There is an easy solution to Lebanon’s many problems: wait for its current leaders, fashioned by the civil war, to die. Or so goes the conventional wisdom, especially among the youth. And indeed, it is hard to imagine any meaningful reform under the multiple competing factions that today paralyze the country’s politics and prey on its economy. But to hope for the elders’ passing to create, in and of itself, a long-overdue opportunity for change is equally naïve. The system, rather, tends to capture future generations in three ways: by infusing crippling levels of cynicism, which in turn make them passively accept their surroundings; by forcing the more ambitious to opt out and seek fulfillment abroad; or by coopting a critical mass into existing factions, which threaten to keep the country’s future hostage to its past.
Politicization is natural and perhaps, in theory, even desirable. Parties historically have incubated new forms of thinking and organization, for better or worse. Today, however, Lebanese factions pursue self-preservation above all, investing heavily in identity politics shorn of any forward-looking vision for the state. The latter’s corrosion is in fact a selling-point for factions, who step in to provide alternative models that fragment society into segregated spaces and worldviews. That is where their respective constituents are carefully groomed and offered incentives that are hard to ignore. Hizbollah, thanks to its size, consistency and resourcefulness, has refined this logic to perfection. Unpacking its underlying dynamics is key to understanding the broader phenomenon of factional cooptation.
Joining Hizbollah, which defines itself as a “society of resistance,” starts with passive immersion into an all-inclusive environment. Babies are born into hospitals affiliated with the movement; the streets on their way home are lined with partisan flags, portraits of its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, banners glorifying its slogans, pictures of its martyrs, alongside religious paraphernalia representing both Hizbollah’s allegiance to Iran’s version of Shiite Islamism and the popular commemoration of saints.
As the child grows, he or she likely will ask about those countless, smiling young men in military fatigues, who adorn the public space, and will be told “these are martyrs, who were protecting our country.” Or “that is our neighbors’ son.” What were they protecting against? Answers vary: Israel to the South, the Islamic State to the East, or the West, seen as pulling the strings. The heroism of the glorious dead seeps into bedtime stories and forms a central thread in any child’s upbringing.
A host of factors converge to nudge children toward more active forms of belonging. Hizbollah has built its brand into the primary education system in neighborhoods it controls. In Al-Mostafa high school, in the Beirut suburb known as Dahiye, images of youthful “martyrs” are hung in the recess area, on the walls and above the elevator. Students are surrounded by the deceased, and encouraged to look up to them. Long after graduation, a 22-year-old militant reminisced about his admiration for such role models as Hassan Nasrallah’s own son, Mohammad Hadi, who is said to have died fighting Israel in 1997: “we all wanted to have our picture on the wall like him one day.”
Alongside these icons are living, highly approachable role models. Full-grown militants frequently refer to a specific educator that led them to Hizbollah—someone relatable, “cool,” flexible and understanding. In Mostafa high-school, said one, “we had a teacher who was always there to help whatever student went adrift, who genuinely cared for our well-being.” Most often, a charismatic figure giving the religion class, discussing existential questions around God and the meaning of life, and connecting with students on a very intimate level, fulfills this function. He thus becomes someone to whom young people will turn to ahead of key decisions, such as formally joining Hizbollah.
Another key factor is the incorporation of the party’s doctrine into school curricula. Through religion classes and material provided in addition to official textbooks, students are taught that, if they intend to be righteous and pious, Hizbollah is the only way. Martyrdom, meanwhile, stands as the honorary destination for an individual performing God’s will. As a graduate from a Hizbollah-run high school said, “when you grew up in such an environment, religion and politics blend naturally.”
For many, this school environment is paralleled by the Al-Mahdi scouts—a youth group whose name refers to a pivotal figure in Shiite theology. Founded in 1985 and structured similarly to any other such youth formation, the group explicitly sets its goal as “preparing an Islamic generation to take the path of Wilayat Al-Faqih”—the concept of religious leadership underpinning the Iranian state. In 2008, the organization claimed to have graduated a total of 450,000 scouts. Members ranging from age 4 to 17 effectively sign up to Hizbollah, which administers the scouts with Iranian funding. The result is a more formal bond than the loose connection that develops at school.
