In the Shia vision of history, born of centuries of oppression and marginality, a time comes when the mighty are humbled; the lowly who kept the faith rise up and inherit the earth free from oppressors. From this vision has come consolation. It sustained an embattled minority faith through the eras of worldly and political dispossession.

Something of this vision has come to pass in our time in Lebanon. The country has turned into a slaughter ground, but an inheritance as well. Passion, demography and chance have raised a once-marginal community above the insularity and fears of the past.

In the south of Lebanon, two and a half years of Israeli occupation have given the Shia a new and sustaining myth of resistance. In Beirut, Shi‘ite squatters and urban newcomers have crossed once-forbidden lines. The western half of the city, traditionally home of the more privileged Sunni Muslim community, has all but fallen to the downtrodden Shia. In the Bekaa Valley, under the shadow of Syria, extremist elements in the loosely joined Party of God, known as Hizbollah, proclaim their intention to "cleanse the country" and to transform this fractured polity into an Islamic republic: a seeming parody of the realm established in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran.

The Shia phenomenon arises from the accumulated resentments—and achievements—of a quarter-century. But the midwife of the current resurgence was none other than Israel, which came into Lebanon in June of 1982 both to destroy a Palestinian dominion in West Beirut and the south, and also to restore Christian Maronite hegemony over the country. The first mission was relatively easy to achieve. Over the course of a decade the Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon had been emptied of its exalted claims and had turned into an affair of caprice and showmanship.

Israel’s second mission was not to be fulfilled. The time of the Maronite ascendancy had passed. Demographic realities had caught up with the Maronites; no amount of Israeli or American support could sustain their bid for hegemony over an unwieldy country. In retrospect, the Israeli invasion and its aftermath only served to highlight the Maronite weakness.

The beneficiaries of Israel’s war and the subsequent occupation of south Lebanon turned out, thus, to be the long-suppressed Shi‘ites. Israel shattered the Palestinian dominion; it did for the Shia what they had not been able to do for themselves. Then Israel’s occupation of the Shi‘ite ancestral land in the south closed the circle: it gave a people awakening to their own power the material out of which militant myths are made.

The Israeli withdrawal has begun and must eventually take Israel back to the international border, or something very close to it. If the withdrawal were to be confined to the first two phases—from Sidon and its surroundings in the first phase, from the eastern sector overlooking Syrian positions in the second phase—Israel would still be in occupation of the Shia heartland. There would still be nearly 400,000 Lebanese under Israeli occupation, and 80 percent of those would be Shi‘ite. Resistance to Israel would take on an added measure of despair and determination. All this was known to the Israeli decision-makers when they announced in mid-January 1985 that they were on their way out of Lebanon.

Israel’s withdrawal will leave Lebanon a virtual Syrian protectorate—a dubious prize for any patron. It also prepares the Shia, more radicalized than ever before and representing some 40 percent of the country’s population, to come of age as claimants to power.


They were an unlikely people for a history of rebellion and exaltation; historically, the Shia of Lebanon were the bearers of a tradition of lament and submission.

The Shia world in Jabal Amil (the mountain of Amil, a largely barren piece of land north of Galilee, today’s South Lebanon) was, until its inclusion in Greater Lebanon in 1920, an impoverished and marginal corner of the larger entity of Syria. Remote Shia villages and towns fell under Ottoman control, along with the rest of Syria, when the Ottomans spread across Islam in the sixteenth century. The Shia geographic isolation was parallel to their religious and cultural isolation. Though subjects of a (Sunni) Ottoman state governed in various eras from Damascus, Sidon and Acre, the Shia were cut off from the power and symbols of the empire and the culture of its great cities.

To make matters worse, early in the sixteenth century the Safavid dynasty in Iran imposed Shi‘ism as a state religion and entered into a protracted war with the Ottoman empire. Shi‘ism may have rescued the Safavid empire, marked it off from the expanding Ottoman state, but men caught on the wrong side of the divide—Shia in Ottoman realms, Sunnis in the Safavid world—were destined to suffer.

Plunder and cruelty intruded upon this Shia domain, and power was always exercised by men beyond the Shia faith. Folklore related the cruelty of Ottoman officialdom; it taught the futility of political action. More objective histories did not differ much from the folklore. C.F. Volney, French author of one of the great eighteenth-century travel books about Syria and Egypt, passed through the Shia lands after one of the ruinous Ottoman military campaigns; he recorded the existence of a "small nation," a "distinct society." "Since the year 1777," he wrote, "Djezzar, master of Acre and Saide [Sidon] has incessantly laboured to destroy them . . . it is probable they will be totally annihilated, and even their very name become extinct."

David Urquhart, another eighteenth-century British traveller and pamphleteer, called the Shia "unclassible men." "In religion, they are Shi‘ites, in race Arabs. . . . They have been prevented by their religious schism from being included in the administrative order of the empire." Urquhart wrote of the "mystery" of the Shi‘ite appearance in Lebanon: "Whence it came, how it came, what its race, what its character . . . have been matters of much doubt and mystery. . . . To all inquiries respecting them, even on their immediate borders, the only answers to be obtained were fables revealing utter ignorance mixed with fear and hatred."

