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New Texts Out Now: Bashir Saade, Hizbullah and the Politics of Remembrance: Writing Nations

Bashir Saade, Hizbullah and the Politics of Remembrance: Writing Nations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Bashir Saade (BS): This book is based on my PhD dissertation and the research I had done at the time, from 2006 to 2011. I started after the July 2006 war, which was the trigger for an already growing interest in understanding the phenomenon of Hizbullah. I was mostly interested in questioning the way Hizbullah had been studied so far, and I was not satisfied with any of the paradigms that plagued the literature on the subject. My project was two-fold. One was to understand Hizbullah and the other which informed the former, was to understand how Hizbullah as a phenomenon was shaped by dominant discourse and knowledge production. I felt that rather than study what Hizbullah “is” I had to study what Hizbullah “becomes” in a context of relationality with other social and political actors.

I noticed one idea that cuts across all understanding of the party is that they are perceived to have a clear ideology, a set of doctrines, they “know what they are doing”, unlike not just other Lebanese political organizations and parties but any political formation in the Arab world at large. Usually two intersecting explanations are offered. One states that because Hizbullah has learned most of what it does from the Iranian revolutionary guard that would explain that a non-Arabic element would contrast with what is prevailingly taken to be an Arabic failure. The second is that Hizbullah’s “religion” involves a deep commitment to the Iranian leadership, the wali al faqih, which provides the party with a clear sense of hierarchy, line of command, order, etc.

Clearly there are many truths in this, but it seems that most understanding of Hizbullah have invariably assumed the existence of a coherent ideology that informs the party’s actions, political practice, and agenda. It is definitely the case that Hizbullah is more effective in a variety of domains, than other political organizations in the region, and so looking at the nature of the ideological and its importance in the political process seemed to me timely more than ever. I gradually discovered through my studies of early writings and media production, that an overarching understanding of ideology was far from being a given, and that in the place of seeing coherent slogans being brandished, it was a particular use of these discursive materials that seems more important to the political process rather than taking at face value their content.

Soon enough, the book became a contribution to a new understanding of what we mean by “ideology” through the study of what I thought was a fascinating political phenomenon of the last three decades. The objective was to explore what is meant by the ideological, in the case of Hizbullah, and on the other to engage in an intellectual history of the party, especially focusing on the early years. As I explain in the book, what was articulated early on became the main template for later ideological production. 

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

BS: The book could be described as an intellectual history of the Lebanese military-political organization Hizbullah (for lack of a better term), especially of its formative years with a few insights on its current predicaments. It connects the study of political Islam to that of nationalism and state formation. Based on the experience of military occupation Hizbullah’s Political Islam has been solely geared at articulating a movement of resistance. This involved conceptions of territory, the political other, and the state that forced Hizbullah actors to address understanding of nation and community through their experience not just fighting the Israeli army, but also through gradually having to interact with their immediate surrounding.

The book also addresses the literature on ideology and political parties and proposes a novel way to understand the ideological through going beyond an overemphasis on the discursive and looking at ethical practices. What I proposed to call the politics of remembrance is at the heart of the production of coherence, where Hizbullah produces understanding of its political environment and of itself by constantly rearticulating the past, but also by experiencing this conception of time in different ways. Hizbullah remembers its past legacy, its martyrs, through a series of commemorations during the year, and this human heritage haunts a present by providing ideological coherence conducive to community building. Hizbullah has a long tradition of Islamo-Christian dialogue that owes a lot to the social environment in which the party develops (under the shadow of luminaries such as Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah) and which also involves an investigation of the history of the Christians, a reinvention of their tradition which makes them a potential partner in the political formula that becomes Lebanon.

The same intellectual strategies apply to representations of the Palestinian and pro-Palestinian ‘secular’ groups which are usually criticized solely on the question of effective resistance. In this case, the past is militant practices (and not really ideology and doctrines). And lastly, representations of Israel or the Zionist enemy involves throwing this actor out of history. The Israeli occupier has no tradition. For example, unlike for the Christians of Lebanon and the tradition of Jesus, there is no Jewish tradition that legitimizes the presence of Israel as a political community, mostly because of the ethical mistakes perpetrated (land grabbing for example). Hizbullah does not deploy here an antisemitism as some commentators may have thought, but a political condemnation of a state-like entity, and the ethical practices that animate it. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

BS: This is my first book, but I have always been interested in modern Islamic movements. I have been working on the relation of politics and religion and its interaction with forms of nationalism and state formation in the Middle East.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

BS: Although the book has been published by an academic press I do hope that it can attract a larger audience. I think the subject is relevant to anyone interested in understanding the uniqueness of Hizbullah but also the more general environment that constrain the shape of such political initiatives.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

BS: I am currently working on the media production of Islamic State (IS), aka Da‘esh, and its embeddedness in a more general world audio-visual culture that has prevailed in the last two decades. It is mostly a study of cultural aspects of globalization and a reflection on the presence and use of new social media technology in the shaping of we have called for better or for worse (Islamic) “tradition”.