Scout activities combine the expected—raising and saluting the Lebanese and the party’s flags, going on hikes and engaging in community service—with more pointed training relevant to actual combat. Week-end camping trips for 16 year old boys will include sessions on maintaining and using weapons, framed as recreational while doubling as a basic military drill. “We enlist to become good soldiers of the Mahdi,” said a former scout. At age 18, the journey does not end. Another former scout described a seamless transition: “most graduates stay on with Hizbollah, which by the time you leave is the most natural thing to do.”
Mahdi scouts are also taught to prize martyrdom. Male and female members tour the sepulchers of important martyrs, notably on Martyr’s Day, a non-official holiday held on November 11th. Girls visit mothers and sisters of the fallen, to give them flowers and hear their stories of loss, endurance and pride. “Martyrdom is an honor not just for the martyr, but for his family as well,” explained a Hizbollah member. “His wife is mart al-shaheed (the wife of the martyr), and his mother umm al-shaheed (the mother of the martyr). These are honorable titles, better than being called by one’s own name.”
Long before a Lebanese child decides to join—or sidestep—a given faction, his or her environment is shaped by that faction. Nothing is forcefully imposed: it is just the way it happens. In the case of Hizbollah, the infant will learn, mostly passively, that his or her segment of society is the only true and just society, one to be grateful for. It is structured by a benevolent party, whose local representatives go by tellingly ordinary denominations, such as al-shabab (the youth), and led by a leader almost flawless in the face of virtually boundless threats. By adolescence, most individuals already belong to a place and a group, and have divided the world into familiar and strange, loveable and hateful.
Since its emergence in 1982, Hizbollah has defined itself both positively and negatively in very comprehensive ways. It developed in the context of Israeli occupation, an abusive presence of armed Palestinian factions deployed in Lebanon, a general sense of oppression felt by the Shiite underclass, and rising Islamism spurred by the Iranian revolution of 1979. With energetic support and guidance from Teheran, it quickly articulated a model combining defense of the homeland with the protection and empowerment of its community. Over the years, its ascent coincided with the erosion and failings of the Lebanese state: “in 1982,” said a Hizbollah militant, “it took the Israelis six days to reach Beirut. Imagine the security of Lebanon were we to depend on the army.”
The state’s weakness showcases Hizbollah’s strength, amplifying the element of pride. The movement’s ability to fend off Israeli attacks, lay claim to defending the country, resist huge pressure to relinquish its weapons when the civil war ended in 1990, and impose itself ever since as Lebanon’s paramount armed group is an essential component of its popularity among Shiites. A formative moment for today’s youth was Hizbollah’s war with Israel in 2006. A militant shared the feeling of omnipotence that infuses many of his kin: “we are the only ones who can protect Lebanon. I fought and I know that if it weren’t for Hizbollah, Lebanon would be in grave danger.”
Hizbollah supporters can see the state’s inadequacy in many other fields. Lebanon’s infrastructure has long been decaying, catalyzing the privatization of basic services and encouraging patronage networks to step in. Dahiye, which hosts a population of several hundred thousand just a few kilometers from the seat of government, has almost become a state unto itself: its banks, schools, supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants and cafes are likely either administered by or loosely connected to Hizbollah, which can also influence the survival of independent businesses. Meanwhile, despite the formal presence of Lebanese police, essential security functions are in the hands of the movement.
In this quasi-autonomous enclave, there is no reason to feel imprisoned; indeed, many inhabitants feel no urge to go elsewhere. A woman who lives and works in Dahiye, sends her children to school locally, and buys her groceries there, said after a shopping spree in Hamra, in another part of town: “I haven’t been outside Dahiye in 15 years; everything looks so unfamiliar.” She expressed surprise not just at how much the city had changed, but at “how differently other people dress and look.”