Shia history remained raw and limited. This was a people who neither waged, nor faked, a great anticolonial struggle. No major causes of nineteenth-century nationalism touched their lives or transformed their heritage.

At the end of World War I the Ottoman empire collapsed, and no Shia grieved for it. Ottoman dominion was replaced by the mandatory rule of France, which in 1920 appended the Shi‘ite territories to Greater Lebanon, with its heartland in the Mount Lebanon area, overlooking the city of Beirut, with the Maronites in its northern part and the Druze in the south.

Two dominant ideas were brought together in the Lebanese polity that the French fashioned and whose independence they granted in 1943: a Maronite concept that stressed Lebanon’s Christian identity, and a Sunni Arab conviction, upheld by the merchants of Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon, that the country was a piece of a larger Arab world. The impoverished and quiescent Shia fit into neither concept. They were Lebanon’s "hewers of wood and drawers of water." On the eve of independence, Lebanese statistics (for whatever they are worth) put the Shi‘ite population at some 200,000 inhabitants. Numerically, they were behind the Maronites and the Sunnis. Politically, they lagged behind the smaller but more assertive Druze. The Shia carried into the new Lebanese republic age-old attitudes of aversion to the world of politics.

Quintessential outsiders, some Shia youth were drawn to fringe political movements in the 1950s, the Baath, the communists, or the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party. More dominant remained the handful of semi-feudal Shia families, the rule of the "big men." The Lebanese state had its ways of dealing with both: the big men, the beys, could be ignored or bought off with small concessions; the parties of the left labored in a country of sects and clans that could not comfortably assimilate borrowed ideologies. Conflicts of class and economic grievances were turned into sectarian feuds. The marginal parties were shut out of the politics and the division of spoils.

So it all was seen through Lebanon’s first two decades of independence. But within the closed Shia community, things were changing. There was a demographic explosion, a migration to the city, improved schooling made possible by remittances from those of the faith who made their way to West Africa to work as hawkers, small traders and diamond smugglers. Such changes remained largely undetected by the world outside as the 1950s drew to a close.


The Shia had always maintained cultural and religious traffic between the hinterland of Shia Lebanon and Persia. Normally, the direction of the traffic took ambitious Shi‘ite divines, mullahs, from the impoverished world of Jabal Amil to the large realm of Iran, where clerics were needed to spread the Shia faith. A latecomer to Shin’ism, Iran had become one of the two great centers of the Shia world (Iraq being the other). Ambitious and restless clerics from a small impoverished community were drawn to the patronage and resources of a large state. Shia Lebanon remained a backwater.

In 1959, one Sayyid Musa al Sadr, a tall, handsome cleric, 31 years of age, made a reverse journey. To retrace his path is to embody the transformation of the Shia.

Born in Qom, Sayyid Musa came to the Lebanese coastal town of Tyre as its mufti, or religious judge. He was heir to a distinguished lineage; his was one of the most celebrated clerical and scholarly families in the Shia world. Their roots were in Iraq and Iran. Sayyid Musa’s cousin and brother-in-law, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al Sadr, was a brilliant scholar executed by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein in 1980. Sayyid Musa’s father, Ayatollah Sadr al din al Sadr, had crossed the border from Iraq to Iran in the mid-1920s after a Shia-led revolt was broken by the British. In Qom, Ayatollah Sadr al din al Sadr, until his death in 1953, played a leading role in the revival of the religious madrasas, the seminaries. On his maternal side, Sayyid Musa was the grandson of Ayatollah Hussein Qummi, a cleric in the forefront of the opposition to Reza Shah’s effort to centralize the Iranian state and undermine the role of the clergy.

Sayyid Musa al Sadr brought with him a daring and self-confidence alien to the world of Shia Lebanon. In the land of his birth, ayatollahs and great ulama had supported and opposed kings, paid for private armies, administered large welfare networks, led merchants and urban mobs to resist the encroachment of Western monopolies and concessions. Sayyid Musa al Sadr was to do some of the same in Lebanon over the next two decades.

More still, Musa al Sadr was to leave the Shia of Lebanon with a vibrant myth. In the summer of 1978, he disappeared while on a visit to Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, a fitting end to a leader of the faith. In the Shia myth, the Twelfth Imam—religious and political successor to the Prophet—vanished to the eyes of ordinary men in 873-74, to return at the "end of time" and fill the earth with justice. This is the doctrine of the Ghaiba, the absence, the occultation, of the Hidden Imam. Musa al Sadr embodied the myth in modern times. He left inheritors and followers sitting under his posters, repeating his words, awaiting his "return." Musa al Sadr was the medium for some of the profound changes in the Shia community.

Sayyid Musa arrived as the Shia were breaking out of their rural insularity and making their way into Beirut, its southern suburbs arid its northeastern shantytowns. In 1960, the per capita income in Beirut was five times larger than in the south. The city was a magnet; the lure of the land was being eroded.

In his first decade in Lebanon, Sayyid Musa put together a coalition of educated Shia civil servants, professionals and men with new money. He sought, as he put it, to change the "psychological outlook" of the Shia community; he provided an alternative to the parties of the left and the rule of the feudal families. His first institutional creation was the Higher Shia Council to represent the corporate demands of the Shi‘ites before the state. This was a break with the Sunni establishment, and a search for an independent Shia path. It was an effort blessed and aided by the Maronite elites.

