Islamic 'Resistance' in the southern suburbs of Beirut

Islamic Resistance is normally understood as military activism: armed actors using the same ideology and undertaking distinct political aims sometimes using force. But in Dahiyye, 'Resistance' can also be conceived of as a social ethic, one that engages multiple and diverse ethnic and religious identities.

Six and a half years on from the July war Israel sparked with Hezbollah, the post-war effects and reconstruction plan have shed light on emerging and unavoidable inequalities. The concept of Islamic Resistance is being deployed differently on a daily basis in Beirut’s Southern Suburbs – called “Dahiyye” (periphery in Arabic), an area home to different social classes coexisting in an ethnically and religiously diverse environment. These social groups are dialectically homologated from outside and inside as the districts of 'the poor', 'the victims', 'the oppressed', 'the strange people all ready to die' or 'the martyrs'. Cumulatively, ‘Islamic Resistance’ has acquired new meanings as a social ethos in addition to its place as a call to arms.

The local residents of Dahiyye are widely perceived as local projectors of the Iranian political agenda as well as ‘the Lebanese brothers of Iranian Shi’a’. The ‘Iranisation’ through which this area is perceived by an outsider on a national level is simply part of the mutual externalisation of the ‘other’ that Lebanese communities generally carry out as a result of complex historical dynamics. The attempt to exoticise the other – though Lebanese – feeds the correlation between the community claim to the territory and its historical identity root.

To presume the existence of an unchangeable and homogenous collective identity in Dahiyye furthers the notion of a ‘traditional’ stereotyped construction of the area. The sizeable presence of Iraqi, Sudanese, Palestinian and now Syrian refugees largely contributes to distorting that assumption. Areas initially inhabited by Lebanese Christians have increasingly become home to Shiites coming from the south of the country, as Christians have gradually moved overseas in the last century. This area, neglected by the Lebanese state since the years of the French mandate and further impoverished by the Israeli occupation since 1978 during the Litani River Operation, was suddenly exposed to the massive migration flows of the Palestinians, ousted from their territories during the 1948 Nakba.

Nevertheless, a general cultural pattern that homologates the experiences of Dahiyye’s inhabitants can still be identified. This pattern particularly emerges whenever daily experience is disrupted by war destruction, which homogenises the war-torn subjectivities as victims and the downtrodden. As anthropologist Ruth Benedict contended, every culture is a system of beliefs and ideas that generally refer to the same standards and share the same institutionalised motives, emotions, and values. Such a pattern enables internal coherence within groups to flourish and gives birth to cultural group personalities.

In this sense, Dahiyye’s residents can still be conceived as conveyers of a seamless collective identity, as long as their socio-cultural paradigm of reference remains the same, regardless of their attitude towards it. In this sense, both the Lebanese, skeptical or critical about the military and political idea of the Islamic Resistance, and the refugees who live in Dahiyye, slip out of the Islamic Resistance’s morals when they talk of the 2006 war. Thus Raad, an Iraqi refugee living in Haret Hreik since 2004, says, “I felt that it was not my war, but it inadvertently affected me too”.

In hindsight of Israel’s massive attacks, vulnerability and subsequent victimhood can also be a source of gradual empowerment, once the former becomes consciousness. The tangible economic empowerment and higher social status of some war survivors seemed to primarily reward the middle class hit by war. This was aided through large compensation by the Axis of Resistance, indicating some admission of responsibility on the part of Hezbollah regarding the devastating urbicide of the area.

Defining the rhetoric of Resistance as a moral discourse that embraces “a life choice, a methodology, a daily military and political duty” meets Hezbollah’s purposes of rehabilitation of moral dignity among its supporters after years of Israeli attempts at annihilation, humiliation and destruction. Although Hezbollah’s policies have often proved not to be merely Shiite-oriented, the moral dignity of Palestinians, Asian and African migrants as well as gypsies inhabiting the slums of Dahiyye – paradoxically occupying the periphery of the periphery - is still totally denied, as well as widely ethicised.

The historical legacies of this area as an Israeli target partially allow the inhabitants to flow into a specific collective subject: an apparently seamless community whose existence as a symbolic entity depends on its own social structure. Therefore, without the idea of the Islamic Resistance – conceived as human defence against the Zionists rather than a military offense - Dahiyye, composed of several communal subjects and not just Muslim Shiites, would face symbolic death. This is the reason why the term Dahiyye itself that defines this area has symbolically turned into a concept expressing a space of disorder, illegality and suspiciousness par excellence, known in the whole Middle East.

In an interview conducted on 26th January 2012 with Dr Hajj Ahmed Hatoum, the Deputy Mayor of the Municipality of Haret Hreik, the image of Dahiyye came to the fore as “a rose whose petals represent totally different realities, and the Resistance stands for its stalk, able to unify all differences”. I asked Dr Hatoum what would happen if the Israeli threatening entity disappeared at some point or, moreover, stopped threatening Lebanon: the answer lies in the conceptual renewal of the Zionists' Otherness, in a bid to refresh the communal identity construction.

To my mind, the Islamic Resistance is presented as the cohesive factor that shapes the local being together and the local accessing services and resources. In other words, the Resistance is individually deployed not in military or specific political terms, but rather, in terms of a social ethos. In such circumstances, the experience of war does not intervene as a factor that fractures the social identity of the area; rather, as a unifying force of a normally heterogenous self.

By defining the (empirically no longer Islamic) Resistance in terms of ethical milieu rather than faith-oriented inclination or political stance, sections from this society may not feel represented and hence committed to complying with the given standards, as happens in any system of values and beliefs when described as social ethics. Such dissent would express the gap between Dahiyye’s residents and their identification with the public space they inhabit.

If social groups are defined as such by their identification with an imagined political community, as argued by Benedict Anderson, Dahiyye’s residents become temporary ‘members’ as long as they imagine their living together as comradeship in the moral sphere of the Islamic Resistance. This ephemeral membership, however, rediscovers its ontological foundation in the experience of war, which muddles together what is familiar and intimate and, on the other hand, what is foreign and unknown.

On the one side, the July war in Lebanon gave rise to a general inter-subject identification, in the sense that, at the time of the war, communities crossed their identity boundaries in the emergency of humanitarian aid effort. War destruction engendered in the stricken area a relatively temporary co-feeling and co-listening with the rest of the country. Such cohesion of Dahiyye’s individualities stands in opposition to the local de-structuration that the Israeli army was aiming for in its futuristic military logic of annihilation. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) gave evidence of such an annihilating logic of de-structuration in several other occasions in Lebanon’s history, including when they heavily bombed the UNIFIL compound and its local dispensary in Qana in 1996. This same logic also led the Israeli aerial forces to bomb the prison of al-Khiyyam in South Lebanon in 2006. The Israelis used the prison until 2000 – the year of their 3-day military withdrawal. Its destruction was an aggressive act of eradication of local memory.

The threatening exteriority of the Zionist enemy, hence, ends up contributing to the internalization of the communal otherness in the Resistant subject. The single victim, meant as human loss, becomes the Martyr any family should mourn, even if one has not died by taking up the weapons. Consequently, what Dahiyye’s residents mean by “resistant” should be also correlated to an individual identifying with the local ethics of the Islamic Resistance, rather than to an active war combatant.

About the author

Estella Carpi is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.