July 25, 2013 | NOW Lebanon

Western Debate Over Hezbollah Obscures its True Nature

Shortly after the European Union’s decision to blacklist Hezbollah’s so-called “military wing” on Tuesday, Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans commented in a statement, “It is good that the EU has decided to call Hezbollah what it is: a terrorist organization.” Timmermans’s characterization is right, of course. Only, rather than clarify Hezbollah’s true nature, the EU’s notion of separate “wings” within the organization has only muddled it.

The ideas underpinning the EU’s language derive from an academic and media discourse that for years obfuscated the nature of the group. Along the way, it left behind a literature about Hezbollah littered with superfluous, misleading, and false categories.

Much ink has been spilled explaining how the distinction between Hezbollah’s so-called military and political wings is entirely fictional. Previously, I addressed a variant of this conceit that compared Hezbollah to the Irish Republican Army, which is regarded as having had a separate political wing, Sinn Fein. Hezbollah leaders have frequently pointed out that, in contrast to the IRA, they make no distinction between their party’s military and political/social spheres. Moreover, Hezbollah’s 1985 Open Letter states this fact plainly. The intellectual pedigree of the dichotomy then issues not from Hezbollah itself or Western officials crafting policies to deal with the organization, but rather is traced back to the 1990’s and to the theory of Hezbollah’s “Lebanonization.”

In a 1998 article, academic Augustus Richard Norton laid the foundation for the view distinguishing between the group’s military and socio-political activities, which he nevertheless dubbed “two complementary aspects” of the party. Norton, clearly uncomfortable labeling Hezbollah a terrorist group, argued that “while it may be tempting to dismiss Hizballah [sic] as an extremist or terrorist group, this sort of labeling conceals the fact that Hizballah has managed to build an extremely impressive social base in Lebanon.”

Proponents of the theory of Hezbollah’s “Lebanonization” were deeply opposed to applying the terrorism label to the party because they viewed it, in Norton’s words, as a “rhetorical bludgeon … to outlaw or de-humanize radical or revolutionary groups.” Other analysts who sympathized with, but also diverged from the “Lebanonization” theory by arguing that the group’s military activities were an inseparable part of a “holistic and integrated network,” also dismissed the terrorism label. In the fashionable academic jargon of the day, they maintained that calling the organization a terrorist outfit hindered “the production of knowledge about and understanding of Hizbullah.” In reality, the exact opposite has proved to be the case insofar as it obscured understanding of the true nature of Hezbollah.

In order to dissociate Hezbollah from terrorism, or at least to minimize or question the association, various academics and journalists introduced a series of arguments and categories that were surreal when they were not meaningless or contradictory.

Take for instance the narrative that emerged about the role played by former military commander, Imad Mughniyeh. Hezbollah’s terrorism was laid exclusively at his feet, and those of the party’s so-called “External Security Organization” – as though only Mughniyeh was engaged in acts of terror, effectively acting as a rogue agent. Accordingly, many Hezbollah specialists pushed the conceit even further and questioned whether Mughniyeh had any ties to the group at all.

In addition, some argued that it was easier to trace Hezbollah’s terrorism to Iran, rather than to the group itself, or that Mughniyeh worked “solely on behalf of Iran.” This characterization, drawing such rigid lines between the party and its progenitor, is much more easily dismissed today as entirely divorced from reality. But up until recently – since the 2006 war, and especially since the group’s current involvement in Syria – any suggestion that Hezbollah was a tool of Iranian power projection was commonly scoffed at in the literature as an “anachronistic approach.”

For too long, the level of the discussion was such that it often descended into the absurd. For instance, last year, following an op-ed in The New York Times criticizing the European Left’s reluctance “to take a clear stand when anti-Zionism spills over into anti-Semitism” in Islamist rhetoric, an old debate was rekindled as to whether Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, had made anti-Semitic statements. As NOW’s Alex Rowell documented at the time, some in the American Left jumped to Nasrallah’s defense. Old letters and footnotes were dug up and hairs were split to exonerate Nasrallah – not just by fringe leftists, but also by academics

There should have been no argument whether Nasrallah made anti-Semitic statements, for had anyone bothered to look, they would’ve found that one of the speeches referenced in the debate is available on a Hezbollah website. The 2002 address is soaked with classic anti-Semitic tropes. For instance, Nasrallah told his audience, “God Almighty wants to save you the trouble of having to go after them [i.e., the Jews] all over the world, for they will gather in one place [i.e. Israel] in any case.” At the time, a slightly abridged version of this quote was reported in The Daily Star. But the quote was repeatedly dismissed as a fabrication and aspersions were cast on the integrity of the journalist who reported it. For Hezbollah apologists to obscure the facts is understandable; that ostensibly objective academics and journalists were too lazy to check the evidence sheds some light on the nature of academic and journalistic work on the organization.

It’s not only a matter of intellectual laziness or dishonesty but also one of general absurdity. Debates concerning the group’s anti-Semitism should not hang on whether this or that statement can be verifiably attributed to Nasrallah. Hezbollah’s targeting of an Argentinian Jewish community center in 1994, for instance, should have settled the debate about Hezbollah’s attitude toward Jews regardless of the group’s rhetoric.

But for the group’s defenders, as well as the academics who had heavily invested in their interpretation of the organization, the effect was to disseminate Hezbollah’s line – that it was not a terrorist outfit that waged operations against Jews and Jewish targets around the world, but was a resistance movement solely dedicated to liberating Lebanon and defending it against Israeli aggression. In a speech on the eve of the EU decision, Nasrallah replayed that record, in the hope of reviving this narrative. He maintained that all along, his party’s three objectives were to liberate occupied Lebanese land, to return prisoners and bodies of dead fighters held by Israel, and to contribute in defending Lebanon against Israel.

The media and academic discourse on Hezbollah over the years not only largely helped disseminate the group’s preferred lines, but also often obscured the group’s real nature and mission. However, today Hezbollah is exposed, perhaps more than ever, largely because of its role in Syria.

Lebanese and Arab voices are critically revising the party’s narratives and the many ridiculous categories that have dominated the discussion about its history, identity and objectives. They now recognize what the group always was – and what many experts argued it wasn’t – an Iranian asset, inextricably linked to Tehran and its regional objectives. Arabs and Lebanese increasingly realize that Hezbollah’s “resistance” charade as well as its entry into government institutions were two sides of the same coin – a cover for dominating the Lebanese state. They also know firsthand that the group has backed its power grab by violence whenever necessary. In other words, the notion of separate military and political wings is only a flight of fancy that everyone in Lebanon knows to be false.

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

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