A decade after he had arrived in Lebanon, Sayyid Musa al Sadr became known as "Imam" Musa al Sadr, a title loaded with messianic expectations. Here, on a small scale, was the tale to unfold in Iran a decade later with the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. In both cases, a cleric was set apart from other clerics, was accorded the title of imam and given political authority and obedience.

The symbols of Shi‘ism were turned into political weapons, as would happen later in Khomeini’s Iran. The tales of martyrdom and persecution that had provided the material for Shia laments became, in Musa al Sadr’s reconstruction of them, episodes of political choice and courage. Annually, the Shia mourned the death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, who fell in the seventh-century battle of Kerbala, which pitted him and a small band of zealots against the armies of the caliph in Damascus. Musa al Sadr read modern needs into Imam Hussein’s death; Hussein was turned into a "revolutionary," a man who made a clear political choice against the rule of an oppressive state. The bearers of Hussein’s legacy, he exhorted, owed it to the memory of Hussein to go beyond tears and lamentations.

Musa al Sadr’s first followers had come from among the Shi‘ite patricians. His second decade was one of populist politics. He was, as he said of himself, a man who grew up in Iran without hearing the sound of a bullet. Yet by the mid-1970s, he established and financed a Shia militia, Amal; "Arms were the adornment of men," he declared to his followers. Shi‘ism, the religion of lament, was undergoing transformation into a faith of activism.


Musa al Sadr’s populist themes were elaborated against mounting disorder in Lebanon. The Palestinians, banished from Jordan in 1970-71, had created a mini-republic of their own in Lebanon. The Lebanese state to which the cleric had been appealing turned out to be—his description—a scarecrow. The Maronite custodians were in no mood to discuss issues of political reform. They brooded over the country’s future and its purity. Panic was driving the Maronites behind their own lines. By the mid-1970s the country was claimed by two armed camps—the Palestinians and their Muslim Lebanese allies on the one hand, the Maronites on the other.

Musa al Sadr straddled the fence. There was no easy choice for him, or for his community. The program of the Maronites was too brittle for him to embrace; that of the Palestinians too reckless. The Palestinian dominion was, for the most part, in Shia land. The Palestine Liberation Organization staked a claim to the south of Lebanon that made the claims of its own inhabitants look petty and irrelevant. The south was turned into a "bridge" for the "re-conquest of Arab Palestine." The Palestinians spoke the language of national liberation and revolution. Their mistakes could be smothered by appeals to a larger cause. No apology had to be made for the massive Israeli reprisals that Palestinian operations brought in their train. A grandiose "Arab Cause" was pressed from remote places where the inhabitants had no voice of their own.

The Shia were not articulate and organized as were the Palestinians. The latter belonged to the mainstream of Arab political life. The Palestinians represented an urban Sunni culture imposed upon a rural Shi‘ite population. Dispossessed in 1948, the Palestinians had found their way into Arab courts and nationalist movements alike. Unable to "liberate" Palestine or retrieve what had been lost in 1948, the Arab states did the next best thing: they gave the Palestinians yarn and invited them into the Arab councils of power. Funds were available to maintain a Palestinian movement of considerable wealth, to arm and equip a relatively formidable Palestinian presence in Lebanon. The other Arab states bought peace for themselves by indulging turmoil in Lebanon. Steadily, the Palestinian sanctuary in the land north of Israel was evolving into a substitute homeland, and the resident Shia had trouble finding the means and self-confidence to cope with their new Arab occupiers.

Musa al Sadr himself was particularly ill-equipped to confront the Palestinians. His Iranian birth trailed him like a dark shadow, and he was ever anxious, at times excessively so, to assert his Arab credentials. Like the community he led, he desperately wanted acceptance by the larger Arab world. In the early 1970s, he had made the standard statements of fidelity to the Palestinian cause. But years of disorder in the south of Lebanon brought the breaking point between the Shia and the Palestinians. A remarkable memoir by a Lebanese politician, Karim Pakradouni, renders Musa al Sadr’s judgment of the Palestinian occupation:

Shortly before Musa al Sadr’s disappearance, he said to me: "The Palestinian resistance is not a revolution; it does not seek martyrdom. It is a military machine that terrorizes the Arab world. With weapons Arafat gets money; with money he can feed the press; and thanks to the press he can get a hearing before world public opinion. . . . The Shia have finally gotten over their inferiority complex vis-à-vis the Palestinian organizations."

The Shia journey out of self-contempt and political quiescence had been led by the charismatic mullah as far as one man could take it. Musa al Sadr walked between rain drops. He had given political activism the sanction of religious symbols; he linked to the larger Shia world lonely people who had felt isolated and cast adrift. It fell to his inheritors to build up his mystique, to exploit the power and symbolism of his birth in Qom and his mysterious disappearance.

