by David Schenker
Since the 1980s, the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah has not been given to blunt public moralizing about the need for women to wear the veil. It originally made no secret of its desire to convert Lebanon into a Shia Islamic state—the organization's 1985 manifesto called for the establishment of "Islamic government" and the conversion of Christians to Islam—but these efforts proved exceedingly unpopular, given Lebanon's plurality of Christian and Sunni Muslim citizens. So when its leader, Abas Musawi, was assassinated in 1992, his successor Hassan Nasrallah refrained from offering explicit support for theocracy in Lebanon—and largely backed away from efforts to impose conservative religious traditions on Hezbollah's female constituents. But now, suddenly, the organization is again behaving in a way that evinces deep insecurity about the decorum of Shiite women.
Here's one example. Two months after
Yet it turns out that not all Lebanese women are welcome on the cruise. In June, the Kuwaiti daily As Siyassa reported that the curvaceous Lebanese diva Haifa Wehbe—perhaps the most famous woman in all of
The militia's rejection of Wehbe was remarkable. Not only would her presence have raised the profile of the voyage, it would have dramatically increased the public relations cost to
Even more distinctive is the recent campaign that the militia has launched to convince women to don the veil. Females in Dahiya, a Hezbollah-controlled southern suburb of
The campaign is part of a "restorative propaganda effort praising the moral-religious ideal of the [organization's] elapsed beginnings," explains Lokman Slim, a longtime observer of local Shia politics. "It [is] meant to reassure those women who wear the hijab of the righteousness of their choice as much as to tell the 'loose' ones—in a friendly way—that they are wrong."
Why is Hezbollah engaging in these campaigns now? The timing is not coincidental. Politically and militarily, 2009 was a banner year for the militia. But, image-wise, Hezbollah's reputation for probity was tarnished when its chief local financier was arrested for perpetrating a Ponzi scheme a la Bernie Madoff—implicating the militant Islamist organization in odious corruption. Since then, the group has been trying to remake itself, not only by issuing its first new "manifesto" since 1985, but by refocusing the organization on its religious objectives. All this appears to be part of a Hezbollah effort to rehabilitate its diminished ethical and moral standing by returning to its socially conservative roots.
These events suggest something important about the nature of Hezbollah itself. Its leaders are clearly concerned by the fact that, although the organization is exceedingly popular among Lebanese Shiites, it remains unable to convince its constituents to adhere to its conservative social mores. In other words: They are troubled that support for Hezbollah derives from its military exploits and not from its Iranian-inspired religious message.
This also means, more fundamentally, that Hezbollah's motives have not altered nearly as much as it would have us think. The organization's actions belie a wider social agenda, which seems to extend far beyond "resisting" Israeli occupation. While Hezbollah no longer articulates the long-term goal of exporting the Iranian revolution to
Yet it looks as if Hezbollah will not be able to realize those goals. No doubt, the organization will continue to press its militant and religiously conservative agenda in
David Schenker is Aufzien Fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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