Next to the Arab-Israeli conflict, perhaps few other topics in the history of the modern Middle East have captured the interest of policymakers and scholars alike as has post-revolutionary Iranian-Lebanese Shi‘ite relations, particularly the creation of Hizbullah. Although both groups have come to this topic with a set of similar questions — namely, what is the impact of this transnational network among Lebanese Shi‘ites and how does it operate? — thankfully, they have arrived at very different conclusions.
The US government and many other Western governments have labeled this a terrorist network and a global threat since the early 1980s, classifying Hizbullah as a static and secretive organization. Scholarship on this network however, has in the meantime undergone several changes, providing us more and more with a nuanced understanding of Hizbullah’s ideologies, activities, and institutions.
In the initial phase of the intensification of this particular Iranian-Lebanese network in the early 1980s, when large pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appeared on the streets in the southern suburbs of Beirut and the number of Shi‘ite women wearing the so-called Iranian style hijab rose, this drastic change in the public space and its presumed resemblance to the public space in Iran led some scholars to speak of the “Iranization” of the Lebanese Shi‘ites. Murals, for example, were often taken as an indication that the population interpreted them according to the intention of the producers. However, more recent scholarship has argued, and rightly so, that what flows in this transnational network, from economic support to ideologies, is reconfigured into a local context.
Later, scholars focused on how Hizbullah’s public institutions fill a gap in Lebanese social services, and how Hizbullah has adapted and transformed some Iranian revolutionary discourses, fitting them into a particularly Lebanese sociopolitical context to advance its position in those fields. Some others have also paid attention on how the rule of the jurisprudent (vilayat-i faqih) gives meaning to Hizbullah members and produces a “society of resistance” for which Hizbullah is so well known. Such works have thrown light on the Shi‘ite community’s diversity and its complex identity politics and have shown how and to what end Hizbullah transforms “global ideologies.” Nevertheless, the scope of research has remained limited as a result of the rigidity and timidity with which Western decisionmakers view Iranian-Lebanese Shi‘ite ties, and in particular Hizbullah and its projects as a stooge of the Iranian government.
The academic knowledge produced so far partially reads — sometimes unintentionally — as a response to such claims. To counter the terrorist label and to destroy this simplistic image, these scholars have focused on providing as many examples as possible to show the “Lebaneseness,” the “modernity,” the independence, and the piety of Hizbullah members, and have sometimes elevated Hizbullah members to ideal Lebanese citizens and romanticized some of the group’s violent and coercive activities.
However, the politics of labeling has not been limited to Western governments and mainstream media but is also widespread in Lebanon across sectarian lines, including among many non-Hizbullah Lebanese Shi‘ites. Interestingly, the logic of some of this labeling can itself be viewed as one of the impacts of the Iranian revolution in Lebanon. The intensification of post-revolutionary Iranian-Lebanese Shi‘ite ties has affected the Lebanese Shi’ite community in such an array of fields that it would be almost impossible to list them all. Depending on one’s interest, one could give preference to some over others. But in my view, the most important influence has been that the support of the Iranian government, the religious networks, and their outreach organizations has led to institutionalizing difference within the Lebanese Shi‘ite community along a discourse of piety.
Iran officially sponsors a vision of piety in Lebanon by naturalizing the link between the support of the Palestinian cause and what it declares as legalistic and authentic Shi‘ism. In other words, the Iranian activists since the early 1980s have not simply supported a split in the Shi‘ite community along the lines of two political parties (Amal and Hizbullah), but they have helped reconfigure how Shi‘ites envision the Lebanese nation and its identity; how they express their loyalty to the Lebanese nation; and how they imagine their own position as citizens there. By backing the creation in a weak state of a variety of well-functioning social institutions, such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages, in addition to its relatively successful resistance activities, where a certain vision of piety is taught, practiced, and developed, Iranian officials have encouraged to create a new mode of competition in the Shi‘ite community over leadership positions. References to piety are now preconditions to access symbolic and political power. Each Shi‘ite party, in order to propagate its own interpretation of Lebanese Shi‘ite piety competes in form of institutionalization, believes such establishments to be productive avenues for not only disseminating the group’s particular vision of piety and ideal citizenship but also to produce loyal followers.
Leadership piety politics has led to a de facto improvement of the social conditions of many Shi‘ites, regardless of how these Shi‘ites themselves envision the relation between piety and social services. It has also resulted in the emergence of a nascent culture of self-reliance and civil society. As compared to the late 1970s, where there was only one regular school for Shi‘ites in Beirut with almost 2,000 students, there is now a multitude of Shi‘ite-run schools all over Lebanon where more than 20,000 students receive a decent education. As such, the impact of the Iranian revolution has not been simply an Islamicization of a section of the Shi‘ite population, but more importantly, it has been the Islamicization of the citizenship discourse among Shi‘ites in Lebanon in addition to radically politicizing social institution-building as a crucial component of political legitimacy.
Finally, what has changed in Iran’s foreign policy in Lebanon in the past 30 years? Certainly, from its inception, ideological and financial backing of Hizbullah has been crucial to Tehran’s claim to be the main patron of the Palestinian cause. While Iran’s vision of the triangle relation between its government, Hizbullah, and the Palestinian cause has transformed little, the rhetoric of its own relation with Hizbullah has changed considerably. The discourse about Hizbullah’s independence from Iran and its loyalty to the soil of Lebanon has taken over the language of support for establishment of an Islamic government in Lebanon. Instead of former calls to pan-Islamic and pan-Shi‘ite unity, “solidarity and strategic alliances” are the vocabulary the Iranian and Lebanese leadership now uses to describe these ties. This adjustment of discourse reflects as much the power struggles on the Lebanese national scene as it does the political dynamics in Iran between the so-called reformists, hardliners, and the leader ‘Ali Khamene’i. But to merely trace the change of discourse to ideological disagreement reduces the complexity of Iranian politics. Such transformation of discourse suggests also that an entire bureaucracy in Iran now owes its life to both charisma building as well as to the routinization of this transnational network. Not surprisingly, such officials are often members and close allies of the Iranian religious ruling elite.