A review of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, by Thanassis Cambanis
In February 2009, I attended a massive rally in Beirut to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of Imad Mugniyah, a senior leader of the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah assassinated in a Damascus car bomb. Thousands of people had convened in a cavernous hall, men sitting on one side and women (wearing headscarves or veils) on the other. Despite the ostensibly melancholy reason for the service, this was not a solemn affair. In the culture of Islamic “resistance,” the death of a martyr is something to be celebrated, not mourned, and the event’s martial tone made clear what message Hezbollah intended to send. A giant, English-language banner hanging over the assembled crowd proclaimed, “Oh Zionists, Oh Zionists, if you want this type of war, SO BE IT.” The same message, spelt in Arabic calligraphy, was in the form of a nuclear mushroom cloud. And lest there be any doubt about who controlled Hezbollah’s purse or puppet strings, a delegation of uniformed Iranian military officers sat in the front row.
Thanassis Cambanis’s A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel explores the fanatical devotion that this organization inspires, describing, from the perspective of its most passionate supporters, the group’s activities in the decade since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. A former reporter for the Boston Globe, Cambanis tells his story through the relationships he formed with an array of Hezbollah figures, before and after the 2006 war Israel launched against the group in retaliation for firing rockets at northern towns and kidnapping two soldiers.
The rapturous welcome that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received upon his visit to Lebanon last October reflected the country’s eclipsing sovereignty. “Lebanon is the example and school for unwavering resistance to the world’s tyrants and a university for Jihad,” Ahmadinejad told a crowd in the Dahiyeh, the Shiite Beirut suburb where I attended the Mugniyah memorial. While there, the world’s most infamous Holocaust denier received an honorary degree in political science from Lebanese University, the country’s only public institution of higher education. Ahmadinejad’s visit put the final nail in the coffin of the 2005 Cedar Revolution, the democratic uprising sparked by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The following month, a massive protest drew over a million people (nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s population) ultimately forcing Syria to end its three-decade-long occupation. A pro-Western governing coalition known as March 14 (named after the day the anti-Syrian demonstration commenced) came into power, and for a moment it seemed as if Lebanon’s foreign subjugation was beginning to end.
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The withdrawal of Syrian troops did not restore Lebanon’s independence, though, for both Syria and Iran maintained a foothold in the country’s brutally internecine politics via Hezbollah. Political assassinations of politicians who opposed the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis continued unabated. In 2008, Hezbollah occupied parts of Beirut and shut down the government to protest attempts to disarm it. And though March 14 won parliamentary elections in 2009 (barely), its leader, Saad Hariri, son of the slain prime minister, had no choice but to hold a series of supplicating meetings with Ahmadinejad and Syrian dictator Basher Assad, the men whose regimes were responsible for his father’s murder.
Cambanis’s attempt to tell the story of Hezbollah through the eyes of its members works because Hezbollah is an utterly personal phenomenon: unlike secular political movements, it promises its members spiritual fulfillment and a heavenly afterlife. Hezbollah dominates every aspect of its followers’ lives. (It may also be the only terrorist group to sponsor its own think tank). Underlying the devotion of this “uncontrollable confederacy of doom seekers” is a pervasive hunger for violence. “His eyes gleamed whenever he talked of death,” Cambanis writes of one Hezbollah fighter, who “envied the brothers of his friend Hamid who already had been chosen to enter paradise.” Hezbollah’s supporters evince a god-like adoration of their spiritual leader, the “pudgy prodigy” Hasan Nasrallah, an esteem widely shared outside Lebanon (a recent poll found him to be the most admired leader in the Arab world) and attributable to his tenacity in waging “resistance.” Although most of Lebanon’s political factions receive outside support from the region’s power players, they are parochial in nature, except for Hezbollah. Its followers “felt Lebanese but simultaneously Shia and transnational,” and that international outlook is returned in kind by the popular support it receives around the world.
