Myths and Embellishments in Hezbollah’s Account of Its History

Few writers are able to get under the skin of Hezbollah, the Shia organization based in Lebanon that describes itself as a “resistance” group. Not so Mohanad Hage Ali, a Shia-born native of south Lebanon. In his book, “Nationalism, Transnationalism and Political Islam,” Hage Ali goes some way toward unpicking the embroidery, embellishments and outright myths that Hezbollah resorts to in justifying its existence.

With unfettered access to local literature, oral legends and the native population, Hage Ali deconstructs Hezbollah’s platform into its basic elements, some of which are rooted in local Shia legends, others borrowed from Iranian narratives. In this adaptation of his doctoral dissertation at the London School of Economics, he tackles questions of communal identity and its construction.

A political scientist, Hage Ali analyzes the rise of Hezbollah from the prism of national identity, a fair choice. The book skillfully presents Hezbollah’s version of history, so riddled with inaccuracies that they rate as low-grade propaganda. Yet Hage Ali also fails to set the record straight – perhaps because that would have turned his volume into an exhaustive discussion of the party’s ideology. A rebuttal of these claims, maybe in a new and expanded edition, might be a good idea.

But before putting Hage Ali’s book on trial, an event may be illustrative of how Hezbollah alternates between local and regional issues to its advantage.

Only 10 weeks after Hezbollah declared its “divine victory” over Israel in mid-August 2006, it deployed its cadres to occupy downtown Beirut and besieged former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Even though the party had called it the “first major victory against America and its allies since the end of the Cold War,” it was not celebrating its “international achievement”: it was occupying itself with domestic Lebanese squabbling. The Shia party’s instigation against the nation’s Sunni prime minister was not coincidental. It was a calculated effort to deflect Shia anger away from the destruction they had suffered at the hands of Israel. Just when the Lebanese Shia had had it with Hezbollah’s regional adventures, the party redirected their anger by reviving old Shia-Sunni animosities and vilifying Siniora. The effort illustrated how, in order to advance its interests, the party married its regional agenda with Lebanon’s domestic politics.

Hage Ali presents a budding Shia identity, a late comer compared to the Druze and Maronites, whose communities politically organized as early as the 16th century. The Shia, for their part, suffered punitive Mamluk campaigns that flushed them from Tripoli and Keserwan to Mount Amil in the south, and the northern Bekaa Valley in the east. Since their relocation, the Shia lived as peasants under the rule of local chieftains who acted as Ottoman tax collectors.

The author reports that most Shia history accounts were unsubstantiated, with sources grounded more in oral – rather than written or archaeological – accounts. Hezbollah’s propagandists took these Shia narratives, about an imagined Amili nation yearning for independence, unreservedly, and spun them to match the party’s current narrative about an “Islamic resistance,” whose origins could be traced to the fourth caliph, the first Shia imam Ali bin Abi Taleb.

In Hezbollah’s narrative, Mount Amil in south Lebanon becomes a holy land mentioned in the Quran, according to Hage Ali. The Amili “nation” becomes a monolithic bloc that participated in all sorts of wars in defense of “true Islam.” Because the Amilis represented “true Islam,” they presumably played an instrumental role in resisting, and defeating, the successive foreign and domestic conspiracies against it. Thus, even Saladin, the 12th century hero who defeated the Crusades according to mainstream Arab history, is depicted as a traitor who settled for a truce that stopped the Amilis from liberating the whole land.

The author reports that Hezbollah vilifies the Ottoman Empire, as well as Lebanon’s “founding fathers,” the two emirs Fakhriddine II and Shihab II, accusing them of collaborating with Catholic popes. If one can add to the book, Lebanon’s emirs were not the only Muslim sellout to Catholic Europe. The Safavids of Iran, the dynasty that sponsored Hezbollah’s founding mythology, was a staunch ally of the Pope, in a bid to counter alliances with the Ottomans and Protestant England.

Hage Ali further quotes Hezbollah’s literature: “When a delegation from the US embassy visited a [Lebanese] Shia cleric in 1953 to invite him onboard the Roosevelt, an American aircraft carrier, the cleric, Mohamad Jawad Moghnieh, rejected both the ‘luxurious’ car that was offered and the visit to the warship.” Moghnieh justified his refusal on the grounds that “our sons and brothers in Palestine are being killed by the criminal weapons that America pours into Israel.” Moghnieh also informed his American visitors that “America is the Arab nation’s and Islam’s bitterest enemy; it established Israel, [and] killed and displaced our people in Palestine.”

The Moghninh-American example, however, is a revisionist reading of events. Though not in the book, it is worth mentioning that in 1953, America had not yet become Israel’s diplomatic sponsor and supplier of arms and aid. Israel was still under European tutelage, and participated with France and Britain in the 1956 “Tripartite Aggression” against the Suez Canal, an attack that Washington was forced to end by threatening the aggressors with punitive action. Hezbollah’s propagandists might not know it, or might simply not care about inaccuracies, but until the mid 1960s, America was still seen as the benevolent power that could rid the Arabs of the malicious European colonials.

“Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam” is several cuts above the average book on Hezbollah. But Hage Ali would be well advised to carry his research to more exhaustive levels. In a possible future volume, Hage Ali could further expand his work by studying the formation of Lebanese Shia identity in comparison to other Shia in the region, such as in Iraq. Doing so would require further sources, first and foremost the late Iraqi historian Jawad Ali and sociologist Faleh Abdul-Jabbar. In addition, Heinz Helm, whose concise scholarly work on the development of Shia identity since its inception in the 10th century, could help provide such a comparative approach.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.