Elections, Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, Lebanon

Some of my best friends are Shiites…

aounistsMitch Prothero has an interesting piece about the FPM-Hizbullah relationship in The National, in which he recounts a scene at a campaign rally where the Hizbullah partisans bussed in from al-Dahiya to provide a little multi-confessional je ne sais quoi got a little too Shiite for the taste of the Aounist crowd control officials. Here’s the relevant bit:

An hour before Michel Aoun, a former general and one of Lebanon’s most popular Christian leaders, was due to speak on Saturday night, his political advance team realised it had a crowd control problem.

Mr Aoun’s mostly upper-class party, the Free Patriotic Movement, bused in dozens of Shiite youths from Lebanon’s impoverished southern suburbs including Dahiya, but now found the cultural differences hard to handle. The teenagers began a chant that threatened to upset Mr Aoun’s traditional base…

Dozens of teenage boys waved Hizbollah flags and chanted “Allah, Nasrallah, and all of Dahiya” about an hour before Mr Aoun was due to take the stage. An organiser from the FPM immediately saw the sectarian nature of the chanting and politically problematic images that might upset Christian swing voters in the election’s most critical district.

But getting rid of the youths posed no easy problem. As they were hustled off the floor, an Aoun official confronted the teenagers in the car park as they continued chanting Hizbollah-themed slogans.

“You are acting in a terrible way. You must stop these slogans; you can’t chant about being Shiite here,” the frustrated official, who would not give his name, said to the group of teenagers.

When he stopped yelling at them, the crowd once again began chanting: “We are all Shiite, We are the Shiite.”

Now visibly annoyed, the official tried to force them further from the venue before the media noticed them.

“Just leave, go back to Dahiya; we don’t want you here,” the man shouted.

“Nasrallah, Nasrallah! No fear, No fear. All of Dahiya will turn into a Kalashnikov!” responded the group, pushing the rhetoric into even more dangerous territory.

“Back on the buses,” Aoun officials shouted. “We don’t need you here. They need you back in Dahiya!”

Ouch… I personally feel that there isn’t quite enough of this kind of unsentimental, on-the-ground journalism in the election coverage. Even if one is sympathetic to March 8 or 14, surely the warts are worth pointing out, no? Got to hand it to Mitch (despite the fact that he has managed to scoop me as I put the finishing touches on a long piece about the Aounists for this Friday’s Review section in The National. Stay tuned!)

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22 thoughts on “Some of my best friends are Shiites…

  1. I guess it is not so funny or surprising. My only take on the article is that Mr. Prothero keeps referring to Aoun’s alliance with the “Shiite community”. I think election results in heavily Shiite districts might give a glimpse of how universal is this alliance with the entire Shiite community. I predict some surprises not in the results of these districts but in the percentages of winning compared to past elections.

    Posted by MM | June 1, 2009, 3:26 pm
  2. this is bad. what’s the use of reporting such incidents, if they are true?

    Does it really say anything about the other much bigger social impact of the hizb/tayyar alliance?

    it is called voyeuristic journalism. insignificant, peverse and dangerous.

    so much so for freedom of speech

    Posted by bech | June 1, 2009, 4:03 pm
  3. When I saw this quote on your gmail status this morning I wondered whether a post was coming. I think the wartiness of this story is interesting as a glimpse of the challenges that all these alliances face. To me its a question of to what extent the members of the various parties involved are willing to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones. I get the impression that both the bus’ees and the FPM organizers were trying to stretch themselves, but that they each panicked.

    What I am more curious about is the article’s economic characterization of FPM supporters. Prothero to me seems somewhat singular in describing the FPM as a “mostly upper-class party” – most of the foreign news reports I read describe Aoun’s support as lower- or middle-class.

    I’m less interested in which account is right than why assessing the class basis of the party is of such interest. My guess is that because populism – at least for US audiences reading about foreign countries’ politics – is seen as dangerous: the non-rational, mob form of democracy. But its just a guess – and I’m very curious to hear your thoughts.

    Posted by adiamondinsunlight | June 1, 2009, 4:36 pm
  4. Bech,

    You said: Does it really say anything about the other much bigger social impact of the hizb/tayyar alliance? it is called voyeuristic journalism. insignificant, perverse and dangerous.

    I’m surprised by this comment. Surely the point of the article is precisely to interrogate the issue of “what exactly is the social impact of the hizb/tayyar alliance”, rather than to accept it at face value. When Al-Akhbar reports on Jumblatt’s camera phone incident, would you call that “insignificant, perverse, and dangerous”?


