Judging Hassan Nasrallah

Palestinians hold a poster of Hizbollah’s General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah during a demonstration outside the Palestinian parliament in Gaza City, 24 July 2006. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)

Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, General Secretary of Hizballah, is the leader of a movement claiming to fight for the right of self-determination, in the same way that Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were leaders of movements that claimed similar ends. However, Nasrallah will likely not be elevated to the status of a Gandhi, Mandela or other leaders of resistance movements of our time, nor will he be given the same revere and respect. Rather, he will be remembered as a violent man, a terrorist, appearing angry in pictures rather than with his innocent, almost childlike smile.

One might be shocked at the mere suggestion of thinking to compare Nasrallah to Gandhi or Mandela. One friend tells me that I could be right but that Nasrallah’s beard scares her, as if to be non-violent and modern one must be clean shaven. Others go on about their respect for him but cannot get over their primal fear: “If he were only Christian.” Perhaps, in some ways like me, they would be more comfortable if he did not wear a turban or traditional garb; but then, Gandhi adhered to a more “fanatic” style of dress and was dismissed by many because of his humble looks.

We are critical of this leader based on media propaganda, a fear of Islam and repulsion to non-state violence (as if this is somehow worse than the state’s violence)

We are forbidden from engaging in a rational debate because most audiences do not care to pay attention to Nasrallah’s rhetoric and actions and prefer to ridicule him and the movement in advance (or worse, they are scared that engaging in such debates will finger them as international terrorists and enemies of America). We are critical of this leader based on media propaganda, a fear of Islam and repulsion to non-state violence (as if this is somehow worse than the state’s violence) — none of which are based on an understanding of Hizballah and its leader’s rhetoric, teachings or practices.

Of course, there is a more rational argument which claims that Nasrallah will not join the ranks of these other men because he leads an armed resistance group. Except that here we should be reminded of another leader who was not opposed to violence, and yet, today, we bestow upon him medals and allow him to speak at universities in the United States and around the world to inspire new generations of youth: Nelson Mandela. In his book One Country, Ali Abunimah quotes from Mandela, specifically from Long Walk to Freedom, and here I find it necessary to reproduce Abunimah’s words:

The ANC did not give up its right to armed struggle until well after Mandela had been released and negotiations begun with the government. Throughout his years in prison, he maintained that the ANC was right to turn to armed struggle, and would be justified in using “terrorism” if sabotage and guerilla warfare failed to yield results. Mandela defended his decision to abandon nonviolence in the early 1960s, “for it had done nothing to stem the violence of the state nor change the heart of our oppressors.” In Mandela’s analysis, “[I]t is always the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the form of the struggle. If the oppressor uses violence, the oppressed have no alternative but to respond violently.”[1]
While the ANC was not a paramilitary force, and Mandela did not command the type of army that Nasrallah controls, what determines the type of violence is merely semantics once the decision is taken to use it.

The question to ask is not why Nasrallah has not or will not be elevated to the levels of Gandhi and the likes; after all, these leaders were all considered terrorists at one point during their struggles. What is more interesting to ask is why many of us in the mainstream have double standards when it comes to someone like Gandhi versus Nasrallah. Are their struggles and their philosophies radically different? To see the complete picture one must view Nasrallah’s resistance against Israel and Western imperialism within both an internal and external context. We must also be aware of the difference between the ideal and the actual in the philosophies and movements of the figures whom history will not compare with Nasrallah. For example, if we look closely, we see that Gandhi’s ideal teachings and the actual practices of those around him did not always intersect; in other words, the non-violence Gandhi preached was not always adhered to in practice. Here, I wish to outline a few more points of Gandhi and his movement in India which might help us to see Nasrallah in a more balanced light and allow us to be more critical of our own perceptions.

It is quite difficult to find in history a pacifist leader who accomplished effective levels of change without balancing force and nonviolent protest

First, Gandhi was not a pacifist. It is quite difficult to find in history a pacifist leader who accomplished effective levels of change without balancing force and nonviolent protest. (Let us not evoke Jesus lest we be reminded that the change he accomplished came years after his violent sacrifice.) Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement, which began in South Africa, was not an evasive or defensive strategy. Gandhi believed that one could avoid violence toward one’s opponent, but that it was necessary to be willing to die for one’s cause. Indeed, Gandhi did not avoid violence to himself or his supporters. There is a clear parallel here between the notions of martyrdom and sacrifice in the teachings of Nasrallah and Gandhi, both of whom believe that one has to be ready to die for his/her cause.

Second, while Gandhi preached Satyagraha, Indians did not avoid violence. In fact, while Gandhi was in power in 1947, the partition of India and Pakistan resulted in the deaths of about 500,000 people. Prior to 1947, freedom from British rule did not come without its price. Gandhi’s movement in India began in 1920, with the reforming of the Congress and a series of non-violent actions. It gained momentum through 1942, when Gandhi’s leadership launched the Quit India movement (or boycott), but it came to an end in 1943. Historians disagree about the impact of the Quit India movement, but scholars widely acknowledge that the Royal Indian Navy’s mutiny in 1946, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Indians, ushered the end of Britain’s imperial hold. It is perhaps this combination, this move between violence and non-violence, which ultimately proves successful. And if today we view India’s path to liberation as a rosy one it is not because we saw it as such at the time, but that our memory, in retrospect, has painted this rosy picture. It leaves one thinking that no one would know the next Gandhi even if we saw him.

