What does Hezbollah want?
“What does Hezbollah want?” This question has been haunting the party since its creation in the early 1980s. Over the years, both friends and foes have been asking: Do they want an Islamic Republic in Lebanon like the one Khomeini established in Iran? Or do they want a Shia-controlled area from Lebanon to Yemen? Or is it that want a revolution of the voiceless and oppressed Shia Muslims?
The recent Lebanese University incident involving Hezbollah students makes this question more pressing: What does the Party really want?
To answer the question, we should go back to the roots, to how Hezbollah fits into the historical narrative of the Shia power struggle in the Muslim world.
The last time in the history of Islam that a Shia dynasty held real power was under India's Qutb Shahi Dynasty during the 17th century — over 300 years ago, and outside the Arab world completely. More recently, the Qajar and Pahlevi dynasties both located in modern Iran, were also centers of power, but were under the influence of emerging modern states in Western Europe and later the Soviet Union. Additionally, these two dynasties failed to form a unified Shia power and remained weak — especially when compared to the Sunni power within the Muslim world.
Meanwhile, Sunni dynasties followed one another, until the last one, the Ottoman, ended a hundred years ago. Since then, power over the Muslim world was always Sunni in its majority such as in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, while Shia were dominated and marginalized across the Muslim world.
This narrative started to shift when Khomeini came to power with the Islamic Revolution in 1979, one that would begin to shift Shia power all over the Muslim world.
The creation of Hezbollah was seen in the beginning by both the Iranians and the party itself as an extension of the Khomeini revolution in Lebanon, a historical cradle of the Shia faith. Hezbollah’s existence gave a new kind of power to thousands of Shia in Lebanon. Attempts to rise up and resist began in Iraq as well, despite Saddam’s brutality.
We fast forward to today: Iran came out victorious from the nuclear deal, Hezbollah has a military presence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and probably other countries. Iraq has been ruled by rather oppressive Shia governments since the fall of Saddam, and Shia militias are in control of many parts of Iraq and Syria. Hezbollah today has a substantial arsenal of weapons, even according to its staunch enemy Israel.
In less than 40 years, the Shia went from a struggle for survival, political and popular representation to becoming a dominant power in the region. Being a regional power in the Middle East means that you’re succeeding at playing politics. It is an undeniable fact today that both Iran and Hezbollah are playing the geopolitical game, and it seems that they’re quite good at it.
This coincided perfectly with the US and the West dusting off their last battles in the Middle East, just as Putin’s Russia is gaining unprecedented ground both politically and militarily for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, by creating a new authoritarian kind of capitalism. It was a marriage made in heaven, Putin is anti-American or so it seems, and so is Iran. Putin became the Iranian Godfather. Being Iran’s ally, Hezbollah knows that at least publicly, they need Putin to continue playing their geopolitical game in the region, despite the warm friendship between Putin and Israel.
Hezbollah and the Iranians, just like any smart politician, saw an opportunity for power and they grabbed it. But at what price will they hang on to it?
This is what Hezbollah wants and wanted on the political and strategic level: to first cut the chains of marginalization, and to exist, then to profit from the shift of power and put the Shia on the political map.
So far they succeeded, but Hezbollah’s power is not only historical or political, it is also social. We cannot talk about the social without talking about ideology, namely how the Party sees and enforces its own perception of the world on its population and on others, especially when we’re dealing with a multi-confessional state like Lebanon.
Back in 1979, upon his return to Iran, Khomeini said in one of his speeches that “we’re not afraid of sanctions. We’re not afraid of military invasion. What frightens us is invasion by western immorality.”
But what does this really mean, this fear of Western values? It means two very similar things:
- The fear from liberal ideas and impulses, mass consumption and unrestrained jouissance; fear of being attached too much to material objects and pleasures.
- Fear of Western freedom, of the atheist, secular, free-thinking European legacy.
It’s the second fear that provokes real dangers. And it’s precisely the same fear that haunted many of the communist and Stalinist regimes during the 20th century. They all fell into the trap of resisting American, Western and liberal hegemony and capitalism, but also resisting and oppressing their own peoples in the process. In both regimes, communism/Stalinism and Shia Islam, the people could not be trusted, and had to remain under the control of the Party or religious state propaganda through indoctrination.
Khomeini probably understood liberalism too literally: we abolish the liberal ideology, but we also abolish everything else that the West has created. It’s no coincidence that Marxists and communists came first on Khomeini’s list in Iran in the late 1970s.
The occasional assassinations of Leftist figures (Shia and non-Shia) in Lebanon must have relieved Hezbollah. When the Leftists crashed and burned during the Lebanese civil war, some of its members found their natural refuge in the Shia party, and all because of one slogan: we resist American and capitalist hegemony — a seductive slogan for any old-fashioned leftist anywhere. Everything else was justified and accepted.