    Very good questions; I’ll send Mitch an email and ask him if he’d like to respond. Seeing as how he’s currently running around trying to cover the election build-up — from Tripoli to Saida — I’m not sure he’ll have time. But thanks for your comment.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | June 1, 2009, 4:58 pm
  5. As the say goes, the Aounists want to have one’s cake and eat it too. This piece is not funny at all, rather it is full of prejudice and I might add hate directed against the Muslim Shiites in Lebanon.

    Can the “funny” Mitch Prothero explain this phrase to us: “In the campaign rally, before a crowded room at the upscale Forum de Beirut shopping centre in al-Metn, a Christian suburb of Beirut, it became clear that balancing his message of nonsectarian governance and battling corruption is often overshadowed by his partnership with a Shiite community that has perhaps the worst relationship with the Christians of any group in Lebanon.”

    How pathetic, how ignorant, how racist.

    Can he tell us from where did he get this utterly inaccurate, stupid and misleading statement: “a Shiite community that has perhaps the worst relationship with the Christians of any group in Lebanon.”

    Pity that such disturbing words are being published in an “Arab” publication, albeit in English.

    Posted by Jihad | June 1, 2009, 6:09 pm
  6. “upscale Forum de Beirut shopping centre in al-Metn”

    I haven’t been home in a while, but isn’t the forum still a convention center? Also, I never knew Karantina counted as being in al-Metn.

    This seems interesting because many of the FPM supporters I know seem to boast about their close friendship/acceptance of Hezbollah members.

    Posted by JRK | June 1, 2009, 7:05 pm
  7. Close readers – as opposed to name callers – win cookies or other door prizes. The Forum is, in fact, a forum and not a shopping center… good work JRK. sadly I knew that and still screwed up.

    on the karantina thing, I have no idea if you’re technically right or not. everything said el-metn at the event. anyone want to make a decisive ruling? and is karantina not in Metn anyway? it’s got to be really close if not. it’s not beirut…..

    and as for the last issue, I think Qifa said it best: I’m sure your tayyar buds are always bragging about how many shiite friends they have.

    But you said specifically that they are ‘close friends’ and ‘accepted’ by hizbollah members. no f**king way. Hizbollah cadre members don’t trust and barely accept AMAL supporters from the same confession let alone pal around with the members of a sect that pretty much aligned with israel against them. maybe you meant they were friends with shiite supporters of hizbollah? that, of course, is very believable and nothing in the piece should have been taken to mean that inter-sect friendships are impossible. hardly, look at walid bey and nabih berri! I once saw them sing ‘ebony and ivory’ together in a bangkok karaoke bar. Guess who sang which part? seriously, I was merely observing the effect of some cultural foibles that arise when strange bedfellows take to the campaign trail together. nothing more than that.

    thanks for reading!

    Posted by mitch | June 1, 2009, 9:05 pm
  8. Jihad, I agree that it’s awful wording, but I’m guessing that it is supposed to mean that as a specifically religious party, and a Moslem one at that, the Hezb is bound to have the worst religious/ideological conflicts with Christians. Or maybe not. I also agree with diamond, I also lifted an eyebrow at the “upper middle class” very generalized categorization of FPMers.
    I might be a naive reader here, but I am wondering why some reactions to this article were so pronouncedly and virulently negative. Anyone care to elaborate on the shades of meaning I seem to have missed?

    Posted by Joujolie | June 1, 2009, 9:26 pm
  9. Joujolie,

    I thank you for your input. I think that the wording is intentional and its writer could not hide his prejudice against Muslim Shiites in Lebanon. It is also typical of the stereotypical reporting on Lebanon that we find nowadays in many Western newspapers, from Europe to North America.

    The objective is to spread false information about Muslim Shiites and the main party in their community, i.e. Hizbullah. Also, by publishing such articles they want to frighten people by demonizing Muslim Shiites who form the majority in Lebanon and who have legitimate political demands that must be taken into consideration. And the 1st step towards that is to get rid of this well entrenched class and sectarian racism.

    I know that some FPMers were followers of the Guardian of the Cedars and the Lebanese Forces and they saw and still see in Aoun another Bashir Gemayel. But regardless of what General Michel Aoun used to say while in France and during hi trips to Washington prior to 2005, Hizbullah chose to work with him since the 1990s. That both Hizbullah and the FPM, or at least on the leadership level and on that of some of their members, saw eye to eye is anathema to some sick folks inside and outside Lebanon. I met a few FPM members who drink and all that and yet they speak highly of Hizbullah and his followers. Still some want to make of daily habits a “clash of civilisations!”

