Lebanese Youth in the Aftermath of War: Has Hezbollah Taken Hold in Lebanon?
Author: Melissa Salyk-Virk, 2017
“Lebanon’s history post-independence has not been devoid of conflict. While re-establishing itself after its colonial rule, Lebanon has faced many internal conflicts, as well as interstate clashes…”
Photo from Pixabay under Creative Commons.
The “Party of God”
Lebanon’s history post-independence has not been devoid of conflict. While re-establishing itself after its colonial rule, Lebanon has faced many internal conflicts, as well as interstate clashes. These clashes have allowed various factions to develop. Hezbollah (Hizbullah), the “Party of God”, a Shi’a (or Shi’ite) political and military resistance movement, has been a powerful force in Lebanon for over three decades. It came together in the midst of the civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990) and after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. In 1982, it emerged from a Shi’a collective that felt underrepresented in a multi-religious society – and pledged allegiance to Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It created a mandate in 1985, pursuing the removal of foreign states (the United States and France) from Lebanon and the fight against Israel. Hezbollah is tied to Iran through funding, and shares similar ideology against the state of Israel (Levitt 2005; Byman 2013). It also has ideological ties to Syria and has been connected and protected by both nations, particularly when Lebanon has been invaded and during its period of unrest and civil war.
Hezbollah had self-declared that it would focus its efforts on the underrepresented Shi’a in Lebanon providing education, religious doctrine, services, a militia, and healthcare to the community. Hezbollah has filled a perceived gap in the community. Still, Hezbollah’s extreme ideology has the potential to ostracize the other ethno-religious groups within Lebanon, which is what contributed to the initial uprising across Lebanon in 1975. In its capacity as a provider of education in various Lebanese institutions (public, private and semi-private), Hezbollah focuses on Shi’a doctrine primarily (Thanassis 2013). There is speculation that Hezbollah’s educational mission is to set up the next generation for involvement in its ranks.
In the past few years of the migration crisis in Syria, Hezbollah has increasingly been recruiting youth under the age of 18 to fight against the Islamic State. Although Hezbollah’s practices are largely guarded, it is understood that it has only engaged youth above 18 in its military wing. This shows a shift in practice.
In the aftermath of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, how has Hezbollah actively acquired youth supporters? For this analysis, this paper will look at the period after the civil war (1975-1990), and see how that has impacted youth’s movement towards Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as how it has shaped the Shi’a culture in a once secularly-driven multi-religious society.
Civil War, Lebanese Youth, and the Rise of Hezbollah
Once the civil war started, Lebanon was faced with many obstacles, from struggling to provide services, to ethno-religious clashes, to decimation of schools, government buildings, and hospitals. Civil society began to fall apart. As Suad Joseph states in his anthropological assessment of the Middle East, “Many of the youth and some children in Lebanon were mobilized to fight in the militias. The generation of young adults that now forms the bulk of the social and politically aware population grew up during the war. Many of them were in militias and fought and killed other Lebanese,” (115). Youth who grew up in the middle of the conflict were then forced to make decisions about their affinity and allegiance in society and in turn, their affiliation in military groups. These were life or death judgments in some cases.
“Membership in religious organizations was higher during and after the civil war, especially among the poor and young who saw religious identity and, at times, fanaticism as an escape from despair and lack of economic opportunity,” (Ayyash-Abdo, Bahous, Nabha 28). The norm for this youth population was to see Muslims and Christians fighting, the Jewish state of Israel fighting against the Palestinian Liberation Organization faction in Lebanon, and general hatred of the other. “…Religious affiliation has contributed to the havoc of political instability and has been a source for recruiting youth into political activism,” (Joseph 114). In the aftermath of the civil war, large economic and services gaps became apparent in society, and the government was no longer in a position to provide for its people the way it had in the past. With cracks in available services and institutions, groups like Hezbollah were able to rise and take leadership roles in supporting underrepresented groups or those who were struggling. The Shi’a Muslims in Lebanon were one of those groups struggling in the conflict. Hezbollah found ways to unite Shi’as during a time of instability. By focusing on the generation that would become the next leaders in Lebanon, Hezbollah found a way to organize and legitimize itself.
