How do we contextualize Islamist organizations like Hezbollah

By Rola elHusseini

*This memo was prepared for the “Evolving Methodologies in the Study of Islamist Politics” 

Every year a large number of books and articles are published about the Lebanese organization Hezbollah. These publications are often case studies of the organization, and because of the sensationalism of the topic they always attract a lot of attention, despite the fact that they often lack new insights. A notable feature of these studies is that Hezbollah is rarely examined as an actor within a larger context composed of other Islamist organizations. Works that do identify Hezbollah as one of a variety if Islamist organizations often provide a simple comparative analysis, and are generally rooted in a “terrorism” perspective, therefore analyzing Islamist groups almost exclusively from the point of view of their enmity with Israel. Comparative analyses of Islamist parties in general remain rare; there are only a handful of exceptions that address political participation and the impact of inclusion on political moderation, or the role that these organizations can play in strengthening the state. To my knowledge only one forthcoming study comparatively examines Hezbollah’s participation in the Lebanese political game, finding parallels in the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian national politics. Furthermore, Lebanese Islamist groups other than Hezbollah remain understudied in general by American scholars, probably because they have been of little interest to those concerned with terrorism.

As argued by Michaelle Browers, relational analyses of Islamist groups are even rarer than traditional comparative analyses. The failure to contextualize Hezbollah in relation to other Lebanese Islamist groups can lead us to overlook valuable insights. During the extensive fieldwork that I conducted among Sunni Islamists in northern Lebanon in 2014 and 2015, Hezbollah regularly came up in conversations with my interlocutors. This is not surprising, given the prominent profile of the organization and the context of increasing intra-Muslim strife and sectarianism in the region (sectarian antagonism has been particularly exacerbated by the Syrian civil war, and the interference of Hezbollah and Iran on the side of the Assad regime). While Hezbollah was often mentioned with begrudging respect in my interviews with Sunnis, it was a respect tinged with bitterness — not only because of the disappointment many of these groups feel vis-à-vis Hezbollah’s increasing sectarian positioning, but also because the predominantly Shiite group has managed to succeed in an area where my Sunni interlocutors have often failed. Indeed, the name of Hezbollah did not only come up in discussions of the war next door in Syria, but rather in the context of Hezbollah’s effectiveness in drawing majority support among the Shiites and monopolizing political representation in Lebanon. While the Sunni Islamist scene is splintered among several organizations, the Shiite political scene is firmly controlled by Hezbollah and its ally Amal. What explains the success of Hezbollah in attracting and retaining the loyalty of the majority of the Lebanese Shiites? Is it a result of Hezbollah’s strong commitment to social services, as described in a recent book? Or is the perception of Hezbollah as the protector of its community the determining factor? These are questions that can be usefully addressed in a comparative fashion.

Viewing Hezbollah as coinciding within the same Lebanese context as the Jama‘a Islamiyya (JI), the local Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, provides the opportunity to consider competing explanations for the consolidation of support among the Shiites for Hezbollah, and also to examine the lack of similar support for JI among the Sunnis. Despite the fact that JI is a couple of decades older than Hezbollah it has so far been unable to gain the same degree of hegemony. As noted above, many scholars attribute Hezbollah’s success to its foundational role in the resistance against Israel — especially the perceived defeat of the Jewish state in 2000 with its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, and the so-called “divine victory” in the summer of 2006, when Hezbollah emerged intact from a month-long Israeli onslaught. These events have made Hezbollah into the community’s protector in the eyes of many Lebanese Shiites, giving them a sense of pride centered in the organization. While dissenting voices exist, the naysayers are in the minority. Hezbollah has remained strong despite its involvement in the Syrian war on the side of the Assad regime, and despite the many mistakes of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, which have antagonized the Arab world at large and increasingly isolated the community. Nasrallah maintained in a speech on February 16th of this year that there is an Israeli-Saudi-Turkish axis involved in the war in Syria, and warned against an Arab rapprochement with Israel. The Lebanese foreign minister, who is a member of the Christian party allied with Hezbollah, drew from this perspective in declining to support Saudi resolutions against Iran. A week later, the Gulf Cooperation Council added Hezbollah on the list of terrorist organizations, a move that had been resisted for long time, thereby joining the United States, Canada, Australia and most of Europe in their classification of the group. By estranging itself and Lebanon at large from the Arabs, Hezbollah has effectively isolated the Shiite community from its larger environment. The organization has therefore positioned itself as the principle bulwark defending the Shiites against perceived threats, both from the old enemy, Israel, and from the new foe, Sunni extremists.

In contrast, JI has been unable to consolidate the Sunni community under the organization’s leadership. Its natural constituents, the Sunnis of Northern Lebanon, Beirut, and Sidon, remain divided in their loyalties among an array of traditional leaders and new Sunni elites. The new elites in particular, mainly rich businessmen who have made their fortunes abroad, have used their capital to create a clientele among their coreligionists, therefore depriving JI of its small window of opportunity to assume leadership of the community. JI does not have the clout of being a military protector, nor does it have enough political influence to give it much leverage in Sunni affairs. It has been unable to provide Sunnis with jobs or state benefits. The group boycotted the 2005 legislative elections, and in 2009 only one JI member was elected to parliament (there have been no elections in Lebanon since 2009).

While JI has established a large network of social-service institutions similar to Hezbollah’s, these efforts have also been limited by a lack of political and social clout. JI institutions include the Dar al-Shifa’ hospital, a series of clinics, a network of fifteen schools concentrated mainly in the north of Lebanon, a small women’s organization, and a scouting group for youths. These efforts are substantial, but they have been unable to attract the attention and loyalty of large swaths of the Lebanese Sunnis in the same manner as Hezbollah’s social organizations have done among the Shiites. When I asked about their lack of social appeal, leaders in JI attributed the situation to political influence, suggesting that, “contrary to Hezbollah, [we] do not have the political and financial backing of a state.” Hopes among JI adherents for greater political influence and possible financial support were dashed when Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in Egypt by the military in July of 2013, greatly weakening the Muslim Brotherhood. JI does receive moral support from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, but this support so far has not translated itself into financial assistance.

Juxtaposing Hezbollah and JI elucidates for astute observers the differences in how Shi‘ism and Sunnism work at the national and international level. Through its involvement in the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah has not only alienated itself from its larger Muslim context, but has also shown its dependence on Iran for patronage, funding, and military training. While Iran serves as the primary “Shiite state” and the sole supporter of the Shiites in the region, there is a lack of any similar cohesion among the Sunni. The Sunnis are divided among numerous factions, including those sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood (in its many iterations), and those who support and receive assistance from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

There are many things to learn by linking an analysis of two groups such as Hezbollah and JI, which occupy, to some extent, the same national milieu. This approach can give us insights into how the interactions and imbalances between the two groups can only be interpreted within a larger context, involving regional players. The increasing tension between Hezbollah and JI cannot be understood outside the context of what some have called the “new Arab cold war,” centered on the sectarian conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, however, the differences in the popularity and influence enjoyed by Hezbollah and JI cannot be understood unless one is aware of the particular trajectories of these communities, their loyalties, and their regional connections.

Rola elHusseini is a research associate professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and a non-resident scholar with the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) in Washington DC.

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