Hassan Nasrallah made four mistakes


In his Ashoura speech this past weekend, Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, irritated many Christians. He recommended that they take stock of their situation, especially, as he described it, the mistaken wager that some Christians once placed on Israel; but also, Nasrallah implied, their more recent dependence on the West in general and the United States in particular.

Nasrallah urged Christians “not to accept that some of them push [the community]toward suicide built on artificial fear and the [fear]of a bogeyman raised constantly and daily.” He went on to advise that Christians engage in “a calm dialogue between themselves … over their present and future choices to benefit from the experiences of the past.”
At one level, Nasrallah’s statements were interpreted as a warning to those Christian parties, above all the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb, who have opposed the government’s legitimization of Hizbullah’s weapons. It is in this vein that Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, responded that Nasrallah’s comments suggested that there was no need for a national dialogue over the weapons, even though such a process was approved during the Doha conference of May 2008.

However, there was something far more disturbing in what Nasrallah said, much more illustrative of Hizbullah’s impossible relationship with the Lebanese system. Echoes of this we heard several weeks ago, when the secretary general read his party’s new program. It is that Hizbullah today is challenging a key foundation of post-Independence Lebanon as a place between East and West, belonging to neither but also – and this was always understood – open to, and ambiguously even a part of, both.

There has long been in Hizbullah’s actions and public discourse a desire to turn Lebanon against the West, or at least to widen the rift between the two. Nasrallah’s mention of Israel was but a pretext, since Christians long ago, and quite sensibly, gave up on an Israeli alliance. The assault on Lebanon’s Western sympathies began during the 1980s when Hizbullah and its precursors abducted Americans and Europeans in Beirut, several of whom were murdered or allowed to die; and it continued during the postwar period, when the party used resistance against Israel as a byword to justify the broader rejection of American and European influence in Lebanese affairs. At the time this found favor with Syria, which saw the attitude as reinforcing Syrian exclusivity in shaping Lebanon’s future.
After 2005, and the Syrian withdrawal, Hizbullah went a step further. Because the party was obliged more than ever before to anchor itself in Lebanese realities, without a Syrian Army protecting its back and allowing it to focus on the conflict with Israel, it became imperative for Hizbullah to mobilize anti-Western sentiment nationally. The endeavor was mostly unsuccessful, until the party was rewarded when it pushed Michel Aoun and his Christian followers into a confrontation with the United States and, to a lesser extent, with the Europeans, by forcing the general to make a priority of defending his affiliation with Hizbullah.

Not enough has been written about the anti-globalization strain in Hizbullah’s rhetoric. Distilled down to its simplest form, it expresses the party’s hostility toward what it considers Western global domination, which finds a receptive ear in developing countries, particularly those in Africa and Latin America, where Hizbullah has expanded its networks among emigrant Shiite communities. However, this contrasts starkly with views in the “other” Lebanon, that which has long embraced the idea that Lebanon benefits greatly from globalization, and that has sent emigrants abroad, particularly to the West, to integrate into society.

The Lebanese ideal, if such a word can be used, is that Lebanon can only survive by remaining on good terms with the outside, particularly the West and the Arab world, both regions deeply ambivalent today toward Hizbullah and its sponsor, Iran. Hizbullah lives a paradox when embracing the notion that the Islamic community, or umma, must transcend national boundaries (its fealty to Iran notwithstanding), yet rejects this when the political, economic, and cultural values crossing borders are those Hizbullah regards as disadvantageous or menacing.

Hizbullah is fighting a losing battle, even among its own. The inherent cosmopolitanism of the Shiites will likely undermine efforts to create an enduring rift between the community and the West, even though Hizbullah has managed to alienate some sympathetic Shiites living abroad from their own governments, particularly in the United States. This applies even more to the rest of Lebanese society. It’s not a militia, through intimidation and without offering any realistic alternatives, that will persuade the Lebanese to abandon their innate openness, which helped sustain them through countless crises for well over a century.

Nasrallah made four mistakes in his Ashoura speech. He, once again, overstepped his boundaries in the context of the Lebanese system of sectarian compromise by taking an entire religious community to task when no one asked for his counsel. He addressed, therefore implicitly criticized, Christians in general, forgetting that his beef was allegedly only with a minority that once sided with Israel. He sounded threatening. And he blithely ignored the fact that when he told the Christians to be Lebanese above all, he had no credibility to do so inasmuch as he and his organization come across as being Iranian above all.

The Ashoura speech once again served to remind us that Nasrallah has no intention of “Lebanonizing” Hizbullah; rather he is seeking to mold Lebanon in Hizbullah’s image. It won’t work, and the secretary general, for the umpteenth time, has overestimated his capacities. Someone should have reminded him that Ashoura is, above all, a commemoration of self-sacrifice, in other words a day to embrace humility.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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