The Party of God's MP talks about Islam, Iraq, and the war on terror. A Reason interview
Mohammed Fneish is a Hizbollah (Party of God) representative in Lebanon's parliament. Fneish represents the Bint Jbeil district. He spoke with reason late last year at Hizbollah's office in Beirut.
reason: Hizbollah's originally stated mission was to drive the Israeli military out of south Lebanon. The Israelis have been gone for four years. What do you see as your purpose now?
Mohammed Fneish: It's true that Hizbollah began as a resistance movement, and it still is. In the process of carrying out our mission we've been able to build foundations that met the society's educational and social needs—and even political needs, by participating in elections.
It's true that Israel left parts of Lebanon's territory, but not all of it. It also hasn't stopped its attacks on Lebanon. Lebanon's problem from the beginning has not been a local one only. Its troubles have been nourished by the conflict with Israel, and that has created an ongoing national security problem for us. For as long as there is no security in the region, Lebanon will never be at peace. We can't take lightly the need for our organization.
reason: Saddam Hussein brutally repressed the Shi'a Muslims in Iraq—your co-religionists. Now that he's gone, the Shi'ites have more freedom than they've had in 20 years. Why does Hizbollah remain so strongly opposed to the U.S. mission in Iraq?
Fneish: The party has nothing to do with Iraq. The party had an opinion on Iraq, as did every other group—the whole world had an opinion about Iraq. And in general, the majority of opinion around the world opposed the war, because people were not convinced by the reasons given. And as has been proven, all of these reasons given by the American administration were false. Of course, before he attacked Kuwait, Saddam received much support from the U.S. In general, nobody is sorry to see Saddam go. His regime was unjust, harsh, and homicidal.
But we have to distinguish between whether Saddam was overthrown for the good of the Iraqi people or for the good of American ambitions.
In terms of the new situation in Iraq, that's the Iraqis' responsibility. But we would like to ensure and protect international laws. The occupation shouldn't go on, but more important, the U.S. shouldn't act apart from the international community. And the current occupation shouldn't go on at all without the will of the Iraqi people. In the end, only they can decide their future, and their political system.
reason: Does Hizbollah have any contact with the resistance fighters in Iraq?
Fneish: No. The party has an opinion on the U.S. occupation, but it is up to the Iraqi people to determine how to react to that presence. Do they want to throw roses on them? Rocks? Whatever they decide, that's their right. We as Hizbollah have nothing to do with what other nations do. We can't be a resistance party for other nations. We only represent our own people and country. Other than that, it's not our business.
reason: The resistance in Iraq has been extraordinarily violent toward the Shi'ites.
Fneish: This is absolutely unacceptable. I've been speaking about resistance, but I did not mention anything about tactics or principles. I'm not speaking about murdering Iraqis, aiming at government organizations, or killing civilians. That is not resistance, and it's not legitimate.
reason: So you say the party has not been providing any assistance—financial or military—to the resistance in Iraq?
Fneish: None at all. Anybody who says so, let him show some proof. The party's primary mission is to resist the Israeli occupation.
reason: Hizbollah is widely viewed in the United States as a potent anti-American force. Can you imagine ever having better relations with the U.S.?
Fneish: The party is not against the United States. To be clear: The American administration has sided with Israel and makes false accusations against Hizbollah. We don't have any problem with the United States other than its position on Israel. We have not attacked the United States. We grew up with the Israeli occupation in Lebanon, so we formed a resistance movement. The U.S. considered that movement an opponent of the United States. Just to be clear, I'm speaking of the American administration, not the American people. Our problem is with the American political decision to side with Israel and oppose our people and our concerns. The future of our relationship with the United States depends on a change in American policies; if there's ever a change, we have no problem with the United States.
reason: Do you seek to improve relations with the U.S.?
Fneish: In the near future, I don't think it's possible for relations to improve. There is a very unnatural conflict. We're resisting an occupation, and the U.S. wants to stop the resistance rather than the occupation. We're trying to liberate our land and the U.S. supports Israel in taking our land. So how is an improvement in relations possible?
reason: Do you consider the United States hostile toward you?
