Friday, May 18, 2007

Equivocal review of Hezbollah Muse: "Hezbollah Swaps Terror for Parliament, Pluralism in `History'

Hezbollah Swaps Terror for Parliament, Pluralism in `History'

By David Rosenberg

May 17 (Bloomberg) -- Is Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement that fought the Israeli army to a standstill, the sharp edge of global Islamic fundamentalism? Or is it a band of religiously moderate and loyal sons of Lebanon dedicated to freeing their country from outside interference?

Augustus Richard Norton inclines to the latter view in his useful yet ultimately unconvincing book, ``Hezbollah: A Short History.''

``Hezbollah, its leaders have promised, is committed to the survival of Lebanon as a diverse, multicultural society, because it is precisely Lebanon's diversity that defines its unique appeal and character,'' writes Norton, a professor at Boston University and former U.S. Army officer who has spent considerable time in Lebanon over the past 30 years.

What political leaders pledge in public and what they believe in private can, of course, be two different things, as most voters know. If Hezbollah is what its severest critics call it -- a terrorist organization answerable to Iran -- it's unlikely that its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, would openly own up to it. However hard Norton tries to document a more benign view of Hezbollah, he fails to create an unequivocal case.

Norton does succeed in showing how Hezbollah has evolved. Founded in the early 1980s, when Lebanon was in the throes of a grisly civil war, Hezbollah had two goals: to resist Israel's occupation of Lebanon and represent Shiite Muslims in domestic politics. At the time, that meant forming a militia and dispatching some of the world's first suicide bombers, rather than mounting petition drives.

Political U-Turn

Re-energized after Nasrallah took control of the group in 1992, Hezbollah solidified its image as a liberation movement representing all Lebanese by fighting Israeli troops until they withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. During those years, Norton contends, Hezbollah's leaders also concluded that the fundamentalist Islamic state envisioned in its founding charter would never work in religiously divided Lebanon.

Instead, the group began fielding candidates in elections; it today controls 12 seats in Lebanon's 128-member parliament. Except for its probable participation in bombing a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 and a handful of other incidents, Hezbollah has shunned global terrorism, Norton says.

Iranian Subsidies

Norton does a good job of recounting the internal debate and rationale behind Hezbollah's move into electoral politics. Unfortunately, he fails to adequately address the other side of Hezbollah -- its radically Islamic tendencies.

He says next to nothing, for example, about how Iranian subsidies pay for the schools and hospitals that have won Hezbollah so much support (not to mention all the homes, offices and roads rebuilt following last year's Lebanon war).

And he discounts Hezbollah's links with Iran and Syria as nothing more than a tactical mutuality of interests. Yet it stretches credulity to suggest that Iran provides weapons and ``significant subsidies'' -- Norton cites an estimate of $100 million a year -- without getting a say in how and when all this aid is put to use.

Nor does Norton grapple with how Hezbollah can claim a place in democratic politics when it retains a better-equipped armed force than the Lebanese government and unilaterally declares war on other countries, as it effectively did by kidnapping Israeli soldiers and triggering last year's conflict.

Wrong Targets?

As Norton portrays it, Hezbollah is fighting to end domestic corruption and oppression and presents no threat to the outside world. This suggests that U.S. President George W. Bush's ``war on terror'' may be targeting the wrong enemies. Consider the many Mideast groups that have a modus operandi and agendas similar to Hezbollah's: Palestinian group Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq.

Though that interpretation is tantalizing, Norton stops short of drawing any firm conclusions. He ends on a tentative note, voicing hope that Hezbollah will play a ``constructive'' role in Lebanon. One can only hope he's right.

``Hezbollah'' is from Princeton (187 pages, $16.95).

(David Rosenberg writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this review: David Rosenberg in Jerusalem at

Last Updated: May 17, 2007 01:45 EDT

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