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Eric L. Lewis Headshot

The Struggle for Muslim Minds in Lebanon

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Strolling through the leafy campus of American University of Beirut on a balmy late May evening, I can easily believe I am in Southern California. The buildings are Victorian-era sandstone; the students linger in shorts and T-shirts; a long street of fast food joints and bookstores faces the front gates. But as with most things in tiny, troubled Lebanon, all is not as it seems. Stolid College Hall, built in 1871, was blown up in 1991. The bomber has never been found and the building and clock tower were rebuilt to the same specifications in 1999. With the June 7 election results in and a narrow victory for the moderate Sunni-Christian coalition over the coalition dominated by Hezbollah, Lebanon may have dodged a bullet that would have put the secular, outward looking Lebanon represented by American University of Beirut in jeopardy. The defeat of Hezbollah not only gives hope for moderation in the region, it prevents a critical beachhead for an Iranian push for power within the Islamic world generally.

Hezbollah's radical credentials are well known. A designated terrorist organization, Hezbollah asserts it will never recognize Israel and instigated the devastating 2006 war with a cross-border raid, killing and kidnapping Israeli soldiers. Despite the devastation both to Southern Lebanon and the Shia suburbs of Beirut, Hezbollah emerged in a stronger position, having taken on Israel and survived intact and also by displaying its extensive social service network, treating the wounded in its hospitals and giving large cash payments to those displaced by the war. Like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah has won support by providing government services more efficiently and with less corruption than the central government. All of this bodes ill for Israel, as it is likely to have an implacably hostile government on its Northern border and on the Mediterranean.

But Hezbollah's ambitions are far more wide-reaching. Hezbollah is the stalking horse for a distinctive Shia pan-Islamic ideology developed by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Its manifesto declares that it is part of a worldwide Muslim "umma" or community linked by radical Shia fundamentalism. Hezbollah takes both its vast funding and ideological direction from Tehran. Weapons and cash flow through Syria, a Sunni-majority country governed by the Assads, nominally secular, but of the Alawite community, an offshoot Shia sect. A victory in Lebanon would have been a critical victory for Iran and its vision of pan-Shiism over the Sunni establishment in Riyadh and Cairo. Although Sunnis are 85% of the world's Muslims, the so-called Shia crescent encompasses some of the world's most important territory. By overthrowing the Sunni minority government of Saddam Hussein, the United States empowered a new Shia dominated Iraq, more closely allied with Iran that we would like to admit. A Shia majority in Bahrain is governed by a Sunni monarchy. There is a large Shia community in Kuwait. And although Sunnis dominate Saudi Arabia and Wahabi theologians consider the Shia infidels, Shias are in the majority in the Eastern province, which is where the oil is.

The United States and its Sunni allies must recognize that Lebanon is more than just a strategic keystone, surrounded by Israel, Syria and the Mediterranean. It is the first incubator for a new brand of pan-Islamism led by Tehran. As Iran moves ineluctably toward joining Israel as the two nuclear powers in the region, it also is moving to become a political powerhouse as well through an old-fashioned combination of money and social services, shrewd alliance building in a fractious area and a religious-ideological message to the millions of have-nots in the region. Iran is promoting to Muslims worldwide an aggressive alternative vision to the conservative monarchies of the Gulf. A Hezbollah victory would not have led only to the closing of the Lebanese mind and the end of 150 years of secular open inquiry in Lebanon. It may also have been be the first, critical skirmish in an intra-Islamic struggle with great consequences for the rest of the world.

The narrow victory of the Sunni led March 14 coalition should not be a cause for excessive confidence. Hezbollah becomes a much larger and important player. It continues to build support through the provision of social services throughout Lebanon and by catalyzing Lebanese opposition to Israel borne of powerlessness under long Israeli occupation and the devastating 2006 war. If the Lebanese government cannot deliver economic prosperity and political stability, Hezbollah remains the only alternative and behind it stands Iranian ambitions for the region and for leadership in the Islamic world.