The flag of the hizbollah (the party of God) waving after the war on Israel in June 2006.
© Harout Arabian
The flag of the hizbollah (the party of God) waving after the war on Israel in June 2006.
Last updated: June 9, 2013

A looming civil war? Hizballah chooses sect over state

Banner Icon High politics In the moment of truth the Hizballah chose sect and religion over state. This is why the Sunnis in Tripoli are back in arms, soon in Beirut and Sidon, and Lebanon may very well be thrown again to the reality of a devastating civil war, writes Josef Olmert.

Hizballah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war brings to the fore yet again the main problem which is at the root of the chronic instability in the Fertile Crescent in general, and in Lebanon and Syria in particular; the sectarian divide, the clash between communal and state loyalties. In a nutshell – who are we?

Many answers have been given to this question, but clearly not one which put the problem to rest. So, the people of the region continue to answer it, tragically enough, through violence and bloodletting.

In the past, there were ideologues who figured out their own answers – Michel Aflaq in the name of Pan-Arabism and the Ba’ath party, Antun Sa’ada in the name of Pan-Syrianism and the Syrian Social Nationalist party (SSNP) – but the situation today shows that the question is as valid as ever.

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Lebanon is still not in a state of civil war, surely not like Syria’s and nothing like that of 1975-1990, but the writing is on the wall. In the past, the Sunnis debated whether their prime source of loyalty was Pan-Arab or Lebanese. Then it was with the rise of the Phalange and other Maronite-dominated movements like the ‘’Guardians of the Cedar’’ and the ‘’Tanzim’’ that the question for them was ‘’Lebanonism’’ or “Maronitism”.

It is sectarianism, Shi’ism, but not Lebanonism.

These days, the question of identity involves the Shi’ite community, with the high likelihood that the Shi’ite involvement in Syria will trigger another bloody Lebanese civil war.

In the Lebanese religious/ethnic mosaic, the Shi’ites were always the most downtrodden, looked-down community. They were despised by the Sunnis, never recognized by the Ottoman Empire as a separate, distinct Mila (religious minority), and never had an outside patron who looked after their interests, and provided them with much-needed protection. The Sunnis were part of the all-Sunni empire, the various Christian communities were adopted by European powers, the Maronites by France, Greek-Orthodox by Russia, Protestants by Britain, and even the Druse became Britain’s allies in the 19thcentury. But not the Shi’ites, as Iran was far away. And Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire.

Add to this the internal social structure of the Shi’ites, who were a rural population, totally dominated by a group of landowners, called Zu’ama (leaders), who resided in Beirut and controlled their illiterate surfs by remote control.

The following story can illustrate the poor state of affairs of the ordinary Shi’ites. A group of them from South Lebanon, one of the two traditional Shi’ite hinterlands (the other is the Biq’a valley, in East Lebanon), came to the local leader Ahmad Al-Asa’ad and asked for a school in their poor village. The response was very simple; why do you need a school, my son studies in Beirut...

The first change in the status of the Shi’ites occurred only in 1926, during the French mandatory regime, when the Lebanese constitution instituted at that year recognized the Shi’ites for the first time in the history of Lebanon as a distinct religious community, separate from the Sunnis. The process of Shi’ite religious separation was completed only in 1967, when the Higher Shi’ite Islamic Council was established.

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This happened in the heydays of the activities of Imam Musa Sadr, a young, charismatic clergy of Iraqi-Lebanese roots, who came to Lebanon from Iran and as of the early 1960s started an internal struggle against the Zu’ama on the one hand, and the Lebanese state on the other.

The struggle against the former was over control of the community, and against the latter over allegations of neglect of and discrimination against the Shi’ites. Sadr was not against the Lebanese state per se, and wished the Shi’ites to become fully equal members of the Lebanese political body and get full recognition of their rights.

But he was realistic enough to realize that the Shi’ites also needed an outside patron, much like the Sunnis who were part of the Sunni-dominated Arab world, and the Maronites, who in the run-down to the civil war of the 1970s started the ill-fated alliance with Israel.

Sadr’s choice was the Syria of Hafiz Assad, an Alawite resisted in his own state for being a member of a non-Sunni despised religious minority. The two forged another fateful alliance as of 1973, when Sadr recognized the Alawite minority in Tripoli as being Shi’ites. Sadr demonstrated the problématique of the Lebanese experience. In order to be fully co-opted in the politics of your country, you needed to have a patron from the outside, and the basis of the alliance was to be religious. So, his position about the Lebanese state can be summarized as being of dual nature, loyalty to religious community first, and only then to the state.

Sadr was out of the scene as of 1979, when he disappeared in Libya, visiting there as a guest of Muammar Qaddafi. The exact circumstances of the disappearance, and certain assassination are not known, but the year 1979 was of significance, as this was the year of the Ayatollahs in Iran, the establishment of the Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran, and with it came another dramatic, on-going challenge to the Shi’ite sense of identity in Lebanon.

Iran’s influence was felt already in 1981, when dissidents from the Sadr Amal organization (an acronym for Lebanese Resistance Battalions), established the Islamic Amal, which after 1982 became Hizballah, an Iranian-led movement dedicated to two causes; the removal of the Israeli occupation from South Lebanon and the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon.

The Israeli presence provided an appealing raison d'être to Hizballah, but that was then (until the final Israeli withdrawal in 2000). Now, there is another excuse for something else altogether, and this is the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East, helped by the Alawites in Syria and as of 2006/7 the Shi’ite regime in Iraq.

It is sectarianism, Shi’ism, but not Lebanonism. In the moment of truth the Hizballah chose sect and religion over state, and this is why they shed so much blood, of themselves and of Sunnis in Syria, particularly in Al-Qusayr and Homs. This is why the Sunnis in Tripoli are back in arms, soon in Beirut and Sidon, and Lebanon may very well be thrown again to the reality of a devastating civil war.

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Josef Olmert
Dr. Josef Olmert is Adjunct Professor at the University of South Carolina. A native of Israel, he was formerly a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv, Hebrew, and Bar-Ilan Universities. He has served in senior positions in the Israeli government. Dr. Olmert was a participant at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and subsequent Israeli/Syrian peace talks.
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