Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

A Shiite exception? (part one)

Posted by worriedlebanese on 10/01/2010

"Dahieh for beginners", extract from Umam's exhibition: Collecting Dahiyeh

"Dahiyeh for beginners" from Umam's Collecting Dahiyeh

Is there such a thing as a Shiite exception in Lebanon? This is the theme of a heated debate I had with a friend yesterday… a debate that stretched for almost two hours non stop! And we could have kept going for another hour or two if I didn’t have to rush out to meet someone.

What is meant by Shiite exception? Is this community different from the 16 others that share the same land and make up the same national society? His answer was yes. Mine was no.

But what made it so different? What particular circumstances was it living through, what structural feature or socio-cultural dynamic did it have that others lacked? His answer was pretty simple: Hezbollah, a spreading culture of death, a political leadership that was clerical (a feature that makes it “untouchable”, shielded from criticism), and a mobilised community behind it.

I agreed with all his points but didn’t see what was exceptional about that. Most communities were mobilised behind their leadership (zu’ama). The culture of martyrdom is quite widespread, even the leftist group that this guy belonged to had transformed one of its members into a martyr and started a cult around him. Most politicians are backed by their clergy, and if they do not back them, they replace them with more compliant clerics (this has become the rule in three muslim communities for the past decade. The autonomy of the christian churches makes the relation between clerics and politicians much more complex). As for a dominant party with a strong social network that has an ascendancy on most spheres within one community, this is also true for the Sunnis (with Mustaqbal and the Hariri clan), the Armenians (with Tashnag) and the Druze (with Ishtiraqi and the Jumblatt dynasty).

He sort of agreed with me but insisted that the Shiite exception comes from the particularities of Hezbollah and the resonance it has in the shiite community (for structural and cultural reasons). Let’s check its particularities first: it is an armed, religious, communal party with a strong social network and media support. Now that’s a strong argument. The particularity of Hezbollah is that it combines the strongest features of  the most important parties and militias the country has ever seen: it is the most religious of all parties, it is the most powerful of all militias we have known, it has the most efficient social network, it is the most adaptive political structure we have seen, it has one of the most charismatic leaders the country has know… It’s a sort of “best of”, and all these features combine to enhance  its strength and appeal. What makes its strength is its coherence, internal and external.

2 Responses to “A Shiite exception? (part one)”

  1. Although I am not very clear about the point that you are trying ti highlight in your post I am going to allow myself to take a stab at it.
    In my mind there is a big difference between Exceptionalism and distinctivness. Shia in Lebanon , like any other group have certain distinctive feature about them but that does not make them exceptional. Exceptionalism is a criteria that must be very sparingly applied if ever since it is usually an attempt to exclude a group/nation by not holding them to the same accepted standards as everyone else.

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