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Political Shi'ism: from engaging the state to replacing it

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The essence behind the survival of nations is [social] justice and [citizen’s] dignity [...] we will start a new chapter in Lebanese history by pursuing the rights of those who are suffering dispossession1.”

1. The birth of Political Shi’ism: Al-Sadr and the dispossessed

With these words, Imam Musa Al-Sadr outlined the essence of his movement and unveiled a new phase in the political life of Lebanon’s Shi’a community. Borne out of the deprivation and marginalisation of the Shi’a community in Beirut’s poverty belts, Al-Sadr’s charisma and his emphasis on the “injustice of negligence and dispossession” resonated with tens of thousands of Shi’ites in Lebanon.

Al-Sadr’s appearance on the Shi’a political arena in Lebanon, however, coincided with the collapse of the feudal elite that governed the community and a substantial shift in the community’s political life. The community’s detachment from the mountains, valleys and agriculture of Jabal Amel and the Beqaa and mass migration to the more urban settings of Beirut, Baalbeck and Tyre introduced a new political player within whose ranks Shi’ites enrolled. The self-professed “democratic, progressive and non-sectarian” outlook of the pan-Arab and leftist parties and militias and their struggle against Maronite hegemony and Lebanese isolationism inevitably resonated with the cultural and socio-political convictions and aspirations of many in the Shi’a community throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. In turn, the Lebanese left provided the more ambitious Shi’ites unprecedented access to new economic cycles, new modes of production and most importantly, education.

Nevertheless, the community’s engagement in the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) and the upward mobility this movement offered many Shi’ites didn’t prevent the Sadrist movement from developing into an ethno-sectarian alternative for the Shi’ites in the form of Harakat Al-Mahrumin (Movement of the Dispossessed) in 1974 and its military wing, Amal, in 1975. The materialization of this ethno-sectarian alternative to the LNM proved instrumental in the aftermath of the Syrian intervention in Lebanon in 1977 and the assassination of Kamal Jumblatt which ushered in a new phase of civil conflict in Lebanon – one in which the LNM itself would disintegrate into subdivisions divided along confessional lines.

With the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) turning almost exclusively towards its Druze community for support, the Nasserites to the Sunnis and the Christians to (forced) migration from West to East Beirut – the Shi’ites would find resort and sanctuary in Musa Al-Sadr and Amal’s militias in the late 1970s.

Al-Sadr’s emergence on the Shi’a political scene in Lebanon in the early 1970s and the birth of Harakat Al-Mahrumin also played a central role in linking the poverty belts of Lebanon’s Shi’a community with the revolutionary winds of Shi’a revisionism coming from the seminaries of Qom in the run-up to the Islamic Revolution in Iran.


2. Replacing the State

But the fundamental question more than three decades after Al-Sadr’s mysterious disappearance is, to what extent does the political discourse of Musa Al-Sadr relate to the contemporary Shi’a reality? Are the Shi’ites as deprived and marginalised as they were at the birth of Sadrist Political Shi’ism?

This question remained the backdrop of my study of the political economy of contemporary Political Shi’ism which suggested that fundamental departures from the perceived deprivation and dispossession of the first half of the twentieth century characterise the Shi’a reality today.

In response to my curious investigation, I came across a disciple of Al-Sadr and former Amal activist and ideologue who pointed me towards what he called “the lost opportunity” of the 1990s and its impact on shaping the evolution of Political Shi’ism in Lebanon. For him, Al-Sadr and Amal aspired to “invade the state and carve out a space in the administration for the Shi'a, not out of sectarian motivations but to reform the relationship between the state and the Shi’a community, and to engage the latter in the cross-confessional political and economic life of Lebanon.”

This can perhaps be seen clearly in the developmental achievements and infrastructural improvements in South Lebanon which were only made possible through Nabih Berri’s grip on state funds and agencies (such as Majles Al-Janoub). Nevertheless, Amal failed to raise the more competent individuals from within the Shi'a community to the relevant administrative and political positions of the state before being plagued with the corruption and favouritism for which Imam Musa Al-Sadr had criticised the sectarian system.

Consequently, the Shi’a community’s aspiration and enthusiasm towards engaging the state and its institutions or seeking employment in the civil service and public sector gradually withered away throughout the 1990s. This however, wasn’t solely a product of the corrupt and inefficient Shi’a civil servants – nor was it borne in a Shi’a vacuum away from national and cross-confessional realities. This Shi’a heedlessness and indifference towards the state in post-war Lebanon was perhaps a product of three fundamental changes which tainted political life in post-war Lebanon. Firstly, the undermining of the President Fouad Chihab’s étatist project at the beginning of the Civil War and the emergence of a neo-liberal state in the aftermath of the Taïf Accord reduced the political will to enlarge the state apparatus and increase efficiency and effectiveness of state institutions to provide public goods and services, rehabilitate and equip the post-war generation with the competences needed in the post-war economy, or develop and reform the education system. Similarly, the structure and contract of the post-war Lebanese state allowed the emergence of private (or multinational) business-geared empires to overtake the provision of public goods and services rendering the state unnecessary2.

