A Zillion I Tell You; No, A Bazillion


I've noticed that when many Western publicists talk about Hezbollah, they just switch off their bullshit detectors. The latest howler comes from Helena Cobban, a British journalist living in the United States. Earlier this week, on her blog, she had this to say about the size of an Ashura commemoration organized by Hezbollah in Beirut's southern suburbs:

In Lebanon, Hizbullah organized a huge Ashura-related procession/demonstration at which Hasan Nasrallah "urged Muslims worldwide to keep demonstrating until there is an apology over the drawings and Europe passes laws forbidding insults to the prophet."

The size of that crowd–in a country whose population totals 3.5 million, was, "estimated by organizers at about 700,000. Police had no final estimates but said the figure was likely to be even higher."

Cobban's implicit aim is not only to emphasize that Hezbollah is very powerful, but, more broadly, to "see the effects of the synchronicity of the [Danish] cartoon controversy with the commemorations in Shiite communities of the events of Ashura."

The figures Cobban cites may not be hers but her uncritical quoting of them seems implicitly an endorsement. And when one analyzes "synchronicities," it's best to know how to add. Let's examine this more closely. Assuming Shiites are 35 percent of the Lebanese population (which is the figure most often tossed around, mantra-like, without much evidence), that would mean there are just over 1.2 million Shiites in Lebanon, if Cobban is right about a population of 3.5 million. Assuming there were 700,000 at the ceremony, that would mean that 58 percent of all of Lebanon's Shiites were in attendance; and if "the figure was likely higher", as Cobban reports police as saying–let's push it up to, say, 800,000–that would mean 66 percent of Lebanon's entire Shiite population was present. Given that all of the party's supporters were not in the southern suburbs of the capital–indeed, Hezbollah held rallies in other parts of Lebanon–in using the figures Cobban cites, one concludes that not far from a million Shiites nation-wide somehow back the party.

Think about that for a moment. Then consider that not even Hezbollah seriously suggests it enjoys that sort of unanimous support in the community. What do you do with the traditional Shiite families and their supporters who are not with Hezbollah? Or those who back Hezbollah's rival, the Amal movement? Or those who are from the Shiite tribes of the Bekaa-Hermel region (again not with the party)? Or those who make up the substantial proportion of Shiites who dislike both Amal and Hezbollah? Nor, assuming we can momentarily accept a figure of 58-66 percent of all Shiites at the Ashura rally, have we mentioned those who participated in commemorations outside of Beirut; who stayed in their villages; or who just stayed home for other reasons (they were small children, elderly, infirm, or indifferent). Surely that grand total of non-participants is more than 400,000-500,000 people.

Interestingly, Cobban didn't read her own entry very carefully. Just below the passage on Hezbollah, she links to a piece saying that in Iraq (Cobban mistakenly writes Iran) more than a million Shiites marched in Karbala for Ashura. I can believe that, particularly as Karbala is the focal point of Shiite pilgrimage during Ashura, since it is where Imam Hussein, whose death Ashura commemorates, was killed. But what Cobban missed is that there are an estimated 15 million Shiites in Iraq, a population 13 times that in Lebanon. Are we expected to believe that Hezbollah managed to mount a rally almost as massive as the one in Karbala with a Shiite population one-thirteenth that of Iraq? We are talking about Lebanon, after all, not North Korea.

Hezbollah can bring out the masses, and half the figure for what Cobban is willing to swallow is a pretty good showing in any book. But one doesn't need to sound like Jon Lovitz in getting the point across: "Yeah, 700,000, yeah; no a million, yeah, yeeeeah; did I say a million? Make that 700 million. Yeah, yeeeeah."

(Note: This is a rewritten version of a slightly earlier post that I found unclear)