When Hezbollah official Imad Mughniyeh was assassinated earlier this month in Damascus, the collateral damage was felt in academic departments, newsrooms, think tanks, and cafes far and wide. That's because it quickly became apparent how wrong many of the alleged "experts" writing about the militant Shiite organization had been.
At Mughniyeh's funeral, Hezbollah leaders placed him in a trinity of party heroes "martyred" at Israeli hands. The secretary general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, vowed "open war" against Israel in retaliation. Tens of thousands of people attended the ceremony, and for days Hezbollah received condolences. Iranian officials stepped over each other to condemn the assassination, many of them affirming that Israel's demise was inevitable. In the midst of all this one thing was plain: Mughniyeh was a highly significant figure in Hezbollah, and the party didn't hide it.
And yet over the years, an embarrassing number of writers and academics with some access to Hezbollah dutifully relayed what party cadres had told them about Mughniyeh: He was unimportant and may even have been a figment of our imagination. It was understandable that Hezbollah would blur the trail of so vital an official, but how could those writing about the party swallow this line without pursuing the numerous sources that could confirm details of Mughniyeh's past? Their fault was laziness, and at times tendentiousness.
Hezbollah is adept at turning contacts with the party into valuable favors. Writers and scholars, particularly Westerners, who lay claim to Hezbollah sources, are regarded as special for penetrating so closed a society. That's why their writing is often edited with minimal rigor. Hezbollah always denied everything that was said about Mughniyeh, and few authors (or editors) showed the curiosity to push further than that. The mere fact of getting such a denial was considered an achievement in itself, a sign of rare access, and no one was about to jeopardize that access by calling Hezbollah liars.
But there was more here than just manipulation. The Mughniyeh affair highlights a deeper problem long obvious to those who follow Hezbollah: The party, though it is religious, autocratic, and armed to the teeth, often elicits approval from secular, liberal Westerners who otherwise share nothing of its values. This reaction, in its more extreme forms, is reflected in the way many on the far left have embraced Hezbollah's militancy, but also that of other Islamist groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad—thoroughly undermining their ideological principles in the process.
The primary emotion driving together the far-left and militant Islamists, but also frequently prompting secular liberals to applaud armed Islamic groups as well, is hostility toward the United States, toward Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, and, more broadly, toward what is seen as Western-dominated, capitalist-driven globalization.
Fred Halliday, himself a man of the left, wrote scathingly of the dangers in the accommodation between Islamists and the left based on a perception of shared anti-imperialism: "All of this is—at least to those with historical awareness, skeptical political intelligence, or merely a long memory—disturbing. This is because its effect is to reinforce one of the most pernicious and inaccurate of all political claims, and one made not by the left but by the imperialist right. It is also one that underlies the U.S.-declared 'war on terror' and the policies that have resulted from 9/11: namely, that Islamism is a movement aimed against 'the west.'"
A bizarre offshoot of this trend has been the left's elevation of Islamist "resistance" to the level of a fetish. You know something has gone horribly wrong when the writer and academic Norman Finkelstein volunteers to interpret Hezbollah for you, before prefacing his comments with: "I don't care about Hezbollah as a political organization. I don't know much about their politics, and anyhow, it's irrelevant. I don't live in Lebanon."
In a recent interview on Lebanese television, Finkelstein made it a point of expressing his "solidarity" with Hezbollah, on the grounds that "there is a fundamental principle. People have the right to defend their country from foreign occupiers, and people have the right to defend their country from invaders who are destroying their country. That to me is a very basic, elementary and uncomplicated question."
It is indeed uncomplicated if you remain mulishly unwilling to move beyond the narrow parameters you've set for discussion. But the reality is that Hezbollah is an immensely complicated question in Lebanon, where a majority of people are at a loss about what to do with a heavily armed organization that has no patience for state authority, that refuses to hand its weapons over to the national army, that is advancing an Iranian and Syrian agenda against the legal Lebanese government, and that functions as a secretive Shiite paramilitary militia in a country where sectarian religious assertiveness often leads to conflict. That many Lebanese should have seen Finkelstein praise what they feel is Hezbollah's most dangerous attributes was surpassed in its capacity to irritate only by the fact that he lectured them on how armed resistance was the sole option against Israel, regardless of the anticipated destruction, "unless you choose to be [Israeli] slaves—and many people here have chosen that."
But Finkelstein is no worse than Noam Chomsky, or that clutter of "progressive" academics and intellectuals who, at the height of the carnage during the 2006 Lebanon war, signed on to a petition declaring their "conscious support for the Lebanese national resistance," described resistance as "an intellectual act par excellence" and condemned the Lebanese government for having distanced itself from Hezbollah, even though the party had unnecessarily provoked a devastating Israeli military onslaught that led to the death of over 1,200 people.
This behavior comes full circle especially for the revolutionary fringe on the left, which seems invariably to find its way back to violence. In the same way that Finkelstein can compare Hezbollah admiringly to the Soviet Red Army and the communist resistance during World War II ("it was brutal, it was ruthless"), he sees in resistance a quasi-religious act that brooks no challenge, even from its likely victims. What is so odd in Finkelstein and those like him is that the universalism and humanism at the heart of the left's view of itself has evaporated, to be replaced by categorical imperatives usually associated with the extreme right: blood; honor; solidarity; and the defense of near-hallowed land.
Blind faith in the service of total principle is what makes those like Finkelstein and Chomsky so vile. But their posturing is made possible because of the less ardent secular liberal publicists out there who surrender to the narratives that Islamists such as Hezbollah, Hamas, or others peddle to them—lending them legitimacy. That's because modern scholarship, like liberalism itself, refuses to impose Western cultural standards on non-Westerners. Fine. But as the Mughniyeh case shows, when Islamists dominate the debate affecting them, there are plenty of fools out there dying to be tossed a bone.
reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.