TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

An Exchange on Lebanese Politics, December 10, 2006

Mass Hizbullah demonstrations continue in Beirut, calling for the government to step down and to grant Hizbullah a veto on all political decisions. Meanwhile, the Lebanese government accuses the Hizbullah leadership of planning a coup. On the other side of the globe, the “Iraq Study Group” in Washington has called for US negotiations with Syria, which would likely lead to a return of a greater Syrian role in Lebanon and a blocking of the investigation into the Hariri and Gemayel assassinations.

Jay Gupta, an editorial associate of Telos, lives and teaches in Beirut. Russell Berman, editor of Telos, teaches at Stanford. We make this exchange available as an invitation to open up the discussion of the political crisis of the moment and the repressive character of Hizbullah.

Dear Russell,

I was wondering if you were familiar with this organization?
http://www.freemuslims.org

I haven’t before come across an Islamic organization that so clearly embodies an “internal critique.”

Jay

Dear Jay,

Thanks. No, I had not seen that.

I guess it’s another big demonstration day in Beirut. Good luck!

Russell

Dear Russell,

Thanks . . . I’m not sure what bothers me more, Hizbullah or the sheer stupidity of its “coalition of the willing” waving Lebanese flags, who clearly haven’t paused to consider whether they mind turning Lebanon into Iran.

Jay

Dear Jay,

For outsiders Lebanese politics are pretty complex:

Who do you mean by the “coalition of the willing” in Lebanon?

In Iraq, one can understand why Shiites have feelings of resentment of having been shut out of power for so long, ergo Sunni vs. Shiite conflict. In Lebanon, I thought there has been some confessional formula that balanced things like this. Or am I wrong?

Russell

Dear Russell

Right now, it is largely Aoun’s supporters and various strays who buy into the nationalist rhetoric of Nasrallah, whose numbers are not insignificant. A typical example of the confusion at work here is the Christian student I spoke to who purportedly rejected Aoun’s alliance, but then in the next breath said how proud he was to see the demonstrators waving Lebanese flags.

As my colleague pointed out, the structure of the current happenings does not so much resemble the rise of fascism in Germany, but rather the bolshevist strategy of using a nationalist rhetoric to reel in political supporters who are then the first candidates for the slaughter once political power has been consolidated. Apparently, Nasrallah’s nationalist rhetoric is not transparently self-serving.

I think you are right; it is not the case that Shiites have been shut out of power in Lebanon. What we are witnessing now is rather the cultish power of Nasrallah to summon his minions to I think, depressingly, do anything he says (I think that Shiites more than Sunnis display a cultish mentality that borders on mass autism.). What is mind-boggling is Nasrallah’s influence on Aoun and his supporters. Perhaps the Israeli missteps this summer played right into Hizbullah’s hands.

It seems to me to be transparently the case that Hizbullah is a transnational Islamic organization pursuing a largely Iranian agenda, while mouthing a nationalist rhetoric; hence, I believe the Iranian revolution is their model. In that revolution, indeed you had students and Marxists who made their Faustian pact with the Mullahs, who spoke the common language of revolutionary nationalism, but who then “kicked the ladder away” and ruthlessly annihilated their non-Islamic “comrades”. Of course, if this is really their plan, they are completely mad. There will be a civil war, not a Shiite state. The Sunnis are closing ranks in preparation for a serious confrontation. A few days ago I saw a consortium of what looked to be about 500 turbaned Sheikhs exit Hariri’s palace. I was told that they were there to pledge unconditional allegiance.

Best,
Jay

Dear Jay,

Thanks for the clarification.

I was puzzled by the term “coalition of the willing” which, internationally, is how Bush has called the countries who supported the US in the Iraq War. Have the Aounists really adopted that term? Or were you using it ironically?

I follow you on the distinction between the politics of 1917 and 1933—but as time passes, and I think more about Arendt, the parallels become more important. Radical anti-institutional movements have to participate in “politics” to gain a critical mass, and once they get into power, the carnage starts. Iran as well, of course. In each place there’s a different flavor.

There’s a nationalist rhetoric in the service of a larger agenda: is it “international” or “anti-national” or “universal”—but in the sense of world conquest. I suspect that locally there are resonances of pan-Arabism, secular and international, now Islamicized—plus whatever “international” agenda may be grounded in Islam (I’m hesitant however to make links like that, explaining specific politics in terms of particular religious precepts, because all religions have ranges of participants, some who wear it more lightly, others who reify it).

What I find stunning, here, is the extent to which the public discussion here ignores the prospects for democratization. I’d distinguish between the realists (the Iraq Study Group) who think they can cut some deal with Tehran and Damascus (presumably by bringing Syria back to Lebanon) in order to achieve some veneer of stability in Iraq. And then there’s the Left which subsumes all issues of substance to the one overriding feature of anti-imperialism to defeat the US. Structurally this is akin to Communist era politics: all matters of local democracy were subordinated to support for the USSR. The revolting part is the tacit alliance between realists and leftists: what they share is contempt for democracy.

Russell

Dear Russell,

Yes, I meant “coalition of the willing” ironically.

Thanks for these comments. The tragedy unfolding is that there is a government in place with real democratic roots and a real democratic agenda that is being threatened with extermination by a fascist-bolshevist organization whose call to “democracy” is louder, more shrill, and obviously mesmerizing, but completely empty.

Jay

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