One of the feathers in Hezbollah’s cap is its well-known al-Madhi Scouts. The group, formed in 1985, maintains a great deal of similarity to the general purpose and mission of groups like the World Organization of the Scout Movement – teaching wilderness skills, learning about the environment, team building – yet it seems the message is slightly different from traditional scouting groups. The al-Madhi Scouts continue to learn much more about Hezbollah doctrine, the fight against Israel and martyrdom, among other things. “[Imam Husein the first Shi’a martyr] and his martyrdom have an important influence on the children’s mentality, life, and future expectations…the children study, visit, and pray to the martyrs, and some of them affirmed that they would not mind becoming martyrs like their fathers,” (Les Scouts d’al-Mahdi (The al-Mahdi Scouts) qtd. in Tagliabue 80). Children, although not directly being recruited for fighting until 18 years of age, are still educated on specific message points, which focus on the importance of religion, history, and comradery. These message points from a young age help to build allegiance towards the group, and possibly fuel indebtedness, which can yield direct recruitment after completing the scouts program, or other Hezbollah-funded institutions.
The New York Times interviewed Hezbollah members and al-Madhi Scout leaders, and learned that in addition to religious teaching, team building exercises are based off of fighting opposition groups and that all scouts receive propaganda-filled lectures about defeating Israel (Worth). This group is said to have upwards of 60,000 scouts and scout leaders, all of whom have been instructed in this stringent ideology. The former director for the scouts was also interviewed and told The New York Times that after 16 years of age, boys typically receive military and resistance training (Worth). Since the al-Madhi Scouts formed, Hezbollah may not have been recruiting formally for the military wing. However, they have been actively training youth in anticipation.
Youth also had another entry point to the “Party of God”. After the war, Hezbollah created traditional education opportunities, which last from the beginning of the student’s education until college. Much like the Scouts, these educational opportunities included heavy indoctrination through religion classes, which support the Hezbollah message and wider agenda. “Students at Islamic colleges combined religious studies with military training; upon graduation, many of them joined the cadre of Hezbollah’s core activists,” (Azani 905). Since its creation, Hezbollah has been acutely aware of the importance of carrying its message on to the next generation. Allowing Hezbollah-sponsored schools to flourish guarantees this and promotes a radical Shi’a-driven agenda in a multi-religious society. C.M.Reidy et al., in an analysis of post-conflict political socialization of youth, discuss how schools are influential in political socialization in society. They state:
Schools serve as agents of political socialization in their capacity to instill political beliefs formally through conscious, planned instruction, as well as informally through inadvertent, causal experiences in the school environment. Specific political curricula, and also coursework pertaining to contemporary social debates, influence young people’s understanding of political issues (Kuterovac-Jagodic 243, qtd. in C.M.Reidy et al. 13).
Despite Hezbollah’s relative stability with other ethno-religious groups within Lebanon, these schools continue to pose a dangerous problem for future generations that become fanatic in their allegiance towards doctrine supported by Hezbollah. This threatens the diverse nature of Lebanon and excludes and ostracizes other religious groups. In the face of adversity, the loyalty to this group could trump stability and cooperation with Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc. within Lebanon. Self-preservation could be harming society and potentially sliding Lebanon back to its civil war conditions.
How Hezbollah Strategically Captures Youth
Hezbollah is primarily located in three Shi’a-concentrated regions in Lebanon, and has been since its inception – the southern Beirut suburbs, Beqaa Valley, and southern Lebanon. It has been strategic in its approach to cover many areas of society that touch potential supporters. Deputy Executive Director Eitan Azani of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism has written extensively about Hezbollah. He states:
A system of religious institutions was the basis for disseminating the Islamic message to all of Shi’ite society, from the youngest children through pupils at schools and students at Islamic colleges and universities, to adults involved in traditional community frameworks such as mosques and charitable associations…Alongside religious studies, these colleges taught military tactics and strategy. Their goal was to train young Shi’ites to serve as agents of change, bearers of a revolutionary message whose purposes was to further widen the circle of support for Hezbollah and increase its recruits (903).
Hezbollah still tries to touch nearly every sector of society possible in order to create a fully Shi’a-supported unit. It has multiple touchpoints in society in order to make sure that it can embed itself in the lives of the Lebanese it supports. Hezbollah legitimized itself at the start of its campaign in the 1980s. Because it has lived up to the expectations it set for itself in society, and also now that the generation that was originally accepting its services during the war period is now old enough to be supporters or members of the group, it solidifies its legitimate standing in society for the next few generations.
There are different kinds of educational institutions in Lebanon – secular or religious, public, private, or semi-private. Despite this variety, Hezbollah sees education as one of the most effective way for Hezbollah to gain more supporters. “These entities encourage the youth to support Hezbollah’s cause and participate in its resistance through knowledge and education but also through loyalty to the organization,” (Tagliabue 76). Because Hezbollah provides a Shi’a-driven curriculum tied to its original mandate, it is a natural draw for the communities in which it supports.
