Why Hizbullah does not want an Islamic state

The answer is easy: Because they don’t need it. Because thanks to the confessional system in place in Lebanon, they found everything they could want without having to establish an Islamic state. The skeptic would retort: “But why did they vehemently proclaim all throughout the eighties that they wanted an Islamic state?” Well because at the time they did not know that they could get all their interests preserved thanks to the confessional system without having to go through the painful process of imposing the idea of an Islamic state (of course here ‘interest’ is a term that is at best elusive and must be understood as historically determined, changing according to available opportunities and conceptualizations, so that we avoid making retroactive arguments).

So here I want to first object to the idea that it is out of a process of vague “Lebanonization” of Hizbullah that they decided to drop the idea of an Islamic state. I want to object of course to the idea that they secretly (in a demonizing way for the scared Lebanese) entertain this dream. Actually to clarify what I meant, I would like to accept the “Lebanonization” thesis only by clarifying what Lebanonization mean in the institutional political and social sense by dropping the essentialist bias inherent in the argument. Yaaneh, Hizbullah was never “not Lebanese” and suddenly became “Lebanese”. Hizbulllah starting from an ad hoc group of zealous and enthusiastic few, with sufficient backing, discpline, and favorable local and regional circumstances developed into a fully fledged organization with institutional over-reach. This ‘developmental’ change is key here and nobody (to my knowledge) worked on the intricacies and implications of this change, except from a broad ‘elitist’ and ‘essentialist’ perspective. Yaaneh, scholars focused on the broad political agenda of Hizbullah as a monolithic formation with a leadership making rational decision in the face of changing opportunities. Example: When Nasrallah became secretary general (but already at the time of Moussawi) he saw an opportunity to play by the rules. What does that mean exactly? It means first a conscious decision of the party to get involved in the Lebanese political life indeed, but most importantly it inscribes itself in a process of long-term change that slowly crystallized the idea that ‘we’re much worth it like this’. This last phenomenon was never carefully understood because to do so one needs to understand how Hizbullah slowly became very much dependent on the confessional system.

This requires in turn an understanding of the evolution of not only the institutions and organizations of Hizbullah but in what way the new political class of Hizbullah became very much part of the political system in Lebanon. Actually both these process are intermingled. I don’t have a detailed answer to that, and actually this should be a research project on its own, but I would like to point out on an intuitive basis why this looks like a strong argument.

To name but a few, electoral processes, municipalities, social welfare (organizations, etc.), schools, hospitals, all work according to confessional categorizations in Lebanon, meaning that it is most of the case a particular religious group that holds decision making in these collective activities. Hizbullah found in this case a haven for his own activities. One can study how this affects identity formation through the daily practices of people in these institutions and fosters even more the marks of confessional ideas meanings and beliefs into the consciousness of individuals. Here I want to stress the “culture” of the confessional system is highly alien to the one of an Islamic state at the very least because of the completely different institutional structures in place.

It is important to point out here that Hizbullah is only imitating what other sectarian groups did before them and first and foremost the Christians. Christian schools hospitals etc. are the oldest, and the political system of confessional piecemeal rule was a Christian innovation. The only difference here is that by controlling key institutions in the State, Christian elites were able to export the idea that they were a ‘secularizing’ force as their management of State affairs was resemblant to what goes on in say European states. But in effect, all the institutions of the State, and the institutions of social life in general were heavily divided along confessional criteria. Slowly but surely, Amal then Hizbullah learned to play by these rules. What’s interesting in the Shi’a example is that because they are new comers you can basically see how the confessional system, first makes it virtually impossible and highly costly to organize collective action outside of it, and second, sucks in new comers to build on the available institutional confessional processes and mechanisms.

Activists who later became Hizbullah starts off from various discursive background (communist, Lebanese public schools, religious, clerical, etc) find a voice in sectarian groups like Amal and then decide that through Amal things are not going to work for them (in terms of conflict with the Israelis, utter marginalization of South and Bekaa etc.). The Iranians say we give you a hand and you can export the revolution. That seemed like enough of a mobilizing element for these few radicals. Then organizational capacity develops, these people starts achieving political and socially on the ground, their affinities with their allies have concrete instrumental implications, but are coupled with their grasp of new ways to preserve their interests or the interests of a broad movement inscribed in newly developed and virulently efficient religious (confessional) institutions (just like any other similar institutions whether Christian or Sunni, just take the Jesuit school Jamhour and university Saint Joseph for a comparison).