Like a chameleon, he was different things to different people. The patricians among his followers saw him as a man of moderate politics, a reformer. For others, Musa al Sadr was to become a great avenger, his tale and memory a warrant for daring deeds and unbending politics. Some saw him as a man who sought the integration of the Shi‘ites into the Lebanese political order. Others depicted him as a Pan-Islamic figure who had his gaze fixed on Iran, who spent the last two years of his activity consumed with the struggle between the Shah and the Iranian opposition.

The times played into the legacy and enhanced it: Iran’s revolution erupted shortly after Musa al Sadr’s disappearance. An "armed imam" brought down the monarchy; the humble folk of Shia Lebanon became part of a large upheaval. The Iranian revolution exalted the once-timid and embarrassing symbols of Shia Islam. Leading figures in post-revolutionary Iran had been sheltered and helped by Musa al Sadr and had drawn on the funds and the hospitality of the Shia of Lebanon—men like Musa al Sadr’s nephew, one-time Deputy Prime Minister Sadeq Tabatabai, or Mustapha Chamran, who was defense minister until his death on the Iraqi front in 1981. Musa al Sadr himself was a man of double identity claimed by the Iranians and by the Shia in Lebanon; he embodied the bonds—both real and imagined—between the Shia of Lebanon and of Iran.

Khomeini’s revolution brought a change in the relation of the Shia to the larger Arab world and its symbols. In times past, when Pan-Arabism was the strident faith of large Arab cities, the "Persian connection" of the Shia of Lebanon and other Arab realms was carried like some embarrassing and insinuating baggage. Now the Iranian revolution stood history on its head. A major revolt succeeded in the name of Islam and cultural authenticity. The material for messianic politics and radicalism was there—all the more so as the Iranian revolution devoured its liberal wing and set out to create a "reign of virtue," and to export its ways.


The Shia of Lebanon sat out the war of 1982, it was not their war. Initially, they gave Israel’s campaign their silent approval. No tears were shed for the Palestinians, whose presence was a dominion of strangers that showed every sign of digging in for a long stay, turning into something permanent, impossible to dismantle.

But the Shia—unlike the Lebanese Christians—could not openly embrace Israel. They were not that kind of people; traffic with men beyond the faith was not part of their history. For centuries, the Maronites had played the game of inviting strangers and drawing on their resources. The Shia, on the other hand, brought with them a nervousness about encountering strangers, a fear of defilement. The peculiar Shia relationship to the larger Arab world—they were of it, but not fully—rendered them unable to come to terms with Zionism. Like Caesar’s wife, they had to be above suspicion. They were sure that they would not be forgiven a close association with Israel.

Israel’s long-range designs in Lebanon were yet another problem for the Shia. Israel had come in as a savior, but saviors could betray. There had always existed in Lebanon a suspicion that Israel coveted the lands of the south and the waters of the Litani River. A body of political literature had popularized that theme. There was enough Zionist scripture around, and enough Palestinian reiterations of it, to make men wonder and worry. Israel could never provide sufficient assurance that its presence would be temporary. And the longer Israeli troops stayed, the more credible the suspicions became.

The grace period extended to Israel lasted little more than a year. Israel had come to Lebanon with a flawed understanding of the country; Israeli decision-makers knew next to nothing about the Shi‘ites. Israel was, in effect, trying to impose Christian hegemony in a part of Lebanon which had very few Christians. On Israel’s coattails rode the brigands of Israel’s crony, Major Saad Haddad, who moved all the way from their strip on Israel’s border up to the Awali River. Then came the zealous units of the Maronite "Lebanese Forces." A Palestinian dominion in the south was replaced by a Christian regime of harassment and extortions.

Trouble was waiting to happen. And trouble came on a particularly symbolic day: October 16, 1983, the day of Ashura, the tenth of the Muslim month of Muharram, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Kerbala. An armed Israeli convoy coincidentally turned up in the Shia town of Nabatiye on that day, and tried to make its way through the procession of mourners and flagellants. Two people were killed, several wounded.

The die was cast in the south. The next day Shaykh Muhammad Mahdi Shams El Din, the leading cleric in the Shia community, vice-chairman of the Higher Shia Council (the chairmanship is retained by the missing Imam Musa al Sadr), issued a fatwa, a binding religious opinion, calling for "civil disobedience" and "resistance to occupation in the South." Dealing with Israel, he said, was "absolutely impermissible." Of his "brothers and sons in the South," the cleric asked fidelity to the land, that they defend and hold it at any price. Every generation, the cleric said, has its own Kerbala man makes his own choice; he can "soar and sacrifice" or he can "submit and betray."

The seventh-century tale of Kerbala became a modern weapon. The cleric who issued this fatwa was a conservative man who played the conventional game of Lebanese politics. But other clerics and true believers believed in an entirely different kind of politics. And Syria, entrenched in the Bekaa Valley, was ready to harness the wrath and the passion of extremists for its own purposes. Suicide drivers and "martyrs" were not far behind. On November 4, a suicide driver struck the Israeli headquarters in Tyre. Israel responded by closing the crossing on the Awali River which connected the south to Beirut. Clinton Bailey, an Israeli academic who served as a liaison officer in south Lebanon, summed up the impact: "The basis of the southern economy collapsed. It was this event that finally smashed the last friendly sentiments toward Israel."