In addition to spreading its message through educational indoctrination, Hezbollah also has a series of media outlets for self-promotion. It has a television station – Al Manar TV – which promotes the resistance and claims to speak for Muslims, that constantly streams propaganda videos. After the war, it primarily focused on internal events in Lebanon and removal of Israeli troops. Hezbollah also has since created Radio Noor, a dedicated radio station, websites, print propaganda, and even a theme park, which is featured in Vice News’ documentary Hezbollah’s Propaganda War.
Change in Strategy – Engaging Youth in the Midst of the Syrian Crisis
As the makeup of ethnic and religious groups changes in Lebanon as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis, and as the Islamic State maintains its hold in the region as a radical Sunni militant group, the expectation for Hezbollah members and tactics for recruiting may change. Having 1,033,513 registered refugees (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) in Lebanon has also caused a strain on services, which echoes what happened before the civil war after Palestinian refugees fled after the creation of Israel.
Hezbollah has committed to helping and protecting the Shi’a population, but what will happen as the dynamic changes with the influx of Sunni Muslims in the country? Hezbollah is also frustrated by the disaster in Syria, fearful of losing its connection with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which has strong ties to Iran, and it has been reported that the organization’s military wing has now started actively seeking younger members to join its ranks in the battle against the Islamic State (Blanford).
While Hezbollah struggles with these new obstacles, it seems that formal indoctrination through education from a young age is not the only way of engaging young people. Through methods, such as social media, Hezbollah has a way to proselytize and instruct apart from its traditional methods, which makes it easier to recruit for its various branches.
Social media has become the newest force to reckon with, and Hezbollah is taking cues from other mobilized groups. “Younger generations which are at the appropriate age for recruitment into Hezbollah’s ranks, have become inundated with Web technology…Hezbollah’s decision to use these virtual networks [of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook] in their favor has allowed the organization to quickly and effectively distribute information,” (Huffman 5). As a result, formal recruiting of youth below the age of 18 may be their new norm.
Lebanon has had a recent history replete with extended periods of insurgency and war. Like any state trying to defend itself and then rebuild after the destruction of the physical landscape, it failed to meet the basic needs of the people apart from safety and defense. That opening gave way to the development of other entities with specific agendas to serve populations. Because the 15-year civil war was also ethno-religious in nature, many of these groups had a religious focus, some of which were also militant. Hezbollah was one of the groups born out of the war.
Hezbollah’s mandate originally sought to end the occupation of foreign states in Lebanon, and the destruction of Israel. It sought to support the dejected Shi’a society in Lebanon through services of education and healthcare, protection via militia, and political representation. In order to remain relevant and promote its doctrine, it invested in every age bracket that it could. Not only did it provide healthcare services, but it worked with mosques, created schools, offered military training, and eventually became a political force. It found a way to maintain its status in society even after the Israeli invasions came and went. Its original mandate may have become outdated, but it still seeks a stronghold in Shi’a society and across Lebanon.
Education has become the primary way for Hezbollah to indoctrinate youth. It has created formal education and religious education opportunities. Although Hezbollah has not enlisted child soldiers in its ranks, youth receive military training and are taught the honor of martyrdom and a strong hatred for Israel. It has used strong print and visual propaganda. Furthermore, it has become resilient as social media use has skyrocketed. This has recently permitted Hezbollah to spread its message to an even wider, and younger, audience. Therefore, despite its overall tactic of working with youth above 18 years of age in a militant capacity, it has not resisted in actively proselytizing to the generation below, which will likely yield a constant flow of members.
Hezbollah is now facing a challenge as another migration wave pours into Lebanon from nearby Syria. Not only does Hezbollah have to manage an increase in the Sunni population in Lebanon, but it also has to deal with the Sunni radical Islamic State that has offset the balance with Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah has been looking to engage youth below 18 years in a formal military capacity as a result of this conflict. This shows that as Hezbollah is faced with emerging conflict, it is struggling to maintain its status quo. While Hezbollah is desperate to promote Shi’a practices, particularly to the younger generation, it also faces the continued concern of ostracizing the other ethno-religious groups in Lebanon, which is what initially brought about the creation of Hezbollah in the civil war period. History is at risk of repeating itself, and youth will be forced to make another decision about allegiances.
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