Basically Hizbullah learned the correct way to get things done in Lebanon. An Islamic state would probably destroy most of what they built until now. It would transform a situation of mutual interest built on solid institutional ground into a big mess where they will have to start afresh and create such gigantic structures in order to reap the same political economic and social benefit.

24 Replies to “Why Hizbullah does not want an Islamic state”

  1. I know you must be tired with my comments, but I just can’t help it.
    I think this is very good PoliticaL analysis of Hesbollah’s evolution .. But aren’t you forgetting something ?


  2. Very interesting analysis.

    A political settlement to the current Lebanese feud will only take place if the shias are recognized as a demographic force in Lebanon.

  3. Bech,

    I think the answer you provide is for another question: Why HA will probably not attempt create an Islamic state, as opposed to wanting one. Frankly, I cannot state categorically that HA doesn’t want one because I have ZERO insight into the minds of the main decision makers within HA, as I’m sure is the case with most other people as well.

  4. Yaaneh I have to agree with your analysis.

    HA is also much better structured than other sectarian parties, a little like the cells of communist parties back in the days.

    A (Shi’a) Islamic republic will also be impossible to have even for a short period in a country as fragmented as Lebanon.

    I have to admit that I like what you write because it goes above and beyond the usual crap of Shi’a as monolitic relegious fantics who have been in love with everything Iranian for the past 500 years.

    The reality on the ground is very complex as you wrote on your post on Ayta.


  5. One more thing Bech: how long do you think before someone “inspires” a western journalist to write an article on the imminent danger of “Wilayat al faqih”?

  6. m. I slightly disagree with you.

    Because my point is also that even if some dudes inside Hizbullah may have a nostalgia for an Islamic state (individually), the way things evolved has mot likely changed most (possibly a pattern to be analyzed) of the mindsets of these people. Because in the first place these people don’t want an Islamic state just out of the blue, Yet their motivation is inscribed in an already constructed social situation (few zealous people, the fervor of the Iranian revolution in an abstract sense, etc.) that made the idea have meaning and sense for them.

    I really think that today because of this complex embeddedness in the confessional system (institutionally and organizationally) the party has also had the ‘terms of speech’ changed. Discursively speaking Hizbullah members and constituency do live the idea of a confessional-coexistence Lebanon with all what this entails.

    This is why for me the concept of “interest” is to be put into question. For me the very ideas, meanings, dispositions, consciousness of individuals are a product of their changing social political and economic situations. Interest and rational choice theory is already assuming the idea that are socially constructed in the first place.

    I hope my point is clear. Tell me what you think.

  7. actually, i agree with most of your comment and your post. my point – though probably not too clear – is that though there are the inevitable ties between all levels of the organization (lower levels, medium, and the decision makers) (as HA is an organic organization that has its own evolutionary trends given the environment it operates in), the mapping between observable and “quantifiable” social trends and the state-of-mind of the decision makers is not one-to-one. in other words, i cannot decode the long-term strategic desires (which aren’t necesarily nostalgic) (as opposed to currently implementable strategic plans) by studying social constructs, etc. given the information i have, i just don’t know – one way or the other – what the decision makers of HA want.

    – manar

  8. What about them sandrine? Religious are socially constructed. So they change with new institutional realities. That’s my whole point.

  9. m. my point is that I don’t know either, but my feeling from what I have been seeing is that they are surely determined in the above mentioned fashion.
    Now knowing for sure what goes on the head of each and everyone of all of Hizbullah cadres is of course impossible and perhaps unnecessary.

    Because what is important is what becomes policy. What becomes Action. and that is what I am trying to explain here.

  10. You speak of today’s institutional realities, but isn’t the Hezb far more ahead ? How do you see Lebanon in 40 or 50 years ?
    HN doesn’t speak anymore of an islamic republic but he does still believe that an islamic model is the answer to all society’s problems – he says it anyway. Today he can’t have that, so the guy is smart and changes his speach. If the context changes in favour of this idea someday, what stops him or anyone else to grasp his chance ? It would only be logical.
    Political discourse evolves, religious faith that deep doesn’t …That’s all I’m trying to say.


  11. Why are people generally more sensitive to an Islamic group wanting an islamic state than a christian group wanting a christian state? There is a history in Lebanon of Christian groups being very clear about their idea of Lebanon as a Christian heaven, no?