Fneish: Of course. The United States is totally against us, but it's the United States that decided to take that position. That position isn't only against Hizbollah. Look around the entire Arab and Islamic world. What's the proportion of people who believe the U.S. is hostile toward them and undermines their concerns? But Hizbollah is an active force, and that's why there's a particularly heavy American hand against us. Because what is Hizbollah's crime? That we stood up to Israel and didn't let Israel achieve its goals in Lebanon? That we caused Israel its first defeat? Is that all of our crime?
reason: Right now the United States is fighting against terrorist groups of global reach and anybody affiliated with them.
Fneish: The claim that Hizbollah has relations with any other group is a lie—among many other lies, all aiming to taint the image of the resistance and to distort the facts. There is a problem here, and that is called occupation. Where is the evidence of Hizbollah's having a role with anybody in any activities outside our conflict with Israel?
It's easy to make accusations. If we want to total up all the lies the United States has told about Iraq alone, it's a huge sum. So any language that doesn't depend on proof is just an accusation. These accusations are part of a hostile agenda involving media and politics.
reason: Do you try to do anything to change that opinion?
Fneish: Of course, we try as much as we can.
reason: Current U.S. policy would seem to be good for Shi'a Muslims. The overthrow of Saddam has freed the Shi'ites in Iraq, and the U.S. is also opposing Osama bin Laden, whose group considers Shi'ites heretics. Even if you disagree with or suspect the motives of the United States, wouldn't you have to agree that these policies have been helping your fellow Shi'ites?
Fneish: The United States is trying to take advantage of all the mistakes in the Muslim world to benefit itself. The U.S. gives itself the right to attack other countries and bypass all international laws. We can recognize that there is a certain political regime that is dangerous. But nobody has the right to appoint himself the world's police force. If the U.S. really wants to face terrorism, then it has to define terrorism. Because there's a difference between terrorism and resistance, but the U.S. never wants to see a distinction.
The other thing is that initially, when Osama bin Laden was serving its agenda against the Soviet Union, the U.S. was in accord with him. Back then the U.S. had no problem with how bin Laden thought about the Shi'a, or about Muslims, or about people in general.
So we need to clarify what you said in your question: We cannot separate the motives from the actions. As a man of principle, I see the American administration doing the same thing bin Laden was doing. Bin Laden wants to bring back the law of the jungle, and the United States is trying to bring it back with him. This does not help humanity.
Are the Americans a human rights organization trying to serve the rights of the people in the region? Of course not; even they're not claiming that. They're establishing a new empire in the world. Why haven't the prisoners in Guantanamo received trials? There are laws of civilization, and the United States is breaking all of them.
reason: What about relations with Israel? You've conducted complicated negotiations over exchanging prisoners with the Israelis. Would you be willing to negotiate with them on other matters?
Fneish: The party has its own belief and its own founding vision. Israel was formed at the expense of the Palestinian people and their rights. For us, this existence is immoral and illegitimate, because it creates great hardship and suffering for a downtrodden people. And all this is so Europeans can ease their own guilt about what they did to the Jews. So indirectly, the Europeans are the cause of the Palestinians' suffering. Of course, not all of this was done for moral reasons; there was also a predetermined political plan for the region. Therefore, as long as the Palestinian people can't go back to their land, there will be a problem in the region. So for sure, Hizbollah can't have relations with an entity formed out of crimes against other people.
We are seeing negotiations and discussions. Despite all the circumstances, the Arabs have always tried to negotiate, but those efforts have always been ridiculed and undermined. All we see are more settlements, more hostility, more evictions, and more destruction of homes.
reason: It sounds like you could never have normal relations with Israel under any circumstances.
Fneish: We as a party have our own opinion and our own role. Our views are for the interest of the whole country, and we oppose any relations. But we're only speaking for the party; the government speaks for itself.
reason: When you say you oppose, do you oppose Israel's existence, or just having relations?
reason: Would you continue to fight Israel just on the basis of that existence?
Fneish: That's another issue. We're trying to make Israel step back as an enemy that is attacking us. We fought the Israelis only on Lebanese soil. Before we talk about fighting their existence, there is a problem here. There's a Zionist project. Let's be realistic. It's clear there is a Zionist mentality, which is clannish, sectarian, and belligerent.