Besides Dahiye, Hizbollah is entrenched in areas of the Bekaa and South Lebanon, where it administers municipalities and others local institutions while providing its own additional services, such as financial assistance toward education or hospitalization. Although joining the party is not compulsory, loyalties are shaped nonetheless by such interventions, big and small. As a Hizbollah militant put it: “You either follow the rules set by Hizbollah or live by those of the Lebanese State, but you have to pick your allegiance.”
Fighting enemies and supplementing the state are only part of the complex frame of reference the movement weaves around its constituents. It also articulates a specific set of values flowing from its spiritual foundations. Within the community, individual behavior purports to emulate an idealized leadership, itself seen as the modern-day embodiment of the perfect role models of the origins, notably Imam Hussein. A former Hizbollah member recounted his initiation classes after joining: “one of the first things we learned was that [the founder of the Iranian Islamic Republic] Khomeini, [his successor] Khamenei and Nasrallah are the three people pursuing and preserving the path of Hussein.” The concept of Wilayat al-Faqih posits an infallible leadership that trickles down from the Imams of old to the Iranian supreme leader through to Hizbollah.
The security and empowerment felt by the movement’s base reinforce its sense of righteousness. At the center of such self-confidence sits Nasrallah, often referred to as al-Sayyid, a word that evokes a Hashemite ancestry but also means master or lord. For many Lebanese Shiites, although definitely not all, he represents the sole respectable, reliable leader in a country rife with corruption and incompetence. Trying to convey his feelings, a Hizbollah militant struggled: “I don’t have the words to describe his greatness. He is everything a man and leader should be.” Formed in the bubble that surrounds them, the enthusiasm expressed by many often strains credulity. One militant claimed that “the entire world fears and respects Nasrallah.” Another mused: “If there is a Shiite person in Lebanon who doesn’t love profoundly, not simply admire, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, then something must be wrong with him.”
Coming of age
As youth reach adulthood, university campuses provide fertile ground for recruitment. While parents can handpick schools and even childhood friends, higher education introduces a more diverse demographic and ideological landscape. Elite universities in particular are few and concentrated in Beirut, forcing applicants to commute or move into unfamiliar areas where they inevitably experience diversity. Still, these institutions tend to give a new intensity to preexisting loyalties. Elections to student councils mirror country-wide politics in their factionalism, narratives, alliances and feuds, frequently prompting violent clashes.
Hizbollah, like other groups, effectively turns exposure to a bewildering new setting into an asset. It is represented on campus by the Educational Association or Taabi’a Tarbawiyah, through which delegates recreate a welcoming community where the likeminded can socialize, live by their own rules, and obtain various services. In other words, the movement extends its territory by proxy, following members and potential recruits even as they leave its physical enclaves.
At the start of the year, in each university, the Association’s male and female delegates reach out to whoever—based on sectarian giveaways contained in their files—appears susceptible to cooptation. On site, students’ ordinary behavior also provides telltale signals, as a delegate explained: “You can easily spot who is open to joining, judging by their choice of black wardrobe on [the celebration of Hussein’s martyrdom] Ashura, for example.”
The Educational Association is a medium, a buffer between the university environment and the student. It tempers the stress of starting a new life in a demanding and unsettling context. It puts a circle of reassuring friends on hand. And it puts the individual under the umbrella of a powerful movement, which can burnish his or her status, ward off pressures, open doors and relay demands. There are very practical benefits, too: “I have friends who are on full scholarships from Hizbollah—lucky them,” said a student. “Of course, they are also watched and expected to abide by a certain etiquette and dress code.”
Indeed, the movement aims not simply to support its constituents, but to bring them further into the fold. Mere sympathizers will be courted: “I befriend people who are not religious or on our path,” a delegate said, “so they see how my good deeds relate to Hizbollah, and I rub off on them.” Meanwhile, a strict separation between men and women, called “sisters,” is cultivated at a time when it could more easily be erased. “We encourage the sisters to hang out only with each other when they are in the university,” said another delegate. “Most left Dahiye for the sole purpose of getting a diploma, so we have to recreate a space where they feel comfortable for the duration of their studies.” A form of seclusion is reinstated to keep the corrupting effects of university at bay, reinforce Hizbollah’s value system and deepen ties between students and the movement. Delegates then proceed to invite those most predisposed to formally join, if they have not already.
