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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, political, and economic marginalization, and the heavy handedness and religious zeal of Hizballah, the latter is often seen to be the lesser of two evils.

Hizballah positioned itself as the resistance movement in the fight against Israeli occupation. Following Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hizballah justified its continued existence by claiming Israel had not completely withdrawn from Lebanon, citing as evidence the disputed Shebaa Farms, which according to the UN, belong to Syria. Syria neither confirms nor denies ownership of the land, allowing for the ambiguity over ownership to be used by Hizballah as a justification for its continued attacks against Israel. This is a strategic calculation on the part of Syria in its alliance with Iran and Hizballah against Israel. Hizballah’s hostility towards Israel instigated the 2006 Hizballah-Israel war, resulting in some Israeli casualties, but massive retaliatory destruction against Lebanon, where Hizballah fought from heavily built-up areas, Christian neighbourhoods, mosques, and other civilian infrastructure. Israel’s measured response, nevertheless resulted in massive Lebanese casualties and damaged infrastructure. Such was the nature of Hizballah’s perception of victory, and the price it was willing to pay to "resist" a country that no longer occupied any portion of Lebanon. What is more telling is that Hizballah acted with impunity and an utter disregard for Lebanon’s interests, none of which include a confrontation with Israel. The state was impotent in its response—Hizballah acted without any hindrance from the state, because Hizballah was, and is, Lebanon’s strongest fighting force.

Totten states that some in Lebanon realize that their country is the least anti-Israel country in the Arab world. Most Lebanese citizens would settle for at least a cold peace between Lebanon and Israel, and never again to revisit the devastating hostilities of 2006. Hizballah remains an obstacle to any aspirations of peace between Lebanon and Israel, as such a peace would definitively end its raison d'être. More importantly, Hizballah prevents Lebanese democracy from taking its course, as demonstrated aptly by Totten’s revealing insights into Hizballah’s organized takeovers of public spaces, and attacks against other sects that challenge its control or questions its undemocratic methods of political influence. Additionally, Hizballah’s ruthless and cynical use of non-Shiite human shields during its month-long conflict with Israel in the summer of 2006, further elucidates the inhumanity of Hizballah’s military tactics. The solution to Lebanon’s ills, are not from "within" but from "without." The extraordinary and pervasive influence of Iran over Lebanese politics, through its courtship of Hizballah, prevents the Lebanese army from disarming the militia as required by the Taif Accord. The existence of a state within a state erodes Lebanon’s sovereignty, and puts every other sect on edge. As discussed in the book, every Lebanese citizen has at least one firearm in their home, because even the most peace-loving and optimistic of Lebanese are not naïve enough to think that their best days are yet ahead of them. As long as one sect has the power to project itself militarily against another sect to such a degree, let alone being more powerful than the Lebanese military, the situation does not lend itself to call for Lebanese citizens to lower their guard.

Totten’s book discusses a wide range of topics and addresses common misconceptions about the Middle East, and Lebanon in particular. The picture he paints of the country is one of nuance and sophistication, as well as terror and discord. Lebanon is a modern, cosmopolitan country that has been influenced heavily by the Western world. It is located in the Middle East but often has less in common with the Arab world as compared to its sister countries of the Mediterranean. Simultaneously, however, this image of Lebanon is juxtaposed by a very real and simmering ethnic tension that is always just under the surface. Radical Islamic ideology is rife in Lebanon’s Hizballah-dominated areas, while secular cosmopolitan lifestyles define the posh neighbourhoods of Beirut. Tactical alliances between erstwhile enemies, ever-shifting political loyalties, deference to client states, foreign influence and intervention by Israel, Syria, Iran, and so forth, coupled with historic baggage of epic proportions continue to plague Lebanon’s body politic. Lebanon, then, is a contradiction in and of itself. It is a state where no nationalist tendency ought to exist, but such a tendency does in small and ever-changing pockets. Loyalty to one’s sect often trumps national loyalty, but Lebanon also has examples of inter-sectarian cooperation, and loyalty to Lebanon as a state for "all her children" above all else. Where Lebanon has been, where it is, and where it may go, is the crux of Totten’s book. How it can get to where it needs to go is a difficult question. The symptoms of its political malaise are clearly defined by the sectarian strife which has impacted the lives of all Lebanese citizens. The causes of those symptoms are the foreign interventions and influences which have been part of Lebanese politics since its inception. Totten suggests what would seem to be an obvious solution, which bears repeating—until Lebanon is free to chart her own course, the course she takes will always be determined by outside interests that never have her best interests at heart. Only once that influence is severed in its entirety can Lebanon hope to emerge as a state for all her children.

Totten writes with a raw wit. He cuts to the point of the subject without being verbose and without sugarcoating any inconvenient truths. The personal point of view from which he writes is refreshing, and his openness and comfort with his political beliefs make it obvious what his positions are. But he makes room for dissent, and openly shares with the reader the points of view of others who strongly disagree with this perspective. He makes no apologies for Hizballah, and in fact, calls out those who sympathize with Hizballah and choose to ignore the corrosive effect Hizballah has on the country. Totten sympathizes with Lebanon’s plight, and has a pragmatic and fair view of the country which illustrates to the reader that while Lebanon is most definitely plagued by civil strife, it is at the same time a normal country with the same aspirations of any other country—to live in peace with all of its neighbours (including Israel), and to get on with the day-to-day lives of its citizens free of any sectarian violence, foreign influence, and violent conflict. There are two Lebanon’s exemplified in the book. There is the Lebanon where all citizens are Lebanese first, and members of their respective sects second; a Lebanon that eschews violence, proudly asserts its generous and welcoming culture, and ignores the petty differences of sects. Then there is the second Lebanon, where sectarian violence burns the country, where foreign intervention eats away at Lebanese sovereignty, and where violence is a legitimate tool through which to resolve disputes. The two Lebanon’s exist in tandem, but the book makes it clear that the struggle in Lebanon is the struggle over which of these two Lebanon’s will be its future—the sole Lebanon. One can only hope after reading Totten’s insightful words that the former triumphs over the latter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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