Alerts, News and Background from Lebanon
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Edited by Inga Schei and Lokman Slim
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August 20, 2014
As Hezbollah's military, political and organizational capabilities continued to rise, the Lebanese Shia community seemed to fade! And while that outcome may seem contradictory, rather like being unable to see the forest for the trees, it deserves appropriate consideration in light of the regional maelstrom from which it is becoming increasingly evident that Lebanon cannot escape.
As we begin, let's forget about the Shia-born Lebanese (as defined by the Lebanese confessional system) that—at least in principle—reject any political movement driven by religion. Let's also ignore the members of Lebanon's Shia community who oppose Hezbollah for political reasons. Instead, let’s refresh our minds by remembering that once upon a time, Hezbollah did not exist. Back then, the Lebanese Shia scene was essentially dominated (albeit for a short period) by the Amal Movement! But while Amal was destined to handle a substantial portion of the Shia pie in Lebanon's confessional system thanks to the Syrian-Iranian appreciation of their mutual influence over that community, from the 1980s on, Lebanese Shia were not usually identified with Amal and Hezbollah. Rather, they were seen as synonymous with Hezbollah alone. Over time, impromptu conversation ceased making any distinction between the two and began to use “Hezbollah” and “Shia” interchangeably. Today, even the community itself has adopted that commutable identity.
Despite Hezbollah having asserted its "representation" of large sectors of the Lebanese Shia community (although in this context, the very notion of representation must be deconstructed—and not just from an electoral or political viewpoint), the mutual identity of the organization and the community was usually misinterpreted despite numerous attempts by observers of Lebanese and Shia issues to define that symbiosis. Essentially, those results can only be likened to “color blindness.” That myopic tendency even affected the scholarly milieu, which also attempted to understand the behavior of the Lebanese Shia community from Hezbollah's perspective, including the community's voluntary adherence to that organization. Unfortunately, they neglected to assess the situation from the other perspective: that of the people involved! Of course, that “color blindness” was exacerbated over time by the secretive seclusion Hezbollah imposed on the Lebanese Shia community, which effectively stymied any attempt to assess the true conditions within the Lebanese Shia community by equating such efforts to breaches of security that could impair the cohesion of the mythical “People of the Resistance.” This predilection with “security” has indeed become an organic feature of daily life in most of the areas Hezbollah controls.
In view of these and similar challenges, through Hayya Bina's efforts to constantly refresh its fieldwork and analyses, our organization continues to believe that the community of Lebanese Shia have a great deal more on their minds than what Hezbollah (and/or Amal) may say on their behalf or what election results may suggest as being their will. Accordingly, Hayya Bina commenced a project in 2013 titled “Polling Dahiyeh.” So far, that initiative has consisted of two public opinion polls intended to get a firsthand idea of where members of the community stand on a series of important issues.
The ability to acquire and disseminate a quantitative, community-based wealth of information about Lebanon's Shia community is tantamount to recognizing that demographic as a diverse and evolving body. At the same time, it compels us to cease regarding that community as a monolith that is unaffected by the passage of time. Ultimately, these data should convince us to stop viewing the Lebanese Shia community from an ideological perspective, whether that viewpoint relates to Hezbollah or any of its opponents.
Considering the benefits of this initiative, it is easy to understand the importance of repeating the exercise. It is also imperative that it be applied to other Lebanese communities, as the data these assessments yield become increasingly important at a time when Lebanon’s political/security turmoil is being described more often than not as an “existential crisis.”
As mentioned above, this is the second Dahiyeh poll Hayya Bina has conducted (along with a specialized company) since that neighborhood can be construed as representative of the various Lebanese Shia political, social and economic profiles and sensitivities. The first poll took place in February 2013 and the most recent was conducted in March of this year. While both polls indicated that as a collective, the Lebanese Shia community is in the ascent, the chief contrast between them is that in the intervening 14 months, Shia opinions have been shaped less by domestic Lebanese considerations than by the Syrian "factor." Specifically, Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict was responsible for having created new living conditions characterized by the prevalence of security measures, an escalation of Shia-Sunni sectarian strife and a dramatic downturn in the local economy.
At this point, the impact the Syrian war has made on the Lebanese Shia community seems immeasurable and therefore comparable only to the deleterious effects the community experienced due to the July War of 2006. In contrast to the aftermath of that war when Hezbollah’s propaganda machine ascribed to the Lebanese Shia community an almost biblical sense of prowess by characterizing the outcome of that conflict as a “Divine Victory” (a dramatization the community largely chose to believe), the Syrian war appears to be rectifying that communal hubris. By August 2014, it has become clear that the era of the “swollen ego” has passed. Today, the Lebanese Shia community—Hassan Nasrallah included—is steadily moving away from that self-professed divinity and rediscovering the inescapable principles of reality. In doing so, the community is experiencing every example of the trauma such a shift imposes.
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