February 22, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 938

Independent Shi'ites In Lebanon Challenge Hizbullah

February 22, 2013 | By E. B. Picali*
Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 938


The decline in Hizbullah's public and political status in Lebanon has recently become apparent among the country's Shi'ite population as well. Since the confirmation of reports that Hizbullah is involved in fighting alongside Assad's regime in Syria,[1] more and more independent Shi'ites in Lebanon – including clerics, politicians, journalists, and civil and social activists – are speaking out against this policy, which they claim contravenes the values of the resistance and harms Sunni-Shi'ite relations and the Lebanese interest. It should be mentioned that these critics have long been known as Hizbullah opponents; however, it seems that the erosion in Hizbullah's public and political status among various sectors in Lebanon over the last year[2] has encouraged them to speak out and to increase their criticism of the organization.

Fearing for its public and political status within the Shi'ite population in the country, and also fearing the establishment of a competing Shi'ite political movement, Hizbullah launched a massive media attack against prominent figures among these independent Shi'ites. The attack was carried out via the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is associated with Hizbullah, and was aimed at portraying these figures as traitors.

In response, these independent Shi'ites launched a counterattack, claiming that Hizbullah employs ideological and physical terrorism against its opponents in the Shi'ite community, that many Lebanese Shi'ites support it out of fear, and that the Shi'ites have a right to establish a new movement.

Independent Shi'ites Call On Fellow Shi'ites To Support Syrian Rebels

On August 9, 2012, two Shi'ite Lebanese clerics – the mufti of Tyre, Sayyed Muhammad Hassan Al-Amin, and Supreme Shi'ite Islamic Council member Sayyed Hani Fahs – issued a communiqué calling on Lebanon's Shi'ites "to support the popular intifadas... specifically the just Syrian intifada," since this position "is in line with our faith, humanity, nationalism and Arabism, and our connection to the Muslim [world]." The communiqué added that supporting the Syrian uprising is "a continuation of our Shi'ite heritage, according to which we must fight the oppressors wherever they are and help the oppressed wherever they are, [for] this is required by our religious duty [as clerics]..."[3] Two weeks later, on August 24, 2012, some 70 Shi'ites in Lebanon – clerics and political and social activists, including Muhammad Hassan Al-Amin; his son, journalist 'Ali Al-Amin; Hani Fahs, and political and social activist Luqman Salim – issued a similar communiqué. In it, they called on all those "who wish to preserve the true character and heritage of the Shi'a... to express a brave, true, and sympathetic position regarding the intifadas of the Arab peoples."[4] These communiqués imply criticism of Hizbullah for its political and military support of the Syrian regime.

Clerics Muhammad Hassan Al-Amin and Hani Fahs have been known for many years as opponents of Hizbullah and Iran, and they have repeatedly criticized both Hizbullah's weapons and its loyalty to Iran and the Rule of the Jurisprudent. According to them, Iran exploits Lebanese Shi'ites, harms Shi'ite-Sunni relations in Lebanon, and uses the Palestinian cause to increase its influence in the Arab world. However, it seems that the recent communiqués did more damage to Hizbullah that their previous statements, because they were perceived by the organization as an attempt to harm its status within the Shi'ite community and as a step towards establishing a competing independent Shi'ite leadership, free of Iranian and Syrian influence.

Hizbullah's apprehensions also stemmed from the fact that there has been an overall decline in its political and public status in Lebanon, and criticism against its weapons and its military involvement in Syria has increased even among elements who, until recently, supported it or were close to it, such as Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. In addition, there are reports of schism within the organization between the military arm, which supports military involvement in Syria, and the political arm, which objects to it.[5] Furthermore, there are reports that Hizbullah's involvement in Syria has sparked criticism even from Shi'ites who are not known as Hizbullah opponents: According to the website Middle East Online, before the publication of their communiqués, Muhammad Hassan Al-Amin and Hani Fahs met with other Shi'ite dignitaries, who objected to Hizbullah's support of the Syrian regime;[6] Sheikh Muhammad 'Ali Al-Jozo claimed on behalf of many Shi'ite families that Hizbullah's military involvement in Syria was threatening their relations with Sunnis in the country;[7] and the daily Al-Mustaqbal reported that Shi'ite circles in Zahle in Western Lebanon had voiced objection to Hizbullah's involvement in Syria.[8]

Despite Fahs's claim that the communiqué was not an attempt to speak out against the community's political leadership,[9] Hizbullah felt threatened from within and launched an unprecedented media campaign in the daily Al-Akhbar to portray its Shi'ite opponents as traitors who are not worthy of leading Lebanon's Shi'ites.

