Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Shaping of Cultures

It was the singular character of Hizbullah that allowed it to resist the might of the Israeli military machine. It is a character that the group must not allow to be diluted, writes Azmi Bishara

When you take a look around the Arab world today, what do you see?

You see sons being groomed for monarchical succession in republics that are still caricatures of Bonapartism and Mameluke despotism. Ironically, these heirs apparent always begin their careers by condemning corruption, yet they are one of the foremost manifestations of corruption.

You see CNN's Rolf Blister questioning the Iraqi president as though he were on trial: "Do you recognise Israel or not?" Nur Al-Maliki squirms under the interrogation, unable to pluck up the courage to say that that's the last thing on his mind at a time when his country is falling apart. But recognition of Israel is what the American media thinks is important about Iraq, and will continue to think even after no walls are left standing.

There is the division into regional axes, with political leaders changing positions as though they were playing musical chairs. One day they'll deride Arab nationalism and Arab identity if it is used to promote modernism, to resist Israel or combat the American drive to partition Iraq. The next day they'll turn around and use these concepts against Iran. Just to hear a Saudi official defending Arab identity makes your head spin.

There is the Palestinian government under siege, Palestinian society being destroyed. International delegations meet the Palestinian president and snub the democratically elected Palestinian government, while in Lebanon they meet the government and snub the president. Washington could not order non-Arab countries such as Turkey or Russia not to receive elected Hamas officials but it has no problem laying down the law with Arab governments. The same governments which attacked Hizbullah because of its Shia affiliation are the same ones that attack Sunni-affiliated Hamas. Such are the inconsistencies of the pro-American axis.

You see the promotion of Resolution 1701 as an achievement even though it is much worse than 1559, and the Lebanese resistance condemned for its Syrian and Iranian connections and for having brought trouble to Lebanon. Yet when Syria and Iran celebrate the victory of this "Syrian-Iranian" resistance movement they are accused of intervening in Lebanese affairs. As for the resistance's Arab enemies, they either question whether there was a victory at all or they attribute it to the Lebanese government.

Even more worrying is the unprecedented drive to inflame sectarian discord and drive a wedge between Sunni and Shia Muslims, as though they were mutually hostile tribal groups rather than adherents to differing Islamic doctrines. In the past, non-democratic governments based their legitimacy upon a doctrine of national unity that they were uniquely poised to embody. Now we see non- democratic regimes fuelling sectarian strife and national disunity in order to perpetuate themselves.

In contrast to the foregoing, we can take heart in the Arab people's rejection of the sectarian bait. Popular support for the Lebanese resistance was widespread, proving that Arab identity is alive in spite of everything. Arab popular support for the predominantly Shia Lebanese resistance was at least as strong as it was for the Sunni Taliban at the time of the American invasion of Afghanistan. When it comes to hostility towards American and Israeli policies, Arab ties prevail over sectarian ones.

People were greatly impressed by the model the Lebanese resistance set and by its ability to deliver a stunning blow to the Israeli assault and to anti-Arab stereotypes. This impression has set in motion a fermentation that will have far-reaching effects in the long run, and this, too, is positive. It should now be clear to all that the Arab public is not interested in agreements with Israel that are prejudicial to the Arabs in general, and to the Palestinians in particular.

I demonstrated my respect and sympathy for the resistance during its ordeal and the jubilant aftermath. I stood by it when others remained silent because under such circumstances moral support must take precedence. Even now it is important to realise that the war against the resistance is not over, which is why one must bear in mind the source of any criticism. Enemies of the resistance have aired objections that could reasonably be accepted by the movement's supporters were they not obviously aimed to undermine the resistance. The following criticisms are offered by way of support of the resistance.

I believe that the Iranian-supported Lebanese party should not act towards Iran as communist parties acted towards Moscow in the days of the Soviet Union. Iran is not infallible, and it is certainly less than innocent in Iraq, where it is helping to promote sectarian strife in order to further its own regional ambitions. One can understand Hizbullah's predicament because of its material dependence on Iran. However, the party still has considerable room for manoeuvre because of the popular support it has received in the Arab world, which it can turn to its advantage without having to lose Iran's support.

Nor should we expect Hizbullah to get all worked up over Kofi Annan's visit, as if its greatest hope was for recognition from the UN secretary-general. After all, the UN official was there to put into effect a resolution that is unjust to Lebanon and its resistance movement.

Modesty, action instead of words, persistence, organisation and judgement are the qualities that have distinguished Hizbullah over the past two decades, giving the Lebanese resistance its unique character. The party's greatest success is in having developed a workable model for resistance, ending inferiority complexes and defeatist theories based on the notion that Arabs are culturally or genetically flawed.

