Mohanad Hage Ali is the director of communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. A former journalist, he worked for, among other outlets, the Al-Hayat daily in Beirut and London. He is a regular contributor to the Lebanese online publication Al-Modon, and a lecturer in politics and journalism at the Lebanese American University. Recently, he published Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam: Hizbullah’s Institutional Identity at Palgrave Macmillan. It is to discuss his new book that Diwan spoke to Hage Ali in early September, just before the official release of his book.  

Michael Young: You’ve just published a new book on Hezbollah titled Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam: Hizbullah’s Institutional Identity. What are the book’s main arguments?

Mohanad Hage Ali: The book looks at how Hezbollah’s identity is produced and disseminated in the Lebanese Shi‘a community. This entails engaging with three related questions: How modern is Hezbollah? Who or what produces its form of Shi‘i identity? And what are its main pillars? I argue that the study of nationalism is particularly relevant in understanding the production of identity, whether in Hezbollah’s case specifically or in political Islam generally.

At the heart of the debates and studies on nationalism lies the question of modernity. The dominant argument is that national identity and nationalist movements are the products of modernity and, thus, their claims of historical continuity with the past are constructed. This construction of historical narratives—employing symbols, myths, and anecdotes—is a fundamental exercise. It is a perfectly constructed mirage, devoid of nuances. Anthony Smith, a notable scholar of nationalism, best describes this process, picturing the role of nationalist historians as “political archaeologists who aim, not to return to the past, but to recover its pristine ethos and reconstruct a modern nation in the image of the past ethnie.”

By the same token, Hezbollah, through its reconstructed history, claims representation and continuity with the sacred past. The party, both directly and indirectly, has embarked on this reconstruction of history, employing a plethora of symbols, anecdotes, and myths, some of which are modern inventions. According to this narrative, Wilayat al-Faquih, or the Guardianship of the Jurisconsult, whereby the religious leader is also the paramount political leader, as in Iran, is only a continuation of the leadership of the prophets and infallible Imams. Therefore, any member of the group or the community faces the same tests as the faithful in the Quran and the Hadith. Only the contexts of the conflicts have changed. This sacred legitimacy is essential to mobilization.

MY: Where did this investigation lead you?

MHA: Examining Hezbollah’s identity project for Lebanon’s Shi‘a sheds light on its least reported side. The party is widely known as a political and military organization, and now a regional player, whether in Syria or Yemen. However, it is also Lebanon’s largest publisher, with dozens of active and often subsidized publishing houses, acquiring nearly half of the national book market. In terms of periodicals, the organization is as formidable. Every single institution in Hezbollah’s structure produces at least one magazine. The scout movement affiliated with the party for instance publishes magazines for boys and girls, alongside booklets and short stories. Hezbollah’s internal magazine, Baqiatullah, distributes 20,000 copies, more than any other publication nationwide.

These publications tailor identity for different audiences, from young children and students to the party’s wounded. The same institutions that provide crucial services and financial assistance are also publishers and indoctrinators, organizing learning sessions for their beneficiaries. This includes the party’s network of schools, scouts, charities, financial and health institutions, as well as its martyrs and wounded and its construction arm (Jihad al-Bina’).

All of Hezbollah’s publications produce their content in a holistic fashion, under centralized guidance and supervision. The body in charge of overseeing this production is the Central Cultural Unit (Al-Wahda al-Thaqafiyya al-Markaziyya), a clerically-dominated body occupying an entire building in the southern suburbs of Beirut. This is an identity project on an industrial scale.

MY: How has Hezbollah managed to reconcile its national identity and its transnational identity, or has it been unable to do so?

