Sphinx-like Lebanon—best known for its businessmen, bankers, and civil wars—is the ultimate example in explaining the inexplicable in the Mideast…
If the dog now wants something, he wags his tail; impatient of Master’s stupidity in not understanding the perfectly distinct and expressive speech, he adds vocal expression—he barks—and finally an expression of attitude—he mimes or makes signs. Here, man is the obtuse one who has not yet learned to talk. —Oswald Spengler, “The Arabian Culture” (The Decline of the West)
History possesses its own original sin: that the Truth does not set one free. Rather, it censors and it silences. It imprisons thought; turns thought against itself to withdraw into itself, holding the mind hostage to its own self-exile. Each individual mind among the undifferentiated mass—a Muslim, Arab mass, let us say—inherits this sin from the father, and the father from the forefathers, well into ancestry. To this mind, “truth” is not a word but a symbol and the symbol is always that of the memory of an injustice, both ancient and ever-present, and as truth it is unfree, because it is unheard and unseen. Because it clamors in the darkness of the mind, where it shuns light, this truth takes root in contaminated soil, burrows deeply, spreads and grasps after retribution for the first crime against the first father and the first justice denied. The fruits born of this mind, as poisoned and deformed in logic as they are rationalized in vengeance, weaponize thought, and this thought is multiplied by the individual times the mass, times the mob, reaching a level of force that no army can subdue. For the mind in exile in such a world, the root of all terror is Justice; a perpetual eye-for-an-eye, the eternal law of cause and effect. Such was the nature of a conversation a friend and I had years ago on a late spring day when we wandered the mountains of eastern Lebanon, an entire world of Western lies behind us and the permanent grave of the Middle East gaping ever wider just in front of us.
Lebanon is magnificent and the eastern valley of Beqaa, about nineteen miles from Beirut, is wild and gorgeous. In these mountainous regions, the Druze, “the interesting, mystical, soldierly mountaineers” in the words of one nineteenth-century observer, are found: an esoteric blend of Islam and Gnosticism who believe in the transmigration of the soul. In these mountain ranges, the call of a muezzin rising from a minaret is particularly spellbinding, reminding this writer of a line from Drifting Cities—a wonderful trilogy in the Alexandria Quartet mode by the post-war Greek novelist Stratis Tsirkas—who wrote of sailing to Cairo: “I didn’t know a thing about Egypt, nor did I care. Then, in the dead, hot lull of noon, we saw a figure up on a minaret. We were deeply impressed. In this country, time was announced by a human voice. I got off the ship to find out more about it. I have never left since.” The allure is poetic and the poetic—the seduction of the imagination—makes Lebanon intriguing because the country retains mystery even after decades of being bled to near death in the throes of catastrophic self-destruction. And that which has always nearly destroyed it is the same element that has made the country incredibly fascinating: its peculiar religious diversity. For Lebanon is a land where, in the early 1970s, an enigmatic Shi’ite Imam once delivered a sermon in a church, in which he warned of an imminent sectarian war in Lebanon. An Archbishop recently recounted to the media his memory of the incident, and of “seeing the turban of a Muslim imam under the Cross in a Christian church.” In this land, parliamentary power rotates among Christian, Sunni and Shi’a; where a peaceful Muslim resistance movement once upon a time opposed, at the same time, both the rise of the PLO and the Islamization of Iran. It is where the Christian Maronite president of the country last year called one of history’s deadliest Muslim terror groups “the voice of the population” and a worthy fighting force. Sphinx-like Lebanon—best known for its businessmen, bankers, and civil wars—is the ultimate example in explaining the inexplicable in the Mideast; in understanding how terrorism “happens”; what the difference is between one man’s “terrorist” and another man’s, or foreign power’s, “freedom fighter.” For, the terror question is not a question of terror after all, but is an inquiry into concepts of justice, Theirs and Ours—the very mentality that will continue to propel such violence in perpetua.