I didn't say I want to fight Israel on the basis of its existence. I spoke of a position. There is a difference. If today a country in the world occupied another country, and I said that country is aggressive and I want nothing to do with that country, that doesn't mean I want to fight that country. The subject of war is a different thing. But nobody can force me to say that country is legitimate.
reason: Lebanon is a pretty permissive society, where people drink alcohol, women do whatever they want, people wear whatever they want, and so on. Would you like to change that?
Fneish: In Lebanon there is freedom. We respect the freedom of the Lebanese, and the freedom of any people. We have our own views about personal conduct, but those views concern us. We try to convince others of our views, but we don't impose them on anybody. It's our right to try to persuade others of our views, but it's also the right of others to share their own views and opinions.
But that does not mean that if we disagree we will resort to imposing our views. For example, right now people see us as dominant in a particular region of the country. Did we impose our way of living on anybody? You see in the [majority Shi'ite] suburbs of Beirut those who are committed and those who are not. You find women with hijabs and others without, and we have no problem with that.
reason: If you could, would you establish an Islamic state in Lebanon?
Fneish: Nobody can force a political system on a society that doesn't have the characteristics proper for that system. Lebanon is a country with freedoms and a variety of ways of living. We respect that variety and we live with it. The Lebanese political system will reflect that variety. We can exchange views on what we believe, but not once has our party said it wants to create an Islamic political system in Lebanon. All we ask for is a government that has the principles I've mentioned: respect for people's freedom, justice, equality, and leadership that express the will of the people.
reason: Gibran Tueni, the editor of al-Nahar newspaper, commented to me recently that Hizbollah always says it won't establish an Islamic state by force, but doesn't rule out establishing one through political means.
Fneish: Today in Lebanon there are native people of Christian origin. There are 18 different religions. Inside each of these, different political groups support different views, political programs, and agendas. We are one of these groups. It's possible that we differ from these others in our commitment to what we believe in as Muslims. But the way we deal with our society is not by aiming to force Islam on anybody, or to bypass reality. In the society of Lebanon, with all its freedoms, could I stop a Christian from converting to Islam, or a Muslim from converting to Christianity? Nobody could. Could I stop anybody from agreeing with Hizbollah's views? Nobody could. The government does not come from above the people. It comes up from the people. We don't have any plan for an Islamic government because a government can't be separated from its people.
reason: What did you think of Afghanistan, where the Taliban did force their system on the country?
Fneish: The Taliban movement was the greatest threat to Islam. In their way of understanding, believing, and practicing, they were very bad for Islam. We were never in accord with them or their beliefs.
reason: If you had agreed with their way of practicing Islam, would you have favored their way of running the country?
Fneish: No, that's not possible. To agree with them on practices is one thing. To agree with them on forcing your authority is another. Authority does not exist without the will of the people. And beyond that, their understanding, their school of Islam, was not true.
reason: So in your opinion, there is no country where an Islamic political system has been forced on the people?
Fneish: Let me tell you something. Today there are Islamic nations and political systems, for sure. And there are, worldwide, very few political systems that reflect the will of the people. In my opinion, among the Islamic governments, only the system in Iran came as an expression of the will of the people. This is a system that I agree with to a large degree, in my principles and in my thoughts and beliefs. But I don't agree necessarily with all the political and administrative decisions in Iran.
reason: What do you think when you see how many Lebanese consider your group a threat to the country? In the place where I'm staying, everybody seemed pretty nervous when I told them I was interviewing somebody from Hizbollah.
Fneish: Where are you staying?
reason: In the Koura [a majority Orthodox Christian region in North Lebanon].
Fneish: (Laughs) The Koura! I thought people were a little more open up there.
There are responsibilities on both sides. We have a responsibility to be clear with people about who we are. It's possible that in the beginning the nature of our situation kept us from being open with the media. We did not have a media presence and weren't interested in having it, because our mission in the beginning was very hard. More recently, we have come to recognize the importance of being out there: We have seats in the parliament, a media presence, and a political presence. I tell you, those who read and who communicate with us can find out what they want to know.
