In Beirut’s Hezbollah Stronghold, Syrian War Keeps The Peace

Many locals in Lebanon's capital are firm Hezbollah and Assad loyalists, seeing the Islamist militia that supports the Syrian regime and fights ISIS on the ground as their ultimate protector against the civil war raging across the border.

In Beirut, Lebanon
Giordano Stabile

BEIRUT â€" In the neighborhood of Mouawad, the Syrian war never feels very far away. Yet locals see Hezbollah, the Shia political party that has an armed movement in Lebanon, as keeping them safe from the civil war raging across the border â€" even more so since Hezbollah's recent victories on the battlefield in Syria.

"Our men fight in Aleppo to keep Beirut safe as well," says Hassan al-Haji, a local fruit vendor on the main road of this outlying neighborhood of the Lebanese capital. "The takfiri of ISIS would like to cut all our heads off too."

This is where Hezbollah-controlled Beirut begins, home to its political leadership, which has bet almost everything on victory in Syria. In his latest speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah went so far as to say that his men will remain in Syria "for centuries" if necessary. Other leading figures agree, explaining that they are in Syria because they were "invited by the government, which is legitimate whether you like it or not â€" unlike the Turks and Saudis, who send thousands of unwanted terrorists."

While muttering insh'Allah â€" "God willing" â€" the leaders are optimistic about their prospects. "Turkey cannot send troops because they don't have air cover, unless they shoot down 150 Russian jets," says one. "The Saudis, on the other hand, just don't have the know-how â€" look at what's happening in Yemen."

Crossing just a few kilometers into southern Beirut from Mouawad, and passing through other Hezbollah-dominated areas such as Bir el-Abed and Bourj el-Barajneh, the urban landscape changes radically. The city's New York-like downtown and the Parisian air of the Monot neighborhood disappear, replaced by Arabic graffiti calling for "decolonization." Posters and altars commemorate countless martyrs, thousands of young men who have lost their lives on the front. Concrete barriers rise in the middle of trafficked streets, forcing cars into tortuous turns to reach or bypass buildings deemed "sensitive locations."

Bedfellows against ISIS

ISIS extremists have indeed targeted this part of Beirut several times in the recent past, killing more than 40 people on the eve of November's attacks in Paris. They claimed vengeance for Hezbollah's role in the Syrian war, where its 2013 offensive saved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. In fact, the Shia militia is the regime's principal ally on the ground and a bulwark of Iran's strategy to prop up the Syrian government in Damascus.

Hezbollah has been the model for Tehran's projection of force abroad, a tactic that has since been replicated in Iraq, where the Shia, state-sponsored "Popular Mobilization Forces" aid the Iraqi government in fighting ISIS there.

For the first time, these forces are fighting side by side in the increasingly vicious battle for Aleppo, Syria's largest city. "These are just rough estimates, but the anti-Assad rebels are intercepting more and more conversations in Farsi, Kurdish and Iraqi dialects," says Hossam Abouzahr of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Official sources report that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 Hezbollah militants on the ground, supported by 6,000 Iraqi fighters, 3,500 Afghans and 2,000 Pakistanis, all coordinated by between 1,500 and 3,000 Iranian soldiers.

Russia's entry into the conflict late last year turned the tide of the war, with Moscow establishing a war room to coordinate and plan battlefield actions between its forces and those of Assad, Hezbollah and Iran. Russia's stated priority is to capture Aleppo from the rebels. "Liberating the city would return effective control of the country to the government," a Hezbollah official says. "Talk of regime change is a thing of the past."

On the regional front, the alliance seeks to strike a blow to Turkish and Saudi ambitions. The Sunni powers have their own "foreign legion" on the ground, composed of Turkic fighters from Central Asia and other "volunteers" from the Arab world. In the battlefields of Syria's proxy global war, it's mainly irregular foreign fighters who are dying. Soon, though, that could change â€" and standing armies may join the deepening mire.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!