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Lebanon’s Shi'a: In the Eye of the Storm

Bilal El-Amine
Date Published: 
July 14, 2006

God has always had little mercy to spare the poor Shia Muslims of Lebanon. They suffered centuries of seamless persecution often accompanied by extreme poverty, cast away far from the religious centers of Shi’ism in Iraq and Iran. With the exception of the 10th Century when sympathetic dynasties ruled the region, Lebanon’s Shia existed on the margins of history, making an appearance only as victims. So much so that Shi’ism itself became in practice a religion of the dispossessed and disinherited, of the denial and longing for justice. A small and vulnerable minority living in a sea of Sunnis, their religious leaders long advocated a politics of “quietism,” a state best described as either outright submission to authority however unjust or complete withdrawal from the political sphere. A politics of keep your head low, don’t rock the boat, and one day the long-awaited mahdi will return to make things right.

No doubt there were rare, short-lived periods of rebellion among the Shia throughout the region and their intrepid clergy—who gathered from all corners of the Muslim world in the Iraqi shrine cities of Najaf and Kerbala—always seemed to be engaged in religious and philosophical debates that gave Shi’ism a level of dynamism that was in stark contrast to their political abstention. But it was not until the great upheavals of the 20th Century, as capitalist relations and Western imperialism swept across the Middle East, that the Shia—first in Iran, then in Iraq and Lebanon—began to wake up and assert themselves on the political stage. Their stirring has caused tremors disproportionate to their size—it is estimated that out of a billion or so Muslims today, only 150 million (15%) are Shia. Yet, Shia communities currently occupy center-stage in their countries and in the region as a whole, and their political resurgence is a source of anxiety for the world’s great powers.

The high point for many Shia came in 1979 with the Islamic revolution in Iran, which not only toppled the hated Shah but also shook the American-crafted regional order to its foundations. Iran, under the Shah, was on par with Israel as a strategic Washington ally—its fall to radical Islamists was going to smart for a long time. To this day, and despite its best efforts, the US has yet to bring Teheran to heel. In May 2000, the small Shia community in Lebanon followed by striking another monumental blow—they drove one of the world’s mightiest armies off their land and liberated southern Lebanon after 23 years of Israeli occupation. It was to be the first time Israel suffered a military defeat since its establishment in 1948, thus shattering the air of military invincibility it has worked so hard to build. Some commentators even suggest that the second Palestinian intifada, which broke out in September 2000 and continues five years later, was partly inspired by the events in Lebanon a few months earlier.

Since the time of the Iranian revolution, US government and Western media analysis of political Islam or Islamism (some still use the outdated and misleading term, Islamic fundamentalism) has become somewhat more nuanced, but unfortunately remains trapped in a “clash of civilizations” rhetoric that reduces what is a complex and wide-ranging—and often popular—phenomenon to a terrorist and retrograde religious fanaticism. Maintaining such a caricature of Islamist activism no doubt serves Washington’s current policy of endless war well by concocting a new global evil that the Pentagon can chase across every continent. And most unfortunately, the September 11 attacks have only reinforced the worst stereotypes of religious extremists bent on destroying the West, a gift the growing clique of neoconservatives in Washington could not have dreamed of. Today, it has become the norm in much of the US media to malign Arabs and Muslims as a people regardless of their political views—a racist campaign that then justifies invading and occupying their lands abroad and rounding them up by the thousands and imprisoning them at home.

The reality is that Islamism emerged in the late19th Century as a reaction to European colonialism’s thrust deep into the Muslim world. The new powers sought to radically reorder Muslim society at all levels—culturally as well as economically—so it was natural for Arabs and Muslims to look to their own traditions for ways to counter Western hegemony. A spectrum of responses soon emerged ranging from Arab nationalist to Islamist, with many of the early anti-colonial movements employing a combination of both. By the 1950s and 60s, Arab nationalism with secular overtones became the dominant trend. In the 1980s though, Islamists were emerging as a potent force, unleashing a new wave of revolutionary ferment, this time in the name of Islam. The Shia were no exception to this general pattern except that having been on the bottom for so long, their movements tended to be more radical and explosive than among their Sunni counterparts. The Shia—be they Lebanese, Iraqi or Iranian—tended to swing from the radical left (communism and nationalism) to revolutionary Islamism. They were rarely comfortable in the moderate center.

