Written by Paul Doyle
Lebanon’s Shi’ites, long the most impoverished, powerless and poorly educated of Lebanon’s religious mosaic, saw the Iranian Islamic success story as hope for a greater voice and participation in their country’s affairs which they had hitherto lacked.
Designated a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’ by the US and others and often compared to groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Party of God continues to be one of the most enduring and high-profile aspects of modern Lebanese history and politics with which most Westerners are familiar. This Shi’ite organisation founded in 1982 traces its origins back to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 which overthrew the country’s shah and ushered in the fundamentalist Islamic Republic of Iran. Lebanon’s Shi’ites, long the most impoverished, powerless and poorly educated of Lebanon’s religious mosaic, saw the Iranian Islamic success story as hope for a greater voice and participation in their country’s affairs which they had hitherto lacked.
This realm of ideas was given the catalyst to be translated into practice following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The overwhelming firepower and the long and destructive siege of Beirut only served to galvanise an already dispossessed and radical Shi’ite population who had long suffered from Israeli reprisals following the cross-border conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The fertile Bekaa Valley provided, in the strategic town of Baalbek, an equally fertile educational, theological and military training ground for Iranian Revolutionary Guards to support their Shi’ite compatriots in expelling Israel from Lebanon and fighting what Hezbollah saw as its expansionist aims in the Middle East in general.
‘we do not seek to impose Islam on anyone… and we do not want Islam to reign in Lebanon by force… But we confirm that we are convinced by Islam as an ideology and a system.’
The organisation from its inception implemented a back-to-basics Islamic ideology with their role model the ‘martyr’ Imam Hussein, killed at the Battle of Karbala in AD680 and held up as the example of sacrifice against injustice and the struggle against Israel akin to that between Islam and the Crusaders during the Middle Ages. Whilst Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli occupation and US support involved suicide bombings, hijackings and the kidnap of Westerners during the civil war, it has consistently denied involvement with the 1983 suicide attacks on the US and French military barracks in Beirut. Yet ever since the organisation first went public in 1985 declaring itself the Islamic Resistance (al-moqawama al-Islamiyah; www.moqawama.org), Hezbollah has always been about much more than armed struggle, including the establishment of an Islamic state in Lebanon, and insists on its consensual nature: ‘we do not seek to impose Islam on anyone… and we do not want Islam to reign in Lebanon by force… But we confirm that we are convinced by Islam as an ideology and a system.’ Following the end of the civil war Hezbollah has increasingly been at the centre of Lebanese political life and whilst its ideology is not universally shared, its resistance operations against Israel have widespread backing, even by many Christians. In the 1992 elections, Hezbollah gained eight seats in parliament, increasing this to 14 in 2005, and they were only narrowly defeated by the pro-Western government in the last elections of 2009. In addition to its political influence the organisation operates a number of schools and hospitals, provides low-cost housing and broadcasts from its own TV station, Al-Manar (‘the beacon’).
More recently Baalbek has been known for its association as the ‘home’ of many high-profile Western hostages and for being synonymous with Hezbollah © Anton_Ivanov, Shutterstock