In a slightly different direction, I also work on non-Western political thought specifically early Arabic scholarship, either anonymous or by ninth- and tenth-century authors such as ibn al Muqaffa‘, al-Mawardi, Ibn Qutayba and others that I discuss in light of conceptual debates about the modern condition in contemporary philosophy. I am currently finishing a work on notions of authority in al-Farabi’s and Hannah Arendt’s work.

Excerpt from chapter six, “Confronting the State: Between Party and Community”

In the mid-1980s the prominent Shī‘i marja‘ dīnī (literally religious reference) Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah published a paper in Al Muntalaq, a journal affiliated to the Lebanese Association of Muslim Students (al ittihād al lubnāni al lubnāni lil talaba al muslimīn) titled “Who will lead the movement of change: The party of the community, or the community of the party?”. Although rhetorical in its contours, his discussion of the question signaled a phenomenon that was crucial in understanding the ideological constructions of Hizbullah for the years to come as it aimed to define the causes to which the party of God owed its existence. The debate that Fadlallah opened up was symptomatic of a paradox faced by Hizbullah and the projected community from which it emerged. If change is understood as an overall social and cultural transformation, then the whole of the community should be involved in this activity. Fadlallah, other clerics, and like-minded laymen thought that social transformation was a concerted yet disseminated effort. Indeed since the 1970s, and through the successive legacies of Musa al-Sadr, Muhammad Mahdi Shamseddin, Fadlallah and others, the Shi’i community began to engage in social and political mobilizations of their own. The prevailing atmosphere in the early 1980s was one of multiple, political and social movements, parties, associations, committees, university groups, and so on. The state of Lebanon was gradually disintegrating and militias had cantonized security in several areas of Beirut, Dahyeh being one.

But the Israeli invasion of 1982 precipitated the urgency of devising concrete plans to fight the enemy. The need for order, prioritizing, and most importantly narrowing down the content of the political project to particular demands involved among other things the formation of an organization. The direct cause for the formation of Hizbullah was the coalescing of several movements under the strategic intervention of the Pasdaran who landed in Baalbeck in 1982 shortly after the invasion and received, as was mentioned earlier, by Sobhi Tufayli and Abbas al Moussawi (who become respectively years later Hizbullah’s first and second Secretary Generals). The objective was to devise an organization that could fight occupation. Over the years, Hizbullah became a highly organized and secretive party while simultaneously acquiring legitimacy from very popular mechanisms. Yet all along, there was an ironic conflict between the democratic nature of the political processes that led to the popularity of Hizbullah and the non-democratic, if not authoritarian, apparatus of how parties act on certain issues. When Fadlallah warned of this in his article, he was describing a problem that most modern political formations face, namely the particular dynamics of the constantly negotiated relationship between party and community in their quest for the State.

For Fadlallah, the phenomenon of Hizbullah was different from “Western” political parties, as the former type of political formation emanated from the umma, the community and kept an organic link to it. A political Islam is practiced every day in mosques where discussions take place alongside prayers and worship rituals. Unlike other political parties, Hizbullah’s members have their “minds open to the intellectual and spiritual concerns of the people” and leaders have legitimacy to lead under the guidelines of the prevailing legal (meaning Islamic) apparatuses.

Fadlallah’s argument is at times tortuous and frustratingly incomplete in trying to explain the difference between Hizbullah and other political parties, especially in terms of clarifying the difference between their party-community relations and other secular party politics. But he does manifest the concern that a strong organic link should exist between Hizbullah’s political practice and the demands of the community at large, a link that other political formations of the twentieth century had failed to maintain. The community is in symbiosis with the party through several institutional arrangements and is as important as the party in contributing to the process of change. The community is in a general cultural state-of-being linked to a political project, what the vice-president of Hizbullah Na’im Qassem, a student of Fadlallah, would much later call mujtama‘ al muqāwama (the Society of Resistance).

