Hezbollah, one of the most important groups on the Lebanese and Middle Eastern political scene these days, is also one of the most enigmatic. This week, the first anniversary of the Hezbollah-Israel war of July-August 2006, much attention in Lebanon has been focused on Hezbollah and its aims, which remain unclear to many people. Hezbollah’s perception inside and outside Lebanon is polarized. Many throughout the Middle East and other developing regions regard Hezbollah and its leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah with awe; while many others in the West, in the United States especially, usually refer to it as a terrorist group.
It is important to acknowledge what Hezbollah is and is not – because it has become a central actor in a political stand-off in Lebanon that itself has become a central battleground in the ideological war of the Middle East today. A useful new book has just appeared that helps interested parties to understand Hezbollah more accurately. It is by the respected American political scientist Augustus Richard Norton, a professor at Boston University, and is titled “Hezbollah: A Short History.
The many complex and often changing dimensions of Hezbollah are presented in the book in a clear, concise manner that allows for a more accurate and complete understanding of what the group represents and aspires to achieve. It is easier to know where Hezbollah came from than to say for sure where it is heading. A better grasp of its origins and past positions is crucial for any serious discussion of its future strategy. Norton offers a concise summary of how Hezbollah emerged from the Shia empowerment movements in southern Lebanon in the 1970s to dominate the political representation of Lebanese Shias in the 1980s.
He concludes, as do many others, that Hezbollah’s hard-line positions on an Islamic society, or politics in Lebanon, outlined in its 1985 open letter to “the downtrodden in Lebanon and the world, eased in recent years, as it “pragmatically confronted the shifting political landscape of regional politics, as well as the changing terrain of Lebanese politics.
One of the best chapters in the book examines “Hezbollah and violence, exploring both its resistance to Israel since the early 1980s and also the accusations that it has engaged in terrorism, such as suicide bombings against American and French forces in 1983. Norton concludes that the group did engage in some acts that clearly defined as terrorism (such as the 1985 hijacking of a TWA plane), while many of the other acts of violence attributed to it are probably more likely the work of Iran. However, the bulk of Hezbollah’s military actions, he notes, were legitimate forms of resistance to Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory.
Having an American scholar walk through the paces of such an exercise of looking with some nuance at the different kinds of actions that Hezbollah has undertaken in its history is itself a useful process that others would do well to emulate. One reason Norton can do this is that he spent several years living in South Lebanon in the 1980s when he worked with the United Nations forces there.
The book’s limited size does not allow for a deep treatment of some of the most fascinating dimensions of Hezbollah today, as it focuses more intently on contesting power in the domestic Lebanese political system. The chapter on “Playing Politics nicely captures Hezbollah’s decision to enter domestic politics in the 1992 parliamentary elections. Norton shows how in domestic politics it has played down its religious themes, while often striking pragmatic political bargains, even with ideological opposites such as secular leftists.
The book concludes with some analysis of Hezbollah’s current challenge to the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, noting ironically that the United States supported peaceful street protests in 2005 to topple a pro-Syrian government, but today opposes Hezbollah’s street protests to change or redraw the Siniora government. One reason for this, of course, is the concern of many in Lebanon and abroad about how much Hezbollah merely reflects Syrian and Iranian strategy.
Norton’s straightforward manner of dispassionately describing and assessing Hezbollah is a valuable example that should be emulated by others who seek to understand what is happening in Lebanon today. Hezbollah is a prototype that many in the Middle East will want to emulate, while others in the region and abroad would like to destroy it.
Wherever one may stand on this spectrum of views, a vital starting point – offered in this small but rich volume – is an accurate, comprehensive view of why Hezbollah has succeeded as a political party, a sectarian representational group, a social services agency and a resistance force, and why it continues to generate so much opposition at the same time.
Rami G. Khouriis published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.