Signing up officially with Hizbollah often occurs as part of a natural continuum: the individual grows and matures within a system that turns actual enrolment into a mere formality. Thus, in such places as the Dahiye, recruiters may knock on doors almost randomly, asking young people whether they are ready to fill out a paper. There is no pressure whatsoever. More precisely, the “pressure” has been diffused over a lifetime, imperceptible but nonetheless relentless. A moment comes when the mind is ripe, prepared by years of passive exposure to heroic stories of self-sacrifice, prerecorded wills of martyrs played on television, and so on.
The celebration of Ashura creates an opportunity to scale up this sort of initiation. The commemoration of Imam Hussein’s fall in the battle of Karbala in 680 AD is a spiritual, cultural and political leitmotiv of Shiism. It manifests itself in a ten-day emotional build-up, during which people dress in mourning, put up black banners, organize theatrical representations, set up stations to distribute food and water, perform lamentation rituals, and partake in marches and other forms of collective bonding.
Hizbollah recruiters capitalize on this environment. At the many checkpoints that ensure the celebrations’ security, they ask young people: “Would you like to come inside this tent to fill out a form to join Hizbollah?” As always, the decision is voluntary, as the movement is careful never to create a sense of coercion that could backfire.
Late evening majalis or sittings, where the martyrdom of Hussein is narrated, are lively events held on practically every street. These are particularly appealing to youth—even less pious individuals. The collective lament orchestrated during the majalis constitutes a highpoint in an individual’s sense of belonging to the community’s ethos of martyrdom and resilience. Recruiters are deployed to approach participants during the proceedings or as they walk out. “Would you like to sign up and have a chance to become a hero?” they may ask, harnessing the evocative power of Karbala in relation to the movement’s contemporary struggle. Questions can be slightly more pressing: “so you didn’t come here to join us today?” But Hizbollah’s strength is less in its pitch than in the environment surrounding it.
Chicken and egg
An individual’s formal passage into Hizbollah signifies more of a subtle evolution than a concrete endpoint. One simply wades more deliberately into a “society of resistance” that defines itself in holistic ways: there is a place and a function for everyone. Taking arms is one option, but there are many other ways to be part of the whole, from working for Hizbollah’s related organizations (such as its construction branch, Jihad al-Binaa’) to supporting the movement’s mission indirectly. “In a speech after the 2006 war,” a female member recollected, “the Sayyid said that we came out victorious not only because we pushed back the great army of Israel, but because we didn’t leave our homes. Steadfastness is why our society will never die.” Another sister explained that Hizbollah relies on every single member “as actors in a play where there are no second roles.”
To drive home this sense of membership, Hizbollah draws on an implicit, almost theatrical emulation of the battle of Karbala. Just as men are encouraged to become Husseiniyeen, standing up against oppression even at the cost of their lives, women are coaxed into becoming Zainabiyat—in reference to the sister of Hussein. Zainab does not fight but enables the struggle, endures its losses and lives to tell the tale, since repeated throughout centuries as a key source of communal cohesion. Mothers are expected to educate their sons in the path of self-sacrifice, and prepare their daughters to accept and withstand the pain.
“When you figure out the obvious, which is how important the mother is in raising a child,” said a sister, “and when you put the mother at the center of her society, then you have won. You raise the person who raises the child.” From an early age, boys will be dressed in black for Ashura, wearing and singing slogans devoting themselves to Hussein. They grow up—in a Lebanese society where the motherly figure is almost sacred—keen to become their mothers’ pride. Men who join Hizbollah seek to marry women who share this outlook, and so the cycle goes on.
There is virtually no limit to how much a life can be infused with the “society of resistance.” It may encompass even the individual’s free time, through Hizbollah-run entertainment media, football clubs, cooking classes and leisure centers. Highly organized religious tourism in Lebanon and abroad, which massively involves the youth, completes the picture. The ensuing socializing strengthens the bonds between already like-minded people, and crams out whatever need, time or space existed for breaking out of the box. A sister noticed that, “by taking cooking classes, I got to see mothers of martyrs, hear their stories and admire their strength. It made a strong impression on me.” Not everyone chooses to go down this path, but active members are advised to form self-contained circles of friends in which each individual is surrounded by pious peers—and peer pressure.
