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Lebanon’s silent Hezbollah funerals

Hazem al-Amin

Published: Updated:

It is clear that Hezbollah is confronting challenges presented in its new task of fighting in Syria. The task goes unannounced in the party's rhetoric. However the silence surrounding it does not exempt the party's fighters from its repercussions. They are the silent funerals of young men from southern and Beqaa towns. The funeral procession passes through these towns quietly and are only attended by some family members and friends.

Hezbollah does not seem to have succeeded in marketing the idea that it is participating in Syria's fighting for the sake of defending religious sites. This formula narrows Hezbollah's margin of movement in Lebanon. It also makes it a guardian of religious sites after it expanded and became an authority that derives its power from what is bigger than its ritual community. Hezbollah's authority in Lebanon has a base where alliances with other sects (the Aounis) mix with the illusions of resistance. It also mixes with a base of customers, like businessmen.

Hezbollah has certainly felt that. Silent funerals indicate the party's incapability to publicize their fight. The absence of a story and where the fighters were “martyred" confirm this. The silence surrounding the story of participation in Syria trespasses Hezbollah towards wider political and media circles. Hezbollah in Lebanon controls the biggest number of media outlets, whether written or audio or visual ones. All of the latter has not participated in the funeral processions. Social media is the only means informing the Lebanese of the events in these southern and Beqaa towns. And people of these towns circulate very brief stories mixed with confusion and hesitation in estimating the cost and the price.

Publicizing their fight

It also seems that Hezbollah which realized the difficulty of publicizing their fight, has in the recent days took another approach to present it. It is a "defense of resistance" and a "pre-emptive war that aims to thwart threats before they extend and reach us" are what some party officials have begun to say. These two statements fall in harmony within the basis of the party's authority. "Defending the resistance" is what the party aims to market in the wide environment of "resistance" which started to narrow due to the Syrian revolution but which the party needs whatever is rest of it. Through the statement on the "pre-emptive war," the party aims to address its sectarian audience. Hezbollah bets on this audience to support it and form a sectarian fortification around it. During the last two decades, Hezbollah has worked to create a momentum of sectarian rituals by making use of occasions that the Shiite in Lebanon never celebrated or practiced.

Hezbollah does not seem to have succeeded in marketing the idea that it is participating in Syria's fighting for the sake of defending religious sites.

Hazem al-Amin

The concept of "protecting shrines" would not have appealed to the sentiment of Lebanese Shiite twenty years ago. The Lebanese Shiite have lived far from these shrines. They only visited them on a yearly basis for few days. This is what allowed differences between generations. And this is what caused big differences in Lebanese Shiism and a dissociation of the practiced rituals in Najaf and Qom from the collective sectarian sentiment. Al-Ghadeer Day was not a Lebanese holiday, and the Shiite here used to commemorate Ashura during the first ten days of Muharram and they did not extend the commemoration until the 40th day of Imam Hussein's death. Biographies as well were carefully selected to be read during the commemoration.

In the last two decades, Hezbollah worked to transfer other forms of rituals to the Lebanese Shiite. The Iranian Cultural Chancellery in Beirut and in Damascus also worked to spread a Shiism of many rituals and to double the latter's connection with people's lives and practices. I attribute this to many of the patriarchs' tombs. These were never Shiites' shrines. Shiite and not Lebanese names were used for medical and scientific edifices. Travel and commerce agencies were established to serve the new task. Terms were introduced and the southerner began addressing the other using the term "Hajj." The term may have developed later to become "Hajji." Fashion that our mothers did not abide by when they visited Sayyida Zainab or Najaf was also introduced.

Silence cannot go on

It is a whole new Shiism for the Lebanese Shiite. It is mixed with concepts and patterns of life from other countries. The task of "guarding shrines" may be harmonious with these efforts that extended for more than two decades. But the task is sectarian, and it clashes with the task of "defending the resistance" on many levels because being in a sectarian position in such a clear manner has deprived Hezbollah of its ability to market the "resistance side" of it to the regional and Lebanese public. It has also deprived it of its Palestinian depth since Hamas has moved to the other axis. It has also deprived it of its Arab depth after the party's secretary general's photos were taken down from the streets of Arab cities. In this sense, Hezbollah's attempt to market its task in Syria as "defending the resistance" instead of "guarding shrines" seems to be useless. This attempt will only lead towards the loss of more support of non-Shiites.

But the silence surrounding their fight cannot go on between Hezbollah and its community. Those who are one step away from the party's organizational circles currently seem incapable of managing their relations with other Lebanese people. There is a parallel silence which does not harmonize with daily relations. People go to work in the morning after having spent the night at a secret funeral. How can such distress be invested in relations? This leads to another question on what the Shiite's extent is to tolerate more of these silence funerals. Hezbollah's rivals in Lebanon have inquired about that for a long time, and they have intuitively answered this complicated question. Hezbollah is an authority that has strengthened itself for three decades. The party is currently strong not only because it hijacked the representation of Shiite in Lebanon but because it is also a regional power and tool and because its models in other sects are also on the rise.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on April 21, 2013.

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Hazem al-Amin is a Lebanese writer and journalist at al-Hayat. He was a field reporter for the newspaper, and covered wars in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza. He specialized in reporting on Islamists in Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Kurdistan and Pakistan, and on Muslim affairs in Europe. He has been described by regional media outlets as one of Lebanon's most intelligent observers of Arab and Lebanese politics.

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