In the wake of the recent victory, even immediately preceding it, there were some ominous signs. Not only were there displays of pictures of Iranian leaders, reminiscent of the Arab communists' displays of socialist leaders in the past, as if they were new religious icons, but kitschy portraits of the Hizbullah leader began to appear on private and public buildings, cars, in restaurants and stores. Of course there is no comparing this with the ubiquitous pictures of regime leaders that Arab governments force on their publics. The proliferation of Nasrallah images was spontaneous and reflected genuine popular admiration and widespread support for the resistance. Nevertheless, one would think that a party bearing a liberationist message would strive to minimise this type of personality cult, which has always been a product of folk faith and official encouragement. Instead the party is fostering it through its publications and media.

Generally, political movements tend to condemn this phenomenon only in others. Arab nationalists condemned the hero worship of Stalin yet these same people turned Gamal Abdel-Nasser into an icon in a similar way. The revolutionary left, which scoffed at both Stalinists and Nasserists, pinned up its pictures of Marx and Che Guevara. The problem with this is that it obviates critical thought because it voids the symbols of the ideas they are meant to embody. To personify an idea by vesting symbolic meaning in an individual is to elevate that individual beyond criticism. This immunity must inevitably alter the quality of the idea itself.

No one in the West would know the daughter of Guevara. Yet she was received in Lebanon as if she was the member of a royal dynasty in line for succession. That's how things work in Lebanon. Religious affiliations are an important part of politics and social life, but ultimately everything boils down to powerful family dynasties. Hizbullah has stood as a remarkable exception. Its leaders fought with their own sons on the field of battle and paid the price instead of sending other people's sons off to war as they groomed their own to take over. This policy has won Hizbullah respect among Lebanese and Arab forces. It would be a pity if this model was now sullied by personality cults.

Democracy is not a panacea that will solve all our problems. The history of democracy is full of attempts to falsify the popular will, to delude the people, to purchase power, to use sensationalism and mass media chicanery to turn opinion in a particular direction. Yet whatever its failings, it is difficult to imagine such leader worship in a democracy, regardless of how popular a leader is. Democracy, democratic institutions and the rule of law are inherently averse to the adulation of political leaders. Democratic societies seem to have channelled the inclination to hero worship into the alternative "religions" of mass consumer societies, which take as their temples the stage and screen and sporting arenas. The daily brass tacks of politics keep politicians far too busy to become media celebrities, apart from at campaign time. In the Arab world, by contrast, the cult of the ruler is usually pursued in inverse proportion to his political legitimacy.

Hizbullah is not the ruling party, though you would never guess given the adoration accorded to its leaders. But even if it were just a resistance movement such personality cultism is inconsistent with its function. I know that a large portion of the resistance's leadership would agree with me on this point, though they would hold that the cult comes with the territory, is a product of a process of mobilisation that draws on both political and religious sentiments. They would add that it is a healthy expression of self-respect to brandish pictures of resistance leaders in the faces of the dynastic heads of the various religious denominations who do not have to lift a finger to have their pictures posted around the country while simultaneously ridiculing the ubiquitous pictures of rulers in neighbouring countries. All this is true, but the party is still responsible for the type of culture it is disseminating.

What are we to make, for example, of such post- war declarations as "my children died as martyrs in the cause of Al-Sayid," or "this house was destroyed by the Israeli bombardment, but to those concerned the house was offered as tribute to Al-Sayid". Obviously these are expressions of sacrifice for the sake of the resistance or the national cause. They are meant to affirm the determination to remain steadfast and to challenge anyone who tries to drive a wedge between the resistance and the families that lost their homes or loved ones. That is the political message of such declarations. But it is one thing for people to say such things in private and quite another for Hizbullah to broadcast them through its media. The latter represents a conscious attempt to shape a culture favorable to the party. Such a culture may be useful when directed against foreign invaders but it cannot combat social and economic backwardness, political regression, corruption, exploitation, sectarianism and nepotism.

Some presume that the culture of the resistance offers an alternative to the general spectacle of an Arab world that has succumbed to all of the above. The phenomena I have described though, suggests the opposite. This is not because of its sectarian character, which is unavoidable given conditions in Lebanon. In fact, Hizbullah deserves credit for its openness to other political/sectarian forces and the model of religious tolerance it has presented. However, it has not presented Lebanon with a non- sectarian model. Even if Hizbullah's origins are a natural product of the Lebanese environment we could hope it might offer an alternative. The party has every right to boast of offering a model of dedication and organisation at the level of the resistance, but it has not offered an alternative vision for society. The resistance culture Hizbullah is fostering is a culture determined to reject foreign hegemony and adopt modern and rational means to organise and equip the party and its social bases towards that end. This is precisely why it is difficult to imagine a resistance leader squirming before a foreign journalist asking him whether he is going to recognise Israel. But this culture does not offer an alternative to the Arab world's prevalent political culture. Perhaps this is not Hizbullah's historic mission. Perhaps it should not be asked to perform this mission. But an alternative to the prevailing political and social culture is urgently needed throughout the Arab world. Imitating Hizbullah is not the answer, because the nature of the mission is not the same.