    Posted by Jihad | June 1, 2009, 10:21 pm
  10. The portrayal of class in the piece is I think the classic Lebanese stereotype. The Christians are the cultural elite, the Sunnis are the bourgeois, and the Shiites are the lower class. Regardless of its truth (and I don’t think anyone has done the serious statistical work to actually see if the majority of each sect belong to a specific economic class), I think it is the predominate narrative as can be seen by the jokes, prejudices, and assumptions in our culture.

    The portrayal of the Shiites is actually quite offensive in the piece. The author basically took the actions of an unruly mob of kids and said: ‘That is Shiite culture’. Of course you would do that if your brain has automatically been primed to think that Shiites are lower class peasants with no manners and uncontrollable emotions. I would guess if the author saw a mob of unruly Christian kids, he would be not be inclined to blame ‘Christian culture’ for their behaviour.

    I thinks its funny how mitch says that Hizballah cadres ‘barely accept AMAL supporters from the same confession’ so how could they befriend ‘members of a sect that pretty much aligned with israel’. Is that supposed to be a coherent argument? The first case obviously shows that those cadres don’t build their trust relationships on a purely sectarian basis. Which renders the whole ‘members of a sect’ issue irrelevant nonsense supplied by a sectarian minded thinker. It is false and naive to think sectarianism is an actual political force. It is a social dynamic manipulated by political forces.

    Posted by RedLeb | June 2, 2009, 1:45 am
  11. Another question for Mitch, if he’s still reading. I much enjoyed the article except for this puzzling sentence:

    “Composed mostly of independent-minded Maronite Christians, Mr Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) typically avoids the sectarian campaign tactics that are all too common in Lebanese politics.”

    Ignoring the most obvious question (“independent” of what, exactly?), I wonder: why do Western journalists insist on portraying the FPM as less sectarian than other Lebanese parties?

    Since allying with Hizbullah, a major element of FPM’s PR strategy has been, to paraphrase: “The Muslims that our rivals ally with are even more extreme, disdainful of Christian opinion, scary, etc, than the Muslims we ally with.” This approach has long been apparent in March 8th media, especially that which is directed towards Christians. And it should be particularly obvious today after the Aoun-led campaign to smear Nayla Tueni because she had accidentally identified herself as Muslim on a visa application.

    This isn’t to say that Aoun is worse than his opponents–they employ pretty much the exact same strategy. But why give him the credit of saying he “typically avoids sectarian campaign tactics”?

    Posted by N | June 2, 2009, 2:28 am
  12. Here’s another fine example of poor and unprofessional journalistic article. The article is so full of factual holes. But what takes the cake is the portrayal of a whole sect in a negative light based on his observation of of the chanting of few teenagers.

    It seems that honest and critical thinking journalism has gone by the way side these days, and the editors are asleep at the wheel.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | June 2, 2009, 5:22 am
  13. Maybe Mitch should have used the Ashoora commemoration to better describe the Shia Sect and not rely on an observation from a FPM campaign rally

    Posted by V | June 2, 2009, 7:47 am
  14. Well Mitch that is what they tell me, and I must add I’m a year short of voting age anyway, so it could be that hopefully my generation is truly more accepting.

    And regarding the issue of el-Metn signs, this is a way of Aoun’s spporters at the rally are from the Metn though Karantina is pretty much in Beirut I guess.

    Posted by JRK | June 2, 2009, 7:57 am
  15. The Hizbollah teenagers are actually very timid and well-behaved compared to the “wazawez” of the Lebanese Forces. Now that bunch…

    Posted by Bala Habal | June 2, 2009, 7:57 am
  16. i was surprised by this post in first instance, and more so about the comments it generated.

