Lebanon – To what extent is Hezbollah’s ideology motivated by religion?

By Gareth Harris (2013)

“We are the sons of the umma (Muslim community)- the party of God (Hizb Allah) the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran” (The Hizballah Program 1987). This “Open Letter” in 1985 would suggest that Hezbollah[1] was a religiously motivated organisation; inspired by the Iranian Revolution and guided by the principles of Islam. But how has the Hezbollah ideology changed over the last three decades? And has Islam really had a central role in the beliefs and actions of the organisation? This paper aims to answer these questions through an analysis of Hezbollah’s rhetoric and policy. Although Hamzeh (2004: 27) suggests that the ideology of Hezbollah is not fully revealed in the “Open Letter” of 1985, it does reveal a lot about Hezbollah’s beliefs. Therefore, the primary sources analysed in this paper include, the “Open Letter” of 1985, the New Hezbollah Manifesto of 2009 and various interviews with, and speeches by, Hezbollah officials, primarily Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. The analysis of this material should allow us to establish whether there have been any changes in the religiosity of the movement, given their move into the political realm in the 1990s. Four key policy areas have been recognised which can reveal the religiosity of Hezbollah’s ideology. Broadly, they are: (1) The Islamic Order; (2) Attitudes and policy towards the USA; (3) Attitudes and policy towards Israel; and (4) Hezbollah’s interactions and views of Christians within Lebanon. Within these policy areas we will explore how Shi’a Islam fits into Hezbollah’s ideology. The paper will also consider how the role of religion has changed in Hezbollah’s ideology, from their early existence as a Khomeinist-inspired resistance militia into an integrated political party. In making conclusions, it will be necessary to distinguish between political-religious rhetoric and the true motivations of Hezbollah. The organisation is undoubtedly influenced by religious beliefs, but as their political might increases their religious rhetoric has become less prominent in official speeches, documents and policy. Hezbollah has had to at least appear more moderate with their transformation into a mainstream political party (Harik 2005: 43-52).

THE ISLAMIC ORDER

Traditionally, Hezbollah ideology is deeply rooted in the Khomeinist ideology that developed in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Central to both ideologies is the conviction that an Islamic order should be established as a reflection of God’s just and fair society (Hamzeh 2004: 28). It is important however to establish that Hezbollah’s religious ideology is not simply a belief in Islam, but a belief in Shi’ism (Alagha 2006: 13). Their interpretation of the Qur’an follows that Allah is the source of all authority and it is His divinity which should guide Muslims. Hezbollah’s religious ideology follows the Shi’a belief in wilyat al-faqih. Literally this means the “guardianship of the Jurisconsult” but essentially it draws on ideas of religious authority and elitism. The Shi’a organisation believes that “the Iman, in his capacity as being designated by God through his Prophet as being the most learned in all branches of religious knowledge, is the only one entitled and capable of providing ta’wil (hermeneutics or an esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an), which is of fundamental importance and is the principal source of shari’a” (Alagha 2006:71). Clearly, a special place is reserved for religious authorities and the Mullahs in Hezbollah’s ideal Islamic order. Therefore, the separation of religion and politics in Hezbollah’s endeavours is therefore inconceivable (Hamzeh 2004:29). Finally, central to Hezbollah’s religious ideology is Jihad, it constitutes one of the Ten Ancillaries of the Faith in Twelver Shi’a Islam, and has played a significant ideological role in the operations of Hezbollah, particularly in their early years (see Kepel 2006: 127-130). These characteristics of Hezbollah’s religious ideology draw upon the influence of Khomeinism and the fundamentals of Shi’a Islam, but we need to consider if they are really manifested in Hezbollah’s political ideology and specifically how Hezbollah really sees the prospects of the establishment of an Islamic order in Lebanon.