Pro-Hizbullah Daily Al-Akhbar: These Shi'ites Are Traitors

Hizbullah's apprehension is apparent from the intensity of the counterattack in Al-Akhbar. In September 14-20, 2012, the daily published a series of cables allegedly exchanged between the U.S. embassy in Beirut and the U.S. administration over a four-year period from 2006 (the year of the Second Lebanon War) to 2010.[10] The cables, originally released by WikiLeaks, were published in Al-Akhbar under the headline "The Shi'ites Of The [U.S.] Embassy: Sacrificing Themselves For [Former U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey] Feltman." They deal with the ties between the embassy and various Shi'ite notables who oppose Hizbullah, including former Tyre mufti Sayyed 'Ali Al-Amin; political and social activist Luqman Salim; journalist 'Ali Al-Amin; Ja'fari mufti Ahmed Taleb, son-in-law of Sayyed Fadlallah; Duraid Yaghi, the deputy of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt; Ahmad Al-As'ad, head of the "Lebanese Belonging Movement"; Sheikh Ma'rouf Rahal; Lebanese MP and former minister Muhammad 'Abd Al-Hamid Beydoun; Sheikh Muhammad 'Ali Al-Hajj; former MP Salah Al-Harakeh; Al-Nabatieh Chamber of Commerce head 'Abdallah Bitar; former minister Ibrahim Shams Al-Din; and 'Ali Hamadeh – son of former Parliament head Sabri Hamadeh.

The daily portrayed these officials as traitors who collaborate – some of them for money – with the U.S. embassy's attempts to harm Hizbullah's status among the Shi'ite population and establish a competing Shi'ite leadership.[11] It also accused them as being spies for the U.S. who transfer information regarding Hizbullah and its military activity and advise the Americans on how to operate against Hizbullah, etc. The daily even claimed that Luqman Salim had met with a former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, and was interested in further talks with the Israelis.

On September 17, 2012, the head of Al-Akhbar's board of directors, Ibrahim Al-Amin, published an inciting and threatening article against these Shi'ites, saying: "Their ties to the U.S. embassy in Lebanon and their participation in U.S. administration activity against the resistance in Lebanon are nothing but a clear and disgraceful form of collaborating with Israel... Do they not fear for their heads when they leave their defiled homes every day?... They should stay away from the fury of the public, [which might] erupt against them at any moment and teach them a lesson... They should know that they, and all their actions, are being watched."[12] In another article on this topic, Al-Amin wrote: "We have no room for traitors in our midst."[13]

Having its associates (such as Al-Akhbar) accuse its critics, rather than accusing them directly, enabled Hizbullah itself to assume an air of pluralism and support for freedom of opinion and expression. Hizbullah minister Muhammad Fneish said: "We bless all independent Shi'ite associations... and respect diversity... But when political disagreements cause [people] to become involved in foreign plans while Lebanon is at war [meaning the 2006 war], these are no longer [merely] political disagreements. However, we treat everyone on the basis of freedom and responsibility, and we defer to the judgment of public opinion."[14]

Fneish stressed that Al-Akhbar was exclusively responsible for publishing the cables: "If some are worried that a newspaper [i.e., Al-Akhbar] published documents, [they should know that] we had nothing to do with it. [The newspaper alone] is responsible for that."[15] However, in statements he made on the matter of the cables, the paper's board head implied that their publication had been ordered by Hizbullah: "For us, the resistance is everything – our identity, honor and future. [Had Hizbullah Secretary-General] Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah whispered in our ear that the interests of the resistance required me to stop publishing Al-Akhbar, I would do so without hesitation."[16]

Independent Shi'ites Respond

Hizbullah's attacks on its Shi'ite opponents triggered swift a response from them, in the form of letters to Al-Akhbar and counterattacks against the organization. Those who wrote to Al-Akhbar denied the contents of the cables,[17] and/or claimed that their statements had been twisted and taken out of context,[18] and/or confirmed certain details of the cables and stood by their statements to the U.S. embassy officials, stressing their right to criticize.[19] Some also complained of incitement against them,[20] and protested that they were no less supportive of resistance than others, alluding to Hizbullah.[21]

Alongside these defensive responses, some of the figures who came under attack – along with their associates in the Shi'ite community, as well as non-Shi'ite writers and organizations – published harsh attacks against Al-Akhbar and Hizbullah, most of which were published in the daily Al-Mustaqbal, the mouthpiece of the Al-Mustaqbal stream, Hizbullah's political opposition. In addition, on October 2, 2012, the Lebanese Civil Gathering[22] held a conference titled "sympathizing with the independent Shi'ite individuals against slander and threats" at the premises of the Lebanese Journalists Union. This conference, which was attended by some of the Shi'ite figures who were attacked, and by other Shi'ite and non-Shi'ite figures, issued a communiqué accusing Hizbullah of being behind the Al-Akhbar publications.

