of the latter and they have no force on the ground able to compete with Hizbullah.

Their motivation could be twofold. They have either relatives or close friends among Nasrallah's movement. The fact that they can explicitly oppose it shows that Hizbullah can cope with freedom of speech, at least on its fringe. Therefore, one cannot completely rule out the possibility that this opposition is a public relations stratagem organised by Hizbullah itself in order to prove that even Shi'ite dissidents are not silenced. But this is unlikely. Another possible scenario would be based on an agreement, formal or informal, contracted between some Shi'a figures and the government in order to weaken or discredit Hizbullah's legitimacy. There are indeed rumours that recent speeches made by Subhi Tufayli - a religious actor who still enjoys great influence among Shi'a in a few villages of the Bekaa - were inspired by a governmental offer of immunity. Shaykh Tufayli is currently subject to a warrant of arrest for the 1998 skirmish between members of his militia and the army that ended with several deaths, most notably a lieutenant and MP, Shaykh Khudr Tlays, Tufayli's son-in-law.

Religioscope - The involvement of women within the Party of God has increased. According to Islamic standards, does this make Hizbullah a progressive party?

Joseph Alagha - Yes, I believe it does. Women are very active within Hizbullah, from the educational structure - the majority of teachers being women - to the media and women's NGOs. The only two spheres where they are almost absent are politics and the military sphere (contrary to the Iranian model). Therefore, the trend is towards a greater integration of women into the movement. It is, for instance, remarkable that one of the members of the Political Council is a woman, Rima Fakhry. She is an agricultural engineer, a graduate of the American University of Beirut. The Western tendency of imagining Hizbullah as a replica of Iran on Lebanese soil is simply wrong. If one visits schools run by the movement, for instance, one remains amazed by the relatively liberal atmosphere. Women, of course, wear the veil and are devoid of make-up, but a good number of them speak good English and many hold a university degree.

This interview with Prof. Alagha was conducted by Olivier Moos in Beirut in April 2007.

Joseph Alagha, The Shifts in Hizbullah's Ideology: Religious Ideology, Political Ideology, and Political Program, Amsterdam University Press, 2006, 380 pages.

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