Between Reason and Resistance: Hezbollah's Dangerous Trigonometry
Are millions of Islamic fascists really out to destroy America? Is “Western civilization really at risk from Muslim extremists,” as a recent LA Times Oped put it? Do “They” really hate “Us”?
The fact that these questions are being asked with increasing urgency five years after September 11 indicates the high level of anxiety and suspicion that exist today within, and towards, the United States. But the trigonometry of America's global image problem is far more complicated than the good-versus-evil, us-versus-them rhetoric favored by President Bush, or American adversaries such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez or Iran's Ahmedinejad. Instead, the rise of a bellicose anti-Americanism, particularly across the developing world, reflects the anger of billions of people at the United States' presumed responsibility for the poverty, inequality, violence, and environmental degradation that continue to plague large swaths of our planet.
The recent UN speeches by Presidents Chavez and Ahmedinejad highlighted their prominence in the new anti-American discourse. But on substantive grounds, the more important speech last week was delivered to hundreds of thousands of Lebanese citizens by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. More important because, unlike his comrades, Nasrallah doesn't have billions of dollars in oil revenue to back up his name calling or accusations. He doesn't even have a state on who's behalf he speaks. But as the only leader alive to have stood toe to toe against both Israel and its US ally he has quickly become the 21st century equivalent of Nasser and Che.
What's on Nasrallah's mind as he reflects on the “historic victory” of Hezbollah against the Israeli goliath? In a two hour plus speech that called to mind Fidel Castro in his salad days, Nasrallah clearly hoped to convince the world that Hezbollah, and by extension Islam, is as reasonable as we in the West have long imagined ourselves to be. Indeed, its reasonableness was never so manifest as in its “heroic” war against Israel this past summer. As he explained, “Resistance,” he explained, “depends on planning [and] organization. This resistance experience, which should be conveyed to the world, depends on reason, planning, organization, armament, and... on taking all possible protective procedures.”
Now that the war was over, at least for the time being, Nasrallah's main goal was to “call for a return to calm and reason... Ramadan will be an opportunity for meditation and reflection and return to one's self and to seeing facts. Get out and see facts and do not let things become dubious to you. Do not build things on miscalculations.”
The facts, of course, are the vast scale of destruction in southern Lebanon and the frenetic pace of Hezbollah-led reconstruction. In calling people to “see” them with their own eyes, Nasrallah is challenging the Bush Administration's oft-quoted belief that “we create our own reality,” against which resistance is futile and alternative perspectives are, by definition, illegitimate.
His advice to his compatriots not to “build things on miscalculations” was also a warning to Lebanon's predominantly Christian and Sunni economic elite to avoid repeating the mistake of the post-civil war era, when the reconstruction of downtown Beirut (championed by the assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Harriri) stopped well north of the city's Shi'a neighborhoods. Because of this, the glitzy city center came to symbolize the marginalization of most of the Shi'i majority from the country's increasingly “globalized” economy.
As important, Nasrallah argued that Hezbollah's resistance aborted the US-Israeli plan for a “New Middle East.” As he explained, “It is enough to say, on the basis of the direct results, that your resistance and steadfastness dealt a severe blow to the New Middle East plan, which Condoleezza Rice said would be born in the July War. But it was stillborn because it was an illegitimate child. Your resistance and steadfastness exposed the deceptive US policies that speak about human rights, freedoms, democracy, and respect [and] raised the level of awareness... not only in the Arab and Islamic world, but in the whole world.”
However unpalatable to American ears, these remarks are far more accurate a reflection of the situation today in the Middle East than those of President Bush or most of the region's autocratic leaders, or Nasrallah's opponents in Lebanon. In fact, it's hard to know whether he's attacking them, or Pope Bennedict XIV's claim that violence by Muslims is essentially unreasonable, when he answered those who've accused Hezbollah of being “thoughtless” with the exclamation: “Who accepts this insult? No, no, no. We are not a totalitarian party, regime, or faction.”
This is certainly true; but Hezbollah's newly cemented dominance of Lebanon's politics is scaring many Lebanese nonetheless. As a Lebanese friend skyped me this morning from Beirut, the new era is “very dangerous. We feel we are on the verge of another civil war. Loads and loads of people are considering moving out, because they see Lebanon now as divided into two mentalities: one that believes, in Nasrallah's words, in 'divine victories,' and the other, that wants to live, enjoy life and make money--exactly the people he attacked in his speech.”
The problem here is that the way things currently run in Lebanon (and much of the developing world), the system that is allowing my friend to live his yuppie, consumer lifestyle is also directly responsible for the continued poverty and exclusion suffered by the majority of Lebanon's Shi'a population. Indeed, it is precisely this dynamic that has given Hezbollah's fighters--whom Nasrallah reminded his audience “[have] not live[d] a life of prosperity, ease, extravagance, or calm”--such power in their community. And their position has been strengthened many-fold by their performance against Israel this summer.
But does Hezbollah have the solution to Lebanon's many dilemmas? The billions of dollars in aid pouring in from Iran and oil-rich Gulf states will hopefully result in a significant rise in the living standards of Lebanon's long-ignored poor. But the social costs of such aid, and the conservative brand of religion that will likely come with it, could well be steep indeed. The country's cosmopolitan and hybrid culture, defined by its unique if uneasy mix of East and West, secular and religious, and various Muslims and Christian sects, could well be the final casualty of Hezbollah's “21 days of resistance” against Israel.
Or, Beirut could become another Dubai, with gaudy high rises and high priced kitch masking a disturbing underbelly below, while working class Shiites and even poorer Palestinian refugees continue to suffer in the south.
Whatever happens, Hezbollah has certainly demonstrated that it's as good at creating and managing chaos as we are. If it doesn't tread carefully, however, its new found power could lead Lebanon back into a civil war.
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