    QN, i do find the quote as ‘funny’ and maybe telling, revealing as you do. but the rest of the article, i’m sorry, is pretty weak, and i was surprised you’re featuring it on the blog. it lacks any kind of deeper analysis, contains the most simple factual errors and does not make any real ‘argument’ or point in my view. at those points were it aims at analyzing (mostly upper class voters – the social background of different supporters), it ridiculously fails. the estimation about the shia-christian relationship is such a blunt generalization that not even the limited space and simplifications of a newspaper article excuse such a dumb conclusion.

    but i didn’t quite get the outrage prothero’s depiction of the shia caused. redleb #10 has argued very convincingly in what way such portrayal reiterates sectarian stereotypes, and what kind of bias lies behind it. but i think the author is indeed merely repeating a common narrative found in lebanon. attribute it to the author’s lack of familiarity with lebanese society, politics, arabic language, you name it. which is no excuse for unprofessional reporting, but i don’t see it as an attempt by western media to portray shia in a certain way. although i absolutely agree that this kind of sensationalism about ‘the’ shia/hizb very well exists.

    mitch, you’re a war reporter, go crawling through the trenches of south lebanon with some hizb dudes and tell me about military strategy or guerrilla warfare, that’s what you’re good at. but leave analysis and social/political insights to others. and please spare us your travelogue (bangkok – wtf), go learn arabic properly, read some books about lebanon instead of hanging out in karaoke bars.

    in my opinion, and this is why i was surprised by the comments, it is in fact more the aounists whose portrayal was not very flattering in this piece. and this brings me to bech, ummm, bech, jins atel is ok, but depicting the ugly mixture of classism and sectarianism among even the ‘good’ christians (in your view, because they ally with the hizb) is not? and i’m sorry, but your freedom of speech argument is ridiculous, and no argument in first instance. your sentence ‘why is it worth reporting, IF it is true’, begs the answer ‘it’s worth reporting BECAUSE it is true’, because it shows some aounists as classist, sectarian bitches. counter to what many like to see in aoun and his party.

    Posted by bint abeeha | June 2, 2009, 9:56 am
  17. To the post – ‘this is Hillarious 🙂 ‘

    Posted by Jester theFool | June 2, 2009, 3:53 pm
  18. qifa, I think Al-Akhbar reporting on Jumblatt was really bad, and obeyed not just the voyeuristic rule of this western journalist, but much worse. Al-Akhbar works for the opposition in tipping the electoral balance in their favor. But so does the other newspapers for the various protagonists.

    What really bothered in this article is, again, we don’t learn much just from the anger of one tayyar activists at one point in time. Through my interviews with Tayyar people I get the proof that much more work is done on the ground to bring parties closer, and that the actual thinking of different groups is changing significantly.

    But this journalist focus on one small event (like journalists do most of the time) and try to portray a pattern or say “hey I know about Lebanese politics, it is more complicated than you think” type of speech.

    Posted by bech | June 2, 2009, 5:37 pm
  19. bint abeeha, sorry i haven’t seen your answer.

    i stand by my opinion that not any type of reporting is legitimate because when you report you select and then take out a ‘truth’ from its context. sorry if i am being a bit philosophical here but truth looses saliency outside context. there are only contextual truth. But this article tries to do exactly that: to take out a truth from its context. to render truthful one of his argument that aoun tayyar dudes are this or that. which is not at all true in the context of other dudes who are working with one, in the context of the general party policy and its alignment with Hizbullah.

    So again freedom of speech is overrated. and voyeuristic journalism should be condemned. But a time will come…

    Posted by bech | June 3, 2009, 12:26 am
  20. Personally, I think that all truths are equal and equally lacking in context, which is totally subjective anyway. That being the case, all speech should be condemned (and possibly criminalized) and traded in for acts, especially the acts of the resistance. I’m perhaps willing to make an “exception” for the “truth(s)” of speech acts and the truthiness of metaspeech.

    Posted by sean | June 3, 2009, 10:12 am
  21. This isn’t the first time this has happened.

    What annoys me about these stories is that they are covered as “cultural differences”.

    There’s no cultural difference between a Lebanese Christian who supports Aoun and a Lebanese Shiite who supports Hezballah.

    In fact, that’s the problem. We perceive our differences to be “cultural”, thus we are quick to become oppositional in our behaviour.

    The Hezballah-FPM alliance has failed to merge their supporter bases under a single ideal. Both parties revolve around iconic figures in Aoun and Nasrallah, but neither have been able to establish a true, single electoral/political bloc with a set of political ideals (i.e. in Western democracies you have “conservative” and “liberal” blocs of parties).

    What does Nasrallah-Aoun really represent? Sectarianism? Nationalism? Secularism? Lebanonism? Arabism? Self-interest?

    Posted by Antoun Issa | June 3, 2009, 12:24 pm
  22. What does Nasrallah-Aoun really represent? Sectarianism? Nationalism? Secularism? Lebanonism? Arabism? Self-interest?

    Antoun Issa,

    How about Iran?

    Posted by Akbar Palace | June 3, 2009, 2:26 pm

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