The fight in the south was one Shia concern. Another Shia fight was waged in Greater Beirut over the city itself, and over the nature of the Lebanese regime to emerge after the war. This was a fight that pitted the Shi‘ites and their Druze allies in the nearby Shouf Mountains (and their Syrian backers) against the Phalange-based regime of President Amin Gemayel and, by extension, his American backers.

Guilt for the summer of 1982 and for the Sabra and Shatila massacres of that autumn had taken the U.S. marines to Lebanon on an undefined mission in a setting that Washington did not fully understand. Once on the ground, the distant superpower became a party to the sectarian feud. Behind the shield and prestige of a great power, the Phalange-based regime set out to subdue an unwieldy country. In times past, when France was a power to be reckoned with, the Maronites made themselves part of France’s mission in the Levant. And for a brief moment (from the fall of 1982 until the winter of 1984) history seemed to repeat itself for the Maronites. The United States was to do for them—so they hoped—what France once did. It was a time of great Maronite delusions. The Shi‘ite "squatters" in the southern suburbs were to be cleared out; the Druze of the Shouf Mountains were to be defeated.

A fantasy from the past continued to see the Shia of Greater Beirut as intruders on the city, peasants who could be sent packing to their two ancestral homelands in the south and the Bekaa Valley. It was in this vein that one Pierre Yazbeck, the representative of the Lebanese Forces in Israel, told a visiting American journalist: "The Shia in Beirut are an unnatural concentration. They are refugees from the south and should return." Boulos Namaan, the influential head of the Maronite Order of Monks, put forth a similar view to a young Shi‘ite journalist. In the vision of this militant priest, the urban Shia—some 700,000 inhabitants, perhaps more—would be sent back to the land. A large Shia population had grown in the city, and much of the real estate in Greater Beirut belonged to them. Yet their right to a place in the city was not yet recognized.

The Shia had been through this before. Early in the civil war, they had lost one of their major city footholds, an Armenian-Shia settlement northeast of Beirut. They were expelled in 1976 when that suburb fell behind Maronite lines. It took no great imagination to see the new scheme: East Beirut would remain Christian; West Beirut, the traditional haven of the Sunni community, would have to come to terms with the Phalange for it lacked the armed manpower to defend itself. There was no room left for the Shia.

The Gemayel regime found a Sunni figleaf in the person of a minor Beirut politician, Shafiq al Wazzan, who was appointed prime minister. Then it pushed on two fronts—against the Druze in the Shouf and the Shia in Greater Beirut. It shut out of its deliberations Nabih Berri, the leader of Shia Amal, and the Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt. It then signed the American-sponsored accord of May 17, 1983, with Israel. The Gemayel regime sought the support of a foreign power to substitute for a social contract at home. By mid-summer 1983, the Gemayel regime’s strategy had forged in opposition a novel alliance between the Druze and the Shia.

The Maronite bid for hegemony could not be sustained against the Druze and the Shia together, and the ruthless determination of Syria to hold sway in Lebanon. The Phalange were convinced of America’s commitment to them, but soon the distant superpower was on its way out of Lebanon. Suicide drivers struck the American and the French barracks on October 23, 1983. The United States could not annul geography for the Maronites, or push Syria out of the country, or make the Druze and the Shia accept Phalange hegemony. Eight days after the attack on the marines, Syria convened a conference of Lebanon’s warlords in Geneva. Nabih Berri, a man of modest background, joined the traditional notables in the councils of power.

But the fight in Beirut would not be settled for another three months. In early February, the Shia and the Druze swept into West Beirut, and Berri called on the army to desert the regime. All along, the army had a rank-and-file Shi‘ite majority and, predictably, it split along sectarian lines and collapsed. The leader of Amal had acted in the nick of time, for the battle in the south against Israel was being fought by militant clerics, and the extremists in the Bekaa Valley were gaining power. The middle-ground held by Amal was caving under. In Clinton Bailey’s words, Berri had to act "to check a growing tidal wave of support for the fanatics."

The challenge of the Druze was an old communal threat. Constituting only some six percent of the country’s population, the Druze sought only to be left alone in their own part of the country. The Druze centrality of command subordinated the men of the religious institution to the authority of the chieftain.

The Shia were a wholly different problem. Their numbers were much larger. Their long memories of persecution were suddenly awakening to a sense of power. They spoke with a multitude of voices: clerics battled secular leaders for ascendancy. Only Musa al Sadr himself, "the Imam," had laid claim to combined political and religious leadership. In his absence there were competing inheritors: the clerics insisted on the primacy of their role; the laymen who willingly followed Musa al Sadr now wanted the clerics to return to the traditional functions of the men of religion. A patrician from the Bekaa Valley, Hussein al Husseini, now speaker of parliament, continued to play by the old rules of the Lebanese system. His rival, Nabih Berri, now a member of the coalition cabinet, brought to his own quest the energy of an ambitious outsider—the drive of a new Shia middle class grasping for its own place.

And there was the chaos in the country bringing forth new men who found in the anarchy an outlet and a vehicle for their own ambitions.


