Friday, 16 July 2010

Book review: Hezbollah, a short history by Augustus Richard Norton

This up-to-date book (latest edition 2009) on Hezbollah- the organisation primarily popular amongst the Shia in Lebanon is a timely and unpretentious, objective and comprehensive account of the group’s ascendancy and its place in contemporary Lebanon.

The book deals extensively with the historical socio-political situation of Lebanon’s Shia, with a chapter dedicated to the distinctive Shia perspective and way of life in Lebanon.

Enveloped in an impressive sleeve bearing the Hezbollah emblem on a yellow background (i.e. the Hezbollah flag), the book may not be a wise one to read in public view. It may, however, present a challenge to many who consider Hezbollah a terrorist organisation.

The author, Augustus Richard Norton, who is a professor of International Relations and Anthropology, was a military observer in southern Lebanon with the UN when Hezbollah and other Shia groups such as Amal were formed. With expert authority and not a few personal anecdotes, he describes how the Shia minority in Lebanon (residing in the south as well as the southern suburbs al-Dahiya of Beirut and part of the Beqaa valley), remained marginalized and underdeveloped for many years in Lebanon’s multi-confessional political system, leaving a void which Hezbollah would eventually fill.

In chapter 5 the author describes how Israel and Hezbollah engaged unofficial ‘rules of the game’ during Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon. Under such rules, attacks on military targets were tolerated, and deals for prisoner swaps were common.

Of particular note is the way in which Norton throws light on the deep systems of patronage among the Shia of which Hezbollah is a part. This mechanism has sustained and advanced the community in the absence of any real attempts to do by the national government.

By an extensive network of charitable trusts, social services and funding from émigré communities and Iran, the Shia have single-handedly raised their quality of life, not to mention their profile and political aspirations.
Despite being known in the west for its paramilitary wing, Hezbollah is in fact a complex organisation that maintains media networks, hospitals, schools and other projects. After the devastating damage inflicted on Lebanon by Israel in 2006, Hezbollah has managed an efficient reconstruction project that has completely transformed the southern suburbs of Beirut, promising brand-spanking new apartments for all those who lost their homes in Israel’s onslaught- including any Sunni Muslims and Christians. In fact, Hezbollah institutions including hospitals will not turn a non-Muslim away from its doors.

Hezbollah, a short history correctly traces the origins and influences of Hezbollah and dispels the many stereotypes that often accompany western media coverage of the organisation. Whilst acknowledging influences from Iran, Norton is also keen to stress the role of Lebanese nationalism and the Shia struggle for political representation that had been gaining momentum before Hezbollah arrived on the scene.
Despite being written by an academic, the book is concise and approachable, an ideal introduction to the subject.


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