In the “Open Letter” of 1985, Hezbollah’s religious rhetoric was prevalent. Islam was given as a motivation for, and as a way of understanding, their endeavours. In the opening paragraph, the letter makes reference to their jurist, and their inspiration Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini and they later claimed that their “behaviour is dictated to us by legal principles laid down by the light of an overall political conception defined by the leading jurist (wilayat al-faqih)” (The Hizballah Program 1987). Evidently, Hezbollah’s recognition of religious authority has always been central to its ideology and the wider hopes for the creation of an Islamic order, however with Hezbollah’s transformation into a political entity, religious rhetoric surrounding the creation of an Islamic state has become less prominent. In the 2009 New Hezbollah Manifesto, there is no formal mention of the creation of an Islamic state, nor of an Islamic order. This signifies Hezbollah’s move towards a more moderate ground in the political arena. El Husseini suggests that this reflects “the group’s ‘Lebanonisation’ (2010: 806). This was certainly required for Hezbollah to appeal as a political group and for them to appear as a party of Lebanon, fighting for Lebanon’s interests and not just that of the Shi’a population. Although Hezbollah “cannot abandon what is religiously sanctioned” (Hamzeh 2004:30), over the last two decades there appears to have been a move away from overtly religious language in official Hezbollah rhetoric, particularly with talk of the establishment of an Islamic order. This has allowed Hezbollah to operate within a traditionally secular political environment.

The USA

Hezbollah’s attitudes and policy towards the USA have remained hostile. The 1985 manifesto took an anti-imperialist approach to America’s influence in the region. The struggle against the US was understood and explained in largely religious terminology: “the US has tried, through its local agents, to persuade the people that those who crushed their arrogance in Lebanon and frustrated their conspiracy against the oppressed (mustad’afin) were nothing but a bunch of fanatic terrorists whose sole aim is to dynamite bars and destroy slot machines” (The Hizballah Program 1985). The references to particular Western indulgences imply an anti-Western and anti-imperlial approach towards the USA, but the reference to the mustad’afin draws upon religious motivations as well. This was common in Hezbollah discourse during the 1980s. In their early years, religious rhetoric was integral to their coordination and function as a Shi’a resistance group. Religion was something that could unite southern Shi’ites in their ‘struggle’ against ‘foreign domination’. Consequently, political issues were framed under an Islamic understanding. The struggle for the liberation of the region from the ‘arrogant’ US, was situated within the context of the mustakbirin (oppressors) and the mustad’afin (oppressed) (Alagha 2006: 115-119).

Much of the hostility towards the US has derived from their continued support of Israel and their numerous attempts to negotiate a settlement. The US was blamed for the “injustice, aggression and humiliation” that had damaged the Islamic community (umma) (The Hizballah program 1985). By situating the US-Israel ‘imperialist’ problem within the bounds of Islamic language, Hezbollah drew on the notion that it was a wider struggle for the freedom of the umma. While this language has proven to be particularly prevalent throughout the thirty plus years of Hezbollah, it is necessary to consider how this rhetoric has changed with Hezbollah’s move into the political realm.

Hezbollah’s antagonism of the West and of the USA in particular, continues today (see MY Shia TV 2009). Although the US continues to be passionately vilified by Nasrallah and other top Hezbollah officials (see Al Jazeera 2012), religious reasoning has taken more of a back seat. The struggle against US imperialism is seen as a Lebanese problem, rather than just an Islamic struggle. The New Hezbollah Manifesto reflects a typical aggressive anti-American attitude, one that is now expected from Hezbollah, but it lacks the religious undertones from which this struggle was portrayed in the “Open Letter”. The language used in the manifesto is largely anti-imperialist with the description of the US as the “arrogant superpower”. The latest manifesto also attacks the “savage capitalism” of the West and the Bush Administration’s “neo-conservatism” (New Hezbollah Manifesto 2009). In this document the hostility towards the West and the USA is presented in political terms. This is not to say that religion does not play a part in the Hezbollah resistance. The one reference to one of the ten Ancillaries of the Faith, is Jihad. Their resistance to the USA is loosely linked to this concept, however they understand that they must adhere “to the national Lebanese interests, having confidence in its people and raising high human values: righteousness, justice and freedom” (New Hezbollah Manifesto 2009). While not discounting the role of the religion in Hezbollah’s ideology and in its endeavours, religion has begun to play less of a role in their political rhetoric. The struggle against the US is seen as a Lebanese problem and therefore it has begun to be understood in political terms, rather than through Islam. While Islamic rhetoric has played less of a role in Hezbollah’s political ideology in recent years, Shi’a Islam formed the foundations of the organisation and while the language may not necessarily be as prevalent, religious motivations should not be underestimated. Equally, there have been suggestions that the translated English text of the New Hezbollah Manifesto deliberately removed overtly religious references. Some believe that the Arabic version remains unchanged (Childs 2011: 371). Therefore the fact that religious rhetoric has become less prevalent in Hezbollah publications should not foreshadow the role of religion in Hezbollah’s ideology.