The most profound truth of Lebanon is as old as the land: the primacy of the religious sect and the clan, and the will of the "big man" leading a particular sect. Men may have moved beyond their sects during periods of self-confidence, but they retreated behind communal lines during times of upheaval. The leading sect thrived when it had something to offer the country beyond sheer dominion. Liberals had long tried to make of Lebanon a sophisticated republic by the Mediterranean. But that was a pretense, and we have seen its terrible harvest. Marxists brought to Lebanon the categories of class and the conflicts of class. But the country outwitted and eluded them as well. Today Shia clerics, Maronite monks and Sunni emirs (princes) of Islamic associations lead the people of Lebanon and tap their deepest phobias and aspirations.

The Druze, a formidable sect of warriors, once governed the heartland of Lebanon as feudal rulers and warlords. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Maronites overtook them, found their way to the city of Beirut when it was becoming a thriving trade center, developed links to Europe through a vibrant silk industry, and learned the ways of the modern world. The Druze were too brittle to change. The Maronites had something more substantial and viable to offer Lebanon—and even the Arab world beyond. It was on that reserve that the Maronites drew for a little more than a century.

History has again turned in Lebanon. It is the Shia who have emerged as the country’s principal sect. The skills and the habits of authority, and the self-confidence that come with power and a settled existence, are not yet theirs. But a profound change in their fortunes has taken place. For the moderate Shia mainstream, this was a chance for the country’s largest group to lay claim to its legitimate share of power. For more marginal and intemperate men, there was something to the recent events resembling a millennial fulfillment. The great drama that came to pass in Iran, Wilayat al Faqih, the rule of the jurist, found those who would want to emulate it in Lebanon. In the words of a young cleric from the Party of God (Hizbollah), Sayyid Ibrahim al Amin: "the realm of the faqih, the jurist, is not a specific geographical realm; it covers the entire world of Islam." In this one true believer’s vision, the special situation of Lebanon is not particularly important; Lebanon is an "impure realm" that has to be cleansed and the Shia state that found its fulfillment in Iran should be duplicated in Lebanon.

But the specter of a Shia state is a Shia delusion; it is also a demon that others in Lebanon—Sunnis, Maronites—summon up to deny the legitimate claims of the country’s largest group. The fight in Lebanon now is not about the establishment of a state of the zealous; it is about the apportioning of power among the country’s principal sects. Some Shi‘ites, to be sure, borrow the example of Iran. But the overwhelming majority of the Shia recognize the limits of the country. Even Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, Shia Beirut’s most compelling preacher, dismisses the idea of an "Islamic state" in Lebanon. The "objective conditions," he says, are not there for "Islam to rule Lebanon"; such ideas, he says, are "leaps into the void"; one has to consider "the larger balance of forces."

Men in Lebanon sharing Iran’s Shi‘ite faith live in a world and a state of their own. Carried across frontiers—particularly across a tough, unsentimental state like Syria—the Shia truth of Iran runs into concrete social realities that are different from the old country. Beirut is a tough and cynical city now hardened by war and ruin. There, men and women see a scoundrel behind every mask. This is not exactly the ideal site for great movements of redemption.

The true believers in Hizbollah in the southern slums of Beirut and a splinter movement of fanatics in the Bekaa—Islamic Amal headed by Hussein Muswai, a former government schoolteacher now doing Iran’s bidding in Lebanon—are sure to give their militant vision a try. They have going for them the sense that history is on their side, that moderation everywhere in the region has been discredited, that the time is right to settle old historic accounts, that great odds could be overcome by faith and terror. Hizbollah and Islamic Amal will fight for their place and their vision of the country. As in other similar situations, the true believers will bring to their quest the grievances of ambitious men, the legitimacy of time-honored symbols, and will try to make up in passion and frenzy what they lack in numbers. But if the offer made by Hizbollah for the Christians of Lebanon to convert to Islam is a true indication of the extremists’ mood, theirs is a state approaching delirium.

So far the men in Hizbollah have coexisted, uneasily, with the Shia mainstream movement, Amal. The former are made of sterner stuff, but they know that they are in the minority. Only a fool would say for sure whether the Shia center will hold: the odds are in its favor, and the Shia mainstream is not without some credits of its own. It fought a successful battle for Beirut in February of 1984; it threw its weight into the battle in the south against Israel as a way of preempting the appeal and the claim of the extremists. The Shia mainstream is a legitimate piece of Lebanon—with all the appertaining strengths and weaknesses.

A Shia bid for power that tries to outrun the sectarian compact can succeed no better than the Maronite dream of a state cut off from its Arab environment. The harsh economic limits of Lebanon will always push that country in the direction of the Arab world as a petitioner for funds and help. And the custodians of Arab wealth in the Gulf states will try their best to calm the tempest in Lebanon, or to quarantine Lebanon’s troubles. A radical Shi‘ite enterprise in Lebanon will end in isolation and frenzy. There is no viable agricultural hinterland in Lebanon to sustain a zealous state of the faithful. Unlike Iran, there is no oil wealth that would accrue to those who conquer political power. The space and resources for a utopia of any kind do not exist in Lebanon. A radical Shia political enterprise would be starved by the Arab world. Utopias do not thrive in small economies of trade and services.


