June 14, 2013 | NOW Lebanon

Hashem Salman: A Moment of Clarity

On Sunday, a small group of demonstrators gathered outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut to protest Iran’s role in the war against the Syrian people. Hezbollah thugs deployed outside the embassy, where they attacked the protesters and brutally murdered a young Shiite activist, Hashem Salman, leaving him to bleed to death in the street. This tragic incident captured the very essence of who and what Hezbollah is and has always been.

Along with Salman's murder outside the Iranian embassy, Hezbollah’s direct intervention in Syria has sparked an interesting reassessment in Lebanon and the broader Arab world of the group’s nature, mission, and identity. While some continue to peddle the line that Hezbollah is undergoing a “transformation” from a “resistance” movement to a sectarian militia, Lebanese and Arab writers are beginning to critically reevaluate the narrative that has shaped how the group has been portrayed in the last two decades. Their corrective reading underscores that the group’s current posture in Syria and Lebanon, as well as its previous so-called “resistance” are two sides of the same coin. Both are about projecting Iranian power in the region.

Since 2005 in particular, the approach of Hezbollah’s opponents has been to charge that the group had lost its compass, turning away from its “true” mission – that is, fighting Israel. Instead, they maintained, Hezbollah was directing its attention as well as its weapons against domestic rivals, and thus needed to correct its course. This was, for example, the attitude of most of the Lebanese March 14 coalition, especially following Hezbollah’s May 2008 armed assault on Beirut and the Shouf Mountain. One hears a similar argument today in response to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.

Critical voices are now challenging basic elements of this wrong-headed position, taking on its very premise. Those who call on Hezbollah to correct its course and readjust the direction of its guns, these critics are saying, continue not to understand what the Party of God – as well as its war with Israel – is about.

“It’s as though the Arabs are saying that what Hezbollah had done prior to the Syrian war was acceptable, and as though its [current] position was not inherent in its very formation,” wrote Hassan Haidar in al-Hayat last Thursday. And even though attitudes toward Hezbollah’s stance against Israel continue to vary (as does the quality of their intellectual arguments), some are hammering away at that point as well. As the battle for Qusayr raged last month, Hazem Saghieh took issue with how “some of Hezbollah’s critics hold that it has redirected its guns away from Israel in the south and against the Syrian people in the north.”  “This assessment,” Saghieh explained, “is wrong and misleading. For when Hezbollah fought with Israel, it was in order to shore up the structure led by the Iranian and Syrian regimes.” That fight, Saghieh added, “was not driven by any national Lebanese objective.” The main issue, rather, always was “the durability and security of the Syrian and Iranian regimes.”

The contention of Hezbollah’s so-called “Lebanonization,” of course, has been at the center of uncritical scholarship on the group since the 1990s. But whatever pretense of this “Lebanonization” the Party may have adopted at different intervals, wrote Dalal al-Bizri last month, it did so to “camouflage its extremist religious and organizational faces that are organically tied to Iran.” But then again, as Bissan al-Sheikh noted last Saturday, the Party itself never actually hid what it was about. “It is, since day one, the armed party of the velayat-e faqih in Lebanon, and this is no secret.” Therefore, as Hassan Haidar remarked, “its current stances are alone the natural result of its genesis, its makeup, and its dependencies.”

So, if Hezbollah didn’t really conceal its identity and mission, what explains the false narrative that has dominated the way in which the group has been perceived for two decades? On the one hand, as Bizri, Haidar, Saghieh, and al-Sheikh note – one way or another, there was self-delusion and false consciousness on the part of the Lebanese and the Arabs more broadly. For his part, al-Sharq al-Awsat columnist Abdel Rahman al-Rashed assigned some blame to the deceitfulness of the Arab media, which helped propagate Hezbollah’s narrative and obscure its true identity.

Arab self-delusion is one thing, but this narrative has also dominated Western scholarship and media portrayals of the Party of God. So entrenched is this narrative that a recent article by an American Lebanon specialist cautioned that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria “could mark the group’s transformation from resistance movement to sectarian militia.”

This is where Hezbollah’s murder of Hashem Salman – and the location of the crime outside the Iranian embassy – becomes a moment of clarity. It brings us back full circle to the group’s inception, clearing the fog of false narratives to reveal the group’s unchanged identity and mission.

The group’s defense of the Iranian embassy harks back to the role the Iranian embassy in Damascus played in Hezbollah’s formation. As top Hezbollah scholar Shimon Shapira explains, prior to the 1982 war in Lebanon, Tehran decided to establish a Shiite movement “that would constitute an alternative to Amal and would faithfully represent Iranian aspirations in Lebanon. The task of setting up the new movement was entrusted to the Iranian ambassador in Damascus, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi.”

Although Hezbollah is often portrayed in Western media and scholarly works as the promoter of Lebanese Shiite interests, its path to power was paved with the bodies of its Shiite rivals, the latest of whom is Hashem Salman. In fact, as I wrote here in 2010, far from being the evolutionary expression of Shiite communal politicization as heralded by Imam Musa Sadr, Hezbollah actually represents a radical break with that camp. In reality, Hezbollah’s Iranian progenitors were the enemies of Sadr and of the Iranian faction aligned with him, which they considered a threat to the Islamic Revolution.

The projection of the Islamic Revolution’s power was and still remains Hezbollah’s mission and identity. Anyone who is not in the “line of Imam Khomeini” (khatt al-Imam) is to be marginalized and, if necessary, killed.

In his recent speech, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, made a good point. Addressing critics of his group’s involvement in Syria, Nasrallah said: “You don’t understand this resistance, or its public, or its milieu, or its culture. For thirty years you haven’t understood it nor will you, because you always understand it wrong.”

He’s right. As Bissan al-Sheikh concluded, “Hezbollah did not hide its face from us. We did that. We used the Israel pretext to blind ourselves to regimes and organizations that we should have resisted long before the ‘fall of Qusayr’.”

More and more critical Lebanese and Arab voices are actually coming to understand, and publicly elucidate, Hezbollah’s true nature and mission. Maybe someday soon their Western counterparts will join them.   

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

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