Secondly, the reestablishment of transnational networks connecting the wealthy Shi’a diaspora in West Africa with the sending communities in Lebanon further changed the expectations of the Shi’a community towards the state. Unlike Al-Sadr, Shi’ites in the 1990s looked towards emigrant relatives and transnational migrant networks to address development issues; reconstruct war-torn villages and neighbourhoods; create employment opportunities and provide the capital necessary to reinvigorate life in the economic cycles of the Shi’a community often through the establishment of numerous, small-scale and diversified family businesses employing immediate relatives and generating profits to support immediate family members.

Both the erosion of the state and the rise of a Shiá “private sector welfare system” coincided with the rise of an Islamist competitor on the Shi’a political scene whose ideologues perceived engagement with the state with reluctance and ambiguity. For Hezbollah’s leadership, engagement with the state and its institutions could only introduce corrupt practices and favouritism into its tightly-knit ranks as it had done with Amal. This belief, coupled with the militant nature of Hezbollah’s struggle against Israel, justified the establishment of parallel institutions replicating, or even replacing, their public (state) counterparts to address the immediate, developmental and social concerns of the Shi’a constituency.

Nonetheless, the transformation of Political Shi’ism from a movement protesting state negligence and demanding a larger share in the jobs, investments and public goods and services provided by the state to a movement offering its following a viable alternative to the state served, invoked the uneasy relationship and detachment between the state and the Shi’a – a central pillar of the Sadrist movement since the early 1970s.


3. Addressing the concerns of a new clientele

The transformation and evolution of Political Shi’ism in Lebanon since the 1970s is not confined to the nature of the relationship between the state and its Shi’a constituents. The evolution of Political Shi’ism has been closely tied to the evolution of Shi’a self-perceptions and the way Shi’ites perceive their socio-economic status as a collectivity vis-à-vis other confessional groups in Lebanon (and sometimes, in the region at large).

Although a large Shi’a population continues to constitute a peripheral poverty belt around Beirut centred around Al-Ouzaï, Hay El-Sollom and El-Khandaq El-Ghamiq; the Shi’a-majority northern Beqaa Valley continues to suffer state negligence and severe under-development; South Lebanon remains vulnerable in the absence of a national army capable of defending Lebanon; and although other ethno-sectarian communities continue to view themselves as culturally and intellectually superior to the Shi’a community – the Shi’a community’s self-perception has changed since the mid-1990s.

An observer can easily notice that many Shi’ites no longer feel their community is the deprived, dispossessed community Al-Sadr spoke of in the 1970s. Remarkably perhaps, even the poorer Shi’ites living in the very poverty belts Al-Sadr revolted for seem to carry a different perception of their ethno-sectarian community – at least vis-à-vis the Maronite or Sunni communities. Some observers even suggest that the Shi’a community today fells “over-possessed” or is experiencing a phase of “perceived superiority” and feel they – as a Shi’a collectivity – possess self-sufficient, or even excessive power and wealth.

This fundamental change in the way members of the Shi’a community perceive their confessional collectivity is justifiable given the community’s realisation that it has demographically outnumbered the dwindling Maronite and Sunni communities, and that it too can draw on transnational networks (migrants and foreign states) to propel their domestic position. Furthermore, the translation of the military victories of Hezbollah – its ability to force an unconditional Israeli withdrawal in 2000 and its ability to withstand and deter Israel in 2006 – into a source of communal pride, power and advantage have all furthered the Shi’a community’s favourable self-perception.

It is therefore important to understand the political economy, collective communal psychology and the occupational and educational backgrounds of the clientele, or audience, of Shi’a political movements today, if one is to speak of understanding the trajectories and prospects of Political Shi’ism in the foreseeable future.

 

1From a speech delivered by Imam Musa Al-Sadr in a Ashura sermon. The speech was delivered in the South Lebanese village of Yater, Caza of Bint Jbeil, on 3 January 1974 (translated by the author with regard to the context)

 

2 More than one politician and intellectual from both the March 14 and March 8 camps made specific reference to what they called “The Harriri Empire”, “The Harriri Apparatus”, “The Harriri Phenomenon” in the context of discussing post-war Lebanon and the emergence of strong politicians with strong, transnational business interests


 

Fouad Gehad Marei is a Doctoral Fellow at Durham University. His research focuses on civil society, political economy and political Shi’ism in Lebanon. His other research interests include Islamic political thought, international political economy, Egypt, Iran, Central Asia, progressive Islam, Sufism, Shi'ism and freedom of expression.

Fouad holds an M.A in International Relations from Durham University, UK. He has since worked with NGOs and advocacy groups in Egypt, Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East on issues ranging from freedom of expression to human rights and the rule of law. Fouad is a research affiliate at the Lebanese Emigration Research Center (Notre Dame University in Louaizé, Lebanon) and a Visiting Research Associate at the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES – American University in Beirut), a member of the British Institute for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) and the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL).

 

Picture taken in South Lebanon, 2007 by M.P.

Comments  

 
+1 # Sally Zohney 2010-05-05 03:06 Very interesting, rarely objective and informative analysis on the background and contemporary Political Shi'i'sm in Lebanon!
You managed to highlight many crucial historical stops and happenings! Thank you!
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+1 # Mona Aglan 2010-05-12 08:42 Thank you Fouad, this article is very illustrative and informative. It made me understand the situation of Shi'ism in Lebanon based on clear and historical data, making the understanding of the subject more easy and logical for people who are not specialized but interested to know. Thank you again and good luck in your PhD. Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
 

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