Lebanese Shia turn against the 'party of God'

Lebanese Shia turn against the 'party of God'
5 min read
18 June, 2015
Comment: Hizballah has hijacked the Shia identity, is fighting a war in Syria on sectarian lines and calls its Shia opponents US agents. Many Lebanese Shia have had enough.
Friends and relatives mourn Hizballah fighter who died in Syria in May, 2015 [Getty]
Many Lebanese from the Shia community are dissatisfied and angry that one political party, Hizballah, has hijacked their identity and dragged them into a war outside their country's borders.

Hizballah is a Lebanese political party with a powerful paramilitary wing and a network of organisations providing social, educational and health services in marginalised Shia areas in Lebanon.

After Lebanon's independence from French occupation in 1943, the Shia in Lebanon were socially and economically marginalised. They were poor, but they were also proud. Many joined the Amal movement in the 1970s - but it was not the "movement of the dispossessed" that had enchanted them, or an identity crisis that had galvanised them, as much as a regular source of income and an employment.

In the early 1980s, a new source of income arrived: the Iranians. The name Hizballah appeared in many Shia villages. It was a new name and it took some for many to become accustomed to it. It was, after all, "the party of God".

The Iranians brought in videos of Iranian soldiers throwing themselves under a tank and emerging from underneath unscathed to crawl under barbwire. Watching these videos became a favourite passtime for some villages.

Many Shias were interested in this new party and felt empowered by them - another reason to join.

In the late 1980s, Hizballah and Amal fought each other. Some villagers, particularly in the northern Bekaa valley, refused to join the fight. Members of the same family were employed by either of the two parties/militias.
What would you like me to do? Wake up one morning and shoot dead my brother who's lying on the mattress beside me?

A resident from a Lebanese Shia village in the 1980s

"What would you like me to do? Wake up one morning and shoot dead my brother who's lying on the mattress beside me?" is what a man from Yammouneh, a Shia village in the northern Bekaa valley, once said to his neighbour.

He was employed by Amal, his brother by Hizballah.

Hizballah took over from the main resistance movement against Israel - which included Shia communists - in the south of Lebanon. Hizballah's cause - as a resistance movement - was seen as a just one by most Lebanese. This of course included Shias who belonged to other parties.

But today, Hizballah is fighting in Syria. Regardless of how Hizballah views or justifies its intervention in Syria, its actions have not only made them lose the support of non-Shias in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab region, but also a significant portion of Lebanese Shias, including some of the families of Hizballah members.

"Jihad in Islam is subject to strict conditions, such as the defence of religion, self and honour. But the war in Syria is not religiously legitimate, it's political," Asharq al-Awsat, an Arabic international newspaper, quoted Sheikh Mohammad al-Haj Hassan, the head of the Free Shia Movement, to have said.

Many Shias still need Hizballah's hospitals, schools, social programmes, and agricultural services - services that the state does not provide.

However, they don't want a war. They have learned at least this much from Lebanon's long civil war.

But there are more reasons many in the Shia community are fed up with Hizballah's new path and rhetoric. Hizballah's secretary general Hassan Nasrallah in May referred to Shias who rejected his group as agents of the US.

"The Shias of the [US] Embassy are traitors, agents and morons. No one can alter our convictions. We won't be silent any more and we will no longer humour anyone." 

Nasrallah would not have threatened his Shia opponents if he hadn't seen them as a significant opposition and a threat to the party's hope to recruit fighters to replace so many who have died fighting in Syria.

Read Also: Factionalism and political paralysis reign supreme in Lebanon

On 23 May, Al Aan TV, a pan-Arab television station based in Dubai, interviewed Sheikh Ali al-Amin, the former mufti of Tyre and a leading Shia cleric. Amin said: "The Shia sect cannot be reduced to a party. Some of [Hizballah's] allies may agree with them - or maybe some of the religious institutions that they dominate - but no party can represent a sect and there are more questions by the Shia community about what benefit comes from interference [in Syria] and the damage it is doing to the Shia within the Arab world and Lebanon."

On Ali al-Amin's website, on 8 June, Amin was reported to have told Aliwaa, a Lebanese daily newspaper: "I am one of Lebanon's Shia. I refuse to have to choose between two options: either you are with the Iranian Embassy or the US Embassy."

Amin added that the phrase "Shia of the Embassy" was "created as a campaign to prevent the other opinion from being heard".

Journalists, political activists, any citizen from a Shia background who opposes Hizballah's views or believes in empowering state institutions belongs to the "Shia of the Embassy". Their fault? They have not chosen their sect to represent their identity.
I am one of Lebanon's Shia. I refuse to have to choose between two options: either you are with the Iranian Embassy or the American Embassy.

Ali al-Amin: An influential Shia cleric

Their big mistake is that they did not choose to support a party they hadn't voted for and fundamentally disagree with, who wants to hijack their identity and say they represent all of them, or call them "traitors" for disagreeing with their policies.

Many, if not the majority of Lebanese Shias, were shocked at Hizballah's support for reducing Michel Samaha's sentence for transporting explosives into Lebanon in an attempt to destabilise it.

They see Samaha, a former Lebanese cabinet minister, as the real traitor who committed a crime against their country.

Many Shias are afraid to criticise Hizballah. They know that Nasrallah's threats are real.

However, some have spoken out. On 17 June, a few hundred people, many Shia among them, gathered in Riad al-Solh square in Beirut and voiced their opinions in a protest against Hizballah's involvement in Syria.

At the gathering, a journalist, also called Ali al-Amin, said: "We are with the strength of logic, not the logic of strength."

Others condemned Hizballah for not distinguishing between Syrian revolutionaries and militant Islamists.

This came despite dwindling US support for independent Shia NGOs critical of Hizballah.

The voices who came to the open may have been few, but it is evident that they don't represent a minority of Shias. These voices will multiply, particularly with the prolonged involvement of Hizballah in the fighting in Syria.