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Ran Ukashi

Ran Ukashi: Review of Michael J Totten's Important and Illuminating Book

by Ran Ukashi, September 23, 2012

[Editor's note:  The book reviewed by Ran Ukashi below was the Winner of the 2011 Washington Institute Book Prize Silver Medal. Ran Ukashi has a Masters of Political Science from the University of Manitoba and has worked on Capital Hill in Ottawa.]     



The Road to Fatima Gate By Michael J. Totten

Encounter Books, 350 pp.

A Review by Ran Ukashi

It was thirty years ago that Hizballah—the Party of God—emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Lebanese politics. The emergence of Hizballah coincided with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, including Beirut, with the ultimately successful aim of ending the attacks of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) against Israel and the expulsion of Yasser Arafat to Tunis, and the otherwise unsuccessful aim of signing a peace treaty with Lebanon. What Hizballah was, what it is, and what it continues to be, is the theme of Totten’s important book The Road to Fatima Gate. While the author reiterates that Lebanese politics has been mired in complexity since its very establishment as an independent state (and even before), it was the post-1982 era that has largely defined the way in which Lebanese politics and society will move forward.

Totten’s words are written from the perspective of an individual and a journalist who witnessed firsthand what Hizballah is in all its manifestations. Hizballah is a complex organization, and is many things to many people. It is a legitimate Lebanese political party representing the historical underdogs of Lebanon, the Shiite Muslims. It is also a self-described resistance force against the State of Israel, a de facto state within a state, a provider of social services, education (and miseducation), security (and insecurity), medical services (and the need for those services), and a symbol of power to a historically disenfranchised group within Lebanon’s complex and often conflict-ridden multi-confessional society. Hizballah is—as Totten correctly asserts—a terrorist organization, which serves as an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, controlling the southern portion of the country. Its military power is such that the Lebanese army dares not attempt to disarm it (and any attempts to do so have historically failed disastrously).

What is particularly illuminating about Totten’s discussion of Hizballah is his contextualization of its existence with the history of Lebanon, Israel, Iran, the United States and Europe. Totten lucidly describes the reason it exists, why it continues to exist, who supports it, why they support it, and its inordinate influence over Lebanese politics and society.

A bit on Lebanon would help illustrate Totten’s efforts here. Lebanon is unique in the Middle East in that it is a country with no clear religious or ethnic majority. The populations of different groups have shifted over the years due to various factors, including emigration and birthrate. Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Maronite (Lebanese Catholic) Christians make up three largest sects in Lebanon, but Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Druze, and other sects exist in this country, and there has been much historical antagonism, as well as cooperation, between these groups. The scope of this review precludes a detailed discussion of the history of the country, but Totten provides a succinct overview of some of the issues and historical grievances that exist. What is important to note, is that Hizballah became a game changer for Lebanese politics, and prevents the one dream of all sects in Lebanon from becoming a reality, namely, that Lebanon becomes the "final home for all her children."

Totten showcases Hizballah’s complete and utter control of the south of the country, and the Shia-dominated dahiyeh neighbourhood of Beirut. Hizballah has a stronger and better trained fighting force than the Lebanese military, preventing any effective and meaningful defensive (or offensive) action on the part of the state to curb Hizballah’s activities and control. This is complicated further by the fact that a large proportion of Lebanese troops are Shiites, and many certainly have loyalty to Hizballah. The reader may wish to ask at this point how Hizballah has garnered such military might, and how and why it enjoys the support of so many (but not all) Shiite (and some non-Shiite) citizens. When considering Shiite support, it is important to understand just how marginalized the Shiites were throughout Lebanese history, and the history of the Muslim world in general. Shiite Muslims had little influence politically, were relegated to the agricultural backwaters of Lebanon, and had an inferiority complex buttressed by institutionalized oppression. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, both secular and religious Shiite’s viewed the turn of events as unprecedented and it buoyed their hope that they could have a voice after all. That is not to say that they all viewed the revolution to be a purely positive thing, especially given that many Lebanese Shiites were secular. Yet the fact that a Shia majority country, such as Iran, could have such power, expressed in Shiite Muslim terms, changed the self-perception of many Shiites around the world. When considering non-Shiite support for Hizballah, its "resistance" against Israel plays on the anti-Israel sentiment of some Lebanese, and any enemy of Israel is a friend of this minority constituency base among Hizballah’s non-Shiite supporters.

In 1982, Iran trained a cohort of Shiite Muslims in Lebanon to fight against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. At the time, a raging civil war, lasting from 1975-1990, was tearing Lebanon apart. Every sect in Lebanon had its own militia (if not several), including the PLO (Palestinians), AMAL (secular Shiites), the Lebanese Forces (Maronite Christians), the Syrian Socialist National Party (a multi-confessional fascist movement), and a multitude of others. The notorious Syrian mukhabarat intelligence service was ever present to contribute to the ongoing discord, and to justify the continued Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which lasted from 1975-2005 (and to some degree continues to this day). Hizballah was among the militias to which Shiite Muslims subscribed to, and was a force loyal to the Iranian Islamic revolutionary ideology, the Ayatollah’s of Iran, and was a client of Iran receiving massive military, financial, and ideological support. The massive support of Iran gave Hizballah a qualitative edge as a militia force over all the other militias. The 1989 Taif Accord called for a cessation of violence and the disarming of all militias. All militias indeed disarmed, with the sole exception of Hizballah, which remains armed to the teeth with sophisticated weaponry, and well-trained and highly-motivated fighters. To this day, Hizballah provides education, waste removal, health services, and so forth to its constituents, which influenced, and continues to influence, the view of even secular Shiites, that despite all of its faults (especially its restrictions on certain freedoms within its areas of control in Lebanon), at least the Shiites now had power, and were taken seriously in Lebanon. In the eyes of Lebanese Shiites, given the choice between continued social, po

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