Engaging the Muslim world

Lebanon does not march in lockstep with Iran, argues the author in an excerpt from his new book. It is defined by a kaleidoscope of alliances.

Published March 17, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

Despite the conviction in Washington, D.C., that Lebanon is becoming an Iranian outpost, the reality is more complex. The Levantine country is a playground for oil-rich governments and investors. Smaller than Connecticut, and with a population of only about 4 million, it is uneasily wedged between Israel and Syria. Its employed workers are mainly in the financial services and tourism sectors (three-fourths of the labor force), while nearly a fifth work in industry and only 5 percent still farm. A fifth of Lebanon's population is unemployed, and over a fourth lives below the poverty line. Its major city, Beirut, consists of boxy white towers crowding the edges of the indigo Mediterranean and extending up rolling hills. In times of political calm, Beirut hosts summer music festivals for European youth and pilgrims from nearby puritanical societies seeking the profane shrines of nightclubs and casinos. Smart hotels and fashionable shopping districts lace through a city reeling from the negative effects of wars and bombings.

Lebanon's sectarian and ethnic divides, between Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shiite, Armenian and Palestinian, do not produce polarization so much as kaleidoscopic alliances and feuds that shift with head-spinning alacrity; they often pit members of the same group against one another. A little less than a century ago, Lebanon was a majority Christian society carved out of Syria by French colonial masters. Today its population is probably only 30 percent Christian. Among the Muslim majority, the fastest-growing group is the Shiites, who are also the poorest community. Good statistics on Lebanon's population are not easy to come by, but my own estimate is that Lebanon is now 45 percent Shiite and that in twenty years it will likely be a majority Shiite society.

Despite their political support for Hizbullah, Lebanese Shiites should not be assumed to share its puritanical attitudes. Many Shiite young women are every bit as chic and oriented toward Paris fashion as their Maronite Catholic peers, and cosmopolitan Shiite families often have outposts in Brazil or West Africa. One of the more scandalous video music stars in Beirut, known for her baby face and steamy dance moves, is Haifa Wahbi, whose father is a Shiite. In December 2007, I flew to Lebanon to give a talk at the American University of Beirut. On my trip I had a conversation with a Shiite graduate student from the village of Qana in the south, who was studying comparative literature at Lebanese American University and enjoying Arundhati Roy's "God of Small Things" -- an Indian novel about a star-crossed romance that transgresses caste taboos.

In 2006, the Pew Charitable Trust's Global Values Project released the results of a poll showing that nearly half of Lebanese Muslims are secular in outlook. It concluded, "Although Lebanese Muslims consider Islam an important part of their lives, they place less emphasis on their faith than do Muslims elsewhere." Only 54 percent of Lebanese said that "religion is very important." In societies such as Pakistan and Morocco, over 90 percent of respondents assent to this sentiment. Likewise, less than a third of Lebanese Muslims say they think of themselves first as Muslims and only secondarily as Lebanese. An equal number openly asserts that being Lebanese is more important to them than their religious identity. Fully 86 percent of Lebanese Muslims have a favorable view of Christians (which is natural since they have far more Christian neighbors and friends than Muslims in most other countries in the region).

Nevertheless, the U.S. mass media cannot mention the word "Hizbullah" without showing stock footage of its small paramilitary marching in ski masks. Former president George W. Bush denounced the movement as a form of "Islamic fascism." But it is obvious, as noted earlier, that large numbers of Lebanese Shiites who vote for Hizbullah are not very religious and that they back the party for secular reasons. Likewise, they may take money from Iran, but they are mostly uninterested in Khomeinist Puritanism, at least for now.

During my 2007 trip, I spoke on a Tuesday afternoon at the university, and Wednesday was a Muslim holy day, so I had it free. My host, the geographer Patrick McGreevy, and his wife, Betsy, kindly took me on a whirlwind afternoon tour of Shiite areas south of the capital. McGreevy, who sports a shock of gray hair, a salt-and-pepper mustache and a chic black wardrobe, heads the university's innovative Center for American Studies and Research, endowed by Saudi billionaire al-Walid bin Talal to promote knowledge of the United States in the Arab world. McGreevy and his wife had bravely stayed in Beirut during the 2006 war to show their devotion to their new home, unlike most foreign residents of the capital and unlike a lot of middle-class Beirutis, who headed for Syria.