How dose Hezbollah fit into the historical narrative of the Shia power struggle in the Muslim world?
Hezbollah is now getting caught up in the perverse logic of capitalism and market liberalism.
The Khomeini and Hezbollah revolutions should be seen as intruders into the historical narrative of the Middle East, as if they were events from the future. The revolution gave power to an “enlightened” religious ideological order, while the majority of Muslims and Arabs remained in poverty, ignorance and religious indoctrination. Hezbollah knows that its biggest popular support comes from the lower classes, but those people in the party’s opinion are not ready for something new that goes beyond religion and old ideologies.
Those who emerge from their own Shia base, most often young educated men and women, looking for new possibilities, new ideas, reform, progressive rights, and ultimately criticizing Hezbollah are often labeled as traitors, conspirators, or even spies. They are accused, by Hezbollah and by their society, of exposing our neck to the enemy, of giving the enemy reasons to criticize us, or of being pro-Western outsiders.
However, on the other hand, the Shia need to play politics too, and this is where dangerous contradictions appear, in this inter-zone between the in's and out's of Hezbollah and Shia politics.
After the nuclear deal, Iran started signing large economic deals, building stepping stones for its integration into the global market: Civil airplane deals, railroad deals, among others, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, with France, Germany, Italy and others. While on the inside, the religious order is still maintained, with oppression on all levels of daily and social life.
The same applies to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but in a slightly different context. Hezbollah has been showing an external liberal progressive face to the outside world: fighting terrorism and even cooperating with European intelligence agencies to mark a clear distinction between the party (and Shia in general) and the other religious extremist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, hence legitimizing its presence in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, the party is maintaining a firmer and firmer grip on its population, with religious police in the South, banning of alcohol or non-religious events in many Shia villages, and imposing its religious norms through moral extortion or direct “religious” threats.
The (fake) split inside Iran itself between the presidency and the religious supreme order illustrates this: in the last few years, Rouhani has been Iran’s external façade signing deals, doing negotiations and opening up to the West, while the Ayatollah on the inside curses the West and keeps the population under control by repeating the same slogans of defending the poor and liberating Palestine.
However, there’s yet another hidden split in Hezbollah happening on a different level and from within the popular base of the party itself: between those who have and those who don’t. On a visit to South Lebanon and while passing through the many Shia villages and cities, one cannot but notice that besides the abundance of poverty, urban chaos, and religious slogans, photos and flags scattered everywhere, there’s also an abundance of wealth: big villas and expensive German cars often driven by veiled women. Many southerners know the stories of how after the 2006 war, the Shia families who lost a house, replaced it with a villa, or sometimes even two villas when the Iranian money started flowing. Yet, ironically, thousands of other poor Shia, who didn’t lose their houses, kept living in terrible conditions.
Even among the poor Shia, one can see a huge drive in recent years towards consumption of mass media, and commodities. One trip to Dahiyeh, the Southern suburb of Beirut, is enough to show how international fast food chains are scattered everywhere, but so are expensive cars and smartphone shops.
Hezbollah is now getting caught up in the perverse logic of capitalism and market liberalism — in their Eastern version, the so-called “capitalism with Asian values” which in this context is led by Russia, Iran and eventually Turkey.
What started as an expression of the legitimate fight for identity and existence within the Shia community has become tainted by the geopolitical regional and international game. The eggs that many of the old-fashioned leftists were convinced should be broken for the sake of resisting neocolonialism and Western hegemony, have produced no omelet, rather they have prolonged the control and indoctrination of the poor, brought a class struggle within the popular base of the Party, and driven the Party to seek regional power.
So both Iran and Hezbollah eventually failed even to resist the first of Khomeini’s fear, namely the advance of liberal capitalism, both regionally and within their own communities.
It seems that the trap that Nietzsche spoke about in his “Will to Power” was unavoidable in this Shia quest for power:
“It is a self-deception of philosophers and moralists to imagine that they escape decadence by opposing it. That is beyond their will; and, however little they acknowledge it, one later discovers that they were among the most powerful promoters of decadence.”
The return-to-the-roots phenomenon that is visible all over the world for almost a decade now means that decadence is becoming universal, but it also means that a new left is becoming more and more necessary.
So the question of how will Hezbollah act when Putin and Iran (and eventually China) further tighten their grip over the Middle East, and how it will manage its game of in’s and out’s shouldn’t be directed solely at Hezbollah, but at the necessary hypothesis of a new Arab, Muslim and Lebanese Left.