Hezbollah’s Extreme Makeover
In Downtown Dahiyeh, the Lebanese Shiite militant group's suburban Beirut stronghold, paintball mixes with piety.
Up the hill from Maroun el-Ras, a village along the Lebanon-Israeli border that witnessed fierce fighting between Hezbollah and the Israeli army during the 2006 war, a new public garden has been built. A number of Iranian flags greet visitors at the entrance, which opens up to a recreation center featuring dozens of barbecue pits, a playground, seating facilities, and a mosque. And it is all provided free of charge.
"This is a gift from Iran to the Lebanese people who resisted and endured," reads a placard welcoming visitors, mostly Lebanese Shiites. Behind the mosque — located at the center of the park and topped by a large Iranian flag — and the picnic tables, Israeli settlements appear in the distance. "We can have fun, but should never ever forget that the Israelis are still there," declared Hasan, a 25-year-old Lebanese Shiite from the neighboring town of Bint Jbeil.
Although he lives in Beirut, Hasan visits this park every weekend in the summer because he feels that it represents his identity and endorses his principles. "I do not want to go places where people can drink alcohol or carry out indecent sexual behavior in public. I want to be with people who share my moral standards," he added.
The fusion of leisure, religion, and politics has become an indispensable strategy for Hezbollah, particularly following its 2006 war with Israel. As the party reconstructed South Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs (known as Dahiyeh) following the conflict, it built — and encouraged investors to build — entertainment venues that cater to Shiites of all social and economic classes.
After the 2006 war, Iranian money flowed in massive quantities to Hezbollah. This was not charity: The Islamic Republic of Iran was determined to ensure that its client could solidify its standing within Lebanon’s Shiite community and reconstitute its fighting strength before the next round against Israel. Hezbollah used these funds to compensate the Shiites who lost relatives, homes, and businesses during the war.
Mohammad Ali Mokalled, a Shiite writer and a candidate who ran in opposition to Hezbollah in the party’s stronghold of Nabatiyeh in last June’s parliamentary elections, said that Hezbollah used the money coming from Iran to buy people’s allegiance — and it worked. "If you ask anyone in the south today if they are afraid of an upcoming war with Israel, they tell you yes, but they also say that they would support Hezbollah no matter what happens," he said.
Local media reported that reconstruction funds reached $300 million, channeled to Hezbollah through the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. Many Shiite residents of Dahiyeh gave Hezbollah’s foundation, al-Waad al-Sadiq (The Truthful Promise), power of attorney to manage their property and compensation, which came from Iran, the Lebanese government, and other Arab states. "This made Hezbollah both the donor and the controller," Mokalled explained.
As cash quickly became abundant, people started to purchase luxury goods. "Hezbollah preferred to offer luxury to its constituents itself, [rather] than have them use facilities in areas outside its stronghold," said Waddah Sharara, a sociology professor at Lebanese University and the author of The State of Hezbollah. In this way, Hezbollah kept its supporters away from Beirut’s cosmopolitan temptations — and the supposedly pernicious influence of Lebanon’s other communities.
Almost four years after the war, night life in Dahiyeh is booming. In an area that is inhabited by half a million residents, dozens of cafes and restaurants have opened recently, with Western-style decoration, menus, and names. Amusement parks, sports centers, private beaches for women, wedding halls, exhibition centers, and summer youth camps — all are entertainment services that developed rapidly after 2006. The residents refer to the streets where these venues are located as "Downtown Dahiyeh."
This is a place where modernity mixes with piety, offering Shiite residents a space to relax without having to venture into less welcoming areas. Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites have been escalating since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni leader, and reached a boiling point during the May 2008 clashes, when Hezbollah militiamen invaded Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut to win concessions from the Lebanese government. Because of this simmering hostility, many Shiites prefer to stay inside Hezbollah’s stronghold where they feel at home.
Rami, a 22-year-old from Dahiyeh, is one of the many Shiites who take advantage of the cafes, public libraries, and gyms that have been built or blessed by Hezbollah. He is especially enthusiastic about Hezbollah’s paintball facility — a perfect example of the party’s seamless merging of entertainment and its militant message. The facility, named "Special Forces," is designed to look like a real battlefield, with razor wire, military uniforms, and realistic-looking guns. For Rami, this experience treads the line between leisure activity and military training. "It gives you a feeling of readiness for war. You are trained to defend yourself by engaging in a battle that is almost real," he said.
Not too far away, a nonalcoholic bar opened last summer. The establishment had all the trappings of a normal bar — except that the bottles on the shelves were filled with juice or nonalcoholic cocktails. Ahmad Fahs, the owner, received Hezbollah’s blessing before opening the bar, and the enterprise initially appeared to be running smoothly. However, the owner soon ran astray of the militant group’s delicate balance between modern entertainment and its strict religious morality.
Fahs preferred not to talk, but his cousin, Mohammad, said that Fahs decided to close the bar because he was under pressure. He did not elaborate. It appears that Hezbollah’s blessing was withdrawn after the bar received attention from local and regional media.
According to residents, the owner planned to open a nearby club where people could dance to pop music. "That is a big no-no for Hezbollah," said one resident, who requested anonymity. Rather than close the bar by force, Hezbollah used a lighter touch. Using a small local investor not directly affiliated with the party, Hezbollah bought the bar from its owner for a large sum of money.
Fatima, who lives on Mouawad Street, one of the upscale areas of Dahiyeh, is a mother of two teens, ages 15 and 17. She expressed gratitude toward what she called Hezbollah’s "religious framework of leisure," explaining that her sons are exposed to the seductive appeals of global consumerism and lifestyles through the Internet, cable TV, and the fact that Beirut is just a few kilometers away.
"I want them to enjoy themselves, but I do not want them to forget religion and the principles of resistance and jihad," she said. The Shiite collective identity is reinforced in these settings, where entertainment combines Hezbollah’s "resistance narrative" against Israel and the United States with its religious principles. Fatima is thrilled.
The rise of Hezbollah’s entertainment and leisure programs has been a success for the "Party of God," allowing the party to integrate the needs of its community with its cultural agenda and regional ambitions. "Hezbollah cannot keep the Shiites away from a normal Lebanese life for a long time, no matter how much they pay," Sharara said.
The price, however, is the creation of a militarized society among Lebanon’s Shiite community, detached from the aspirations and concerns of Lebanon’s other communities. Hezbollah is essentially purchasing its community’s acquiescence to the destructive wars the party has launched, and will launch, against Israel. According to Sharara, this has led to a grim correlation between body counts and social services: "Hezbollah’s services increase as the death toll rises, and Hezbollah today might be buying death in advance.