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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Mohanad Hage Ali, Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam: Hizbullah’s Institutional Identity

Filed under: Hizbullah, Iran, Lebanon
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 30, Numbers 3–4

Mohanad Hage Ali, Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam: Hizbullah’s Institutional Identity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 249 pp.

Despite the time that has passed since Hizbullah was founded in Lebanon in 1982, the radical Islamic movement continues to attract great attention from academics in various disciplines and from researchers and journalists all over the world. Far more books seem to be written about Hizbullah than about any other Lebanese organization or movement. Last year (2018) a new survey, written by a lecturer at Lebanese American University in Byblos, Lebanon, was added to the heavy bookshelf on Hizbullah.

This academic book from the social-science field analyzes Hizbullah with political-science tools. Although the author asserts that Hizbullah does not constitute a classic case of nationalism, he seems, in his extensive discussion of Hizbullah’s nationalism with its various unique components, to be trying to characterize it as a Lebanese Shiite national movement. It is a movement that draws its historical fundaments from Jabal ʿĀmel, the historical name of southern Lebanon, where the legacy of resistance and the Shiite religious leadership were formed. This tension between Hizbullah as a Lebanese national movement and its total fealty to Iran is present throughout the book. The author himself notes that Hizbullah was founded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who came to Lebanon in the summer of 1982. It is clear, then, that the Revolutionary Guards did not establish Hizbullah so that it would be a Lebanese national movement. They had a different overarching goal: to create an Islamic movement that would be led, like Iran, by Shiite clerics, that would rely on a strong military force, and that would serve Iran as a spearhead for exporting the Islamic Revolution to the Arab world.

The Islamic Republic’s need to establish a new Shiite movement in Lebanon stemmed from the persistent refusal of the Amal movement to recognize Wilayat al-Faqih, along with Amal’s total identification with the Lebanese state. When Iran set up Hizbullah in the summer of 1982, Tehran was seeking to destroy the Lebanese government and its institutions and replace them with an Islamic republic based on a new Islamic society that would obey the leader of Iran as the Wali al-Faqih.

After more than three decades, Hizbullah has succeeded to take over the Lebanese state and its institutions without dissolving them. At present Hizbullah is completing its takeover of the Lebanese government, and it appears that, if in the 1980s and 1990s Hizbullah was a state within Lebanon, during the past decade Lebanon has become a state within the state of Hizbullah.  

Iran has built a strong and skilled military force in Lebanon. This force has served as cannon fodder in the internal war in Syria, in which more than 1,250 Hizbullah fighters have been killed, including senior commanders from the movement’s founding generation, and thousands have been wounded.

Despite the heavy losses along with harsh domestic criticism – which reached an apex with the declaration by Sheikh Subḥi Tufalyi, who was the movement’s first secretary-general, that none of those who fell in Syria could be regarded as “shahid” (martyrs) because they were not fighting Israel – Hizbullah has maintained its status in Lebanon. Moreover, its fighters have gained considerable battle experience, boosting their self-confidence, and Iran is now directing an effort to build a new front for Hizbullah against Israel on the Syrian Golan Heights.

Undoubtedly Iran’s crowning glory in Lebanon is the missile arsenal it has built there for Hizbullah. Hizbullah’s firepower now numbers more than 140,000 medium- and long-range rockets and missiles some of which can hit strategic targets in Israel. In recent years Iran has worked doggedly to improve the accuracy of a large portion of these missiles.

The Trump administration’s effort against the Iranian missile program and concomitant economic sanctions on Tehran are affecting Hizbullah as well. Iran is curtailing its financial aid to Hizbullah, forcing the movement to do some belt-tightening in various aspects of its social, religious, and cultural institutions and to drastically cut salaries of its civilian activists and, even more, of its fighting forces. The leader of Hizbullah is indeed attempting to reduce the movement’s expenses and has also launched a fundraising campaign both within Lebanon and among foreign supporters of the movement. It appears that Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah can be consoled by the fact that Hizbullah is an Iranian proxy in all regards; as long as it is a cornerstone of Iran’s strategy in Syria and a spearhead of its jihad against Israel, Iranian aid is assured – or, as Nasrallah put it, as long as Iran has money Hizbullah will have money.

Especially noteworthy is Chapter 5 on the role of the supernatural in Hizbullah’s identity. It discusses at length the supernatural literature and the theories associated with it, including events regarded as miracles that link Hizbullah to the Shiite belief in imams and saints. The author analyzes the way in which Hizbullah’s propaganda brings back to life the theological writings of Ayatollah Moḥammad Baqer Majlesi (1627-1699), who was active under five Shahs at the beginning of the Safavid period. These works sparked controversy and drew criticism from one of the important ideologues of the Islamic Revolution, ʿĀli Shariāti (1933-1977), who wrote a great deal against Majlesi and the use that was made of these beliefs, which became widespread over the years and particularly in Iran during the eight-year war with Iraq.

Hizbullah has made extensive use of these beliefs during the armed conflict it has waged against Israel since 1982 as it mobilizes its fighters for the anti-Israeli jihad, which reached its peak in the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Hizbullah perceived and portrayed that war as “the divine victory,” and the movement made frequent reference to the miracles and wonders that the imams performed as emissaries of God, fighting – according to these beliefs – alongside the Hizbullah fighters against the Israeli forces. The aim was to make clear that the victory was achieved thanks to the divine intervention on Hizbullah’s side.

In analyzing the miracle stories about Hizbullah’s battles, the author also criticizes the lack of basic knowledge of the geography of southern Lebanon. One story, for instance, tells of a group of Hizbullah fighters who did not know how to swim but were wondrously able to cross a deep river with a feeling that they were being carried by someone. Yet in southern Lebanon, the author points out, rivers are generally shallow and not sufficiently deep.

This interesting chapter should also have evoked the Ayatollah Moḥammad-Taqi Behjat (1916-2009), who lived in Qom and was recognized as the “man of God” who most influenced the popular faith of Hizbullah. Nasrallah himself called Behjat the spiritual father of Hizbullah. In a book of his published in Tehran in spring 2019, titled The Spiritual Father of Hizbullah, Nasrallah analyzed the special figure of Ayatollah Behjat and his influence on him personally and on Hizbullah as a movement. The Hizbullah leadership in general, including the helmsmen Hassan Nasrallah and Ímad Mughniyeh, consulted with Behjat before making important decisions about their personal issues as well as the stewardship of the movement. His special ascetic nature was a focus of the Istiẖara rituals that he conducted, in which he made use of the power of the supernatural faith that so strongly influenced Hizbullah.

In sum, the book is important to all who are concerned with Lebanon, Iran, and the relationship between them, and enables better understanding of the jihad that Hizbullah and Iran are waging against Israel.