On July 23, 2006, McGreevy circulated to friends a poignant meditation on how the war affected the Shiite slums and rural south far more deeply than it did swanky Ras Beirut, referring to that part of the capital as the uppermost, least uncomfortable ring of hell. He described how some 50,000 refugees had streamed into the port of Sideon. The far south, from which many of the refugees came, was the lowest rung of hell, an inferno of exploding munitions and villagers set on the road by horror. At the end of that war, in its last three days, the Israelis dropped a million cluster bombs on south Lebanon, an act that had no legitimate military purpose but rather was designed to discourage Shiite villagers from returning to their homes. The ploy failed, but the cluster bombs did kill civilians, including children. It was a war crime, since the bombs were clearly intended to harm civilians.

A year and a half later, as we headed through Beirut on our one-hour journey to Tyre, we could see to the west, along the seashore, massive piles of rubble that bulldozers had cleared from the slums of south Beirut (the Dahiya quarter). Those residential neighborhoods had been so heavily bombed by the Israelis during the summer war that the damage was visible even from outer space. Entire city blocks began to look vacant in satellite photographs. The Hizbullah offices were the primary Israeli targets here, but these administrative centers were located in the midst of crowded civilian tenements.

The intensive Israeli bombing campaign inflicted $3.6 billion in infrastructural damage and killed as many as 1,100 persons, most of them civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Shiites huddled in schools and other public buildings, having fled their homes in the south. A cruel joke circulated in Beirut during the war that asked which was the best-educated sect in Lebanon. The answer? The Shiites, because they lived in schools 24/7.

Hizbullah's impressive emergency fund, to which Iran is said to have contributed, allowed it to give out food and other aid to Shiites displaced by the war. Afterward, some of the rebuilding of south Beirut was carried out by Hizbullah's Holy War for Reconstruction, which receives funding from Iran as well as from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. One engineer working with the organization, Yasser al-Hajj, boasted to an American reporter, "We are going to rebuild Dahiya before you [Americans] rebuild New Orleans from Katrina." On the road through the southern suburbs, I saw wooden posts placed in highway islands that bore images of the Iranian flag.


A pan-Arab London daily alleged recently that Iran gives Hizbullah $400 million a year and that, in the 18 months ending in December 2007, Tehran had transferred $1.5 billion extra to the Shiite party to help with war and reconstruction costs. The first estimate is at the higher range of what U.S. diplomatic sources have asserted to the press, suggesting that Iran has been sending $20 million to $40 million a month to Hizbullah. Others say that these estimates are too high, though no one denies that Iranian money comes into Lebanon. Some of the donations pay for the katyusha rockets that Hizbullah uses to deter another Israeli attack. But much of the funding is used to provide hospital care and other services.

Iran has to compete with many other forces in Lebanon, however, and its role is sometimes exaggerated. A Lebanese scholar who worked on reconstruction told me that, in south Beirut, "the initial rubble removal was funded by different agencies," including, she said, the United Nations Development Programme and the Lebanese Ministry of Public Works. She also noted that "the Iranian government pledged some money for the rehabilitation of gardens (which they have done, so you see the flag plastered across these areas with notes of thanks)."

She explained that Lebanese Shiites were given compensation funds by the government, which many invested in the Hizbullah real estate cooperative "in return for which they will get housing in the complex once it is built." Since the Lebanese government received grants to replace housing from many donors, including Sunni oil monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, as well as from Europe and Japan, persuading Shiite families to donate their compensation to a Hizbullah cooperative is a clever way for the organization to take credit for the philanthropy of others. Another aid worker observed to me that, despite their designation as nongovernmental organizations, the "Iranian NGOs in southern Beirut are connected to Iranian government." He cautioned, "What sucks about the Iranian funds that go to Hezzies [Hizbullah] is that they mainly help Hezzie supporters."

If Tyre is Hizbullah territory, the nearby port of Sideon is largely Sunni, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, probably with Saudi encouragement and funding. Saudi Arabia typically supports the Sunni prime minister of Lebanon, and during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, King Abdullah deposited $1 billion in Beirut's central bank as a way of shoring up the Lebanese pound. In 2007, the kingdom pledged another $1 billion in reconstruction aid.

Although Tyre had been repeatedly bombed by the Israelis during the war, only a year and a half later there was no obvious sign of the damage. Among the reasons for the rapidity of the reconstruction was the influx of foreign aid, including that from Iran. David Harbin, an aid worker helping with the clearing of Israeli cluster bombs in the south, observed of the Iranians, "I know that they've been rebuilding some rural roads in the south Lebanon." These projects included widening two-lane roads to four lanes. A colleague of his was more emphatic: "Man … Iran is all over the south! They fund Hizbullah pretty heavily." He added, "The mayor of Khiam," a village in the south, "is the director of the Khomeini Institute, which also funds pretty cool programs such as schools and orphanages."

