The Politics of PrideBy Omar Chatah
Hezbollah’s persistent popularity among the Shi’ite community has been an enigma for many around the world, including many Lebanese. The destruction of most Shi’ite areas of Lebanon in recent weeks has, to the surprise of many and particularly the United States and Israel, strengthened Hezbollah’s internal standing. International and Lebanese concern over Hezbollah derives from the party’s strong ties to Syria and Iran, as well as their relative independence from the central government. Despite having active cabinet members, the party has de facto assumed the role of declaring war and peace vis-à-vis Israel, as well as unilaterally attacking Israel without the consent of the Lebanese government. Popular support for Hezbollah stems from a quintessentially Lebanese practice of clientalism and face-saving rhetoric, which protect the individual and community’s sense of “pride”. As a consequence of this war, Hezbollah’s ability to ensure individual and communitarian pride has increased. For Israel to successfully pursue Hezbollah, she would have to destroy the party’s ability to instill pride on its supporters: something not easily accomplished.
“Pride” exists in two realms: the individual and the community. Individual-pride is a universal human emotion that needs little elaboration. Communitarian-pride, as understood in Arab society, however, is derived from a strong attachment to an imagined community. In turn, attachment to community is derived from strong family ties, which are a consequence of patrilineal kinship and the ghetto-ization of the Shi’ite community, among other structural and cultural factors. The result? The “community” arises as an independent social actor in supplement to the individual. Hezbollah, understanding both types of “pride,” has managed to use money and manipulate rhetoric to secure solid support for the decisions and actions of their leaders.
Hezbollah’s core supporters are invariably those who are most financially dependent. Hezbollah operates and funds what an estimated twelve schools, twelve medical clinics, and at least four hospitals. Party members also get free medical care as well other social welfare benefits. All of this happens in the absence of government support. In his most recent speech, Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has promised financial and material assistance to families whose homes have been damaged or destroyed by Israel over the past four weeks. Through their consistency in improving the material wellbeing of their supporters, Hezbollah has ensured that the individual-pride of their supporters is largely protected and preserved. Consequently, they have managed to secure the loyalty of thousands of dependent families. And additionally, they have also managed to protect communitarian-pride.
To its credit, Hezbollah was able to engage in warfare with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) longer than any regular Arab army. While it may seem logical, given their guerilla tactics, this fact has been exploited rhetorically by the party’s leadership in order to enhance their supporters’ sense of communitarian-pride. In the words of Nasrallah, the Shi’ite community in Lebanon has restored Arab pride in the face of an otherwise impregnable enemy. This has instilled a sense of communitarian-pride in many self-identified Arabs. Anything that might threaten that pride would be strongly resisted.
What is fascinating is how suicide bombings and Katyusha rockets that have invited over 1,000 Lebanese civilian deaths have still managed to instill and add fuel to such pride. Unlike other armed forces in the region, Hezbollah takes great pains in ensuring that their fighters are remembered and that their dependents are taken care of. Posters are hung all around Southern Lebanon commemorating their “martyrs” and the details of the operations they conducted. In addition, large sums of money are transferred to their dependents to ensure that a fighter’s death does not force his family into financial hardship. By fighting for Hezbollah, individuals are able to protect their communitarian and individual-pride while the party ensures that death does not affect the pride and honor of their family or dependents.
Ever since assuming his role as Secretary General in 1992, Nasrallah has managed to contextualize each act of violence in, albeit superficially, ‘Lebanese’ terms. In 1999, he talked about liberating occupied Southern Lebanon. In 2000, he continued to talk about liberating land; only this time the 20 km2 area known as the Shebaa Farms. More recently, in response to calls for his party to disarm, he uses the rhetoric of ‘defending the nation’ and the slogan ‘a nation protects its resistance and the resistance protect its nation’ (ironically implicitly ignoring the State). Most recently, the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers along the Lebanese-Israeli border was ostensibly to ‘liberate’ Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails, although never detailing the number of prisoners or reasons for imprisonment. His superficial nationalist rhetoric is part of his recognition that the Shi’ite Lebanese, for the most part, identify their communitarian-pride at the ‘Lebanese’ level as well as their own religious community. Among his supporters, not only is he fighting for the pride of the Shi’ite community, but he is also fighting for “Lebanon” and Arabs as well.
During the past month, Israel has bombed al-Manar (Hezbollah’s TV station), dropped leaflets urging Lebanese to turn against Hezbollah, and various other forms of psychological warfare to no avail. Their failure resulted from their inability to hurt Hezbollah where they gain their most support from: pride. Instead, during this war, Hezbollah was able to confirm their durability as an organization, continued to broadcast from al-Manar despite Israeli attacks on their offices and broadcast towers, and was especially effective at maintaining communitarian-pride with his speech midway through the war threatening to destroy Israeli warships which was timed to coincide with the destruction of an Israeli warship at sea. The consequence of Israel’s war in Lebanon has served to help Hezbollah further undermine the state in the form of enhanced legitimacy through material and financial assistance, maintaining their already high influence among their community by way of pride, and frustrating Lebanese of other denominations.