A friend of mine, Thanassis Cambanis, has a new book out about Hizbullah. Between 2000 and 2007, Thanassis worked as a reporter for the Boston Globe, and served as the paper’s Iraq bureau chief from 2003-05 and Middle East bureau chief from 2005-07. He’s also worked for The New York Times and various other media outlets, and currently teaches journalism at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
QN: The academic and mainstream literature on Hizbullah is vast. Why another book? What do you feel was missing from the public discussion about Hizbullah that needed to be said?
TC: I’m only half kidding when I say that I set out to write a book about the Middle East that was fun to read. This book should be of interest to scholars of Hezbollah, but it’s not a work of scholarship — it’s a work of narrative journalism. I set out to answer the question of why Hezbollah was growing more popular, more compelling to its fans, and more influential. Who joins Hezbollah? Who supports the party? Why? I spent the better part of three years following rank-and-file members and supporters, and they opened a window on the belief structure, motivations and daily life of Hezbollah’s soccer moms and scout leaders. Their worldview substantially advances our understanding of Hezbollah, I believe.
QN: The Western discourse on Hizbullah tends to lump this group in with organizations like Hamas and al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, you argue that “no other group has mastered the formula for radical strength as Hizbullah has done.” Where does Hizbullah fit on the Arab political landscape, and what makes it different from other Islamist groups?
TC: Some of the differences are easy to spot. Hezbollah has governed multitudes of its supporters for nearly 30 years, and it has participated in electoral politics in Lebanon since 1992. More than any other Islamist non-state actor, it has experience providing services and taking part in politics — and learning from its mistakes. Other differences are less easy to delineate, but important. For instance, Hezbollah and Iran share a belief in wilayat al faqih, or the rule of the jurisprudent, the foundational concept of Iran’s clerical regime. But one could argue that Hezbollah has remained closer to the radical basis of the Iranian revolution than Iran’s own clerics.
But you asked about Arab politics and you mention two other bugbears that happen, like Hezbollah, to be listed as terrorist groups by the United States. Al Qaeda is a different kettle of fish — a nihilist group that has virtually no territorial responsibilities and whose ideology diametrically opposes modernity. Hezbollah embraces modernity, capitalism and prosperity. It doesn’t want its followers to recreate medieval times; it wants its followers to grow rich, obtain political power, and use that platform to spread Islam and support the fight against Israel.
Unlike Hamas, Hezbollah has changed its approach to shed the terrorist label it acquired with the suicide bombings and kidnappings of the 1980s. Since the 1990s, Hezbollah’s guerilla operations have studiously focused on military targets. Hezbollah’s indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas in Israel is calibrated in response to what Hezbollah sees as indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas in Lebanon by Israel. Hezbollah doesn’t send suicide bombers after soft civilian targets or plant bombs on buses.
QN: Neither, for that matter, does the Muslim brotherhood. What makes Hizbullah different from the MB?
TC: The most significant thing that differentiates Hezbollah from other Islamist groups is the credibility and thoroughness with which it cultivates the loyalty of its community. It neither buys nor bullies support from its core audience (although it is by no means shy about using brute strength against detractors); it trains, convinces, and inculcates them through a layered web of classes and activities — scouts, primary schools, summer camps, weekend courses for working parents, college and career counseling, and the mosque.
Arab regimes — and many of the Islamist groups that oppose them, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan — in practice have accepted the reality of Israel. They might not like it, but they’re looking for ways to coexist, if grudgingly. Hezbollah has stood that approach on its head. The “axis of resistance,” led by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, opposes Israel; Hezbollah has convinced many of its fans and followers that Israel can, in fact, be defeated by force. That perception is new, and reinvigorates a maximalist strain of militancy that had been on the wane.
QN: In your reading, how beholden is Hizbullah to the foreign policy agenda of Tehran?
TC: Iran’s relationship to Hezbollah is symbiotic. Without Iran’s weapons and money, Hezbollah would simply not pose the military threat it poses today. To a large extent, Hezbollah’s reach and resilience depends on Tehran’s cash. On the other hand, much of the revolutionary zeal that has faded in Iran remains vibrant among Hezbollah’s followers. Ahmedinejad talks a lot about fighting Israel, and his government funds and trains plenty of paramilitaries. Hezbollah, however, has been fighting Israel continuously since 1982, actually doing what Ahmedinejad mainly just talks about. Hezbollah, in this read, gives legitimacy to Iran’s mullahs, in addition to allowing Tehran to project military power right up to Israel’s border.
