Two orientalist takes on the Party of God
Posted on March 27, 2012
Sorry for not posting for a while; circumstances beyond my control have limited my access to WordPress.
Anyway, I’m sure you’ll have seen the recent article about four western journalists – all pretty well established – going paintballing with Hezbollah in south Beirut.
If not, I won’t spoil it. As you’d expect from the authors, it is at least entertaining…but not terribly illuminating. I know exactly why it was pitched – it was accepted by VICE editors after all. Outlets still have a perspective from which they approach Hezbollah; that the party is tough and mysterious and highly organized, and predominantly hostile to Americans. It is all of those things, of course, but it’s also a highly functioning social outfit, an organization with links established in education, construction, infrastructure…even scouts groups.
I’m not saying that it’s not interesting or even potentially fun to go paintballing with people from the party, but I do know that no senior or even relatively minor registered member of Hezbollah does anything without the say so of HQ. The fact is that the majority of young Lebanese people (men especially) bear at least ideological affiliation with a given political party. It is also true to say that most people in south Beirut are partisans of Hezbollah. If you rock up at a paintball place in Dahiyeh, you know, chances are you’ll go against guys who are ‘Hezbollah’, even if they aren’t officially registered members or conscripts.
I’m not saying these kids weren’t who they said they were, but I highly doubt the idea that Hezbollah’s stringent command structure would countenance a jape-filled hour in south Beirut with journalists from respected publications known to be unsympathetic (speaking lightly) to the party’s cause.
Quite apart from that, the piece is in keeping with a long narrative of western gawping at Hezbollah. We’ve all done it. When I first arrived in Beirut I wrote excitedly that six days into my stay I’d had tea with party officials. I thought that was cool and, in a way, I suppose it was for someone fresh off the plane. But reporters learn and evolve. When you’ve gathered party sources and interviewed enough officials, you realize that, largely, Hezbollah is just like most political parties here; they just happen to have more rockets. I understand why VICE went with the piece and I can understand why it was written…but come on.
The coverage of Lebanon internationally is already largely through the prism of Hezbollah’s menace to Israel. Its rockets, its leader, its support of Assad etc. Is a pseudo-gonzo account of Hezbollah ‘members’ horseplaying with western journalists really telling us anything we don’t know? Perhaps. But only if you’ve never actually read about them.
There is more to Hezbollah than its propaganda. I get that. It’s just that this type of orientalist audience pandering doesn’t deepen anyone’s understanding of the party, or its context within a complicated country.
P.S. Please read this excellent response to VICE’s piece.