TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Sacrifice and Martyrdom in Lebanon: The Religious Contents of Hezbollah's War

Against the backdrop of the violence between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, an interesting letter-to-the-editor appeared in the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel on July 30. The author, Dr. Mounir Herzallah, self-identifies as a Lebanese Shiite and comments:

“Until 2002, I lived in a small village in the south of Lebanon near Mardschajun, with a majority population of Shiites, like myself. After Israel’s departure from Lebanon, it did not take long for Hezbollah to show up and to take over, not only with us but in all the neighboring villages as well. Greeted as successful resistance fighters, they came loaded with arms and, in our village too, they constructed missile storage facilities in an underground bunker. The social work of the Party of God entailed building a school and an apartment building right on top of the bunker! A local sheikh explained to me, with a smile, that the Jews would lose in any case: either because they would be hit with the missiles or because, should they attack the missile storage, they would be condemned by the world public due to ensuing civilian deaths. The [Hezbollah] was not at all interested in the Lebanese people; they only used them as shields and—when they were dead—as propaganda. As long as Hezbollah remains there, there will be no peace and quiet.” (my translation)

The connection between war and welfare—schools on top of bunkers—is intriguing and reminiscent of other “guns and butter” debates. So is the simultaneous suggestion that Hezbollah merely instrumentalizes the local population: it may claim to be fighting in the name of some population, in order to invoke a democratic legitimacy, but in fact it only uses the locals as human shields. Hence also the reports that in some instances Hezbollah has prevented civilian departures from the warfront in Southern Lebanon precisely in order to increase casualty rates. One notes similarly the willingness to tolerate deaths when its own missiles hit Israeli Arabs. This predisposition of an extremist political movement to argue, occasionally, with a democratizing rhetoric (defending a people) while in fact disregarding the lives of the people is a symptomatic feature of totalitarian mentalities: neither Hitler nor Stalin cared much about the numbers of their own who were lost.

Beyond these two possible political readings—the social component of a militarist agenda and the abuse of democratic rhetoric for undemocratic goals—the centrality of the problem of sacrifice lends itself to consideration particularly in light of its religious valence, along the lines of discussions about religion that have taken place in the pages of Telos. Matthias Küntzel, whose work has appeared in the journal, discussed this aspect in detail in his essay on “Ahmadinejad’s World.”

The international community, the United Nations, and the opinion-page authors of the press delude themselves into believing that the conflict is only about rational questions—where the borders of which state will run—as if a resolution of such technical matters would usher in an era of perpetual peace. That enlightenment optimism however has proven itself to be stunningly ineffective facing the durability of violence (although perhaps no more ineffective in the Middle East than in Darfur or in North Korea or . . .). Yet this conflict, on a more profound level, has to do with images and practices of sacrifice, replete with competing religious traditions (institutionalizations of the sacred), so it should come as no surprise that UN resolutions or shuttle diplomacy or aspirations for rational consensus have little impact. In fact, the sacrality of sacrifice is a crucial component of the war—both in terms of the inflection of the clash of civilizations between radical Islamicism and western modernity and (what is becoming increasingly clear) even within the intra-Islamic dialectic between Shia and Sunni. Lebanon is where this all is played out, for now; whether Lebanon will turn out to be a “Spanish Civil War,” prelude to a larger conflagration between the West and a nuclear Iran, remains to be seen.

The problem of sacrifice defines the competition between Islamicism and the West, as the Madrid bombers’ message made gruesomely explicitly: “You love life but we love death.” Islamicism includes a radical cultural critique of western modernity, judged not only as promiscuous (women’s emancipation) and decadent (consumerism) but also idolatrous in its attachment to life. As Küntzel points out, Khomeini explicitly denounces the natural world as “the scum of creation”; in other words, the real enemy is natural life. The life-obsessed West appears as the culture incapable of sacrifice and which, therefore, loses its coherence and cultural identity. It is a target for Islamicism not only because of geographical proximity but because it seems ripe for the taking: a resurgent faith will conquer the faithless. No wonder that Jean Baudrillard, in his 9/11 essay, could celebrate the terrorist’s willingness to sacrifice themselves as an act of authenticity of which the West—so he suggested—is no longer capable.[1]

Clearly one can counter this criticism. The West maintains considerable cultural resources, collectively and individually, yet at the same time, there is an element of truth in the critique of modernity. Western secularism, the legacy of the Enlightenment, has surrendered its commitment to its own birthright values, especially Enlightenment universalism, and has dwindled into a cultural relativism compounded by commodity fetishism. Without an emphatic identity and programmatically hostile to its own traditions, the West, especially Western Europe but the US as well, has reverted to a sort of paganism: a paganism however without noble Romans. Its secularism can only be defined negatively—the empty churches of Europe (next to the full mosques)—without the positive contents that the secularizing deist thinkers of the eighteenth century could still maintain. Progress without providence may not be sustainable (a problem named by the title of this journal). Contemporary secularism is no longer a matter of an emancipatory escape from dogmatic parochialism (as it once may have been) but a privatizing diminishment of the human condition. “Liberty or Death” was a rallying cry of the French Revolution: is there anything for which Europeans are prepared to fight today?

