BOOKS JANUARY 22, 2013
by Dominique Avon and Anaïs-Trissa Khatchadourian
Harvard University Press, 244 pp., $24.95
IN 2006, IN THE wake of the war with Israel, Hezbollah—Lebanon’s Shia Islamist party—emerged as the darling of the so-called Arab street. In that conflict, the “Party of God,” as Hezbollah translates, intervened on behalf of Hamas, turning the Gaza Strip conflict into a two-front war. Despite Israel’s reputation as the region’s preeminent military power, Hezbollah never surrendered, and Israel was forced to accept a ceasefire without achieving its stated goals. Considering that the war left southern Lebanon in ruins and over a thousand Lebanese dead, Hezbollah’s objective gains were minimal. Nevertheless, Hezbollah claimed to have vanquished the mighty Israeli Defense Forces, and that narrative took hold throughout the Arab world.
What a difference a wave of revolutions makes.
The recent revolutions in the Arab world have underlined a fundamental paradox in Hezbollah’s ideology: though it often portrays itself as a liberation movement, it has increasingly brought Lebanon under the heavy yoke of Iranian and Syrian domination. While Hezbollah supported revolutions when they targeted pro-Western Sunni regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, their position has been complicated by Syria, whose pseudo-Shia dictator has been Hezbollah’s ally and benefactor. In Syria, which has witnessed the longest and bloodiest of the uprisings, Hezbollah’s “call for freedom” has taken on the tenor of farce: it has sided with and indeed provided military aid to a tyrant as he brutally crushes his own civilians. The Arab press has decried this situation, and many of Hezbollah’s most ardent Sunni Arab supporters have turned away from it
The roots of this dissolution are visible in Dominique Avon and Anaïs-Trissa Khatchadourian’s book. Though the book was written before the outbreak of violence in Syria—and thus prior to Hezbollah’s demise as the hero of the Arabs—it provides important insight into the paradox of Hezbollah’s ideology and the crux of the party's current predicament.
That being said, the book is not really what it professes to be. Despite the subtitle and a one-hundred-page analysis, Avon and Khatchadourian have actually created more of a sourcebook. Well over half of the book is devoted to first-time translations of definitive Hezbollah documents, organizational charts, a lexicon of relevant terms, and an extended appendix of brief biographical sketches. This is certainly valuable; but the book is not so much a history—of which there are already many—as a dossier (along with the accompanying lexicon and biographies).
In the documents that they present and in their introductions, Avon and Khatchadourian trace Hezbollah’s evolution. When the party began, its raison d'être was “resistance” to Israeli occupation of Lebanon; once Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, it became a “resistance” without a foe. The weapons of the “resistance” became weapons “used to defend weapons.” As such, over the past decade, Hezbollah has increasingly become a militia concerned with exerting power inside Lebanon rather than defending it from outside forces.
The book also outlines how, when the party shifted to focus primarily on domestic concerns, ideological problems arose. The teachings of the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, upon which Hezbollah drew in its formative years, emphasized the creation of an Islamic state and obedience to the Iranian Supreme Leader—an ideology that is ill-suited for the diverse Lebanese population, which includes large Christian and Druze populations as well as non-Shia Muslims. For Hezbollah to survive in Lebanon, it was increasingly forced to emphasize its Arab-Lebanese nature and downplay its ties to Iran, despite the fact that Iran continued to direct funds and weapons to the party. Notwithstanding Hezbollah’s public declarations, the party has continued to act an Iranian proxy in the Levant.
Avon and Khatchadourian are not at all apologists for Hezbollah, but at times they are overly cautious. Originally written in French, their text often retains passive constructions that avoid agency. One reads that clashes between Hezbollah and its enemies “erupted,” not that one side attacked the other. In such phrasing, chronology and causality can be blurry. Since both Hezbollah and its enemies accuse one another of engaging in terrorism, the authors find “the political and legal usefulness” of the term—terrorism—to be “disputable”: it “hampers considered reflection.” Such statements occlude important distinctions. Some actors make at least some effort not to target civilians; others, such as Hezbollah, target civilians as a matter of strategy.
Thankfully, the book corrects its own potential misunderstandings; the primary sources and biographies collected in this book leave no doubt as to the Party of God’s character. In these texts, Hezbollah’s apocalyptic anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic views are laid bare in documents that selectively quote the Quran, cherry-picking verses that disparage Jews. For instance: “You will find that the most implacable of men in their enmity to the faithful are the Jews and the pagans.” Under the heading “Putting an End to Israel’s Existence,” one document argues that Hezbollah will “recognize no cease-fire agreement … no truce, no peace treaty” with the “Zionist entity.” Yet, far from simply a political problem, Israel is considered a cosmic evil that is “hostile to human aspirations.”
The lexicon also underlines the party’s essentially anti-Semitic stance. Appropriately, the lexicon begins with the term “Adu” or “enemy.” The “struggle against the ‘enemy,’” the authors write, “is one of the recurrent themes in the discourse of the Hezbollah.” The “enemy” is, of course, Israel and the Jews. Avon and Khatchadourian explain that Israel is described as a “desecrating cancer” and Jews as “those who have most despised Islam and the Muslims.” Hezbollah bases such views on its reading of early Islamic history, claiming that the three Jewish tribes of Medina “constantly opposed Islam” and Muhammad’s overtures; Muhammad was “unable to tolerate an ‘enemy from within’” and therefore “eliminated the three Jewish tribes.” Hezbollah’s documents recount the Jews’ “perfidy,” “until their final defeat, that is, their ‘submission’ with the aid of ‘divine intervention.’” The medieval character of this twenty-first-century movement is never clearer than in its reiteration of these repulsive anti-Semitic tropes.
In a sense, this careful catalog of documents feels somewhat beside the point: the contradictions of Hezbollah’s ideology—their Lebanon-centric posture and their simultaneous deep allegiance to Iran—have come to the fore not in its official statements, but on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo. Recent events, rather than official documents, are what has alienated the Party of God from its former allies among Sunni Arabs.
But Hezbollah’s current predicament did not materialize out of thin air. It is the result of a complicated history and a poisonous ideology. To understand the current situation, one must look to the past. Thus, while Avon and Khatchadourian ended their study before chaos erupted in Syria, their book lays the ground for understanding Hezbollah’s fall from Arab grace and current events in the Levant.
Samuel Helfont is a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and an Associate Scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.