ISRAEL

Israel, or the “Zionist Entity” as it is known to Hezbollah, has played a central role in the creation of Hezbollah and the development of their ideology. Unsurprisingly, Hezbollah have remained incredibly hostile towards the presence of Israel in the Middle East. The vehement opposition towards Israel and its activity in region is not confined to Hezbollah. It is shared throughout Lebanon and the whole Arab world. The Lebanese media has been consistently anti-Israel, and the hostility on all social levels should be understood within the political and historical context of the conflict. Israel is seen throughout Lebanon and the Arab world, as the enemy (Harb 2011: 122). In the “Open Letter” of 1985, Hezbollah outlines the aim for the “end to the burdensome Israeli occupation” while describing “the Necessity for the Destruction of Israel” (The Hizballah Progam 1985).[2] Within Hezbollah’s ideology, the Israel ‘problem’ is understood in terms of American Imperialism (i.e. that Israel is essentially the USA’s strategic partner in the Middle East). Hezbollah’s 1992 parliamentary election campaign placed US aims, in the Middle East, at subordinating and splitting the region, with the aim of legitimising the “Zionist Entity” (Alagha 2006: 155). Israeli and US interests are seen as much of the same thing by Hezbollah and while it is certainly guided by political principles, in years gone by the conflict with the US and Israel has been seen as a struggle through the Islamic concepts of the ‘oppressed’ and the ‘oppressors’.

The anti-Zionist sentiment has continued to the present day, and Hezbollah continues to take a pre-1967 Arab nationalist discourse that does not recognise Israel (Alagha 2006: 188). They continue their hard-line, non-negotiable approach to the “Zionist Entity”. In the New Hezbollah Manifesto they describe how the “‘Israeli’ occupation” has required “the Lebanese, who are loyal to their homeland,” “to use their right and persist from their national duty and moral and religious in the defense of their land” (2009). Today, anti-Israeli rhetoric is largely nationalistic and anti-Western rather than religious. This political documentation would suggest a non-religious motivation for their hatred of the US and Israel. In a recent broadcast the Secretary-General Nasrallah suggested that most conflicts in the world are political and not religious, “related to power, and control and taking hold of the capabilities of this nation” (2013). Religious motivations may guide the actions of Hezbollah and their resistance, but it does not necessarily mean that they are fighting for solely religious reasons. Equally, Hezbollah have made it very clear that their struggle is against Zionists and not Judaism in general; as a result they have continued to try and distance themselves from anti-Semitism, which would suggest that this was a politically motivated conflict. They appear to be fighting for what they believe is freedom and justice. These are universally accepted human right principles. Too often Hezbollah’s activity is dismissed as simply religious militancy and extremism when in fact their anti-US and anti-Israeli sentiment is motivated by political reasons as much as religious ones.

HEZBOLLAH’S INTERACTIONS WITH THE LEBANESE CHRISTIANS

Christian presence in Lebanon has always been high considering that it sits among some of the most Islamic states of the world. Current estimates of the religious demographics of Lebanon suggest that around 39% of the population are Christian (The Lebanese Demographic Reality 2013). Therefore it has been essential that Hezbollah reach out to the huge Christian presence in Lebanon, in order to establish national and political credibility. In the “Open Letter” Hezbollah addresses the Christian community directly. The document however, takes a particularly religious tone and assumes the chance to proselytise: “Open your hearts to our Call (da’wa) which we address to you. Open yourselves up to Islam where you’ll find happiness upon earth and in the hereafter” (The Hizballah Program 1985). Hezbollah however, made an important distinction between Christians and Maronites (Alagha 2006: 126). Hezbollah’s objections to the Maronites stemmed from their objections to political maronisn. They were seen as collaborators with Israel (Alagha 2006: 126-127). Hezbollah’s objection to the presence of the Maronites was solely down to their political resentment and what they were seen to represent, rather than any deep religious motivation.

