It is the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar and time of Ashoura, the Shi'a tradition of remembering the death of Hussein (son of Ali, cousin of the Prophet) at Karbala at the hands of Yazid Ibn Muawiyah.
The first ten days of Ashoura are the most intense. Every night, devout Shi'a gather to hear the Majlis, a recitation of the events that led up to the martyrdom of Hussein. Watching the Majlis provides a useful insight into how the Shi'a community in Lebanon respond to their leaders and understand how they perceive themselves as a group. The Shi'a in Lebanon are careful to maintain a defensive position vis-à-vis 'the other'. This is borne of the Shi'a's view of themselves as a minority sect within Islam. The story of Hussein – repeated yearly as it is – reiterates this perception of being the underdog, the need for sacrifice and the glory of martyrdom in the pursuit of justice.
As per the Shi'a tradition of mixing politics with religion, the Majlis each night is often preceded by a speech which is sometimes political. During Ashoura, Hasan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hizbullah, broadcasts a speech live every other night on television (he usually makes one speech in person, but this is never announced in advance for security reasons). His speech on 27 October, the third night of Ashoura, was watched by the audience of the Majlis attentively, respectfully and in many cases adoringly. This kind of attention to every word demonstrates how the success of Hizbullah is partly grounded in the discipline and restraint it is able to instil in both its supporters and active members.
In what was a fairly frank speech,* Nasrallah outlined Hizbullah's position on the Daesh (ISIS in Arabic) and spoke about Islamic extremism more broadly.
He asked that all moderate Muslims and members of other religions make their voices louder than that of the extremists. He spoke in terms that appeared to support the successful Tunisian elections and came close to mocking extremist positions on the elections and other Islamic traditions these groups have labelled as apostasy. He stated that crying out Alluhu Akbar ('God is great') to justify every action does not render such actions legitimate. His concern is that committing acts such as beheadings and other forms of violence in conjunction with the phrase exerts not only a negative impression of Islam in non-Muslim countries but also has the potential to motivate Muslims to distance themselves from Islam.
The second main topic of his speech was Hizbullah's views on the main cause of the rise of Islamic militancy today.
The points Nasrallah made dovetailed with comments in an article in Foreign Policy released recently which reported on the use of children by ISIS and the existence of training camps and schools for children as young as six. In the article, Kate Brannen argued that a generation of children are now being educated in extremist ideology in Syria and Iraq, confirming the view expressed by the US and its allies that taking out ISIS is a long-term project. Nasrallah argued that the roots of this phenomenon come from the propagation of a narrow interpretation of Islam which has been going on for 200 years – which he expressly stated was largely funded by Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. He used the analogy of an event that occurred during the time of Ali, when a group of Muslims deserted from traditional Islam. He said the group was offered the choice of discussion and reconciliation. Those who chose to return to the fold were accepted and forgiven. Those who did not were fought.
Nasrallah acknowledged the economic arguments regarding the rise of extremism, but said it is the ideology of extremists that needs to be dealt with: first by peaceful discussion (cultural, intellectual and scientific) and then through war. He posited that the first step in eradicating ISIS and similar movements is to shut off their access to funds, to close the schools where extremism is taught and shut down all propaganda machinery relating to its ideology, whether it is websites, printed material or television. He proposed that members of these groups should be offered the chance to revert back to the leadership of more mainstream Sheikhs who oppose ISIS ideology. The final step is then to fight those who choose to remain aligned with such extremism.
Irrespective of the obvious irony in some of these statements, coming as they do from a group that many in the West regard as being just as dangerous as ISIS, it is clear from this speech that Hizbullah will remain committed to placing boots on the ground until the threat posed by ISIS, and other groups like Jabat Al-Nusra, are eliminated. Irrespective of the different motivations of the US (and its allies) and Hizbullah, like it or not, Nasrallah and his followers are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to ISIS.
*Thanks go to Gharib Hashem for his assistance in translating this speech.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user thierry ehrmann.