Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 February 2007
Issue No. 832
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hizbullah's two republics

With traditional nationalism on the wane, Hizbullah appears well-placed to take a few cues from the body of political theory and philosophy, writes Mohamed Ben Jelloun*

The case of Hizbullah and the Lebanese state is instructive from the point of view of establishing stable and legitimate multi-ethnic and/or multi-confessional states. Indeed, while such states are sometimes politically most desirable -- because not all citizens share a single national culture, or because of territorial intermingling among national groups, or because some groups may be too small to lead viable states -- the move away from traditional nationalism and the ideal of "one nation, one state" appears problematic. Iraq at the present time is a case in point while Palestine/ Israel is the classic puzzle. Lebanon, however, I believe, is the paradigmatic example.

According to Ali Fayyad, a senior member of Hizbullah's Executive Committee, the party's strategic vision today is national-Lebanese and chiefly concerned with domestic political balances. According to the same Hizbullah strategist, there is in the party's political discourse a constant effort at reconciling "the concept of one Umma," or one Islamic nation, "with common concerns, interests and fate on one hand, and on the other hand, its agenda as a Lebanese national liberation movement and a key component of the political power system in Lebanon."

The effort is to reconcile a transnational strategic vision of "inter-related regional roles" on one hand, and a state-centric strategic vision of "inter-related national balances" on the other.

According to Fayyad, contradictions between Hizbullah's national-domestic and regional-foreign roles (or between its Lebanese function of resistance and its regional function of solidarity -- for example, with Hamas) no longer exist: "The contribution to the consolidation of the regional equation from this angle becomes an automatic result of the achievements of the resistance movement in its domestic national role. This means that Lebanese national interests are the essential criterion for the behaviour of the resistance movement. Its contribution to the regional struggle -- and not the pursuit of any hidden agenda -- thus becomes an automatic result of its successes at the national level."

Hizbullah's recent strategic claims are supported by its newly proclaimed option in domestic policy: consociational, or multi- confessional, democracy.

Expressed in Western political-philosophical language, the resistance as incarnated by Hizbullah would be an advanced form of patriotic participation and republican citizenship. More precisely, Hizbullah would be in the process of subordinating the Islamic nation to the Lebanese state ; also, it would be in the process of subordinating cultural and Umma related concerns to territorial and fatherland related ones. In other words, the party would be in the process of including its communitarian-republican like political-philosophical vision within an agonistic-republican one; that is, including the tradition of, say, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor, within the one of thinkers like Hannah Arendt.

In particular, Hizbullah's evolution from an exclusive (Islamic) communitarianism to an inclusive (multi-confessional) consociationalism, which would spare it the risk of a fundamentalist drift and/or the risk of violent confessional antagonisms, is reminiscent not only of Hannah Arendt but also of Edward Said.

To be sure, there is no Arendtian "agonistic consociational" theory as such, yet there are agonistic as well as consociational elements to her political philosophy. I would also argue that Arendtian agonism -- where politics is both contest and contestation -- is fully compatible with consociationalism, despite her strong feelings when it comes to collectivities, and despite that her account appears to rule out -- or is at least silent on -- peaceful agonism between collectivities, taking up only their violent antagonism.

In fact, Arendt does -- and strongly so -- support a consociational ideal, her strictly individualistic or citizen-centric agonism notwithstanding. For example, there are scholars for whom her "individualism" is still a controversial matter. These scholars agree that Arendt's whole political philosophy rests on the plurality of individuals and yet assert that it nonetheless recognises that history, culture, language, religion, experience, and so on, build groups of people.