It was in Beqaa that my companion and some of his old ex-agency friends once came for a visit to go hunting for Hezbollah and ended up discovering the Tuscany of the East. A seventy-five-mile northern extension of the Great Rift Valley (which runs about four thousand miles from Beqaa to Mozambique), the region is a fertile sliver of celebrated wine routes, lemon groves and crusader castle ruins lying between Mount Lebanon to the west and the Anti-Lebanon mountain range bordering Syria to the east. Lebanese Shia Muslims dominate certain towns such as ancient Baalbek and Hermel, while the lovely capital Zahlé, with its festive open-air restaurants, is predominately Christian, as is Anjar, though distinguished by its graceful Umayyad ruins. It is a social tapestry of the oddest, purest kind of multiculturalism, in which Roman pagan and Christian rites have long mingled together unified by wine-the-Bacchus and wine-the-Blood; where the most unusual terror organization in history turned-“respected”-member-of-parliament took root and the specter of Damascus looms just a couple of dozen miles away.
A rain shadow cast by Mount Lebanon intensifies the subtly daemonic atmosphere of the Beqaa while the sun-drenched extroversion of life lived outside gives the region a Mediterranean feel, hospitable and vibrant, and seemingly oblivious to political considerations. It is not a wealthy place; a great portion of the local population left during the Civil War to move to Lebanon’s coastal towns, and farmers who remained find the impoverished condition of their lives exacerbated recently by a wave of Syrian refugees into the area (since ordered to leave). Yet nature and history have worked their magic in carving out so dramatic a topography of ancient auras, rites, and traditions, and it is so many plump, ripe groves together that make the Beqaa the kind of place where one is not aware one is lacking in anything.
Here, the olive trees glow with the iridescent rainbow skin of a spry desert lizard, illumined in the leaves’ dark shade of leathery green-silver. In this land of parables and allegories, the Judaic-Christian and the Muslim echo off each other, united by the symbol of the olive—the good and evil fruit and branch of mankind, but also the symbol of anointment and peace. There is Koranic reference to figs and olives: “A blessed tree, an olive of neither East nor West”—these were the very olives presented as gifts to kings in the wisdom that the olive tree is nearly indestructible and will regenerate itself whenever it is damaged. In Bcheale, local folklore has it that the trees of its famous sixteen groves are five-thousand years old and were the source of the olive branch returned to Noah’s Ark at the waning of the Biblical Flood. A trace of nineteenth century Europe is to be found here in the lovely town of Baalbek—now in my memory dimming red in the westering sun when we landed, exhausted from a long walk through mountain foothills, at the great villa-palace, the Palmyra, where the guest rooms overlook fantastic Roman ruins. The courageous hotel is a bit forlorn though still impeccably structured, like the stoic face of a wartime aristocrat whose land and wealth have been destroyed but not the family name. The Grand Hotel maintains all the stubborn grandeur of its own impoverished dignity; a hotel so favored by Kaisers, presidents and poets en route to Jerusalem; an Agatha Christie-Pera Palas type charmer that struggled to pay its bills yet closed its doors for no civil war, no terrorism, no terrorist, not ever. In such a place, the odor of Time is always heavy and desperate, and in the gray veil of airless decades that hung before us in the light, marble lobby, a small grouping of velvet chairs, a faded Persian rug, and soaring French windows breathed life into their own expired sighs of memory. A trio of locals who own and manage the hotel are fighting to keep it up and running; but the hardship has not diminished the courtliness. Upon our arrival, when the gesticulations of etiquette and the niceties of welcome, God’s grace and submission to Fate traveled their lingual loops of foreboding Arabic, we were asked at what time we thought we might take our baths, “so we know when to turn the water on, of course.”
