Hezbollah protests over anti-Islam film betray religious unity in multi-faith Lebanon

The Pope may have praised peaceful religious coexistence in Lebanon during his recent visit, but "Innocence of Muslims" and Hezbollah's calls to take to the streets undermine this exceedingly optimistic common conception.

A Hezbollah anti-Innocence of Muslims protest in Beirut. Demotix/Ricardo Nuno. All rights reserved.A Hezbollah anti-Innocence of Muslims protest in Beirut. Demotix/Ricardo Nuno. All rights reserved.

Pope Benedict XVI had barely departed from Beirut International Airport at the end of an historic, three-day Lebanon visit before Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah took to the airwaves. In an address to supporters on Hezbollah’s satellite channel, the leader of the Party of God called for a week of demonstrations protesting against the film “The Innocence of Muslims,” depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a thug and child molester that has sparked anti-western protests across the globe. Nasrallah called for those involved in the amateur, low-budget film to be punished, saying the production was a “dangerous and unprecedented” affront to Islam. Perhaps with the Pope’s message of peace and unity still ringing in his ears, Nasrallah was at pains to point out that those protesting against the film had not turned their anger against Christians, but rather against Israel and the United States.

Unlike the demonstrations outside US embassies over the past week, Nasrallah’s protests this week are likely to be well-attended, organized and largely peaceful affairs. Hezbollah is a powerful organization with unrivalled mobilization capability. For large protests or gatherings, the party lays on free transportation and has a large and enthusiastic following for its popular 'resistance' to Israel ideology. The protests will be a far cry from the mobs who ransacked a KFC restaurant in the north Lebanon city of Tripoli on Friday; nor are we likely to see flag burning or chants calling for “death to [America/the west/infidels]” that accompany many Salafist protests in Lebanon and elsewhere. Hezbollah’s public relations machine is too well-oiled to stoop to such stereotypical Islamic protest icons – it knows that bearded men burning the stars and stripes do little to diminish the view many westerners have of Muslims or Arabs – however misguided such a view may be.

Nasrallah said the film in question, produced by a man once jailed for fraud and arrested for manufacturing recreational drugs, was the most egregious affront to Islam – worse even than the publication in 2005 of images insulting the Prophet in a Danish newspaper.  Tens of thousands of Sunni and Shi'ite protesters took to the streets of Beirut in response; a series of increasingly bellicose marches culminated in the torching of the Danish embassy (this was not before a group of protesters mistakenly attempted to storm the Dutch embassy in retaliation for the cartoons).

At the same time, while Nasrallah used plenty of bombast in his call for protests, Hezbollah itself turned back thousands of supporters en route to Beirut after it became clear that demonstrations were turning violent. Nasrallah’s insistence that this week’s demonstrations be conducted within the law is in many ways another PR coup, convincing local and international observers that Hezbollah – and, by extension, Lebanon’s Shi'ites – are a far more civilized and restrained bunch than the Sunni thugs who resorted to arson over the weekend. It would be easy to be cynical given the timing of Nasrallah’s call to protest, coming as it did just hours after the Pope departed Lebanon having completed a three-day visit. Hezbollah made a show of welcoming Benedict and some of its senior officials attended an open air mass performed by the pontiff in Beirut over the weekend. Then, as soon as his plane took off, they announced a week of protests.

In fact, Nasrallah couldn’t resist a token dash of conspiracy theory, confidently announcing that “Innocence” was all part of a giant plot by US intelligence. This might have been a considered form of rabble-rousing, but it was rabble-rousing all the same. It will be interesting to see how the demonstrations go off, and how widely they are covered by local and international media. After all, a series of coordinated and peaceful mass demonstrations are likely to be far more indicative not only of Muslim reaction to the film than a handful of youths torching a fried chicken joint.

Religion still divisive

If the past week has shone a light on the deep and pervasive role played by religion throughout the Arab world, then the past three days in Lebanon have illuminated a country still riven along sectarian lines. Pope Benedict’s trip, which saw hundreds of thousands line the streets in support, was designed to bring a message of “peace and tolerance” to a region in dire need of both, according to the Vatican. With Syria’s internecine civil war rumbling on next door, the message was at least well timed.

The visit was choreographed to take in predominantly Christian areas of the country, and many members of the Christian community here expressed genuine gratitude to the Pope, who they felt had shown that they were not being forgotten amid regional turmoil. Many Christians are nervous of the emergence of Islamist governments in countries across the region, as well as an increasingly well-armed, “Islamicized” opposition to Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The conventional wisdom concerning Christians in the middle east – that there is an ongoing exodus amid increased religious persecution – fails entirely to take into account the fact that religion is rarely the primary motivation behind migration. With all the talk of Christians being under siege, in Lebanon at least, Muslims are the group more likely to seek to leave.

But if talk of persecution is overstated, so too is the maxim – repeated by successive Popes – that Lebanon is a model of religious co-existence.

Comparing the visit of Benedict this weekend to that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in October 2010 – an exercise not as ridiculous as it first sounds – one finds numerous similarities as well as evidence that Lebanon remains deeply religiously polarized. Like Benedict, Ahmadinejad was greeted by dignitaries at a special airport ceremony. Like Benedict, Ahmadinejad delivered several speeches to supporters in areas dominated by his co-religionists – Shi'ite Muslims in the latter’s case. Like Benedict, Ahmadinejad’s visit was prefigured by hundreds of billboards and posters advertising the trip weeks ahead of his arrival. Just as Benedict called for togetherness, Ahmadinejad said he backed “a strong and unified Lebanon” while on his trip.  

Granted, the tone and purpose of the two visits may have differed, but the fact that the same sermon was given about unity to two uniformly different societies – Christians for the Pope, Shi'ites for Ahmadinejad – demonstrates the continuing polarity in a country lauded for its coexistence. There are nineteen officially recognized sects in Lebanon, but proximity does not always augur interaction. Communities with wildly varying agendas continue to support politicians who are voted into power on the sole basis of their faith. Such cycles are enscribed in law. A month rarely passes without some example of sectarian violence; barely a week without sectarian rhetoric. Communities are still broadly homogenous – largely as a result of Lebanon’s civil war, which divided swathes of the country along sectarian lines.

Religious differences, at least publicly, were put aside during Benedict’s visit but, as Nasrallah’s address proves, they never really go away. The Hezbollah leader was not talking to Muslims generally; he was addressing party supporters – who are Shi'ite Muslims – in particular. In the timing and content of his announcement, Nasrallah has once again proved that Lebanon's political leaders dance to their own religious tune. Their followers, as this week will likely show, do likewise.  

About the author

Patrick Galey is a reporter with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Previously based in Beirut, he has reported extensively on stories from Lebanon, Yemen and Egypt.