There’s not much daylight between Tehran and Dahieh, so we haven’t seen a real test of what would happen if Hezbollah’s foreign policy interests diverged from Tehran’s.
QN: What if Iran’s nuclear program were threatened or attacked?
TC: Good question. I asked Mahmoud Komati, on Hezbollah’s politburo, that question and he laughed. Foreign diplomats keep asking the same question, he said — and Hezbollah doesn’t really want to give a clear answer. “You don’t declare something which would reduce your enemy’s fears,” he said.
An attack on Iran could test the “special relationship.” Iran might want to retaliate via Hezbollah. But Hezbollah would have lots of trouble selling to its own public an unprovoked attack on Israel simply at Tehran’s bidding. If Hezbollah could engineer the perception of an Israeli provocation or attack, that’s a different story; it would then be able to rally support for a war. Iran, I think, values Hezbollah not only as an asset but as a strategic partner, and wouldn’t ask Hezbollah to do something that would destroy its long-term prospects.
QN: What do you believe the party will do in the event that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon indicts some of its members for the assassination of ex-PM Rafiq al-Hariri?
TC: They’re already preparing a maximalist response. One scenario (which you’ve discussed) is that Hezbollah could choose to distance itself from indicted party members, calling them loose canons. But Hezbollah appears uninterested in such an outcome. Instead, it seems, it will deny the Tribunal’s legitimacy and jurisdiction. The entire Hezbollah presentation about Israel was largely intended for its own supporters, to build the case for later refusing to hand over any indicted party members.
On my most recent visit to Lebanon in September, I saw that Hezbollah had recruited a lot of rough shabab in Haret Hreik. My Hezbollah-supporting sources there (including some party members) found these new members disquieting and even alarming; they lack Hezbollah’s potential discipline. As one Hezbollah member told me, “I can’t imagine any use for these kids except in an internal street clash.”
QN: You spend a good deal of your book discussing Hizbullah’s masterful communications strategies. How successful do you believe the party has been in promoting its theory that Israel was responsible for Hariri’s murder? How seriously is this theory taken beyond Lebanon (say, in Egypt, Jordan, etc.)?
TC: Again, they’re not trying to convince you or me; they’re talking to an audience like the dozen men I sat with in Srifa on Eid. These men told me that the CIA was responsible for 9/11 and that Israel was clearly responsible for all the assassinations in Lebanon. So the presentation about Israel and Hariri’s assassination reinforces something these Hezbollah supporters already are inclined to believe. Bizarrely, I interviewed a secular Shia human rights activist in Bahrain earlier, during Ramadan, and at the end of our conversation about the government crackdown there, he brought up Nasrallah’s presentation about Israel and Hariri. He, to my surprise, was completely convinced. “If an outside power were trying to start a civil war in Lebanon,” I asked him, “why would they only kill only members of one side?” His answer: “They know what they’re doing.”
I’m more interested in whether Hezbollah can continue to spread its gospel of Islamic resistance — perpetual war plus a committed religious lifestyle — beyond the confines of Shia Lebanon. Al Manar Satellite Television plays a key role here, but I’m not sure how heavily it is viewed during calm periods like the present. It’s only must-see TV during wars and other Lebanese crises.
QN: Who listens to Hebollah outside Lebanon?
TC: In Gaza, the deputy foreign minister Ahmed Yousef spoke to me at length about the lessons he’s learned from Hezbollah as an organization and Nasrallah as a leader. He’d like to build a Hamas television and radio network modeled after Al Manar and An Nour. He’d also like to build a diplomatic corps modeled on Hezbollah’s office of international relations.
Further afield, Hezbollah is trying to sell the idea that war is the answer, that Islam can guide all elements in one’s life from politics and parenting to war and education. The party is trying to bridge a lot of divides — between Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs; between Arabs and Persians; between Sunni and Shia. They’re trying to deepen Islam among their constituents while simultaneously appealing to non-believers who like Hezbollah’s anti-Israeli resistance. It’s not a balance that can survive forever.
Game-changers might include a Syrian peace deal with Israel; a change in Iranian regime; changes in Israeli strategy; and possibly, but less likely, a wholesale loss in credibility if Hezbollah clashes too much with its Lebanese rivals or falls prey to run-of-the-mill nepotism, za`im-ism (is that a word?), or corruption.
You can buy a copy of Thanassis’s book at Amazon here.