What at first may appear to be an overly-sympathetic treatment of a terrorist organization is belied by Cambanis’s damning conclusion: Hezbollah is a movement “marching the Middle East deeper into a war without end.” A frequent rationalization for the popularity of Islamist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas is that they earn communal goodwill through their provision of social services, and that allegiance to these organizations does not necessarily imply extremism. Cambanis thinks this is hogwash: “[i]f that were the entire story, then another group, perhaps one less interested in armed struggle and religious indoctrination, could woo Hezbollah’s followers away with a package deal that promised even better services and more prosperity.” His belief that “Hezbollah accomplished plenty of good” should not be mistaken for approval of its tactics or empathy with its aims; to the contrary, he writes, “ultimately it used its power to shape human hearts in service of something destructive.” And Hezbollah isn’t just jeopardizing the safety of Lebanese (who will be most affected by whatever future wars it instigates); it’s simultaneously providing a successful template for Islamists around the world and discrediting moderate figures to boot.
Though many critics of American policy in the Near East claim that the true voices of democracy are Islamist organizations like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood that claim a popular mandate and vilify sclerotic Arab regimes, Cambanis is not so credulous as to think that Hezbollah represents a genuine democratic force. Not only is the organization murderously hostile towards its proclaimed enemies; it polices its own ranks with Tehran-like authoritarianism. Hezbollah was largely a creation of the Iranian revolutionary regime, which came to power espousing a violently messianic, anti-Semitic, and anti-Western ideology. In 1982, Tehran’s newly ensconced theocrats dispatched some 1,500 members of its elite Revolutionary Guards to southern Lebanon to train cadres who would later form Hezbollah’s core membership. Today, Iranian support for Hezbollah is estimated at $100 million a year, and is not just military in nature. After the 2006 ceasefire with Israel, Hezbollah distributed $12,000 in Iranian grants to each household affected by the war. Iran has also provided funds to build a network of roads in southern Lebanon to facilitate the transport of arms (billboards proclaim “Thanks to the Iranian Council! Rebuilding our Nation”). And Iran has used Hezbollah in kind: its militants have trained Shiites in Iraq to build roadside bombs.
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But a privilege to die is about much more than the Levant’s notoriously fractious politics. Hezbollah is but one consequence of the Iranian regime’s revolutionary ambition. Ahmadinejad’s bravado during his recent visit to Lebanon makes perfect sense when one considers the gains Iran has made over the past decade. Aside from increasing its control over Lebanon’s fate, it has proceeded apace in its nuclear program, killed coalition troops in Afghanistan and Iraq without reprisal, and frustrated the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through its support of extremist organizations like Hamas. “Theirs is not a quixotic quest for dignity, a symbolic but doomed fight for the sake of empowerment,” Cambanis writes.
Hezbollah’s role here cannot be underestimated. It punches far above its weight in ways that other political-parties-cum-terrorist groups have not (witness its attacks on a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires in 1994) and concerns itself with more than the mere give and take of Lebanese politics (where, Cambanis notes, “everyone had been playing chess, but Hezbollah had come also prepared to box.”) Hezbollah has done no less, the author argues, than radicalize the Middle East even further in “resistance” to the West, a cause that draws upon a bottomless well of resentment and fanaticism. The group has helped to transform “secular Arab militancy into a culture of Islamic Resistance.”
“The only way to lose was not to fight,” writes Cambanis about the ideology of Hezbollah’s early militants. Its fervency has not abated, even in the wake of a devastating war that it started, nor in light of Israeli promises—given Hezbollah’s present-day role in the Lebanese government—to bring the next war to Beirut. Most frightening, as with any militant movement that claims divine backing, is that Hezbollah brings a messianic zeal to bear on everything it does. The Party of God’s ascendance in Lebanon and popularity throughout the Muslim world have shown that extremism works; that “regional war, civil war, political brinkmanship, and uncompromising ideology” can further political aims in ways that negotiation and non-violent protest do not. Surely, Iran has learned much from its proxy, with consequences yet to come.