    The little I know from Hizballah, i’m inclined to follow Bech’s analysis. As an outsider it’s difficult to assess ofcourse, but what i’ve read about it, and my conversations with some palestinian friends in lebanon also confirmed me the secterian nature of Hizballah, and its organisation accordingly.

  12. Sandrine you still did not get my point. The very IDEA OF AN ISLAMIC STATE is void of signification if not understood as a social construct.

    So what you’re saying does not hold.

    Also FAITH and its DEEPNESS is another subject to discuss lengthily (also of course socially constructed) I think, but no time now.

    Also what does “Islamic model” mean? How does it differ from “Christian” a “communist” or a “whatever-ist” model? The important question to ask in Lebanon is: How is it inscribed in the Confessional system that permeates all types collective action?

  13. Hello Nadia,
    I dunno if you were adressing the question to me, but here goes :

    1. The reasons behind the state : if we take the example of maronite factions, since you speak of them, it was out of political dominance and a way to assert their presence of their minority in a large muslim context. In the hezb’s case, what scares me is extreme religious faith.
    I don’t mean by that that I approve of any. I hate religious institutions (“L’humanité ne sera heureuse que lorsque le dernier roi sera étranglé avec les boyaux du dernier prêtre” Priest called Meslier)

    2. Personal liberties in muslim countries, and on a more personal level, the women .. So, again, it’s not comparing christianity to Islam. It’s a comparison between systems where church got the hell out and systems where the Qur’an still rules.


  14. Bech,
    socially constructed as in anchored in the minds of people and having them for social basis ?
    If so, Hezb is an excellent example, but is it the case in KSA for example ?
    And a islamic state ya3né république islamique, ya3né jamhourié islamiyé ya3né Qur’an rules- there’s nothing negative in the terms I used, trust me. I’m just stupidly translating.
    And it does not at all differ from a christian state or a communist state, actually. To me, it’s the same.


  15. Nadia, ‘secularism’ as you probably know better than me means different things in different places and time. The important thing is the way in which Hizbullah articulates its discourse according to a perceived idea of what secularism COULD BE. (more on that later)

    In this case, Hizbullah for now has been pretty much vague and so very much accomplice of the confessional system (understandably enough as explained above). The whole point of their political battle today is to restore the full functioning of this system that has been paralyzed by the majority in power that under American guidance have pushed for the marginalization of the group.

    So for now Hizbullah wants to play by the old rules, and wants that all the old rules function properly save one new feature, “this time, we “the shi’a” want to have an important part to play dudes”.

    Nothing can be said more than that I think. But basically yes, I don’t see how Hizbullah can articulate a discourse outside the confessional system for now, but we’ll see. For now they are the product of this system and their very existence depends on it. Lebanon has successfully transformed Hizbullah from a revolutionary group to one of the most confessional group in the country.

    Their alliance with the moderate Christian (center to right let’s call it if that means anything) that is Tayyar, could bring many surprises but it is too soon to talk.

    The problem here is that Lebanese parties even publicly committed to abolishing the confessional system (like Tayyar) have no idea of what is the task at hand.

  16. Sandrine States are institutions just like Church and others, they function the same way. The only different thing is that nowhere in history did we see emerge an institution that powerful in terms of pooling economic resources and creating such gigantic accumulation of capital that is the State.

    But in the process States internalized Church functioning. Secularism has remnants of what you call “religious” practices. Anyway, that’s besides the point.

    To go back to the idea of a social construct, KSA has nothing to do with Iran, that has nothing to do with Hizbullah, etc “the Koran rules”, is an idea again my dear sandrine that is based on historically determined factors.

    Always always, look beyond what the idea strike with its ideological undertone and see its actual PROCESSUAL basis.

    Processes are institutions, opportunities, dispositions, discourse, organizations, through historical momentums of all kind.

  17. Hey bech, great read and very interesting piece about the Hizballah dudes. The only thing I am left wondering about: if ‘they’ really are no less and no more than rational actors interested in power maximization – the argument which I read out of your post and comments -, then why should anyone spend time analyzing their discourse at all?

  18. Dr. I have never said they are ‘only rational actors’ and I never spoke of ‘maximization’!! quite the contrary!

    The problem is actually neither rational nor irrational but how rationality (or irrationality) or its perception is inscribed in language thus inscribed in meaning (signs, and symbols).

    Discourse is what makes this discussion in the first place possible. Even if you assume a ‘rational actor’ model the neoclassical way you are still left of with the assumption that the tools used by rationality are unproblematic: Language. But this is actually where everything is happening!

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