While Islamicism regards the West of “the Crusaders” as decadent because incapable of sacrifice, it casts Jews as carriers of false sacrifice: the blood libel. However one may judge the long history of Jewish-Islamic relations, which can surely not be reduced to romanticized or politically-correct and sanitized accounts of Muslim Spain, it is clear that today the Muslim world and especially the Islamicist current have inherited the “old European” anti-Semitism, the classic texts of which circulate widely in Arabic translations. A central component of this traditional anti-Semitism was the blood libel, the myth of ritual sacrifice in Jewish cult. The tenacity of this ancient content is remarkable, as it now resurfaces and forms the centerpiece of Islamic anti-Semitism. All the more unfortunate that, in a recent incident in the Netherlands, the distinguished scholar of ancient Judaism at the University of Utrecht, Pieter W. van der Horst, was pressured into censoring a public address and deleting the discussion of the circulation of the blood libel accusation in the contemporary Muslim world. Reportedly the university did not want to antagonize Muslim student groups.

The pressures that van der Horst faced at the university are a good example of the “Eurabia” thesis, the hypothesis that Western European elites are eager to accommodate Muslim and Islamicist perspectives, even at the price of curtailing European traditions.[2] However the problem of sacrifice is even more important as an element in the intra-Islamic dynamic: it is the category with which the Shia and, ultimately, Iran pursue ascendancy over the Sunni regimes.

Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner, a recent best-seller, includes a grim survey of the history of Afghanistan from the monarchy and the Soviet invasion, to the Taliban regime. Yet the personal friendship at the center of the novel is very much about the Sunni-Shia dynamic: the Sunni are the powerful, political force while the Shia are subservient and melancholy. This standard contrast also informs the characterizations in Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, to which Küntzel drew my attention in the article linked above. When Canetti discusses Islam, a generalized Sunni version, it is explicitly as a “religion of war” in the sense of an irreconcilable opposition between the “crowds” of believers and unbelievers on the Day of Judgment. “The bi-partition of the crowd in Islam is unconditional. The faithful and the unbelieving are fated to be separate forever and to fight each other. The War of Religion is a sacred duty and thus, though in a less comprehensive form, the double crowd of the Last Judgment is prefigured in every earthly battle.”[3] This warrior ethos and absolute adversariality, which Canetti attributes to Koranic Islam, stand in marked contrast to his account of the Shiites: the perpetual mourning for the suffering of Husain at the Battle of Kerbala. “No faith has ever laid greater emphasis on lament. It is the highest religious duty, and many times more meritorious than any other good work” (253). He goes on to cite a nineteenth-century account of the Festival of Ashura in which exhausted participants are trampled to death by press of the crowd. “No destiny is accounted more beautiful than to die on the feast-day of Ashura, when the gates of all eight paradises stand wide open for the saints, and everyone seeks to enter there” (254).

The passage is too long to quote here in full, but it describes a crowd animated by desire for mourning and self-mutilation. It appears that what was once the less political wing of Islam, defined by self-sacrifice (a stance corroborated by the account in The Kite Runner) , has undergone a dramatic inversion: Hezbollah sacrifice, suicide bombing, and the willingness to sacrifice others informs the new warfare. The Sunni states therefore necessarily appear “moderate,” if only because they may be limited by raison d’état. The Islamic revolution may be operating through the state structures of Iran (and there may well be moderating political forces within that state bureaucracy), but its Islamicism is apocalyptic. Its goal is not peace and stability but rather martyrdom as the path to ultimate reward. Hezbollah was not a “state within a state,” i.e., a political unit that might have pursued secession; it is an “anti-state,” profoundly hostile to the compromises politics necessarily entails. Its goal instead is surpassing the “scum of creation.” For the West, the question becomes whether the traditional aspiration for a “good life” retains enough credibility as an alternative to holy death—or are we afraid of “value judgments” even on this?


1. Jean Baudrillard, “The Spirit of Terrorism,” Telos 121 (Fall 2001): 134–42. See also Alain Minc’s reply, “Terrorism of the Spirit,” ibid., 143–45.

2. Bat Ye’Or, Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (Madison: Farleigh Dickinson UP, 2005).

3. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), p. 142.

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