Joining the movement changes not just the way someone thinks, but the way that he or she acts, speaks and even dresses. A full-fledged member will be expected to become more decent in demeanor, and wear mostly dark colors. Men shun ties and trim their beards recognizably; women wear either abayas—black full-length cloaks—or long gowns with big scarves that cover half their backs and torso. One can easily tell them apart from the rest of the world, which importantly enables them to feel different. That sought-after element of distinction makes the transition into Hizbollah socially valuable and palpable. Put simply, an individual “matters” more when he or she is associated with the movement.
Taking on a job in a Hizbollah-affiliated institution also provides status, along with more prosaic perks, such as a stable salary, more effective connections, or better medical insurance. The “society of resistance” is a vibrant one, opening prospects for upward mobility and fulfillment. Even as party membership goes, there is a whole hierarchy of positions for which to clamber, from rank and file members to top level leaders and everything in between. This creates a much-needed, alternate form of mobility in a broader Lebanese society that remains desperately rigid.
The implacable clockwork of such sociopolitical machinery could easily prompt a sense of claustrophobia, disempowerment and oppression. That may be why the voluntary and subtle character of the cooptation process, which by nature doesn’t concern everyone, is so important to its success. It functions based on very low entry costs, huge returns and even greater exit tolls. Anyone may eschew the movement or leave it having joined. But that translates into rejecting much of surrounding society; potentially losing access to critical services; and forfeiting the pride and purpose that flow from Hizbollah’s strength and worldview. In other words, by offering so much in a country that otherwise provides so little, the movement turns itself into a father figure, whose offspring are all the more dependent for its omnipresence and generosity.
A bubble for all sizes
Lebanon is home to numerous political factions, of which several are armed. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party or SSNP is one of the latter, which like Hizbollah has actively taken part in the Syrian war on behalf of the regime. Founded in 1932 by Anton Saade, it advocates the establishment of a Syrian nation-state encompassing Lebanon, and therefore views Lebanon’s fate as inexorably tied to Syria’s. In certain ways, the SSNP sits at the other end of the spectrum from Hizbollah: this small, under-resourced and decidedly secular party enjoys no predetermined sectarian base, clear-cut territory or capacity to provide basic services. Despite such profound differences, however, there are many commonalities in the two groups’ mechanisms for youth cooptation, suggesting a broader model applicable to other factions still.
To begin with, an individual is more likely to immerse him or herself in the SSNP if one or both parents were members themselves and define themselves as “Syrian.” Here again, children grow up exposed to a certain narrative and imagery, within a space that may not be as vast and contiguous as the Dahiye, but nonetheless shapes their reality. The idolization of leadership and cult of martyrdom are key components of that environment: Saade, accused of plotting a coup against the Lebanese government, was executed on July 8th 1949, but remains revered. Members systematically salute his portrait, venerate his wisdom and cite his teachings.
Children from “Syrian” families go to their own scouts association, which helps incubate a specific identity and worldview, through physical activities combined with more ideological teachings. In a speech given at an SSNP scouts graduation, a cadre quoted Anton Saade as having said that “good plants grow with care.”
Aspiring recruits, regardless of their background and upbringing, go through an elaborate cooptation process as they reach adulthood. This consists of a series of initiation classes during which young, relatable SSNP cadres engage recruits on existential questions, share Saade’s teachings, and create opportunities for the group to socialize. The “Ten Lectures” given by Saade in 1948 to explain the party, its ideology, and exactly how members should think and behave, are the core of the curriculum. They are understood as providing solutions to virtually all problems, and students are expected to learn them by heart and quote them at will. To believers they contain, not unlike Nasrallah’s frequent speeches for Hizbollah militants, the spark that refreshes one’s certainties in moments of doubt.