Finally, I have recently heard several sound bytes from past speeches of Nasrallah (taken from the internet and other sources) that are a vain attempt to prove his intentions malicious or contradictory. In one of these he declared, over two decades ago, his plan to turn Lebanon into an Islamic republic by force. These and other remarks on different subjects have resulted in criticisms that he contradicts himself, which, to further the comparison, is similar to denigrations toward Gandhi. Such contradictions arise when leaders are caught thinking in public; they should be assessed for the general direction of change that they advocate and the way they do this in rhetoric, writing and action. Of course, the mainstream is often unwilling to make this necessary step, primarily because it is easier to be fed simplistic media stereotypes backed by American efforts to demonize, as I said earlier, a movement for self-determination with values opposed to American imperial hegemony.

In listening to Nasrallah’s speeches over the last few years, and especially in the last few months, one hears two normally competing ideologies coalesce into one

How can I compare Nasrallah to Gandhi? In listening to Nasrallah’s speeches over the last few years, and especially in the last few months, one hears two normally competing ideologies coalesce into one. Nasrallah speaks of using weapons to fight the external enemy, Israel and imperialism, but has gone to great lengths to teach his followers that these are forbidden from internal use (a step that arguably goes beyond Gandhi, who used the momentum built from the violence of others to convince people his way was right; Nasrallah’s internal/external battles demand another level of complexity). Internal social change, Nasrallah says, “is a national, good-natured, religious and human duty,” but it should be done without the use of arms. He continues: “To the family of the martyrs [of the incidents in January 2007] … I know you are angry … but it is in the interest of all of us, of all Lebanese, to not get involved in reactive actions. I address the families of the martyrs specifically: the allegiance to the blood of your sons, the allegiance to your fallen martyrs, is to be restrained; I don’t mean restrained in the sense that these killers will be forgiven! There is a state …” and through it, he says, is the way to justice.

In resorting to the philosophies of Karbala’ and Islam, Nasrallah shows that using arms to fight one’s brother is a religious crime, and turning weapons inward turns one into the enemy; to resist the enemy in Shi’a philosophy is to do so through the unity of the people. In another speech he claims that externally, against the Israeli enemy, one fights with arms, but internally, one uses non-violent means. “[A]nyone who fires a bullet or draws blood from his Lebanese brother” he retorted, “is Israeli!” A clear message to his supporters that internal violence would turn them into an enemy, which is a common resort in times of war, as in the case of the American Revolution, in which supporters of Britain, or Loyalists, were seen as the enemy within for advocating policies in British interests.

History has not yet judged Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, but he will likely be judged, as he is now, for using arms to free a nation. However, if we are to weigh down equally on struggles of self-determination, then we will have to take the historical cases, from Algeria, South Africa, India, to the United States and beyond, and see that violence cannot be viewed in a one-dimensional realm that is always destructive, for in those historical cases violence was also present. More accurately, we must view violence in its intersection with parallel nonviolent movements that were always already and inevitably present. It is in negotiating violence and nonviolence that past struggles have come to be successful and leaders such as Gandhi have achieved a level of international sanctity. When observed more closely, it is this negotiation which Nasrallah attempts to balance through his teachings and actions. On a rhetorical level, and thus far through actions, he is attempting to combine, in one movement, philosophies of violence and non-violence into a total circle for the liberation of a people. Perhaps this should count for something, and for those who find no worth in exploring it, perhaps their agenda is too firm, their resolve conveniently obstinate. Nevertheless, it is in the success or failure of this negotiation that we must focus our debates and critiques of Hizballah and its leader.

To speak of Nasrallah in comparison with these other figures is not to excuse him for his failures, or to excuse violence in general. More accurately, it is to give credit where it is due, and to point us toward more constructive and useful criticisms. Indeed, I too believe that Nasrallah will not achieve the honor and valor of international stature as that of Mandela or Gandhi. However, what will ultimately be the judge of Nasrallah’s failure is his inability to rise above Lebanon’s political landscape and build a movement that transcends his sectarian identity, a failure which foments disunity. Lebanese politics is so keen to paint every leader on a sectarian canvas, and in this light Nasrallah has thus far been unsuccessful (or hasn’t tried) to build a movement based on Shi’a philosophy that speaks to a broader Lebanese public. This is very possible and it is a concept where our historical examples can serve as a precedent. For one, Gandhi’s movement, though based in primarily Hindu and Christian traditions, was broader in its reach and spoke to a large number of Indian sects, despite the criticisms of his pro-Hindu prejudices. In the end, we must recognize that it is only by managing both violence and non-violence in our lives, rather than surrendering to any one means, that we can achieve true control over our futures. And it is to this that we must turn our debates rather than begin from a place of fear where we remain in the realm of the irrational.

Sami Hermez is a doctoral student of anthropology at Princeton University researching violence and armed resistance in Lebanon and has been active in relief and redevelopment projects in the south of Lebanon. He can be reached at shermez@princeton.edu

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[1] Abunimah, Ali, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Metropolitan Books, NY, 2006, 152.