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Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God”

Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God” is an exceptional dispassionate analysis of Hezbollah’s early and later years, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the organization or Lebanese history.

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Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God”
Harvard University Press
ISBN 978-0-674-06651-9
Pages: 244

Hezbollah is a movement full of contradictions operating in a country that challenges mainstream Western perceptions of the Middle East. This is the group which has an acute awareness of new media and propaganda, creating a video game and museum surrounding the 2006 war with Israel along with agreeing to play paintball with a group Western journalists and researchers in 2011. The group has also been a suspected actor in attacks on Western targets, most notably the bus bombing in Bulgaria last July, an event which has resulted in recent pressure from Israel and the US for the group to be added to the EU’s designated terrorist list. The group has also been on the US State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list since 1997.

One of the first things done in Dominique Avon and Anaïs-Trissa Khatchadourains’ book, Hezbollah: A History of the “Party of God”, is to state that they will be writing clearly about the organization. This means avoiding terms like ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’. For the authors engaging in the debate about what these terms mean (if anything), in an academic context, is neither useful or necessary.The authors brilliantly expose the contractions demonstrated by Hezbollah, summed up in this passage:

When the battles are few, the gap grows between the daily practice of its sympathizers and its discourse. That presents a Cornelian dilemma: the Hezbollah cannot call for an Islamic regime, which would run the risk of losing it allies and some its followers; it also cannot declare that such is not is long-term objective, since that would run the risk of acknowledging that the Islamic Republic of Iran did no inaugurate an era of “God’s government on earth” and that its fundamental structure is not superior to a liberal state, one that is pluralist to varying degrees.

The text is full of nuanced sections such as this. Presenting a fair, accurate, and compelling analysis of the Hezbollah. This is a welcome departure from the information typicallly disseminated by governments and journalists on the organization. The core question explored is how does an organization balance its revolutionary rhetoric with its responsibilities as a member of government.

One critique is of the book’s format. Part I includes 90 or so pages of Hezbollah history in three chapters from 1982-2009. Then the book shifts to 60 plus pages of reproducing Hezbollah documents in English, including the organization’s Political Charter of 2009 and the Open Letter of 1985. The authors then return to their own analysis for a concluding chapter. This is a difficult transition for the reader, from historical analysis, to primary sources, and then back to analysis. One wonders why the authors did not make their argument using quotes from primary sources in a narrative and then provide the primary sources in their entirety in an appendix.

Despite their odd placement, having a solid English translation of these documents in English is an extremely useful resource for the casual reader and researcher alike. In addition to primary source documents the authors have also included a lexicon, which is exceptional at demystifying terms that new researchers to the topic might not know (Adū) and  clarifying the meaning of terms readers may think that they know (Jihād). Two useful maps are located in the back of the text, including one showing the ethno-religious geography of Lebanon and the layout of Beirut. The text also includes a portraits section, detailing significant biographical information on the organization’s key actors. However the most useful supplementary material is the Organizational Chart of the Hezbollah detailing the political, social, and military wings of the party.

Despite its brevity (under 120 pages when not including the translated primary sources) the book feels quite dense. Some of this may be due to the fact that it was written in French and then translated to English by Jane Marie Todd. Practically his means that the text is a bit of a slog to get through, this is further exacerbated by the confusing shift to primary documents and then back to narrative discussed above. Despite these shortcomings, the book is an exceptional dispassionate analysis of Hezbollah’s early and later years and should be required reading for anyone interested in the organization or Lebanese history.

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Photo Credit:  upyernoz

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