October 2, 2013 conference of the Lebanese Civil Gathering[23]

The following is a review of the criticism leveled by the independent Shi'ites at Hizbullah for its support of the Syrian regime and for its harsh response to their communiqués.[24]

1. Shi'ite Opponents Of Hizbullah Have The Right To Establish A New Shi'ite Movement

One of the main claims was that the Shi'ites have a right to establish a new movement alongside the two existing ones (Hizbullah and Amal), as reflected in a communiqué issued by the Lebanese Civil Gathering: "Since we are Lebanese, Arab and free, we wish... to restore the original Arab and Lebanese Shi'ite option, which some call 'the third option,' though it is in fact the first and original option. We wish to lend renewed momentum to the cultural view that relies on our own history and culture, and on our faith in belonging to our homeland and coexisting with our partners as part of a modern civil state with a rule of law."[25]

2. Hizbullah Has Permitted Our Blood

One of the central accusations leveled at Hizbullah by its Shi'ite opponents is that it has virtually called for their death and permitted their blood. Journalist 'Ali Al-Amin wrote: "We cannot remain silent in the face of an attempt by anyone to appoint himself prosecutor, judge and executioner."[26] The communiqué issued by the Lebanese Civil Gathering stated: "[The publications in Al-Akhbar] are a call and incitement to murder; they permit [our] blood and call for [our] expulsion... Permitting our blood does not scare us in the slightest. We are sorry to say that we suspect Hizbullah as being behind this behavior [i.e., Al-Akhbar's publications], considering its silence on the matter and its failure to condemn it."[27] Ahmed Al-As'ad, head of the Lebanese Belonging Movement, said that, once Hizbullah stopped intimidating the Lebanese Shi'ites, the independent Shi'ites would become a majority within the community.[28]

3. Hizbullah Is A Sectarian Shi'ite Organization And Promotes Syrian And Iranian Interests At The Expense Of Lebanon

Another accusation was that Hizbullah uses religion and resistance for political purposes that have nothing to do with the real values of religion and resistance. Sayyed Hani Fahs said that Hizbullah's military involvement in Syria causes the public to feel "that instead of Hizbullah serving the resistance, the resistance serves Hizbullah."[29] Dr. Muhammad 'Ali Maqlad said that Hizbullah's support of the Syrian regime serves Hizbullah more than it serves the Syrian regime, and that Hizbullah is a Shi'ite version of Sunni political Islam organizations.[30] Sayyed 'Ali Al-Amin accused Hizbullah of making political use of the religious concept of jihad by referring to its members who were killed in Syria as martyrs who died "while carrying out a jihadi duty."[31]

Tyre Mufti Sayyed 'Ali Al-Amin[32]

These Shi'ite critics of Hizbullah also claimed that its support of Assad against the rebels, who are mostly Sunnis, harms inter-sectarian relations in Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil Gathering stated in its communiqué: "We disagree with any policy that places Lebanese sects, specifically the Shi'ite sect, in a position contrary to the Arab Spring revolutions... We do not want this [position] to pit Shi'ites in Lebanon and the Arab world against the other components of their society [i.e. Sunnis] and pay a hefty price for it... since they [the Shi'ites] are a minority in the Arab region."[33]

In this context, former Tyre mufti Sayyed 'Ali Al-Amin wrote: "The Shi'ite sect and school existed in the region long before the Islamic revolution in Iran. They have lived in this region alongside their [Sunni] Muslim and Christian brothers for hundreds of years, and this coexistence will continue. [The Shi'ite] sect and school do not require Iran's patronage. What has [always] protected this sect is its connection to its environment and its homeland, and its coexistence with its [Arab] nation. We do not accept the slogan: Iran is the defender of the Shi'ite sect."[34]