More concrete and less grandiose Shia causes will figure in the phase ahead. Above all, there is the issue of reclaiming the land. The south of Lebanon will be up for grabs in the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal. That is as sure as anything in Lebanon; the weakness of the Lebanese government will preclude a happier outcome. There will be, as well, a settlement of petty accounts with the collaborators and "enforcers" of the occupation regime. But beyond the small accounts, there is the larger imperative of controlling the territory itself.

Israel’s preferred solution is the control of the south by its new client, General Antoine Lahd, and his South Lebanon Army; its nightmare is the return of its old nemesis, the PLO. It should be patently obvious that the South Lebanon Army—a group of mercenaries—will be unable to inherit Israel’s position or to pacify the south. What power has been exercised by that army has been derived from Israel’s own presence. And that power has in the main consisted of acts of harassment and violence. As a force of Christians in a predominantly Shi‘ite part of the country, the South Lebanon Army will, in time, be overwhelmed.

The question of the return of the Palestinians to the south of Lebanon is more tangled. One does not have to range very far to divine the reasons why Yasir Arafat might try a comeback to the south of Lebanon. In the latter part of 1983, Arafat returned from his Tunisian exile and made a stand in the refugee camps of Tripoli; he vowed to "fight to the end," and was forced out by Syria and its own Palestinian clients. As the dream of Palestinian nationalism faces the combined power of Israel and Syria, Arafat’s search for some geographic base of his own is a fight to keep his own claim alive.

The large Palestinian refugee camps in the Sidon area could tempt Arafat. This would be in keeping with his own style: the avoidance of hard choices, his inability to disavow the slogans of the past—i.e., the "armed struggle"—or to pursue, through Jordan, whatever diplomatic options are available on that front, and to carry with him his principal lieutenants in a sharp break with a legacy of Palestinian negations.

The PLO would bring to Lebanon money and weapons and more of the delusions that the West Bank could be rescued, and Israel could be defeated, from Lebanon. Young Palestinian boys without a future would be given guns and the illusion of a political undertaking. The Sunnis of West Beirut and Sidon, worried about Shia numbers and Shia militancy, could offer support to Arafat’s PLO. The Palestinians would be brought back—indeed this has begun—to West Beirut as a praetorian guard for a threatened Sunni community witnessing the passing of its own ascendancy.

In the final analysis, though, Arafat and his organization would bring to the refugee camps in the south the same hell that trailed them to Tripoli in 1983. Arafat would have to fight Syria’s breakaway Palestinian factions, as he did in Tripoli. And this time his forces would be face to face with an armed Shia population. It will be impossible for the Palestinians to brandish in the face of the Shia the cause of an armed struggle against Israel. Plainly, the Shia proved to be more formidable enemies of Israel than did the PLO. The awe with which Arafat and his cause were once held is a thing of the past.

Israel, then, is left with having to trust today’s enemy—the Shia—to keep the Palestinians out of the south. Until the Lebanese state goes beyond the factionalism of the warlords—not a likely prospect in the near future, if ever—it is only the Shia mainstream, and its armed movement, Amal, that could secure the south. They would do it for their own reasons; armed Palestinian activity would be checked to keep intact the Shia world in southern Lebanon.

No assurances should be sought by Israel from the Shia. For, if the past is any guide, none will be offered. The control of the land would have to be left to its own people. The fragile institutions of the Lebanese state—a cabinet in which the leader of Amal has a portfolio for the affairs of the south, an army in which whole brigades and units are manned and led by Shia, a Shia defense minister—could provide the cover and the legitimacy of the state for the Shia endeavor in the south. None of this will bring order to Lebanon, or change the country’s ways, or enable the place to look beyond its feuds and phobias. It only means that a foreign power that crossed an international border has retreated, leaving the place to find its own balance of forces.

There is no likelihood of a tranquil Israeli-Lebanese border, no guarantee that Katyusha rockets will not again be fired into Galilee after Israel’s withdrawal. No government in Israel should have to make that kind of promise; only the men who waged the war of 1982 entertained such grandiose expectations.

The case for the Israeli withdrawal is a more cautious one, based on a hard reading of the outcome of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The war ended in a major setback for the nation that waged it, and in great ruin for the people at the receiving end of that invasion. A war billed as a war against terrorism and radicalism culminated in deeper levels of rage and terror. The retreat to the international border would be a liquidation of that war and a return to the status quo ante. From the border, Israel would have the means to defend itself and the right to reprisals that stay within the rough rules of proportionality. The reign of informers and of Israel’s Shin Beth security force, which made life a nightmare for occupier and occupied alike, would be replaced by a return to more conventional means of security.

The fight between the Shia and Israel is more "normal" than that between Israel and the Palestinians. The current struggle in the south of Lebanon is the classic one between a native population and a foreign occupier. There are no Shia territorial claims against Israel. The argument that Israel has ended up with the enmity of hundreds of thousands of Shi‘ites, as opposed to that of several thousand Palestinian guerrillas, is misplaced. It is not across the border to the south that the Shia look. Their cause is in the south of Lebanon itself and in Greater Beirut. For the true believers among them, there is a cause to their east—the battle between the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and its Shia challengers. Iraq has the holy cities of Shia Islam—Najaf and Kerbala—and the gripping historical memories of an embattled faith. It was in Iraq’s shrines and religious seminaries that the Shia clerics of Lebanon studied.