But we ask of others that they not form a premature opinion of us that never changes. Because how did that opinion form? Did it form by communicating with us or reading our literature? It's possible that this opinion was formed by listening only to propaganda or rumors. You know how rumors go around in Lebanon; and we had a pretty unusual war here. Things are much better today.
reason: Hizbollah has close relations with Iran. Based on recent developments and statistics, it seems the Islamic movement in Iran has run out of steam. The economy is weak; the people are expressing a lot of dissatisfaction, and the government is using harsher means to control dissent. Do you think there's a future in this model of politics?
Fneish: There was a horrendous war forced on Iran. The system never had a chance to function under normal conditions. Look at the United States: After September 11, you came up with all sorts of new laws and emergency procedures to address the threat. Iran had 10 years of war, and 15 years of being surrounded by enemies. Of course that has an effect on the country.
Despite that—and I don't want to get too deeply into this because ultimately this is the business only of the Iranian people, and they're the ones who have to decide their own future—what I see is that there hasn't been a single election in Iran that failed to take place, even during the war. I see many different newspapers publishing. Today in Iran, all sides are having discussions. There are agreements and disagreements, obviously. There is no ideal system in the world. It's possible that the Iranian people have complaints—or, not to generalize, let's say some of the Iranian people have complaints, and ambitions for faster improvements. That is their right, but the way to get to that is through democratic and peaceful solutions, and not by demolishing the system. You can't blame everything on the system.
reason: There aren't many success stories among the Muslim countries, particularly in the Arab world. What do you think of a country like Malaysia, a majority Muslim country that has enjoyed a lot of economic success? What do they have that Syria or Jordan doesn't?
Fneish: Every nation has its own circumstances. A nation has its own history, culture, and traditions. Malaysia for sure has set a great example, and provides proof that progress isn't limited to a certain type of country or religion. All nations have the capacity for improvement, but sometimes they lack the right programs, the right politics. It's unfair to compare Malaysia to any other Islamic countries, because the circumstances differ.
In general, Islamic countries have not had political freedom and have mismanaged their resources. The policies in most countries have not promoted an active population. In the countries you mentioned, the situation has been worse because of the conflict with Israel.
reason: By most accounts, Hizbollah is good at providing public services—schools, hospitals, orphanages, and so on—that the government has failed to provide. What is the difference now that you're working from inside the government?
Fneish: There was a war in Lebanon when the party started providing these services. There was not a functioning government, and you couldn't wait for the government to get back on its feet to start fixing the problem. So as much as possible the party responded to the people's needs.
However, that doesn't eliminate the need for government services. In any democracy, the civil society has an important role. The vision that the government does everything for the people is the wrong vision. The government should be taking a limited role in social services. It's human nature that people will help each other out, but when the government takes control of providing social services, people lose that instinct. We're an organization like many in Lebanon that provide services. We didn't add anything new; we just responded to a situation.
reason: What is Hizbollah's view on Syria's military presence in Lebanon, and its involvement in Lebanon's political affairs?
Fneish: I'm not going to recite all the historical stages of the war. Let us start with the Ta'if agreement [that ended Lebanon's civil war]. According to the Ta'if, Syria would end its occupation when the boundaries of Lebanon were secure. Israel's withdrawal from the south of Lebanon didn't happen according to the Ta'if but because they were forced out. Internal security never happened in Lebanon. All that affected the Ta'if schedule. Today, this has become a matter between Lebanon and Syria. There is a government in Lebanon; the government decides with whom it wants to have relations. The Syrian presence was, for sure, a consequence of the internal situation in Lebanon and the conflict with Israel. When these situations end, Syria will not stay another day. There is no disagreement on this point. At any rate, if you go today from North to South, you won't find any Syrian checkpoints in Lebanon.
reason: Was Hizbollah involved in the bombing of the Marines' barracks in Beirut in 1983?
Fneish: Our group wasn't even formed until 1985. There were many groups active in Lebanon in 1983.
reason: How do you pronounce the name of your organization? People say HizBOLLah and HizbollAH. Which one is correct?
Fneish: (Laughs) Whichever way it comes out of your mouth, we'll accept it.