Yet none of this ambiance can overwhelm the one intangible about Beqaa that is felt most keenly: that it is the source origin of mythologies as powerful as the political fanaticisms bred there. The area is the setting of a ghostly narrative about how a peaceful resistance movement in the late seventies splintered to spin off a terror agency of great violence and astonishing international reach, later to command such renown as to earn it a seat in the Lebanese parliament in the 2000s. Yet the Lebanese, or a good part of them, view these things as more complex. Earlier in 2017, Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s described Hezbollah as a powerful fighting force for the country, calling the group’s weapons as complementary to those of the Lebanese army. In an interview during his visit to Cairo that February, Aoun said, “As long as Israel continues to occupy lands and the Lebanese army is not strong enough to stand up to it, we feel the need to have the resistance army as a complement to the Lebanese army’s actions.” He added: “The resistance’s arms are not contrary to the state project; otherwise we could have not tolerated it. It is an essential part of Lebanon’s defense. Hezbollah represents the people of the south. They are the inhabitants of the land who defend themselves when Israel tries to occupy or threaten them. It is no longer an urgent matter to discuss the need to strip Hezbollah of its weapons, because Israel continues to occupy our lands and is seeking to take over Lebanon’s waters.” Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, was outraged at Aoun’s words.
Here, in effect, is the mentality of the “two Justices” at work, one that builds up over generations. Lebanon—not Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Saudi, Egypt—but Lebanon is “the” place to study as a study of the Arab and Arab-Muslim Mideast. It is the primary example of how the origins of terrorism mean different things between those observing the violence and those perpetrating it.
To back up a bit, a curious feature of the Lebanese system is the principle of “confessional distribution,” as it is called, by which each religious community in the country is allotted a number of deputies in Parliament. Those communities consist of Christian and Muslim: Maronite Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic and Protestant, along with Sunni Muslims, Shi’a, Alawite and Druze. By law, the Prime Minister is Sunni; the President a Maronite Christian and the Speaker of Parliament a Shi’a. It is a strange kind of organically “politically correct” organization that has been the source of the country’s relative (very relative) stability of the last decade even though originally the political outcome of the destructiveness wrought by the competing factions of these groups. Briefly, by the 1960s, Muslims had become dissatisfied with the prior system in view of their higher birthrate and higher emigration rate, yet Christian politicians were unwilling to abolish or alter the system of balanced ratios of power, one of many such related factors that led to the outbreak of the Civil War. The Taif Agreement of 1989, which ended that war, reapportioned the parliament so that there would be equal representation of Christians and Muslims. There are about twenty-two political parties in the Lebanese parliament (chamber of deputies), grouped into three blocks of alliances. It is an uncanny mix to observe from the outside, and one that has led to the most perilous of “enemy of my enemy” geopolitical relationships almost too complex to fathom.
And in this regard, U.S. foreign policy stumbles so dangerously. In the Mideast, we too often submit ourselves to being slave all the while asserting ourselves to be master. The more deeply Washington establishes its power in the region, the more captive we as a country become there: an overlord with no real authority, victim to wily vassal states that give the commands, though we crack the whip. This is largely due, for various reasons, to a mentality that refuses to understand the inner dynamism of these countries—Lebanon being perhaps the most complicated example—within their own historical context. For example, in the case of Syria, before there was Baschar Al-Assad, there was his father, Hafez, who came to power in 1971. His dictatorship, however, was the consequence of a period after Syria’s independence from the French in 1946 after which a total of twenty-one coups d’etat took place within the span of twenty years. Such is not an environment that breeds faith in Western-style civil-political society, and “Democracy,” to this mindset, is, therefore, a term of suspicion and derision—the very meaning of subversion and of social decay. It is but one example (of too many) in which the imposition of our foreign policy under the guise of a Western democratic model has failed us. Yet we persist, becoming drawn into the vortex of one bloody black hole after another in great part our own making, and imprisoned, in effect, by the very cause of freedom as a result.
