Thursday, October 01, 2009

How Lebanese Shia reacted to Iraqi democracy

"Shias in Lebanon, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have all watched developments in Iraq with great interest. They all embraced Sistani's pragmatic approach to politics and were quick to echo his call for "one man, one vote". They all looked to gain from following in the footsteps of Iraqi Shias in adopting democracy to turn the tables on the Sunnis. Amal and Hezbollah leaders and preachers praised Sistani, hinting that once again Lebanon would look to Najaf rather than Qom for religious direction.

Hezbollah's endorsement of Sistani was less a spiritual matter than one of political self-interest. Hezbollah's leaders were noticeably cool toward Sistani's call for clerics to withdraw from politics but saw benefit in the symbolism of his leadership. Their initial reaction to developments in Iraq was quickly to adopt Sistani’s political formula as their mantra. “One man, one vote” in Lebanon would mean that Shia, who make up more than two fifths of the population, would dominate government. In the months after the January 2005 elections in Iraq, Hezbollah’s television station, Al-Manar, continually referred to the “one man, one vote” formula. Hezboallah’s endorsement of Sistani and its power play in Lebanon raised the ire of the Sunnis, who had until then stood in awe of the party for its anti-Israeli posture but who saw Iraqi Shias as American stooges and expected Hezbollah to support the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Hezbollah, however, saw benefits in touting the Iraqi example. When the United States called for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and democracy in that country, Hezbollah became more aggressive in its rhetoric, anticipating that just as Sistani had used Washington’s call for democracy to force Bremer to concede on the “one man, one vote” formula, in Lebanon too Washington’s enthusiasm for democracy would only pave the way for the Shias’ rise to power, at the cost of Christians and Sunnis.

In February 2005, after Lebanon’s Sunni ex-premier Rafiq Hariri was murdered by the blast of a huge road mine in Beirut, hundreds of thousands of mostly Christian and Sunni demonstrators took peacefully to the streets to denounce Syria’s domination of Lebanon. Amal and Hezbollah joined hands to reply with a larger pro-Syrian crowd of their own. The issue of the day was Syrian presence in Lebanon, but the underlying message of these counterdemonstrations was to flaunt Shia power. Not to be outdone, the anti-Syrian crowds grew even larger. The demonstrations served as a prelude to elections in June 2005, in which the alliance of Amal and Hezbollah swept the Shia vote in the south to become notable voice in the parliament. The Shias had demonstrated their power, but it was clear that it would not be easy to use that power to change the country. A new census (the last one had been in 1932) and changes in Lebanon’s electoral map were unlikely to happen painlessly. So after the June elections Hezbollah had to work within the existing system and hope that as democracy gained momentum, political reform would follow. Given Sunni anger at developments in Iraq, it was prudent for Hezbollah to downplay its approval of Shia empowerment there. Sunni approval of Hezbollah’s politics was a great asset that the organization did not want to give up without the palpable promise of greater power in Lebanon. For now Hezbollah distanced itself from sectarian tensions in Iraq, joined the anti-Syrian government, and emphasized Lebanese nationalism (al watiniya) rather than calling for Shia empowerment. That would have to wait for another day.

In doing all this, Hezbollah was following the Iraq model. Shias in Iraq had distanced themselves from Arab nationalism, instead defining themselves as Iraqi and Shia. But without the Sunni domination promoted by Saddam and his brand of Arab nationalism, Iraqi nationalism in a Shia-majority country would become the vehicle for Shia identity. Lebanese nationalism was once promoted by the country’s Christian minority, but like the Iraqi Shias, Hezbollah has embraced Lebanese nationalism as defined by Shias, as a mix of Lebanese and Islamic and Arab identities. After resisting Israel, the Shias viewed themselves as defenders of Lebanon. Their Lebanon would continue to support Arab causes - fighting Israel, defending Palestinians, and resisting the occupation of Iraq - but the country’s politics and nationalism would not be defined by those causes. In fact, other transnational ties, especially those to Shias beyond the Arab world, would also feature prominently in this new conception of national identity. Shia revival therefore did not mean pan-Shiism or a unitary Shia language of power, but anchoring Shia interests in national identities. In time, “Iraqi-ness” and “Bahraini-ness” and even “Lebanese-ness” given the Shias’ favorable numbers there - may come to mean forms of “Shia-ness” just as Iranian nationalism has long been entwined with Shia identity. For the time being, new conceptions of nationalism, divorced from the Sunni-dominated Arab identity of old, are a convenient way of breaking apart the old order. In time they may transcend sectarian identities as well."

--Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival

No comments :