Hezbollah is tolerant - just not of Jews

August 4, 2006

Lebanon's revolutionaries see a multi-faith future but not one that can find a place for Israel and Judaism, says Fred Halliday

I had been in Beirut for two days in spring 2004 when I received an unexpected call from the international department of Hezbollah.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, the deputy head of the party and its apparent political strategist, wished to talk to me about the "clash of civilisations", having read a review I had written of Samuel Huntington's book.

This was not exactly what I had intended. I had come to lecture at the American University of Beirut but had a sense of reluctance about revisiting the Lebanese capital at all. This was not only due to the terrible carnage Beirut had witnessed, but also due to memories of friends and acquaintances who had lost their lives there: Abdul Wahhab al-Kayyali, a Palestinian academic with whom I had studied in London - murdered, probably by the Syrians; Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian novelist and spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - killed by an Israeli car bomb; Salim al-Lawzi, a Lebanese journalist - captured by the Syrians, who smashed his writing hand before killing him; Nasser Said, head of the Saudi left-wing nationalist party - kidnapped by Yassir Arafat's security forces, handed over to the Saudis and never seen again; Malcolm Kerr, the American academic - killed in his office at the American University of Beirut; and Leigh Douglas, one of the few fellow British academics who had worked in modern Yemen - killed by supporters or agents of Libya.

Even 14 years after the civil war, Beirut was not an easy city to be in. Every time a car containing large men with moustaches and wearing leather jackets screeched to a halt, I thought they had come for me.

The trip to the Shia heartland in southern Beirut was in one sense familiar, given prolific television footage of the war and of the kidnap locations of Western hostages. At the Hezbollah headquarters - one of the buildings destroyed by Israeli planes in July - I was ushered through various security checks into the office of Qassem.

He remained calm and succinct throughout our conversation and avoided long historical excursions of the kind most radical politicians regularly indulge in.

On the matter of political relations with Iran, the sheikh was absolutely clear. Hezbollah regards the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as its ultimate authority; all major political decisions regarding Hezbollah are referred to - when not actually taken in - Iran.

Qassem did not, however, wish to imitate the Iranian Islamic model in Lebanon too closely. Hezbollah itself accepted that the country was a multi-confessional society and the sheikh saw the future as one in which each party and group sought to preserve this pluralistic model. This tone of tolerance and flexibility did not, however, extend to discussion of Israel or of Jews in general. The military struggle of Hezbollah against Israel was officially confined to their expulsion from Lebanon and was incomplete only because of the occupation of a small part of the Shebaa farms, near the Syrian frontier.

However, there was no margin of doubt in the sheikh's view that Israel should be abolished, a position bolstered by quotes from the Koran denouncing Jews and calling for a struggle against them. I put it to Qassem that this use of the Islamic tradition, in a context of modern political conflict, was racist, a point he evidently did not accept. An alternative, open and respectful attitude to Jews can also be derived from other parts of the Islamic tradition, but this, like the racist reading, depends on contemporary political choice.

The next day I was taken on an intense field trip by a Hezbollah military commander to key installations and battle sites of the Lebanese south. We lunched in an outdoor country cafe within a short distance of the Israeli lines. "They will never dare to return here," was the refrain of my militant guide.

Towards the end of the day, I was taken to a hill overlooking the Israeli frontier and the town of Metulla. There, I sensed that another perspective, and another future, was equally contained within these seemingly peaceful hills.

From one roadside vantage-point, my guides pointed to the still unresolved Shebaa area. Then, as we looked over the Israeli town, with people clearly visible in the streets, the chief guide turned to me with an unambiguous message: "It took us 22 years to drive them out of here (Lebanon), and it may take us up to 40 years to drive them out of there (occupied Palestine)."

Long ago I decided, when dealing with revolutionaries and their enemies, to question their motives and sense of reality but to take seriously what they stated to be their true intentions. Those words were sincerely meant and carried within them a long history of fighting, sacrifice and killing. In light of recent events, it would be prudent to assume that much more is to come.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. This is an edited extract of an article published at openDemocracy.net 

 

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