An atmosphere of total mistrust between Western powers and the Middle East results, the fundamental question of warring “Justices.” The wonderful Oswald Spengler, in writing of the “Magian” culture of the Arabian East, said that the confusion may be summed up by the event of Christ being taken before Pilate, “and the world of facts and the world of truths were face to face in immediate and implacable hostility.” Spengler continues: “In the famous question of the Roman Procurator ‘What is Truth?’ lies the entire meaning of history.” And how it does. This is why history today has no meaning, which, in turn, is the reason why we are so oppressed by it. “Whose Truth?” is the essence of the terror question. They see themselves as a long-time victim of a foreign invader, and they strike back the way they can, and this mentality has, over so many years, spawned a particularly demented “Truth”: to wit, that today’s terrorist will be tomorrow’s moderate. For, once upon a time, the PLO, Hezbollah, and Hamas were as frightening in their day as Al Qaeda’s and ISIS relative to their times. But then, sure enough, Yasser Arafat became the most frequent guest to the White House (during the Clinton presidency); Hezbollah, a group that once spawned the most sought-after terrorist mastermind until Osama bin Laden, has a seat in the Lebanese parliament, and a long-time Gulf ally of the United States that provides us with a key air base recently refused to label Hamas as a terrorist group—and, in fact, praised them as a “charitable organization.” Those on the margins worked their way into the center, and the minds that are in exile become the ones that lead. What this means for groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS years and decades down the line should seem like an unspeakable prospect.
These self-exiling ideas—that our terrorist is someone else’s “freedom fighter” and that today’s radical organization may be tomorrow’s moderate or “mainstream” political party is also what makes Lebanon such an extraordinary study in the dynamics of the Mideast mentality.
Specifically, let us look at the origins of Hezbollah, which grew up in the beautiful world of the Beqaa.
To do so, one must turn to the story of Amal, or “Hope” in Arabic, the peaceful organization of the Shi’a Muslims in Lebanon organized in the late sixties and early seventies, from which Hezbollah broke off in the 1980s.
The ideological origins of Amal can be traced to 1969 when its enigmatic founder, the Imam Musa al- Sadr, who established a pan-sectarian political movement that called for “peace and equality” among all Lebanese confessions and religions. At the same time, he made clear that the Shi’a were the poorest and the most neglected of these groups, and in their impoverishment formed what was known as the “Belt of Misery” in the outskirts of Beirut—a factor that was to become one of many elements in the origins of the Lebanese Civil War. The non-sectarian aspect of this movement was genuine: the Greek Catholic Archbishop of Beirut, Monseigneur Grégoire Haddad, was among one of its founders. Then, when civil war erupted in Lebanon in 1975, al-Sadr held sit-ins and fasts to protest against the violence and the loose association of peace movements led by him coalesced into an organization later political party, still known today as “Amal.”
The precursor to what was to become Hezbollah was spun off by disenchanted leaders of Amal to become one of the world’s most formidable and best-organized terror groups in history. That organization’s precise origins are difficult to pinpoint, but its shadowy emergence dates from around the time of the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in response to attacks by Palestinian militants in 1982, when Shi’a leaders favoring a militant response ended up breaking away from Amal. That organization, Amal, was itself opposed to the PLO being headquartered in Lebanon and to the Palestinian refugees who had settled there during the war (which lasted from 1975 until 1990). It is further interesting to realize that in addition to being opposed to the PLO, Amal was against the theological radicalization of Iran after the 1979 revolution and, though principally a Shi’a movement, reportedly received no aid from Tehran. Its roots were firmly secular and sought to remain such.
A brief word about the Palestinians in Lebanon: During the civil war, the leaders of the Lebanese Front, formed from the more right-leaning elements of the political spectrum, were very wary of the approximately 400,000 Palestinians who had become resident in Lebanon after 1948. The refugee camps, where nearly one-quarter of Lebanon’s Palestinian population lived, had since 1967 become centers of the Palestinian resistance against Israel, carried on under the auspices of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This Palestinian cause became the focal point of the Lebanese Left, as it symbolized Lebanon’s natural links with other Arabic-speaking countries in contrast to what it saw as the “nationalist”-parochialism of the Lebanese Right. There was also the ideological aspect of struggle against imperialism and this in contrast to the collaboration of the traditional ruling classes. The Palestinians, for their part, sought allies among Lebanese progressives and helped to strengthen these by lending political support and helping them to organize party militias. For these reasons, the PLO was resented by the conservative Lebanese, and particularly by the Maronite parties which formed the Lebanese Front. The Front argued, in its literature and public statements, that the Palestinians caused the problems in Lebanon which led to the civil war.