Postcolonial Palestinian-American thinker Edward Said celebrated this Arendtian political legacy in these words: "During the interwar period, a small but important group of Jewish thinkers (Judah Magnes, Buber, Arendt and others) argued and agitated for a bi-national state. The logic of Zionism naturally overwhelmed their efforts, but the idea is alive today here and there among Jewish and Arab individuals frustrated with the evident insufficiencies and depredations of the present. The essence of their vision is coexistence and sharing in ways that require an innovative, daring and theoretical willingness to get beyond the arid stalemate of assertion and rejection. Once the initial acknowledgment of the other as an equal is made, I believe the way forward becomes not only possible but also attractive."

What, from the theoretical point of view of a stable and legitimate multinational state, makes interesting a move from a communitarian republicanism to an agonistic-consociational republicanism -- such as Hizbullah's -- is that it involves cohering legitimation principles -- agonism and consociation -- which the liberal alternative does not: liberal-national democracy and liberal multicultural federation are competing principles of legitimation.

Such a republican multinational state needs no common nationality to assert itself on democratic grounds. All it needs is a unanimously acknowledged political arena. It need not suppose nationhood or communal belonging as the basis for the solidarity and trust needed to sustain its (agonistic) democratic rule, but only the "community" of agonists; of citizens who identify with a multilevel political arena -- internal, communal, then inter-communal or domestic national, then inter-national.

My answer to the so-called post-national critics who charge, and rightly so, that liberal culturalists are inconsistent and unsuccessful when moving away from liberal nationalism to liberal multiculturalism is as follows. While the multiculturalists still hold to the liberal-national assumption that nationhood is somehow important for democratic rule, and while they may consistently invoke that nationhood on behalf of democratic participation and legitimacy in the subunits of a multinational state, they still cannot introduce a new and different legitimation principle -- federation -- for the central unit; they must provide reasons for why patriotism shouldn't fail and why a break-up shouldn't happen in their desirable state.

Returning to Hizbullah, by sticking to jurisdictional -- in contrast to territorial -- forms of consociation in political representation, the party is already doing well from the point of view of achieving a stable and legitimate multinational state. Secretary General Nasrallah does indeed categorically, and rightly so, reject the idea of a territorial federation, as this rather liberal-pluralist idea would only strengthen general disengagement, retreat, entrenchment, insularism, and secession, not to mention the presently all-too-impeding danger of an "Iraqisation" of Lebanon.

The party does well, too, by having inculcated such a laudable inter-communal contest and patriotic heroism that won it recognition, even from the pro-Western Fouad Siniora government, as a national resistance movement not to be confused with those militias that took part in the civil war and that were to be disarmed in accordance with the Taif Agreements.

More political agonism is needed however. For two reasons, Hizbullah should invest more in agonistic rules of discourse as well as in an agonistic restructuring of the public sphere.

Avoiding charges from constructivist and "postmodernist" understandings of identity within social theory is one reason. To be sure, both national-deliberative and partisan-agonistic discourse; both consensual and dissenting discourse, may well save Lebanon's consociational democracy from lapsing into communal reification and move it away from all sorts of inertia and essentialist claims. Yes, consociational democracy is best suited, not only for deliberative discourse, as acknowledged by some Habermasian political scientists, but even for the agonistic discourse, since both discourses downplay the majority/minority numerical relations and favour "talk". Consociational political representation need not necessarily mean consensual political debate, but may combine with dissent as well.

The ability for each community to contest publicly and defend its confessional convictions is another reason. Agonistic democracy is good for Hizbullah's own sake and for the sake of every comprehensive philosophical view involved in Lebanese political life. Hizbullah need not stick to a constitutional general discourse and abandon its traditional specific narratives. The party need only combine Lebanese citizenship with confessional identity and fatherland related discourse with Umma related narratives. Following Chantal Mouffe's thesis of an agonistic democracy in particular, Hizbullah should try to convince in national-rational arguments and yet freely attempt to convert in a communal-passionate style.

Lastly, maybe the Lebanese National Dialogue should resume after all, but in the open air of a fairground like Beirut, and in well- organised non-violent public political and cultural tournaments, instead.

* The writer is a sociologist and political scientist.

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