Further to the claim that Hizbullah evokes the ideal of resistance to defend its involvement in Syria, it was also claimed that the organization supports the Syrian regime on orders from Iran. Ahmed Al-As'ad said: "Hizbullah is connected to the Iranian regime, which is trying, in vain, to save the Syrian regime, and demands that Hizbullah work towards that end [as well]."[35] The Lebanese Civil Gathering communiqué states: "Our disagreements [with Hizbullah] are not related to [its] hostility to Israel or [its demand to] liberate all our lands, but rather to its assuming the role of patron of the Palestinian and Lebanese issues, and its use of these issues as a bargaining chip for negotiating regional [i.e. Iranian] agendas. Our disagreements are not over the defense of Lebanon, but rather over the harming of the country's foundations in the guise of defending it."[36] Sayyed 'Ali Al-Amin claimed that Hizbullah was not independent, but rather carrying out Iran's policy in the region.[37]

*E. B. Picali is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 916, Struggle Between Forces Within Lebanon Is Reflected In Their Involvement In Syria, January 3, 2013.

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 861, Decline In Hizbullah's Status In Lebanon, July 25, 2012; MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 891, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman Comes Out Against Hizbullah And Its Weapons, October 22, 2012.

On December 4, 2012, the Palestinian organization Ansar Allah, which operates in the Ein Al-Hilweh refugee camp near Tyre and is considered to be Hizbullah's military wing in the Palestinian refugee camps, announced that it was severing all its political, security and military ties with Hizbullah. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon, December 5, 2012).

[3], August 9, 2012.

[4] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), August 25, 2012.

[5] The Daily Telegraph (Lebanon), October 27, 2012. The report cited Shi'ite sources as saying that this schism had caused the cancellation of Hizbullah's triannual conference, which determines the organization's leadership and course of action.

[6], August 13, 2012.

[7] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 29, 2012.

[8] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), November 19, 2012.

[9] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), August 15, 2012.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 14, 17-20, 2012.

[11] An October 2012 article in Al-Akhbar claimed that President Obama's chief antiterrorism advisor John Brennan had decided in May 2012 to work to weaken Hizbullah and strengthen moderate Shi'ite elements. Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 29, 2012.

[12] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 17, 2012.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 20, 2012.

[14], October 3, 3012.

[15], October 3, 3012.

[16] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 20, 2012.

[17] For example, Ja'fari mufti Sheikh Ahmed Taleb claimed that he had never met with any U.S. ambassador (Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, September 24, 2012); former Tyre mufti Sayyed 'Ali Al-Amin denied meeting in secret with former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Michele Sison (Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, September 18, 2012); and former MP Salah Al-Harakeh denied meeting with former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman (Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, September 28, 2012).

[18] For example, Sheikh Ahmed Taleb (Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, September 18, 2012) and former MP Salah Al-Harakeh (Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, September 28, 2012).

[19] For example, former Tyre mufti Sayyed 'Ali Amin and Ja'fari mufti Sheikh Ahmed Taleb (Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, September 18, 24 2012.

[20] For example, Ja'afari mufti Sheikh Ahmed Taleb (Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, September 24, 2012) and journalist 'Ali Al-Amin (Al-Jumhouriyya, Lebanon, September 19, 2012).

[21] For example, former MP Salah Al-Harakeh (Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, September 28, 2012).

[22] An organization founded in October 2011 by Lebanese academics, thinkers and activists, most of them Shi'ite. It advocates establishing democratic civil states in the Arab world and opposes sectarianism. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 13, 2011.

[23] Image: Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 3, 2012.

[24] Non-Shi'ites who condemned Hizbullah's response included, inter alia: Walid Jumblatt, who claimed that this response was incitement and included an implicit call for murder (Al-Mustaqbal, Lebanon, September 19, 2012); the Media Against Violence organization (Al-Mustaqbal, Lebanon, September 19, 2012); the head of the Editors Syndicate, Muhammad Al-Baalbeki (Al-Mustaqbal, Lebanon, October 3, 2012); and Al-Mustaqbal columnists 'Ali Noun and Bassam Sa'd (Al-Mustaqbal, Lebanon, September 20, 2012, October 10, 2012).

[25] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 3, 2012

[26] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 3, 3012.

[27] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 3, 2012.

[28] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 12, 2012

[29] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 12, 2012

[30] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 12, 2012

[31] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 10, 2012

[32] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 14, 2012.

[33] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 3, 2012

[34] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 10, 2012

[35] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 12, 2012

[36] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 3, 2012

[37] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), October 10, 2012

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