Birth of a Nation

At the time modern-day Lebanon was being created in the early half of the 20th Century (1920-43), we find its Shia inhabitants, as expected, living in dire straits. They had survived centuries of oppressive Sunni rule at the hands of the Mamluk and Ottoman dynasties, driven to the poorest areas and often treated worse than non-Muslim minorities by the authorities. They lived in scattered, poverty-stricken hamlets in southern Lebanon and the Biqa Valley, barely scraping a living as sharecroppers and peasants, often working for large, still-feudalist landlords who treated them like serfs. There were no roads, no electricity, and water had to be carried daily from nearby wells. You would find no doctors or clinics and barely any schools in most villages. To find a job, other than working the land, you had to travel far to either Haifa or Beirut. The Lebanese government barely noticed this overwhelming deprivation and didn’t raise a finger to develop Shia areas until the late 1950s.

Greater Lebanon was created by the French by artificially appending the Sunni Muslim coastal cities and the Shia South and Biqa to the autonomous Mount Lebanon to give their Christian Maronite allies a country they can call their own. According to a 1932 census, they were declared to be the largest of over a dozen sects that fell within the borders of Lebanon and therefore given the main levers of power—the presidency, the army command, and a majority in parliament. The Sunni merchants of the cities could not be completely ignored and were given a junior partnership. But there was no such consideration for the Shia—their landlord families were given a minor share in the new state in return for keeping their Shia subjects in their place. This was not difficult at first as the bulk of the Shia lived in rural isolation at the mercy of the big landowners. Soon, however, everything began to change as the Shia set out to change their lot and, in the process, turn the tables on all those who conspired to keep them down.

Two developments, starting in the 1950s, were to have a profound effect on the Shia communities, prompting a political awakening that has yet to fade away. The first was the penetration of capitalism into the Shia hinterland of Lebanon that took several forms: a) the rural economy and the oppressive political order that came with it began to crumble, b) hundreds and then thousands of Shia began to leave their villages to work either in Beirut or abroad in West Africa, the oil-rich Gulf countries, even as far away as Brazil and the United States, and c) the government began to build roads and schools—along with a smattering of development programs—in Shia areas. The second, and equally important, factor was the large-scale expulsion of Palestinians into Lebanon and the creation of a hostile and land-hungry Israeli state next door. This landed the Shia at the epicenter of the region’s most enduring conflict, effectively tying their fate to the outcome of the Palestinian struggle.

By the late 1960s, the Shia began to gravitate in large numbers to Lebanon’s myriad leftist and secular nationalist parties while others joined the Palestinian guerrillas that were beginning to make their presence felt across the South by launching raids into northern Israel. Hundreds of thousands had migrated to Beirut and were living in slums throughout city, commonly referred to as the “misery belt.” There, they not only interacted with leftist activists but also Shia from other regions in Lebanon. In the cities they could see for themselves to what extent their community was neglected compared to the Sunnis and Christians who were living large in Beirut’s now prospering economy. As one historian describes it:

    The large-scale Shi’ite migration to Beirut accelerated the process of social change within the sect. In addition, in the city, Shi’ites from Jebel ‘Amil [the South] and the Biqa mingled for the first time; and they went through many of the same traumatic experiences there together. Urbanization thus helped to weave the interests of what were now three distinct areas of Shi’ite settlement—in Jebel Amil, the Biqa and Beirut—into something like a single, national Shi’ite constituency. (Helena Cobban, The Making of Modern Lebanon)

The Sleeper Awakens

Over the course of the 1970s, the Shia community went through yet more intense changes as they began to grapple with the best means by which to organize themselves into an effective political force. Their experience with leftist parties and Palestinian organizations posed a number of difficulties that would later alienate most Shia, driving them toward the exclusively Shi’i movements that emerged by the end of the decade (first Amal, and then Hizbullah). The Shia of Lebanon like Arabs everywhere identified with the Palestinian cause and the plight of the Palestinian refugees. In the city slums, poor Shia and Palestinians lived and suffered together—a substantial number of Shia, for example, were slaughtered along with Palestinian refugees in the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the first generation of Shia activists cut their teeth in the Palestinian liberation movement, developing their first shoots of political consciousness about their community, the region, even the world, in the heat of that struggle.