Khiam village is only about three miles from the Israeli border. Heavily Shiite, it was part of the territory Israel occupied in south Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. It was the site of a fierce battle between Israeli troops and Hizbullah's paramilitary in July 2006. Khiam maintains a Web site where it posts village news and events, including wedding pictures. It also proudly announces foreign aid from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Iran for the postwar reconstruction of the south, of the city of Baalbek in the Biqa' Valley, and of Dahiya in Beirut. It reprinted a late 2007 article from a major Beirut newspaper, which reported that the Iranian Committee to Reconstruct Lebanon has funded over 1,500 projects that are under way or completed, including repair of 22 main roads and 666 rural ones, 20 main bridges, 164 schools, 69 "mosques and churches," and 67 municipal buildings.

Early in 2007, the English-language Daily Star reported that the Iranian Committee to Reconstruct Lebanon had pledged to rebuild eight bridges destroyed by Israeli bombers. Abbas Harb, director of the Nabatieh office of the organization, explained, "Our work started soon after the end of the war on August 14, 2006. It included roads and bridges ravaged by Israel in Nabatieh, Tyre and Bint Jbeil." Lebanese Shiites evince gratitude for Iran's help, which also extended to the provision of medicine, food, generators and water tanks. Iran's petroleum revenues in 2007 rose to over $40 billion, and since the petroleum industry is in government hands, this massive infusion of cash gave the ruling ayatollahs plenty of money to devote to public diplomacy.

Interestingly, although Tyre is, politically speaking, Hizbullah territory, bars were open for the United Nations troops and unveiled young women could be seen in the streets. Shiite activism in Lebanon does not typically take the form of imposing Puritanism. The carrot of oil money and the attractions of soft power in the form of Muslim authenticity for the downtrodden were obviously more important than the tools of coercion often deployed by other movements of political Islam.

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Oil money is only one source of Tehran's influence in the Shiite south of Lebanon. Religious authority is another. The Iranian leader, Ali Khamenei, enjoys the sort of standing among members of Hizbullah that is accorded the pope by pious Catholics. Most adherents of the Shiite branch of Islam hold that the laity, persons without higher seminary degrees, must follow the rulings of a trained religious jurisprudent on the practices of religious law. Laypersons would not try to treat themselves for a serious medical condition, they argue, and it is equally foolhardy for them to risk their soul attempting to treat their spiritual problems on their own. Ideally, according to the principles of jurisprudence, each believer would find the most upright and most learned clergyman and follow his rulings on Islamic law without question. Such a figure enjoys the rank of grand ayatollah, and is called "exemplar" (marja') to be imitated (taqlid) and obeyed in matters of religious law. Most Shiites follow Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani Najaf in Iraq, though he is less popular in Iran itself, which boasts several top clergymen.

Khamenei was not widely accepted among Shiites as a clerical exemplar when he became the supreme leader, and, indeed, the constitution had to be amended to allow him to serve despite his lack of erudition. Because he is outranked by so many ayatollahs in Iran with regard to learning, he does not seek lay followers for his informal rulings on law and practice in Iran, only abroad. Those Shiites who follow Khamenei do so for mainly political reasons. (Even beginning in the 1980s, some Shiites in Pakistan began saying that they were splitting their allegiances, following Khomeini as their political exemplar and the grand ayatollah in Najaf as their religious exemplar.) Khamenei's claims to being an exemplar form a sort of soft power for Iran among Shiites in places like Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq and Pakistan.

The leadership of Hizbullah accepted Khamenei as its spiritual guide and directs party members to obey his strictures. That loyalty to Khamenei can be seen in daily life. After Khamenei prohibited the controversial practice of cutting the forehead during mourning rites for the martyred descendents of the Prophet, or imams, Hizbullah members gave up the practice. Other Lebanese Shiites, such as members of the rival Amal Party, went on doing it, ignoring Khamenei, because they rejected his authority. The power of this bond to Khamenei was evident after Nasrallah's attack on a handful of Israeli troops in July 2006 provided the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with a justification for its war on Lebanon. Khamenei was reported to have lost confidence in Nasrallah's military judgment as a result and removed him from control of the paramilitary. Hizbullah vigorously denied the report but did not deny that Khamenei had the authority to make such a decision if he so chose.


By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author of "The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian" and "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires." His latest book (as editor) is "Peace Movements in Islam." His award-winning blog is Informed Comment.


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