Success in a final exam marks the formal entry into the movement. Throughout, applicants are edified with the virtues of science, inspired to consider reason as the “supreme command,” and raised to see themselves, future SSNP members, as the crème de la crème of society—in contrast with the party’s reputation for thuggishness. This elitist selection process plays to the sense of belonging, clarity, status and distinction many recruits may seek implicitly.
Initiates are invited to surround themselves with like-minded fellows. Certain cafes, notably in Hamra, are “theirs” in the sense that they are tacitly but broadly recognized as “SSNP territory.” These quickly become preferred locations for studying or just hanging out. More generally, the movement acts as a facilitator for young people reaching adulthood, providing them with reassuring places to go to, friendly people to meet, and a network to draw on. An SSNP website for students, for example, resembles a guidebook, with a list of restaurants, dorms, hotels, and taxi companies to choose from. The SSNP’s space is not a province, a town or a neighborhood but an archipelago both invisible and well-mapped. “Islanders” don’t sport a specific dress code, but are recognizable by their own salute: “Long live Syria” (Tahya Sourya).
The rest of the world is composed of “the others,” those who do not understand that uniting Syria is a supreme duty, as is defeating Zionism (used as a synonym for Israel). Such open-ended goals are key to the movement’s understanding of its own existence, erasing any imperative to accomplish more clearly-defined objectives. An SSNP activist said: “Like the Jewish people waited around 2000 years to take over Palestine, we’re willing to wait at least as long to take it back.” Enduring, through whatever means, is an end in itself. And within the realm of reason, there is, ultimately, only limited room for discussion.
A vicious cycle
Even in an environment less polarized than Lebanon’s, it is natural that political factions would seek to cajole, coopt and corral sympathizers. Moreover, the segregation to which these groups contribute is by no means of their sole making; in Lebanon, as anywhere, growing up stranded in a remote village or a forsaken neighborhood can produce powerful forms of seclusion. Fringe groups deemed “terrorist” typically draw on recruitment processes that leverage a familiar sequence of passive gestation, exposure to an organizing narrative, the encounter with a charismatic and approachable figure, and access to alternative forms of status, agency and fulfillment. Worldwide, sects or even trade unions may use surprisingly analogous mechanisms.
What distinguishes Lebanon, however, is how difficult it is to escape such pigeonholes. The state fails to offer a coherent identity, even through something as basic as a relatively consensual national history—which is taught, in its conflicting variants, within partisan enclaves. Unlike most other countries, Lebanon boasts virtually no institutions, or even easily accessible physical spaces, enabling meaningful social mixing. Lebanon’s eroding economy is almost designed to compel youth either to emigrate or to seek inclusion within factions offering some semblance of mobility. The latter’s growth and power is thus both a function of and a catalyst for the state’s weakness, in a self-reinforcing loop. In turn, the consolidation of rival political blocs pushing conflicting agendas and narratives undermines governance and rallies segments of society against each other.
Perhaps most troubling is the nefarious role played by higher education, which should in principal equip up-and-coming elites to do more than replicate the dysfunctional systems of old. Lebanese universities indeed pride themselves not only on their high standards, but on their diversity. On the face of it, the illusion is perfect: campuses are vibrant places full of young, bright Lebanese that seem to reflect every component of society and look to a better future. In reality, though, they go far beyond their equivalents abroad in tolerating the encroachment of politics and factionalism. All told, through the fabric of their student life and the design of their curriculum, they indeed prepare a majority of Lebanese youth to fall into line or leave. Both options feed into a brain drain the country can no longer afford.
Ultimately, the effect of factionalism is to disempower Lebanon’s young people by equipping them, from their very first days, with a set of blinders that obscure or distort large segments of their own country. And many have no idea how little they know. In marketing class, students are taught to keep an eye out for marketing methods such as messaging, product placement or coloring, which are meant to affect their purchasing choices. They continue to be consumers, albeit more cautious and self-conscious ones. They may buy the same goods anyway. They will be free, however, to make different choices, try new experiences and flutter around. In their cocoon, Lebanese youth will grow everything but wings.
20 March 2017
Aya Fatima Chamseddine is a fellow with Synaps.