MHA: In spite of its transnational leadership and links, the organization has woven in a Lebanese Shi‘a identity, glorifying the history of Jabal Amil, South Lebanon’s historical name, as a beacon of resistance and clerical leadership. The Amilis, or Lebanese Shi‘a, occupy a special status, just as the Persians did in the hadith on the prophet’s companion Salman al-Farisi, or Salman the Persian. The prophet said, “Even if faith were near the Pleiades, a man from amongst these would surely find it,” referring to Salman. The latter example is heavily employed in Iran’s propaganda to reconcile elements of the Persian identity and pride with presumably transnational Khomeinism. In Hezbollah’s case, this links together both superior Shi‘a nations, Lebanon and Iran. In other words if Iran is the Shi‘a Batman, Hezbollah is Robin.

This is on the identity level. But Hezbollah is also active as a political actor, seeking to maintain its relevance to Iranian interests and to keep the financial and political support flowing. The party lobbies in Tehran through its office there and its Persophile cadres, including Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who is fluent in Farsi. The party often takes newly-elected or appointed Iranian officials on tours of southern Lebanon. Such a concerted effort belies Hezbollah’s image in the media as merely a passive Iranian pawn.

MY: You discuss in your book Hezbollah’s use of miracles and myths. Can you elaborate more on how the party has done so?

MHA: Part of the party’s claims of historical continuity with the divine past is its ability to manifest this status in reality. For this reason, affiliated publishing houses and bookstores have disseminated a large body of literature on contemporary miracles and supernatural occurrences involving Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, and linking them to Hezbollah’s leaders and fighters. In my book, I look at a series of books translated from Farsi to Arabic on the supernatural occurrences during the Iran-Iraq war. These were widely disseminated. For instance, a book on the miracles of the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel has entered its 12th edition due to high public demand.

Central to understanding this policy of reviving supernatural narratives and beliefs is Ali Shariati’s critique of Mohammad Bagher Majlesi, a 17th century cleric. Shariati, an anti-Shah Islamist intellectual, condemned Majlesi’s efforts to magnify supernatural narratives in Shi‘a theology, seeing this reflected in modern trends aiming to achieve political objectives, namely by granting the ruler divine legitimacy. According to this logic, Hezbollah’s modern day supernatural occurrences are a continuation of the divine past.

MY: How would you situate Hezbollah in the modern history of the Lebanese Shi‘a, when compared to previous movements of communal affirmation, such as that of Imam Moussa Sadr?

MHA: The scale of change goes beyond political discourse. Sadr aimed to “Lebanonize” the Shi‘a through sectarian mobilization, on par with other confessional groups, and away from the then-dominant influence of communist and leftist groups. He wanted the Shi‘a to be equal partners in Lebanon’s consociational system.

Hezbollah has not only transformed them identity-wise, but also rendered them superior partners in power. With respect to Lebanon’s other sects, they are the Spartans in a nation of Athenians. Their weapons arsenal is the elephant in Lebanon’s living room, there to be used when required.

MY: Does Hezbollah seek to rebalance Lebanon’s current sectarian system to the advantage of the Shi‘a?

MHA: Hezbollah has already rebalanced the current sectarian system through its success in transforming the party’s status as a non-state actor to one where it has become an essential part of the inter-sectarian consensus required for governance. Hezbollah’s military power affects any decision-making process to the party’s benefit.

MY: How might Hezbollah seek to take advantage of what appears to be its successful wager to keep the Assad regime in power in Syria?

MHA: As with the weapons, the party is now seeking to restore some of the Syrian regime’s influence in the Lebanese state, trying to lure in foes of Syria with the carrot of Syria’s reconstruction. Having the Syrian regime return as a player in Lebanese politics would increase Hezbollah’s leverage. Hezbollah would be the armed resistance, the representative of the Syrian regime, and that of the Shi‘a sect all in one.

MY: It is assumed that the logic of the state cannot coexist with the logic of an armed movement outside the confines of the state, such as Hezbollah? Do you agree, and if so what does the future hold for the relationship between the party and the Lebanese state?

MHA: The consociational system has generally produced weak states and undermined the rule of law. Hezbollah’s armed status and external funding render the aspiration for a strong state that respects the rule of law impossible to achieve. The state will only portray strength when acting in line with the party’s will.