What does Hizbullah want? Professor Haykel asserts that it’s fighting “the generalized Arab and Muslim feeling of defeat, humiliation and genuine incompetence.” Victory has been redefined as bleeding Israel, rather than defeating it militarily. It is, in another words, a psychological victory. But is that victory?
August 5, 2006
A Hizbullah Victory?
Bernard Haykel, professor of Islamic Studies at New York University
Judging from Sayyid Nasrallah’s speeches it is clear that Hizbullah is not
fighting Israel as much as the generalized Arab and Muslim feeling of
defeat, humiliation and genuine incompetence. Pay attention, for example,
to the way in which Sayyid Nasrallah has defined victory in his typically
low-key style, which contrasts sharply with the old- style and bombastic
claims of Arab leaders such as Gamal Abdul-Nasser and Saddam Hussein.
Sayyid Nasrallah is very clear and precise that Israel cannot be defeated
militarily. Hizbullah, he says, ‘cannot shoot down Israel’s F-16 fighter
jets,’ but what it can do is bleed Israel’s military forces, harm its
economy and extract political concessions, any of which constitutes a
victory. Victory, in other words, is a new psychological state for Arabs
and Muslims, as well as for the ‘defeated’ Israelis, and bears no
relationship to the actual physical or material costs of war. This
victory cannot be quantified or calculated and no amount of destruction
and killing in Lebanon, or elsewhere in the Middle East, can outweigh its
positive value and outcome. It is this psychological aspect to the
present war that has so many Arabs and Muslims rallying to Hizbullah’s
side – they finally see Arabs who are putting up a real fight against a
formidable adversary who had acquired supernatural power in their
collective imagination. But does Hizbullah’s resistance really count as a
victory or is it merely illusory especially in the long term? Does it
constitute anything more than al-Qaeda’s ‘victory’ on 11 September 2001?
How will the political map of the Middle East change if Hizbullah is seen
to have won this round with Israel? And finally which forces in the United
States are benefiting most from this engagement?
Before answering these questions let us acknowledge some of Hizbullah’s
apparent political successes. The first is undoubtedly the complete
confusion of al-Qaeda’s ideology and political project, as reflected in
Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest speech in which he called for participation in
the fight against Israel but remained unclear about the status and actions
of Hizbullah. Second, the Salafi movement appears to have been divided
and therefore weakened by Hizbullah’s war, with one group supporting the
Shiite organization and another refusing to do so. Third, Hizbullah has
forged robust links with, and received strong support from, the Muslim
Brotherhood. Its murshid, Mahdi `Akif, in Egypt and Sheik Yusuf
al-Qaradawi in Qatar as well as Hamas’s leadership in Palestine and Syria
have vowed unconditional support for Hizbullah.
It is evident that through its military actions against Israel as well as
its non-sectarian rhetoric Hizbullah has successfully downplayed its
Shiite identity. Few in the Muslim and Arab worlds seem concerned that
Hizbullah is committed to Ayatollah Khomeini’s teaching on wilayat
al-faqih, according to which the supreme leader is the one who decides
matters of war and peace and that he is considered the marji` who is to be
obeyed completely by all the believers. The present Wali al-Faqih is
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran who incidentally is the first to have
translated the works of Sayyid Qutb into the Farsi language and has strong
Muslim Brotherhood affinities. Iran’s role behind Hizbullah and its
increasing influence in the Middle East are carefully hidden.
Iran therefore might finally see some of the long-awaited fruits of the
1979 Islamic revolution and project its power throughout the Middle East.
Until now, Hizbullah in Lebanon was its only success. But because of
American incompetence and failure in Iraq, Iran might dominate this one
time arch-rival, and now because of Hizbullah in Lebanon also determine
the terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The political losers in this
projected scenario are clearly very numerous and include the leaderships
of the Arab Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan among others. In addition, the
Middle East is likely to see the marginalization of Saudi Arabia as the
religious leader of the Muslim world and sectarian conflicts, between
Shiites and Sunnis, are bound to increase, as witnessed sadly everyday in
In the United States the neo-conservatives have been given a new lease on
life because of Hizbullah’s actions and now feel that they have a new
enemy with whom to terrify and galvanize the American public for further
sacrifice in blood and treasure. One can sense their influence palpably
in the White House’s refusal to accept a cease-fire in Lebanon. The
neo-conservatives want a war between Hizbullah and Israel so as to expand
their policy of ‘creative distabilization’ beyond the confines of Iraq to
include Syria and Iran. For the neo- conservatives a ‘victory’ through
regime change in Syria and Iran justifies any amount of destruction and
death in the Middle East. They simply do not care if thousands or tens of
thousands of Arabs are killed and all their countries’ infrastructure is
destroyed. If anything, this provides business opportunities for western
companies to win reconstruction contracts.
So what of Hizbullah’s psychological victory and is it merely illusory?
The experience of much more powerful nations than the Arab ones, like
Germany and Japan, indicate that this ‘victory’ will amount to nothing
stronger than a spider’s web. The only real victory for any people in the
modern world is to educate themselves and to compete with other nations
not on the field of battle but in the spheres of industry, ideas and
innovation. We must ask ourselves how many of the most brilliant and
accomplished Arab minds will leave Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle
East to work in the West as a result of this conflict? With each
emigrant, the Arab and Muslim worlds are losing a battle to the West.
And the legacy for the Arabs and Muslims will be destruction and
heart-rending loss of innocent life.