According to Fadlallah, if a party-like structure must emerge from the community in order to produce the change needed, it must conform to certain basic principles. For example, secrecy may be necessary in the context of impeding danger, but it has its limits. An “Islamic education” is imperative in order to avoid all forms of distancing from the community, a situation in which party members often find themselves, as they become “slaves to the party”. And although Fadlallah is clear on the “clerically-led” character of such a movement he goes so far as establishing the limits of the authority of the wāli al faqīh that should be in line with “general Islamic political objectives”. These opinions delineating the credentials of wāli al faqīh were repeated often in the subsequent literature emanating from within and around the party.

Fadlallah published his article in Al-Muntalaq in 1985, a journal that was founded in 1976 by al-ittihād al-lubnāni lil talaba al-muslimīn (Al-Ittihad), and from which came several key future Hizbullah members such Muhammad Raad. As argued by Daher, even though Al-Ittihad called for a socio-religious awakening, judging from the issues of Al-Muntalaq of the period, it was neither specifically concerned with the Palestinian question nor was it advocating radical political change à la Iranian revolution. This complacent social Islam seemed mostly concerned with a reworking of Muslim identity, social and pious practices in a turbulent period of weak state sovereignty. Al-Ittihad clearly contrasted with other social actors that championed radical revolutionary causes, such as Sadiq Al-Moussawi an Iranian cleric who arrived on the Lebanese scene in 1976, and who founded al-haraka al-islāmiya (Al-Haraka) that called for the toppling of the Maronite regime and the installation of an Islamic state, again in this case not concerned with fighting the Israelis. Although Hizbullah shared an outright rejection for the confessional regime in place, it was different from Al-Haraka’s political ideals, instead focusing more on building a military resistance against Israel. The fate of Al-Moussawi’s movement was linked to internal Iranian political disagreement over the quality of “exporting the revolution” to Lebanon. As Khomeini seemed to be more interested in the events unfolding in Iraq and favored a more focused “Lebanese” resistance against Israel, Montazeri the patron of Al Moussawi ended up losing against the more pragmatic cause of Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the Iranian ambassador in Syria in the early 1980s. Mohtashemi sponsored the Pasdaran mission to Baalbeck that was aimed at training militants to fight Israeli forces.

Hassan Fadlallah reinforced the claim that Hizbullah represented a different political line when he mapped the influence al-Dawa party had on Shi’i politics “infiltration” of Amal in the later 1970s early 1980s . In echo with Daher’s work on the formative period, Fadlallah describes al-Dawa and other Islamic groups as concerned with general “strategic” questions of political change affecting the identity of the community and not concerned with “urgent political matters” (ahdāth al siyāsiya al tāri’a), something early autonomous resistance initiatives would focus on (for example the legacy of Ragheb Harb). Fadlallah also states that Amal remained for a long time an umbrella organization for all those formations.

1985 was also the year when Hizbullah started spreading its resistance in the South, breaking out of its Bekaa-based isolation. Fadlallah’s article is written at a time when the resistance has assumed a more stable formation. A party is needed in order to produce change but a party’s political power should be defined in clerical terms. It seems clear here that by this time, Hizbullah had become a fully formed group distinguished from the rest of the social and political initiatives that prevailed at the time of its formation. Was Fadlallah hoping that Hizbullah could be involved much more than just a military resistance? Was he trying to legally delineate the relationship between party and general community awakening? Either Fadlallah was too ambitious as to what Hizbullah was set to do (the party of God then still in its infancy), and maybe hoped to play a role in it, or he could foresee the development of a party and its relationship to the community and attempted to define its limits.

When Fadlallah was writing in the early 1980s, if the climate was conducive to grand revolutionary projects, his article signaled a strong hope for clerics at large and other “Islamicized” militants and intellectuals that Hizbullah would become the organizational and political catalyst of a generalized Islamic awakening ‘sahwa islāmiya’. As noted above, the multitude of militant and/or intellectual organizations, parties, committees and associations of all kinds were ripe, engaging in different types of social and cultural initiatives. By delimiting the scope of action of a political party, Hizbullah, Fadlallah may have been preparing the intellectual and juridical ground to link a general communitarian change to party-led political work, assigning to each field its responsibilities and limitations. His writings provided a cultural background in which Hizbullah made sense of its social mobilization through the use of the different Islamic tropes. In effect, Fadlallah may have been, in this article published in Al-Muntalaq, the first and last theorizer or grand ideologue of the party that became known as Hizbullah. 

[Excerpted from Hizbullah and the Politics of Remembrance: Writing Nations with permission from the author © 2016.]