Closer to home, there is the power of Syria to be confronted by Lebanese Shia and non-Shia alike. So far Syria has pursued a two-tier Shia policy—unleashing the Shi‘ites against the Americans and the Israelis and the Gemayel regime, and then reining them in when it saw fit to do so. From its position in the Bekaa, Syria manipulated the Shia rage and the passions for its own raison d’état; it has played off rival Shia factions and contenders for power against one another. As the new guarantor of the Lebanese political order, Syria can be expected to do what it can against a major Shi‘ite bid for power. This would be in keeping with Syria’s past behavior in Lebanon. A decade ago, Syria dashed the hopes of those on the Lebanese left and among the Palestinians and the Druze who sought to overwhelm the Maronites and turn Lebanon into a radical republic of their own. Then it aborted the Maronite drive for hegemony. Is one to doubt whether Syria would have the will to thwart a radical Shia undertaking that goes beyond the limits of Syria’s tolerance?

Syria has no great schemes for Lebanon; it is free of the sort of illusions that Israel and America had about the country. The Syrian leaders know the Lebanese cast of characters. They have been dealing with Lebanon’s warlords for more than a decade; they know the factionalism of the place and the hopeless ways of Lebanon’s tribes. The custodians of the Syrian state have asserted, and successfully so, their right to intervene in Lebanon, and have defended that prerogative against the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies in 1976, and against the Maronites and Israel and America in 1978-84. Syria has paid homage to the shell of Lebanese sovereignty when it saw fit to do so, and violated it during that brief interlude in 1982-84 when the Phalange-based regime groped for an Israeli, then for an American, prop in order to push Syria out of the country.

Syria will continue to work within and through the shell of Lebanese sovereignty. The Syrians will not push their luck in Lebanon. The facade of Syrian power—imposing when the Syrians are engaged in mischief against the Israelis and the Americans, and against other Arabs—hides all sorts of Syrian weaknesses and troubles, troubles that would come to the surface if the Syrians set out to subdue Lebanon or if the dream of Greater Syria becomes more heady and reckless. The Syrian regime remains a minority-based regime ruling a sullen and resentful country. A presence in Lebanon that turns unduly grim and costly is not something that the custodians of the Syrian state are interested in.

Syria has in place the kind of Lebanese regime it wants: a regime with clipped wings and with no other foreign option, a regime in which all the competing warlords—Shi‘ite, Sunni, Maronite and Druze—journey to Damascus to check the schemes of their rivals, to obtain what insurance policies the custodians of the Syrian state are willing to underwrite. Syria will let the "natural" workings of power run their course. Damascus is sure that its pull and weight will bring whole parts of Lebanon under its sway, places like the Bekaa Valley (Shia) in eastern Lebanon and Tripoli (Sunni) in the north were historically parts of Greater Syria. It was a foreign decision—that of the French in 1920—to assign these portions to the Lebanese state. As the Western world, France, then the United States, retreats from Lebanon, an old historical pattern will reassert itself. Damascus, a city of the interior, will have its way against Beirut, a city on the Mediterranean hitherto sustained by Western power and pretensions.

Syria will not allow Lebanon to be used by others against it. Damascus denied the land to the Palestinians, then to the Israelis and the Americans. Shrewd players, the Syrians knew—and repeatedly told the Lebanese—that the Americans did not have the stomach, or the stakes, for a fight over Lebanon. The Syrians escalated the stakes and waited for America to pack up and leave. Roughly the same strategy was applied against Israel. Israel was far too vulnerable to withstand a campaign of attrition. It was the "balance of interest" that operated to Syria’s advantage against the Americans and the Israelis in Lebanon and that will continue to do so in the years ahead. Syria was willing and able to out-wait both the Americans and the Israelis in Lebanon and to sustain greater losses there.

As for Syria’s duel with the Palestinians in Lebanon, that was never such a difficult undertaking and will be far easier in the phase ahead. An armed Palestinian presence in Lebanon is an alien structure. For now the three preeminent groups in Lebanon’s politics—the Druze, the Shia, and the Maronites—are all agreed that there can be no independent Palestinian role in Lebanon. And it is a view shared by the custodians of the Syrian state who have long believed in their own prerogatives as the "principal Arab state" in the Fertile Crescent, and as the most legitimate and interested party to the question of Palestine.

If and when the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon is completed, those in Lebanon trying to shape the future will confront the will of Syria and the harsh economic and sectarian limits of their country. Some power has come to the Shia, to be sure. The Shia leaders recall a time not so long ago when Beirut was an alien place, a land of Sunni Muslims and Christians, and when the dead in the Shia community had to be taken back to their ancestral villages for burial because there was no Shia cemetery in the city. Now some of the great fortunes in the city are Shia fortunes; the Shia are present in force. But power has come to the Shia during a time of ruin. All in Lebanon battle one another, a vicious circle of helplessness. In a world of states, the lives of men and sects without states of their own are chronicles of futility.

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  • Fouad Ajami, born to a Shia family in the south of Lebanon and raised in Beirut, is Director of Middle East Studies at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Arab Predicament.
  • More By Fouad Ajami