Why has Hassan Nasrallah launched the legions of Hezbollah against the state of Israel? Because he hates Jews? Because the Iranians told him to? Because the Syrians wanted it? Because he believes in a Shia Muslim doomsday scenario in which the end is near and the destruction of earth precedes the coming of hellfire?
These are the main explanations coursing through the veins of Western media, and much of the religious and journalistic output among Sunni Muslims. It has become common to hear from representatives of Saudi Arabia -- as well as other Sunni exponents and their apologists -- that Iran conceives of a "Shia axis" from Tehran through Iraq to Lebanon, which will reorganize the Arab world under radical Shia leadership.
There are many things wrong with such a construct. It is reminiscent of the propaganda of Slobodan Milosevic, whose indoctrination experts claimed that Bosnian Muslims constituted part of a "green axis" from Istanbul, pointing toward Vienna. In addition, it is based on a whole universe of misapprehension. Those who do not spend time with Shia Muslims, as I have done intensively for many years, do not comprehend that:
- Lebanese and Iraqi Shias resent, are contemptuous of, and will not take dictation from Iranians;
- Arab Shias never accepted the Khomeini scheme for clerical rule;
- There are no significant numbers of Shia Muslims among Palestinians.
Iran and Syria, the latter ruled by Alawites, an extreme offshoot of Shiism, assist Hezbollah. Iran helps logistically, and Syria provides political backup in a country neighboring tormented Lebanon. But neither Iranians nor Syrians determine the provocative tactics of Nasrallah. Rather, Nasrallah and Hezbollah embarked on their criminal course on the southern Lebanon border in a gambit to take full control of -- and reinforce the political clout of -- the Lebanese Shias.
Lebanese Shias have a specific complaint. The country is ruled under a constitutional arrangement based on a census taken in 1932. At that time, Lebanon was 55 percent Christian. In the political share-out based on that count, it was decreed the country would always have a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shia president of the National Assembly. The parliament was based on a 6 to 5 ratio of Christians to Muslims. Political reforms introduced with Saudi backing, in the Arabian Peninsula city of Ta'if in 1989, promised proportional representation for Lebanese religious groups, which was never put into effect. Ta'if did establish parity of Christians and Muslims but today even that concept is challenged.
The derisory character of the Ta'if agreement is illustrated by its also including, 17 years ago, disbanding of militias and non-interference by Syria in Lebanese affairs. If those promises had been fulfilled, the present Lebanon crisis might have been avoided. It is something more than ironic that Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, which will accept no written constitution in the kingdom, apart from the text of Qur'an, played a crucial role in creating one for Lebanon.
Above all, however, in the 74 years since the census that became the foundation of Lebanese constitutional arrangements, Shia Muslims have increased to where they now make up as much as 50 percent of the population, depending on who is asked; and they want more political power. The ceremonial post of national assembly president is no longer enough to satisfy their need for political representation. Under Ta'if, Shias hold only a quarter of parliamentary seats. The present Lebanese government includes about the same proportion of Shia ministers, three from Hezbollah and its milieu, and two from the Shia movement Amal, which was long the preferred client of Syria.
Nasrallah led Hezbollah into a disastrous contest with Israel, to establish himself as the champion of Lebanese Shias, as that constituency seeks a revision of the country's politics. Nobody can say whether his destructive adventure will reinforce or undermine the political power of Hezbollah. Worldwide Shia opinion, even in Iran, is divided. More Shia Muslims around the world may see Nasrallah as a terrorist than as a hero.
If there is a single political principle that is significant for the future of Hezbollah, it is that the 19th and 20th century phenomena of armed political and nationalist militias are disappearing from the world. The Irish Republican Army and the Basque ETA were never permitted to run for elections in their original forms. Britain and Spain responded to IRA and ETA terrorism with the same methods Israel has employed, including political sanctions, censorship of nationalist media, and targeted assassinations. And even in countries with endemic political gangsterism like Colombia, and in other Latin American countries with leftist nostalgia, militaristic "resistance" movements are no longer attractive to the discontented masses. In repudiating Syrian control, Lebanese also rejected the habits of the paramilitary Ba'ath party.
The specter of a "Shia axis" has been conjured up by interests and individuals who, more than anything, would like to see the U.S. abandon the project for democracy in Shia-majority Iraq. It is doubtful such an effort will succeed with George W. Bush. The Lebanese crisis, as horrifying as it is, has to do with Lebanese issues, not with broader problems. It can and should be contained to Lebanon. Meanwhile, it is strange that the world has temporarily forgotten neither the Iranian nuclear project, nor the Syrian dictatorship, but Saudi Wahhabism, al-Qaida, and, for Israel, the threat of Hamas.
Stephen Schwartz is a TCS Daily contributing writer and co-founder for the Center for Islamic Pluralism.