In the first years of the Lebanese civil war that broke out in 1975—mainly between the Christian right on the one hand and the Lebanese left and Palestinian groups on the other—the Shia played a minor role, serving as rank-and-file fighters for the latter and suffering the greatest number of casualties. Tens of thousands of poor Shia who had the misfortune of living in Christian areas—some as far back as the 1950s—were expelled en mass to live as refugees in the Muslim half of the city. They did not fare much better elsewhere. In the South, as already noted, Shia not only supported Palestinian guerrillas operating in their area, they even took up arms alongside them, paying dearly as Israel retaliated with a scorched earth policy. Solidarity between the two communities could not weather the storm and by 1978—at the time of Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon—it reached a breaking point.

There are two reasons why this happened. First, the Israeli policy of making the Shia inhabitants of the South pay for Palestinian guerrilla activity there worked. The Israelis calculated that by responding with disproportionate force against Palestinian raids—making the lives of the southern Shia unbearable—the locals would eventually turn against the guerrillas. Which leads to the second reason: the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) played right into the hands of the Israelis and showed little regard for the local population, subordinating their wellbeing to hold onto what the Palestinians saw as their last remaining front by which to carry on their armed struggle against Israel. The PLO created what many Lebanese saw as a state within a state, informally—and to many arrogantly—ruling large swathes of Lebanon according to the whims of its often unruly factions who parceled the country out amongst themselves.

As noted, the 1978 invasion dealt a major, perhaps fatal, blow to Shia-Palestinian relations as Israeli forces swept through the South without much resistance from the Palestinian guerrillas. The PLO and its leftist allies tactically decided to pull back and save their weapons and fighters rather than face sure defeat against Israel’s superior forces. This nevertheless surprised and disappointed many Shia. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were merciless toward the South’s civilians (Palestinians included), no doubt to press their point that the local population will pay dearly for supporting the PLO. By most accounts, 2,000 civilians were killed and one-quarter of a million were made homeless. One commentator notes: “The destruction of so much Lebanese property and the looting of Shi’ite homes was clearly intentional. According to the United Nations, about a hundred Lebanese villages were attacked and this resulted in the complete demolition of 2,500 houses and the partial destruction of a further 5,200.” (David Gilmour, Lebanon: The Fractured Country)

Reform and Revolution

Well before the devastating 1978 invasion, as far back as the 1960s, the Shia had already begun the process of developing their own movements and institutions. The early impetus for self-organization was largely due to the arrival in 1959 of a charismatic and energetic cleric by the name of Sayyid Musa Sadr. Of Lebanese origin but raised and educated in Iran, Sadr comes from a well-known family of clerics (or ulama in Arabic), and having lived abroad for most of his life was not comfortable with the quiescence that plagued Lebanon’s Shia clergy. To the chagrin of both the Shia feudal bosses and the traditional clergy, he quickly made a name for himself as an activist mullah who wanted to improve the lowly state of Lebanon’s Shia—his message quickly found an echo throughout the community and in the course of a few short years marshaled a vast following.

Sadr set out as a moderate and sought to work within the confines of Lebanon’s sectarian political system by building religious and social institutions that would serve to promote the interests of the Shia sect and advocate for their share of government jobs and spending. Whenever his efforts met with resistance from the often-reluctant authorities, he fought back by calling tens of thousands of Shia into the streets, using a radical interpretation of Shi’ism to stir his followers into action. In the process, and after a series of confrontations with the state, he managed to shake the dust off decades of complacency in the community and, perhaps unintentionally, set them on a collision course with the powers that be. In 1978, in the early stages of the war, Sadr mysteriously disappeared while on a visit to Libya to meet with Muammar Qaddafi, who most believe kidnapped and killed him.

As the country became increasingly polarized in early 1970s, Sadr tended to take conflicting, increasingly conservative, positions—no doubt reflecting the turbulent mix of attitudes among the Shia generally at the time. Although Sadr opposed the very idea of armed conflict and long advocated non-violent civil disobedience, he nevertheless prepared for the inevitable and secretly organized his own Shia militia (Amal) as the country headed to war. To the great dismay of the Lebanese left, he supported Syria’s 1976 intervention in Lebanon to save the Christian right from sure defeat, thus preserving the status quo. It’s hard to predict given later developments—such as the 1982 Israeli invasion, which was carried out with the full collusion of the Christian right—how Sadr would have reacted. The invasion and the long occupation that followed, perhaps more than any other event, set the Shia on fire and propelled them down a far more militant, even revolutionary, path that anything Sadr may have envisioned.

