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Michael Young on The Party of "God"

Michael Young writes:

Hezbollah's Other War - New York Times: One evening earlier this summer, Lebanon’s most popular satire show, ‘‘Bas Mat Watan,’’ broadcast a sketch showing an ‘‘interview’’ with Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader and secretary general. ‘‘Nasrallah’’ was asked whether his party would surrender its weapons. He answered that it would, but first several conditions had to be met: there was that woman in Australia, whose land was being encroached upon by Jewish neighbors; then there was the baker in the United States, whose bakery the Jews wanted to take over. The joke was obvious: there were an infinite number of reasons why Hezbollah would never agree to lay down its weapons and become one political party among others.

B>ut it was the rapid reaction to the satiric sketch that sent the more disquieting message. That very night, angry supporters of Hezbollah closed the airport road with burning tires — a warning that they could block at will the main access point in and out of the country — and marched on mainly Sunni, Druse and Christian quarters in Beirut. In a Christian neighborhood, they clashed with the son of a former president and his comrades, and several youths were taken to hospital.

The leaders of Hezbollah defended these actions, explaining that they were the spontaneous emotional response to the mocking of a cleric. It is just as likely that they were a coordinated effort to intimidate critics. In any case, to me the event seemed an essential one, since it symbolized the duality that has defined Lebanon ever since its civil war came to an end in 1990. The duality was once neatly encapsulated by Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druse sect, when he asked, Would Lebanon choose to be Hanoi, circa 1970, or Hong Kong? That is, would it seek to become an international symbol of militancy and armed struggle, particularly against Israel, as represented by Hezbollah, or would it opt for the path laid out by Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s late prime minister and billionaire developer, who sought to transform his country into a business entrepôt for the region, a bastion of liberal capitalism and ecumenical permissiveness?

In seeking to silence critics of their leader, in momentarily shutting down the airport, Hezbollah struck a blow against Lebanon’s tolerant, if always paradoxical, openness. Once again, it seemed, the Lebanese were suffering the consequences of failing to agree on a common destiny. At the time, the consequences seemed bearable. With the outbreak of the current conflict with Israel, they don’t seem bearable at all.

Lebanon today lies ravaged, its inhabitants suffering the consequences of Hezbollah’s hubris and Israel’s terrible, wanton retribution. Since July 12, when party militants abducted two Israeli soldiers and killed three on the Israeli side of the border, Lebanon has been under a virtually complete Israeli blockade. At the time of writing, nearly 1,000 people have been killed, mostly civilians. Predominantly Shiite areas in the south, Beirut’s southern suburbs and the northern Bekaa Valley have been turned into wastelands; Beirut seems empty. Businesses, when they do open, close early; store owners have cleared out their showrooms. The mood is one of ambient disintegration. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of refugees have moved into the capital, even as many of its residents have headed for the mountains. The economy, already precarious before the conflict started, lies in shambles, as does public confidence in the country’s future.

As attention focuses on Israel’s air war and troop movements, there has been less emphasis on the social impact of hundreds of thousands of traumatized Shiites moving into mainly non-Shiite areas. A month into the war, there have been laudable acts of cross-sectarian assistance, with Christian, Sunni and Druse organizations and parties helping refugees in schools and other facilities around the country. Yet there are signs of strain. In an effort to avoid conflicts between Shiite refugees and his own Druse supporters, Walid Jumblatt has allowed the refugees to put up Hezbollah flags and photographs of Nasrallah. The longer the fighting continues, however, the more likely it is that altercations will take place. Israel may have hoped to unite the Lebanese people against Hezbollah and force its government to extend its authority throughout the country. But such unity and such authority are hard to see on the horizon. As recriminations over the war spread, the delivery of aid across group lines will become more difficult, frustration will mount and the sectarian and political divide, already exacerbated by anxiety over Hezbollah's actions and intentions, will only grow.

How long it seems (and yet it is only a year) since the Lebanese were celebrating the Cedar Revolution — or what they always more revealingly called the Independence Intifada. Following the killing of Rafik Hariri in February 2005, it seemed that the Lebanese people were coming together to demand the end of Syrian dominance and the resurrection of their nation’s democracy. In that not so distant past, I had high hopes for the development of a liberal, even libertarian, Lebanon; after all, I reasoned, coexistence, freedom and entrepreneurial drive had been the natural state of the country between independence in 1943 and the start of the civil war in 1975 and even beyond.

Maybe I was biased in this regard. My late father was an American, my mother is a Maronite Christian and I spent the first decade of the war living in predominantly Muslim West Beirut, where I came to embrace multiple identities and distrust the exclusivist certitudes of many Lebanese. When I returned to Lebanon in 1992, after several years in the United States, my enduring memories from that earlier time were of a remarkably diverse society that could rebound from its worst calamities, seemingly effortlessly. Many of the clichés were true: a neighborhood firefight might break out between militias in the morning, but by the end of the day people would be repairing their damaged properties. The Lebanese could be infuriatingly anarchic, stupidly selfish, but they were also determined to take initiatives and embrace new departures. This I saw as the essence of the liberal ideal. When the Syrian Army left, I believed, that ideal could at last be fulfilled.

My understanding was a valid one, but in retrospect an incomplete one. The ideals of the Independence Intifada were largely the ideals of an urban middle class — politicians, professionals, journalists and students; mostly Christians and Sunnis but also some Druse — fed up with a vulgar, vampirical Syrian hegemony. But what about that sizable part of Lebanon that had no inclination to see Syria gone?

From the moment of Hariri’s assassination on Feb. 14, 2005, it was clear that the Shiite political parties, particularly Hezbollah, did not share in the national distress surrounding the former prime minister’s death. Certainly, party officials paid their respects to the Hariri family and condemned the crime, but when tens of thousands of Lebanese descended on Martyrs Square in Beirut to bury Hariri, the most obvious question was, Where are the Shiites? Given that Shiites represent perhaps 35 to 40 percent of the Lebanese population, this was no idle question...

The fear, of course, is that what Israel's bombing fit will do is to shift power in Lebanon from the urban, secular groups that look toward Europe to those who look toward Karbala and Tehran. This fear looks to be coming to pass.