More generally, Hezbollah’s ideology is formed upon a tolerance of other religious groups and despite the proselytic language of the 1985 manifesto they did acknowledge that “those of you who are peaceful continue to live in our midst without anybody thinking to trouble you” (The Hizballah Manifesto 1985). Hezbollah’s more recent rhetoric has diverged away from its early exhortative language. Hezbollah’s preoccupancy with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the status of Palestine has drawn attention away from their hopes of establishing an Islamic government and consequently they have proven to be even more accommodating of the Christian community. The fight against Israel has united Lebanese Muslims and Christians alike, especially after Hezbollah’s conflict with Israel in 2006 where they achieved relative success. Hezbollah’s belief is that injustices have been experienced by both Christians and Muslims in the Middle East (Nasrallah 2013). While Hezbollah’s immediate interests continue to lie in the Israel-Palestine issue, their partnership and unity with the majority of the Lebanese Christian population will continue.

Hezbollah’s ultimate aim for the creation of an Islamic state is still fundamental in Hezbollah’s ideology. However, they have always maintained that it will not be imposed by force and instead by the principle of majoritarianism (Hamzeh 2004: 30). Equally, Hezbollah maintain that their quest for an Islamic order should not be in conflict with the ideals of the Christian Lebanese population and that they can live in peace within an Islamic Lebanon. Hezbollah and Christian tensions have been limited to the political realm and the Maronites which have expressed themselves politically through the Phalangists. Hezbollah’s attitude towards Lebanese Christians has been shaped by political rather than religious factors. Equally, the presence of overtly religious rhetoric in official Hezbollah publications has decreased with its move into mainstream politics and this, coupled with their success in the 2006 conflict with Israel, has increased their popularity amongst the Lebanese Christian population.

CONCLUSION

This study has assessed four key policy areas that have been central to Hezbollah’s ideology. These constituents have demonstrated that while Islam has played a significant role in the construction of Hezbollah’s ideology, religious rhetoric has become less prevalent in official dialogue. This can be largely attributed to Hezbollah’s move into mainstream Lebanese politics. As an organisation that has been labelled as a terrorist organisation by western powers, it has been essential for Hezbollah to tone down its religious zeal. More importantly however, Hezbollah has had to appeal to the wider Lebanese population and not just the Shi’a population of the south.

This paper has also recognised that Hezbollah’s main policy objections are as politically and culturally motivated as they are religious. Hezbollah’s main policy objective is for the disintegration of Israel, and the creation of one unified state in the Palestinian region. Secretary-General Nasrallah acknowledged in a recent interview with Julian Assange that their main objective is “to liberate our land from occupation. This is the original reason why Hezbollah was established in the first place and there’s no dispute about this among Lebanese” (2012). In this respect, the basis for Hezbollah’s creation was for political and nationalistic reasons rather than solely religious reasons. As a result, Hezbollah’s political-religious calls for an Islamic order and the reform of the political system have taken a backseat to their concerns about the plight of the Palestinians (Kamrava 2005: 6).

Hezbollah’s opposition to the USA has to be considered within the wider context of Middle Eastern hostility towards the West, and the US’s continued support of Israel. However, their policy towards the US has been understood in largely religious terms, as a struggle against the oppressors (mustakbirin). Nevertheless, this should not draw attention away from the fact that the struggle against the US is seen very much through the eyes of the conflict with Israel and their wider activity in the Middle East. Consequently, amongst Hezbollah officials and the general Lebanese public, hostility towards the US is because of a clash of power, politics and culture rather than religion.

