When you’re a member of a persecuted minority, you often need a scapegoat to go with your world view. Ever since Shia Islam developed as a quietist branch of Islam, Shia religious scholars have been directing their community as to who to blame for their wretched misery. The list of scapegoats is long, and many of them have indeed butchered and maimed Shias. It begins with Mu’awiya and the Umayyads, and ends with American imperialism and the international Zionist conspiracy.
As a young boy growing up in a Shia family, I was told of the injustice inflicted on the prophet’s only rightful heir, Ali. I was told of Hussein’s martyrdom, who supposedly redeemed us through his sacrifice, much like Jesus Christ did, though you would never hear a Shia make that comparison. For only a Shia Imam can suffer and redeem, but the Christian prophet was saved by God. Nobody ever explained to me why God chose to save Jesus and spare him the crucifixion, while Hussein and his followers were left to be decapitated by a Muslim sword.
It was very frustrating to grow up as a Shia in Lebanon. Other than being accused of being Persian, or worse, having a tail, you are expected to accept your Sayyed or Alem as go-between with God, and have him decide which of your actions are obligatory, desirable, undesirable or forbidden. It was always a hierarchy: me at the bottom, the man in the turban, the Imams and the Family, and then God. God was very far in my religion, and when he felt near, he scared me to death. Everyone made sure to remind me of his ability to inflict punishment on me at any time. For those reasons and more, people turned to the Sayyed for his wisdom on what is forbidden, and what earns you credit with God. Wherever you were in Shia land, you were taught that your will is that of the Sayyed, which at the end is really God’s destiny. Free will does not really exist in Islam.
For that, it is very difficult for me to accept that the mobs who took to the streets on Thursday night did so out of their own volition. The history of Lebanon’s Shia suggests that their mobilization was always directed by a religious scholar. It begins with Moussa as-Sadr, the Iranian-Lebanese cleric who gave the subjugated masses an alternative they could not refuse: a cause and a Kalashnikov. He may have pretended to being a pacifist, but pacifists do no start militias and let Yasser Arafat call it the Lebanese Resistance Brigades (AMAL). Amal, which ironically also means hope, soon branched out into Islamic Amal, and then that branched out and evolved into Hizbullah, thanks to the man who decided to repackage Shia Islam as a Jihadi religion: Khomeini. With a scapegoat-driven population predisposed to believing whatever their intermediaries with God threw at them, Khomeini’s job was easy. Hizbullah did not take extra effort to be put together (apart from the bloody fighting with Amal, which they crushed easily). You had the blind Israeli occupation squashing an entire population as it tried to “cure” a country from an illness it was partly responsible for. All Ariel Sharon had to was to be his butcher self to drive the Shia into the arms of Khomeini, much to the chagrin of the more “secular Shias” (if that term makes sense). Those rare breeds resented and abhorred the brainwashing of the Ulama (religious scholars), who believed they could issue lifestyle edicts on everything from marriage to the cooking of lentils and rice, as long as they applied what they called “reason”.
Of course, it didn’t help that Hizbullah’s alternative was an Arab nationalist and “secular” pro-Assad militia led by Sadr’s replacement, Nabih Berri, a morally bankrupt individual who sacrificed whatever independence Sadr had given the Shias to sleep in the arms of the Syrian dictator. Here again, one cannot discount the role Israel played in shaping Shia opinion. When Israeli soldiers occupy you, thinking it would make their fledgling nation safer if they massacred children and tried to help draw boundaries between religious communities, they only reinforce the image of their country as eternal aggressor, and most importantly, scapegoat. And when people like Bill Clinton proclaim the Qana massacre an act of self defense, America becomes the bastion of conspiracy against everything Shia Islam stands for. For as long as there are Ulama preaching injustice and scapegoats, avoiding to hold themselves accountable for their actions, which may or may not have led to bloody consequences, America and Israel will remain eternal enemies alongside Satan and Mu’awiya.
So when Syria and Iran later merged their interests, the Shia community became a vessel for foreign interests. For that it was difficult for many to take their struggle against Israeli occupation as a pure pursuit for freedom. For at the end of the day, that freedom was foregone for a stay in Syrian and Iran’s prison. Had Hizbullah after the 2000 withdrawal chosen to suspend its militant activities, and directed their followers to a better and more prosperous path that intersected with Lebanon’s national interests, we would not be doubting the loyalties of an entire community, as is happening today. But Hizbullah, and Amal, invested the sacrifices of their followers, who lost sons and daughters to fight the occupation, in the wrong place, thinking that would safeguard them against disempowerment. And here lies the tragedy of a community that thinks that its leaders gave it freedom, where in fact they substituted one form of occupation and persecution with another.
Hassan Nasrallah has managed to become shepherd of a deterministic community that desperately needs a different kind of liberation: the liberation of the self from the dominion of religious preachers.