Meanwhile, the new organization spun off from the peace-seeking Amal—called, simply, Islamic Amal—received considerable military and organizational support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Tehran’s terror-militia now firmly based in the beautiful Beqaa Valley. From this association, the most prominent and effective of the Shi’a militias would emerge, forming what is known today as Hezbollah (or “Party of God”). Despite the original Amal’s early call for peaceful coexistence and a non-violent outlook, they ended up waging a bloody battle against Hezbollah for control of Beirut (located about twenty miles from the Beqaa Valley), which then provoked Syrian military intervention. Both groups launched attacks on the Israeli military and its ally, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).
What was to follow sums up the Lebanon the Magnificent in about a line or two: that the country that once gave the Middle East, and therefore the world, Musa al Sadr—the Imam who called for peaceful co-existence among religions and addressed crowds gathered in breathtaking Eastern churches—was the same country that would now spawn a certain Mohammad Muqniyah, later to become the deadliest Mideast terrorist up until Osama bin Laden.
U.S. and Israeli officials accused Mughniyah of association with many bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations, beginning with the Beirut barracks bombing and US embassy bombings, both of which took place in 1983 and killed more than 350, as well as the kidnapping of dozens of foreigners in Lebanon in the 1980s. A former engineering student at the American University of Beirut fluent in German, English, French, and Farsi, he was indicted in Argentina for his alleged role in the 1992 Israeli embassy attack in Buenos Aires. The highest-profile attacks for which it is claimed he is responsible took place in the early 1980s, shortly after the founding of Hezbollah, when Mughniyah was in his early twenties. U.S. officials accused him of killing more U.S. citizens than any other militant prior to 9-11; Michael Chertoff, then secretary of homeland security, said Hezbollah under Mughniyah was a threat to national security. “To be honest, they make al-Qaeda look like a minor league team,” he said. It has been said that Mughniyah was probably the most intelligent, most capable operative that the CIA or any agency had ever run across, including the KGB or anybody else. He was killed on the night of 12 February 2008 by a car bomb that detonated as he passed by on foot, in the Damascus, Syria, a U.S.-Israel complot.
Despite this outrageous history of terror, Hezbollah, its mystique intensified by the personality of this one man, took on a kind of local-hero role—here again, in the context of triangular geopolitical relationships that make the “truth” about the Mideast nearly impossible to discern. When Israeli forces finally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah was credited with pushing them out. That group resisted pressure to disarm and maintained its military presence in the South, claiming as justification the continued Israeli presence in several disputed areas. In 2006, Hezbollah militants launched a cross-border attack in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two others kidnapped, triggering a massive Israeli response. To end the sectarian clashes that left dozens dead and brought Lebanon to the brink of a new civil war, the government backed down, and a power-sharing agreement gave Hezbollah and its allies the power to veto any cabinet decision. In the 2009 elections, it won ten seats in parliament. The terror group was now a respectable voice of representation.
Oswald Spengler has written that in the Arab world of Islam, there is no Western “I”—only a submissive “we.” For this reason, the Eastern world, thought Spengler, was ever ready in its apocalyptic state of expectation, and he believed in his day that present Occidental civilization had reached its period of decadence and was soon to be conquered by eastern peoples. He described the Arab (“Magian”) world-vision in terms of a “world cavern”—one that is closed in on itself, ringed by “spectral darkness”, penetrated by divine light, forever and eternally caught up between Heaven and Earth, light and dark, good and evil, all of which men can only resolve through submission to God’s will. The world-cavern, represented by the mosque, is a phenomenology of introverted spaces, in the words of one Lebanese scholar, “where the desire for security and protection is compounded by the desire for release and adventure.” It is, in essence, a religious world that allows for the exile of the mind, a liberation from the truths of the region that do little to set one free. This, in turn, creates an internal universe of its own order—one that sees logic and clarity where the outside world sees only despair and violence. For one side, Justice; the other, mere Terror. And brave Lebanon, the most broken and most noble country in the Middle East, is the first and last country to explain why.
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