This became more apparent after the Iranian revolution as Amal began to polarize between a revolutionary Islamist wing and a moderate, secular one. Initially, the latter won out and Nabih Berri—a lawyer and expatriate businessman—took the helm of the party, steering it down a secular and reformist path. Amal managed to survive its first major internal crisis, with a breakaway faction calling itself “Islamic Amal” failing to swing the party in its direction. Berri subsequently became a major powerbroker in the mid-1980s by aligning himself closely with Syria and managed to retain the loyalty of a majority of Shia for a few more years. But having survived the shockwaves of the Iranian revolution, Israel’s invasion posed yet greater challenges that Amal was unable to absorb. Islamists voices, as much within as outside Amal, calling for all out resistance, re-emerged—and this time their message found immediate resonance among large numbers of Shia. These initially disparate forces would over the course of a few years unite under the banner of Hizbullah and quickly overtake Amal as the dominant Shia party in Lebanon.

The Perfect Storm

An amalgam of political party, armed resistance and social movement, Hizbullah (“Party of God”) was born of a perfect storm that saw the convergence of several factors in the early 1980s: 1) the long-term changes inside the Shia community, described at length above, 2) the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, and 3) the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. Although Iranian support was certainly critical to the emergence of the party, the Israeli invasion appears to have been the decisive factor. As Na’im Qasim, one of the founders Hizbullah, tells it:

    The common denominator among those people [founders of Hizbullah] was the strong feeling that what was present in the arena in the form of parties and organizations did not express their [political] proposals nor the structural format they sought. What contributed also was the breaking of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This inspired these men to establish relations with the Revolution and to benefit from its experiences. So, from 1979 until 1982, there was only a general desire to create something that would translate the interests of our Islamic proposals. There was a need to develop a force which would also enjoy a popular political extension, something that was not available from any of the organizations and personalities on the ground.

    But having a desire to start something could only be achieved if the right circumstances prevailed. That only came about when Israel invaded Lebanon. That provided the conditions to realize the already present desire. With the willingness of the Islamic Republic [Iran] to support the motives of this alliance, Hizbullah’s take-off occurred. (Hala Jaber, Hezbollah: Born with a Vengence)

The party’s first few years—before it declared itself in a manifesto titled the “Open Letter” in 1985—remains very murky and there is a great deal of controversy among scholars as to who exactly was calling the shots, particularly when previously unknown Islamists cells began taking Western hostages and unleashing deadly attacks on US and French targets in Lebanon. Until the mid-1980s, the party remained largely decentralized with several factions operating under its umbrella. An official leadership was not even announced until 1987, when Hizbullah elected its first secretary-general. It was not hard for the different currents to unite under a single leadership even at this early stage as all sides agreed that conducting resistance work was the overwhelming priority. The utterly foolish decision by the Israelis to stay in southern Lebanon—for another 23 years!—after the PLO’s expulsion profoundly radicalized the Shia community, swelling the ranks of Hizbullah for years to come.

Perhaps due to party’s single-minded focus on resistance activity above all else, it has tended to take positions uncharacteristic of Islamists elsewhere in the region, even their Iranian mentors. Hizbullah does not, for example, prioritize the establishment of an Islamic state, nor do they concern themselves with imposing Islamic morals, even in the predominantly Muslim areas. From their very inception, they opposed the idea of imposing religion by force. In their first declaration—the 1985 “Open Letter” mentioned above—the founders of Hizbullah had this to say about creating an Islamic state in Lebanon:

    We do not seek to impose Islam on anyone as we hate those who impose their beliefs and regimes on us and we do not want Islam to reign in Lebanon by force…But we confirm that we are convinced by Islam as an ideology and a system, and call on everyone to make its acquaintance and to follow its sharia [law] as we call upon them to adopt it as a religion and to abide by its teachings whether on the personal, political or community level. (Hala Jaber, Hizbollah: Born with a Vengence)

The party has rarely deviated from this position, approaching Lebanon’s numerous other sects with an attitude of tolerance and openness rarely seen in radical Islamist movements. When they liberated the South, for example, Hizbullah defied all expectations that their fighters would exact revenge on the many southern Christians who collaborated with the occupation, and instead managed to restore order without a single incident of sectarian violence. As early as 1992, the leadership even initiated—against the wishes of many hardliners in the party—a process of “Lebanonization” which saw Hizbullah participate in parliamentary elections for the first time, thus integrating the party into Lebanon’s political mainstream. Over the years, particularly as its resistance campaign gained it legitimacy in the eyes of Lebanese of all persuasions, the party’s openness to other Lebanese sects has only increased, reinforcing its own efforts to be seen as much a Lebanese party as an Islamist or Shi’i one.

