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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
On the Party of God 31.V.2009 13:43
Yesterday in the mid-afternoon, while at my teacher's house chewing qat, discussing politics and religion, everyone yelling over the others to be heard, as is the local custom. But at 6:30, the room fell silent: on the television, a man had taken the podium and was about to speak. His image, and his bearing, was hardly frightening - he looks like anyone's grandfather - but nevertheless, he is considered a leading terrorist by Europe and America, and a hero by many Arabs: Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's militia-cum-political party, Hezbollah. Behind him, the flags of the country and the party superimposed to display the two most enduring symbols of Lebanon: the cedar and the kalashnikov.

My Arabic is far from perfect, so for a political speech like this, my comprehension is at around 60%, but it was nevertheless fascinating to watch. Nasrallah is a tremendous speaker, able to achieve the gravitas of a statesman, the passion of a preacher and, by switching from Classical Arabic to the local dialect, the relatability of the common man - the last a quality shared by the likes of Gemal Abdul Nasser, but perfected in the down-home malapropisms of George W. Bush, the degree to which these were accidental remaining a matter of debate. The speech had none of the turgid rhetoric and theology so common among Islamists - witness Ahmadinejad's unwatchable diatribe at the UN - but then, he wasn't speaking to his party, but to the country as a whole, hoping to bring his party into the government and appeal to the nation as a whole - the Christian minority excepted of course.

What's most interesting is the way Hezbollah now positions itself - not as a terrorist organisation, or even as an insurgency, but as the natural (and only) defense of Lebanon against a hostile enemy which has, it must be admitted, invaded once or twice in the past. The Lebanese army is helpless in the face of the superior technology and funding of the Israeli Defence Forces, whose leadership definitely believes that the best Defence is a good Offence, and yet Hezbollah managed to push them out of Lebanon three years ago, winning it many supporters across the Arab world. For Nasrallah, Hezbollah is willing to defend the people against their enemies - he harked back to Lebanon's resistance to the Ottoman Turks repeatedly - while the government is either unwilling or too in thrall to the United States to do so. In a typical moment, he asked 'what would happen if the prime minister went to Iran and asked for weapons?' But of course, he won't - America would never allow it. But this allows Nasrallah to claim a conciliatory stance - Hezbollah would gladly integrate itself into the national army if that army were genuinely willing or able to defend the nation. Needless to say, the situation isn't likely to come up.

As I watched him on the screen, I could also see his younger self in a picture hanging over the television. It's difficult to overstate the popularity Nasrallah and Hezbollah enjoy in the Arab world, especially since the 2006 war. And, far from being confined to the more conservative elements of society, it's quite widespread. Now obviously, part of the appeal is the victory in the 2006 Lebanon war, but here's another element that Western commentators often overlook - honesty. One big reason Nasrallah is popular is because, unlike the vast majority of politicians in the region, he actually says what he believes. This particular factor can be seen behind many elections that are often cited as proof of the 'radicalisation' of Middle Eastern politics - the Hamas vs. Fatah is projected as being between pro-peace and pro-violence factions, whereas most people refuse to vote for Fatah because it is corrupt and domestically ineffective, supported far more by foreign governments than Palestinians. Similarly, in the 2004 elections, Iranians faced a choice between a bevy of establishment candidates and one unknown quantity who was, if nothing else, honest - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His election was in many ways a protest against a corrupt establishment, and if nothing else can be said for him, he practices what he preaches, appalling though it may be. Lest this seem like an Arab or Muslim problem, witness Netanyahu's shock that Obama's saying 'the United States wants a halt on settlements' meant 'the United States wants a halt on settlements.'

One hypocrisy that's always annoyed me about Western and Israeli commentary is that the definition of 'terrorism' seems to be 'anything Muslims who don't like us happen to do.' Yes, Hezbollah has engaged in terrorism - the prolonged kidnapping of Western hostages can hardly be called anything else - but the targeting of Israeli military installations is not. When Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers, the statement wasn't that 'Israel expects them to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions on Prisoners of War', but rather took the same tone as an attack on a shopping centre might. Similarly, the famous suicide bombings on the US Marine and French Paratrooper barracks were military attacks - I've never understood why suicide bombing is somehow so 'reprehensible' in the est; I guess it's one of those tokens that separates Them from Us. Though there's clearly a continuum between those two Hezbollah bombers, the young men who marched proudly into minefields during the Iran-Iraq war, and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Such wanton loss of life is a tragedy - but it isn't qualitatively different when they do it than when we do. Hezbollah remains the only organisation in Lebanon that has carried out extensive attacks against military targets widely perceived to be acting against the state - which, of course, in no way excuses its past attacks on civilian ones.

Hezbollah has been tremendously successful not because it preaches violence but because it, in large part, promises what people want and comes through on those promises. In a country whose southern regions suffered more than a decade of occupation, it is widely seen as having beat back the occupiers, when the Army proved hopelessly unlikely to do so. In a country where memories of the Sabra and Shatila resonate as does Nanking for the Chinese or KatyƄ for the Poles, they were the only ones who could claim a victory against the perpetrators. And in a country in which many, especially in the Shi'a and Palestinian underclasses, see themselves as besieged on all sides, with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton making ridiculous statements that amounted to 'don't vote for Hezbollah because we said so,' and Der Spiegel accusing Hezbollah of having a hand in Rafiq Hariri's murder, Hezbollah claims the common, honouring the 'martyr' Hariri despite having been anything but a supporter during his lifetime. In a country with a stark division between the rich and a poor, and a history of violence seen in few modern states, it is hardly a wonder many people turn to the Party of God, the kalashnikov proudly on its black-and-yellow flag, as their bulwark against a hostile world.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

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