Shiites In Lebanon Start Saying 'No' To Hezbollah

Hezbollah billboard in Beirut
Hezbollah billboard in Beirut
Laure Stephan

BEIRUT - Sheikh Hani Fahs lives by the old route to the airport, near the entrance of Beirut’s Dahieh (“southern suburb”). This a Hezbollah stronghold.

The Lebanese cleric has had a ringside seat over this main axis, which has often been blocked by angry demonstrators these past few months. Down the street, walls are covered with posters from two Shiite groups: The Party of Allah (Hezbollah) and Amal. The 66-year-old religious leader has been at odds with the two parties, not only politically but also socially.

His detractors among the Shiite community call him as a “traitor,” helping the Lebanese opposition (Hezbollah’s rivals) or serving U.S. foreign policy interest in the Middle East. The religious leader, who wears the traditional black turban of the sayyid (the descendants of prophet Muhammad), is used to criticism. He claims to be a dissenting voice within the Lebanese Shiite community, a majority of whom are Hezbollah supporters. He is not afraid to say that his movement and his supporters are a minority within the community, although he believes that “a strong and reasonable Arab Spring could bring more diverse opinion among the Shiites.”

While the Party of Allah and Amal fully support Bashar al-Assad, the cleric once again voiced his support to the “legitimate Syrian revolution” and with another Shiite religious leader, Muhammad Hassan al-Amin, urged a stop to “the massacre in Syria." The sheikh, used to international meetings on interreligious dialogue, joined around 50 Lebanese Shiite intellectuals and activists in an opinion piece for Beirut’s daily newspaper An-Nahar. Published on August 25, the statement praises the Syrian people’s fight for “liberty” and “justice.” Among the other signers are Saoud al-Mawla, a sociology professor and former member of Hezbollah in the 1980s and Lokman Slim, head of Umam Documentation & Research, an organization dedicated to the memory of the Lebanese War (1975-2000).

On the side of the oppressed

“Since its early days, I have always supported the uprising in Syria. Shiites must defend a position in line with their Arabism, Lebanese nationalism and history: they have always been on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors,” explains Sheikh Hani Fahs. He claims to have inherited the legacy of Musa al-Sadr, the religious figure who initiated the Shiite revival in Lebanon in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, Shiites were considered outcasts in Lebanon. While he deplores the support of most Shiites for the Syrian regime, the cleric is also very critical of Sunnis, who have generally ignored the uprising in Bahrein.

Sheikh Hani Fahs, who visited Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris during his exile, and then became passionate about the Islamic Revolution in Tehran in 1979, is now a strong supporter of the Iranian opposition. He has not travelled to Iran since 1979 and has severed his ties with Hezbollah – their decision, he claims. Regarding Iran, the cleric hopes that the country will “come back to the values of the Islamic revolution.” He “encourages Shiites to get involved in the Arab societies in which they live instead of turning them into an Iranian diaspora.”

In his office, located in a building in the Hamra neighborhood, Abbas Beydoun, editor of the culture pages of As-Safir, another Beirut daily newspaper, praises the initiative launched by the religious leader. “Shiite intellectuals have been among the first to voice their support for the Syrian people against the regime. It is interesting that these two leaders have voiced a different opinion from Hezbollah's, which is followed by most Shiite leaders,” says the famous poet and journalist.

Yet Abbas Beydoun, who did not sign the statement published in An-Nahar, explains that “Shiite intellectuals have always been at odds with the rest of the community.” He does not believe there has been a radical change of opinion in the Shiite community, despite the emergence of voices against Hezbollah and the fact that some Shiites have been disgusted by the bloodbath perpetrated by the Syrian regime, even those firmly attached to “the resistance against Israel.” “Today, Hezbollah is the voice, the leader, the head of the community. Most Shiites are afraid that they will be weakened by the fall of the Syrian regime and believe they must remain faithful to it, as they think it has always protected them,” says Beydoun.

A large number of Lebanese Shiite Muslims are concerned about the possibility of conservative Sunnis taking power in Damascus, and they worry that a power struggle between foreign nations (the West vs Iran) there could potentially harm their community. They believe they would be the first victims if the “axis of resistance” (Syria, Iran, Hezbollah) were to collapse.

Shall they be worried about the future? “Shiites have deep roots in Lebanon. They have many assets, demographic, cultural, economic, and military with Hezbollah. But in Lebanon, every community lives with the fear of being extinguished, and they feed on this fear,” says Abbays Beydoun. “By supporting the Syrian regime, Hezbollah is not endangering Shiites, but its position is not helping the community either. What’s the point in supporting a losing regime?”

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How Low Trust In Government Fuels Violence Against Politicians

The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.

Tribute to slain UK MP David Amess in Leigh-on-Sea on Oct. 15

James Weinberg

The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.

Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."

The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.

Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.

Governing under threat

As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.

Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:

There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.

Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:

I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.

Another, this time in South Africa, said:

What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.

In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.

Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.

It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.

Photo of \u200bNew Zealand's parliament in Wellington

New Zealand's parliament in Wellington

Guo Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Compassion and education

While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.

Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.

A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.

Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.

Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.The Conversation


James Weinberg is a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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