Throughout the 1990s, Israel’s repeated attempts to apply the same methods it successfully used against the PLO—of alienating the population from the armed resistance by launching painful assaults on civilian targets and infrastructure—failed to isolate Hizbullah. With each Israeli aggression, the party’s popularity only seemed to grow. In April 1996, Israel launched Operation Grapes of Wrath, bombarding southern Lebanon from land, sea and air, in the process committing a horrific massacre in the village of Qana. (108 villagers, mostly children, taking refuge in a UN camp were torn to pieces—“minced meat” as one eyewitness put it—after what was later determined to be deliberate Israeli bombardment.) The sheer brutality of the operation backfired, prompting even once-hostile Lebanese Christians to pledge funds and political support to the Islamic Resistance.

Washington Takes Aim

The party’s record of flexibility and tolerance spanning over two decades has not in any way mitigated Washington’s hostility toward Hizbullah, which the State Department still regards as a terrorist organization slated for destruction. This is undoubtedly due more to Hizbullah’s principled opposition to Israeli occupation and US domination of the region that anything else. And so today, the party finds itself in Washington’s direct line of fire. The opportunity to put the screws to Hizbullah was presented on a silver platter to the Bush administration by the assassination of Lebanon’s prime minister, Rafiq Harriri, on 14 February 2005. Even though there is not a shred of evidence that Hizbullah was involved—most believe it was the work of Syrian and Lebanese intelligence—Washington has nevertheless made good use of the assassination by calling for the disarming of the resistance, even as Israel continues to occupy Lebanese territory and daily violates Lebanese airspace.

Hizbullah has responded with its characteristic pragmatism and has so far managed to evade Washington’s tightening noose. The party first declared that it couldn’t surrender its arms as long as Israel occupied and threatened Lebanon, but it was nevertheless open to a national dialogue to allay any fears among Lebanese that their weapons will one day be used internally. The party then threw itself into the parliamentary elections, building an unprecedented web of alliances with virtually all the major political parties around the slogan of “protecting the resistance.” Having won an irrefutable mandate, particularly in the South and among the Shia generally, Hizbullah went on to join the government—at the cabinet level with two ministers—for the first time in its history. In the teeth of extraordinary pressure from Washington, the party managed to convince the new government that disarming the resistance was an internal Lebanese matter not subject to outside interference, even by way UN resolutions.

The pressure, however, continues as the US government or one of its allies unleashes what seem to be daily and often outrageous attacks on Hizbullah. The latest being that explosive devices used to kill British soldiers in southern Iraq came from Hizbullah through Iran and into Iraq. These are coupled with internal pressures from Lebanese rightists who would like nothing more than to see the party cut down to size after a series of spectacular successes (in 2004, for example, Hizbullah managed to win the release of virtually all Lebanese prisoners in Israel). The US, and Israel even more so, want the very example of Hizbullah, a rare success story in the region, erased altogether. Barring that, they would like to see the party punished somehow for daring to stand up to the occupation of their land and then having the gall to actually liberate it. The Bush crusade underway now throughout the Middle East seeks to obliterate any force that refuses to bend to Washington’s will. But given Hizbullah’s ability to survive—thrive even—under the most extreme circumstances, my guess is that the party will be with us long after Bush and the neocons exist Washington.

Sources & Further Reading:

Fouad Ajami, The Vanished Imam: Musa Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon, New York, 1986.

Helena Cobban, The Making of Modern Lebanon, London, 1987.

Juan R. I. Cole & Nikkie R. Keddie, Eds. , Shi’ism and Social Protest, New Haven, 1986.

Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, Oxford, 2001.

David Gilmour, Lebanon: The Fractured Country, New York, 1983.

Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh, In the Path of Hizbullah, Syracuse 2004.

Hala Jaber, Hezbollah: Born with a Vengeance, New York, 1997.

Naim Qassem, Hizbullah: The Story from Within, Saqi, 2005.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion, London, 2002.

Jamal Sankari, Fadlallah: The Making of a Radical Shi’ite Leader, London 2005.