The reduction in Islamic rhetoric in Hezbollah dialogue over the last two decades should not be overstated. Hezbollah ideology is very much influenced by Shi’a Islam and its ideals. Some academics have suggested that Hezbollah has gone through a process of ‘Lebanonisation’ (Rabil 2012), where the organisation has become increasingly absorbed into Lebanese politics and society. This is not to say that with this process of ‘Lebanonisation’ Hezbollah ideology has become less Islamic. Their religious affiliations stay strong. Simply because they are primarily concerned with the Israel-Palestine situation, which is considered an Arab ‘problem’, does not necessarily mean that religion does not have a primary role in Hezbollah ideology. Religion has played and will continue to play a role in Hezbollah as a political party, and as a resistance militia, for as long as it exists.

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources:

AL JAZEERA. (2012) Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTaWTvP78II. Last Accessed: 12 May 2013

AN OPEN LETTER: THE HIZBALLAH PROGRAM. (1985) [This version translated in 1987] Available: http://www.standwithus.com/pdfs/flyers/hezbollah_program.pdf. Last Accessed: 12 May 2013

LEBANESE INFORMATION CENTRE. (2013) The Lebanese Demographic Reality. Available: http://www.lstatic.org/PDF/demographenglish.pdf. Last Accessed: 12 May 2013

NASRALLAH, H. (2009) in My Shia TV. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CpoGVQLRcOw. Last Accessed: 12 May 2013

NASRALLAH, H. (2012) The World Tomorrow with Julian Assange: Episode 1, Interviewed by Julian Assange. Available: http://worldtomorrow.wikileaks.org/episode-1.html. Last Accessed: 12 May 2013

NASRALLAH, H. (2013) in Al Manar TV. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8Rzj09Hkvg. Last Accessed: 12 May 2013

THE NEW HEZBOLLAH MANIFESTO. (2009) [Translated] Available: http://www.lebanonrenaissance.org/assets/Uploads/15-The-New-Hezbollah-Manifesto-Nov09.pdf, Last Accessed: 12 May 2013

 

Secondary Sources:

ALAGHA, J. (2006) The Shifts in Hizbullah’s Ideology: Religious Ideology, Political Ideology and Political Program, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press

CHILDS, S. (2011) ‘From Identity to Militancy: The Shi’a of Hezbollah’, Comparative Strategy, vol. 30, no. 4, pp.363-372

EL HUSSEINI, R. (2010) ‘Hezbollah and the Axis of Refusal: Hamas, Iran and Syria’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 5, pp.803-815

HAMZEH, A M. (2004) In the Path of Hizbullah, New York: Syracuse University Press

HARB, Z. (2011) Channels of Resistance in Lebanon: Liberation propaganda, Hezbollah and the media, London: I.B.Tauris

HARIK, J P. (2005) Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism, 2nd ed, London: I.B. Tauris

KAMRAVA, M. (2005) The Modern Middle East: A Political History since the First World War, London: University of California Press

KEPEL, G. (2006) Jihad: The trial of political Islam, 4th ed, London: I.B. Tauris

RABIL, R G. (2012) ‘Hezbollah, The Islamic Association and Lebanon’s Confessional System’, The Levantine Review, vol. 1, no. 1 pp.49-67

[1] The spelling ‘Hezbollah’ will be used throughout this paper. Only where there is references to ‘The Hizballah Program’ will this alternative spelling be used.

[2] The original translation did not include this paragraph, but it does appear in the original “Open Letter”.

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One thought on “Lebanon – To what extent is Hezbollah’s ideology motivated by religion?

  1. The structure is very clear, coherent and well signposted. Very good intro and conclusion too.

    The analysis is excellent. The essay makes good arguments well, supports them with good use evidence, and demonstrates good critical thinking through good arguments and counter-arguments. The overall analysis is clear and convincing. In terms of how to improve it further, the discussion of ‘Lebanonisation’ could be a little more developed as it’s not clear what is meant by this at first. Moreover, as most of the chosen policy areas concern ‘foreign policy’, it might have been helpful to spend some time on domestic issues and policies too, and on the extent to which these are influenced by the religious and ‘non-religious’ parts of its ideology.

    The essay is very well researched, in both breadth and depth, demonstrating very good knowledge of the case study. Good use of primary sources too.

    In short, there could have been a little more focus on ‘Lebanonisation’, and some discussion of Hezbullah’s domestic policies would have also been pertinent, but this is already an excellent essay.

    Like

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