Friday, May 16, 2008

Radicalism & Representation

Robert Fisk, perhaps the most eminent reporter of the Lebanese scene, says “As a Tehran versus Washington conflict, Iran has won, at least for now.” Well, yes, although it is quite possible that it was Washington’s idea to provoke this week’s showdown, after a year of building up a mercenary Sunni militia that was supposed to enable Hariri (fils) to confront Hezbollah, Tehran does seem to have come out ahead.

However, the Lebanese political struggle is not primarily a Tehran-Washington conflict. It is primarily a conflict over political power between a sectarian group (i.e., a group that is definable by religious or racial features) that can also be distinguished on economic basis (the Shi’a tend to be the poor of Lebanon) which is underrepresented in national government and two other sectarian groups (Sunnis and most of the Christians) who are relatively richer and have long had the power without bothering to extend governance (e.g., civil services) to those on the outside.

The distinction between viewing the Lebanese instability as a Tehran-Washington conflict and viewing it as a political struggle for representation is critical because the solutions are fundamentally different, depending on which is correct. The debate is complicated and the answer unclear (and, by the way, I am certainly not implying that Mr. Fisk actually believes this to be primarily a Tehran-Washington conflict; after all, he did say “As a…”). It all goes back to the origins of Hezbollah. Hezbollah arose as a national liberation movement against Israeli aggression with the aid of Iran…but which part of that sentence is the more important – “against Israeli aggression” or “with the aid of Iran?” More to the point, which is more important today? Is Hezbollah today primarily an agent of Iran or primarily the party representing one-third and rising portion of the Lebanese population that is Shi’ite and poor?

Perhaps the only way to know for sure would be for Hezbollah to take control of the government and demonstrate its loyalties by its behavior as leader rather than as opposition. What we do know is that nature abhors a vacuum, and Hezbollah has over the past generation moved into the power vacuum of the Lebanese Shi’ite poor. Hariri (pere) with all his Western support and Saudi money rebuilt downtown Beirut; he did not build or provide effective governance (hospitals, schools, homes, jobs, or security from Israel) for the poor rural Shi’a.

For Washington to blame Iran is an exercise in futility. Were Iran to vanish, Hezbollah would still be the most powerful military force and the best organized political party in Lebanon. It would still constitute the source of public services for the rural Shi’ite poor. It would still be the only organization in Lebanon willing to defend the country against Israel. It would still be the leader of Shi’ite aspirations for political equality. One can of course argue about how high on the list of priorities of Hezbollah’s leaders the lifestyle of their followers is; but as long as no other organization provides them with effective civil services, that is beside the point.

It is fashionable in rightwing Western circles to go far beyond Fisk’s position and flatly blame Iran for Lebanon’s problems. Blaming Iran for Hezbollah does many things. Blaming Iran for Hezbollah exacerbates tensions, enhances Ahmadinejad’s career prospects, provides an excuse for not facing up to the need to help Lebanon create a decent system of government for all its people, puts the regime under the thumb of the West, scares Saudi Arabia into toeing the line, and avoids the embarrassing truth that Hezbollah exists because of Israeli aggression. But what blaming Iran does not do is lead to a solution to the problem of Lebanese political instability.

The pattern is clear in rural, Shi’ite Lebanon; in Sadr City; in Gaza; in Somalia; in southern Afghanistan; in the tribal regions of Pakistan –
  • First, if there is a power vacuum, some group will move in to fill that vacuum.
  • Second, if that group and the people that group speaks for are ostracized, they will be radicalized.
Wringing hands and deploring the rise of “Islamic extremists” is ignorance, hypocrisy, or both. Extremism is opportunistic. Opening the doors of government to such a group may not guarantee that everyone will instantly turn moderate, but slamming the door in its face will almost certainly guarantee the opposite.

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