Outside the Rubric ‘War on Terror’

By Michael Teague

Hezbollah: A Short History
By Augustus Richard Norton
Princeton University Press, 2007

Readers of Augustus Richard Norton’s “Hezbollah: A Short History” can rest assured that his work is not ideological or doctrinal. On the contrary, Norton, currently a professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University, is uniquely qualified to give such an account because he has worked with UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) in the early 1980’s, where he witnessed firsthand the conditions that led to the emergence of Hezbollah from the Shiites of southern Lebanon. This is not Norton’s first book about Lebanese Shiites. He also wrote “Amal and the Shi’a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon” (University of Texas Press, 1987). This book offers an account of Hezbollah’s history, evolution, and military and political activities, strictly avoiding the well-worn jargon commonly employed in discussions of the group.

Throughout the book, Norton outlines a clear historical and socio-political background against which Hezbollah emerged, particularly revealing the period leading up to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1989). 

The radicalization of Hezbollah did not take place in a vacuum. Norton explores the major events that led to the militarization of the movement, like the disappearance of Imam Musa al-Sadr on a trip to Libya in 1978, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. While it is commonly assumed that Hezbollah is a creature of Iran, and to a lesser extent Syria, Norton points the finger at Iraq, where many of Hezbollah’s leading intellectuals originated, as well as the directive from Iraq to infiltrate an increasingly secular Amal in order to give it a more Islamic character. To an equal extent, the Israeli invasion of 1982 and subsequent occupation of Southern Lebanon are pivotal in the story of Hezbollah’s militarization; Norton quotes both Ehud Barak as well as Yitzhak Rabin's admissions that these events provided the context in which Hezbollah was created.

Shiite religious rituals, the topic of Norton’s third chapter, are discussed in terms of their political exploitation. This may come as a surprise to some readers who are not aware that these rituals were and continue to be manipulated by Amal and Hezbollah for political gain. Hassan Nasrallah, for example, uses the annual festivities as a pulpit to communicate his political agenda to his followers, and both groups use public rituals as a display of strength.

Norton rarely mentions Hezbollah without correspondingly broaching the subject of violence and terrorism. He discusses this in the last three chapters of the book. Norton begins his forth chapter with the question: Is all of Hezbollah’s military activity by definition “terroristic”? Hezbollah is often blamed for the devastating 1983 bombings of the American and French military bases in Lebanon, as well as participating in the hijacking of planes and kidnapping Western journalists. Norton is not so quick to accept the responsibility of Hezbollah in the Beirut bombings, and he points out that Hezbollah had not fully cohered until about 1984, thus requiring a more complex explanation for the authorship of these events. He does concede, however, that some future members of Hezbollah were perhaps involved in these activities in the first half of the 1980’s, but at no point does Norton apologize for these events, nor does he claim that Hezbollah was morally correct in their involvement (for those readers who disagree, see the rather disingenuous review by Jonathan Schanzer, deputy executive director of the Jewish Policy Center, in The Jerusalem Post, July 20, 2007, where Norton is portrayed as engaging in “terrorist apologia” simply because he approached Hezbollah in a political-scientific mode, rather than merely politically in a manner that aligns with Schanzer’s agenda. (Concerning Schanzer, it should be noted that he has been a colleague of Daniel Pipes in a number of organizations including Campus Watch).

That being said, Norton does place responsibility on Hezbollah and groups sympathetic to them for many terrorist acts, regardless of how deeply Iran was involved at the time. But when it comes to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, and its use of the South Lebanese Army to tame local populations, Norton assesses that Hezbollah was within its rights to resist, and that the violence employed in the service of this resistance falls outside the rubric of “terrorism.”

Hezbollah’s role in resisting Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon and its ultimate success in forcing Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2000 receives Norton’s attention in the fifth chapter of the book. Also highlighted is the social and economic role played by Hezbollah, namely its solid network of efficient social institutions, such as hospitals, orphanages and micro-credit providers that help the group consolidate support of its constituency.

Norton’s sixth chapter examines the 2006 summer war between Hezbollah and Israel. The destruction suffered by Lebanon in the summer of 2006 is widely known, but less known is that both Hezbollah and Israel had political motives for such a massive confrontation. Hezbollah wished to silence increasingly loud calls for disarmament as Israel was equally eager to intimidate Hamas in the occupied territories. 

Norton’s work is essential for those more concerned with an approach that rejects the rhetoric of the “war on terror.” His historical and social analysis of Hezbollah’s origin and subsequent evolution into its current manifestation is as objective an analysis as one can hope for — not to mention timely and fascinating.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid