“Hezbollah? It is a double-faced Janus”
The South of Lebanon, after 10 months from the Lebanese war, is still struggling for the reconstruction of the areas involved in last summer conflict. Augustus Richard Norton, professor at the University of Boston, in his last book “Hezbollah” (Princeton University Press), published in April in the Usa, explains, very clearly, the goals and the importance of the Lebanese organization in the political and social system. In the book he describes Hezbollah as a double-faced Janus organization with both solidaristic and military aims. And after Israel withdrawal in 2000 and the war in summer 2006, it has become always more a model organization for the Middle East society.
In two chapters, you speak about Hezbollah’s efforts in reconstruction and of the great amount of charity organizations linked to Hezbollah. How many are there?
Many of the charity associations that now operate in Lebanese soil, didn’t exist three decades ago, so this is a new phenomenon in Lebanon. In terms of the numbers, it’ difficult to give you the precise number, this groups are founded at a very local level but in terms of the major organizations 35 to 40 different organizations are specifically associated to Hezbollah. There are also many other groups or associations associated with other groups in the Shiite community like the Amal movement and international foundation such as the Bahamn foundation in Africa, Lebanon, in Iraq and Iran. They found one of the major hospital in the Shiite suburbs in Beirut.
Iran is one of the most important supporters of the charity organizations in Lebanon?
Yes that’s right: a significant portion of charity organizations is financially supported by Iranians. There were times when Iranian donations to Hezbollah were lower, for example, in the early 1990’s. Right now, I would say, they provide 40-50 % of Hezbollah’s funding. But this is not the only source of fund-raising. For instance, Iran has nothing to do with the Bahamn foundation hospital. Individual shiits are obliged by their religion to make donation and people who are religious even people who aren’t religious will give donations to various religious officials and to various groups. So a lot of the money comes from private individuals as well.
How did Hezbollah managed to transform itself from being a cat’s-paw of Iran to an impressive party?
If you ask many Lebanese who are not Shiite Muslims and even people who are not admirer of Hezbollah, they will tell that this is the only real political party in Lebanon. Most of the groups that call themselves political party in Lebanon, are kind of disarticulated movements associated to one person or to another one. So why has it happen? Well basically Hezbollah was, first, supported by people who wanted to emulate the Revolution in Iran but by the late 1980s it began to broaden its social base for a couple of reason. People supported its activity to fight the Israelis who were occupying South Lebanon and also there were many Shiite who had previously supported a rival group such as the Amal group and they were very disappointed by Amal because it was part of a very big corruption network. So basically, with the broadening of the base, you could see people joining or supporting Hezbollah. Who basically did this not for ideological reason but because they wanted to be well represented in the Lebanese political system.
In summer 2006, Hezbollah snatched Israeli soldiers. Do you think that the abduction strategy fits with the status of political party?
First of all I must say that, last July, when two Israelis were captured my feeling was that is was very stupid. What Hezbollah tried to do in July was sort of “push the envelope” and they were doing this for a couple of reason. One they were trying to gain the release of a few Lebanese prisoners that were withheld by Israel, including some people that were terrorists, in my view. Second, I think, they were trying to carry out a kind of sensational operation at the way of reducing pressure within Lebanon to Hezbollah to be disarmed of course, they backfired tremendously. If the Israeli and the American supporters had stopped that war after 4 or 5 days, Hezbollah would have been put in a very difficult and embarrassing position because you remember last summer Hezbollah was criticized by many Arab States, Saudi Arabia, Giordan, Egypt, for example, and then you might well see this organization weakened. Unfortunately, with the war going on for more than a month, 33 or 34 days, Hezbollah ironically ended up the war in a stronger position. For example, I’ve, recently, been in Lebanon and I was struck by the fact that people that I’ve known for many years who previously weren’t political are now supporting Hezbollah.
Do you think that Hezbollah, after Israel withdrawal in 2000 and the war in summer 2006, has become a model organization for Middle East society?
I agree with you. I was in Bahrein a few days ago and I’ve noticed that Hezbollah is extremely popular: you can go into some part of the capital city, in Manama, and you find out several shops selling all kind of Hezbollah souvenirs representing the idea that people see this as a model organization just like you said.
You once reported a statement according to which Hezbollah post-war reconstruction efforts were judged better than the Us government response to Hurricane Katrina. Surprisingly, the author wasn’t a journalist of Al Jazeera, but an American one. Do you remember the name?
I actually don’t remember the name but I can tell you that the same comment was also made by a USA congressman who said that there is something wrong when the Usa can not respond as effectively to hurricane like in the Katrina case, as effectively Hezbollah can to a war and this particular comment was made on one of the major cable shows.
Why Western States seem to be unable to help Iraqis or Afghans in the reconstruction of their countries?
There are two major problems and they are related to each other. One is the fact that we do not understand these society very well at all, and I’m now talking specifically of the Us, there tend to be a kind of black and white view of this countries in which we see religious group, often times, as enemies and this related to a second point. That is when we try to help people. We usually try to do it in a western style organization with NGOs and so on. Yet these organizations, really, often, have no real basis in the society which we want to help. So if we want to really implement some significant changes and help people what we must do is relate to the indigenous organization that already exist and these are often religious groups and we see this obviously so clearly in Iraq where the Us went into Iraq without even imagining that the religious institutions were important in the country and then founding out that not only had to govern through the troops but also to basically connect to the people through them. So we really need to rethink our understanding of these societies and I must say that the Bush administration has been particularly inapt at doing this.