Hezbollah: A Short History, by Augustus Norton

In Augustus Norton’s book Hezbollah, he provides a historical account of the evolution of this Lebanese based organization. Even though he does not analyze, in great detail, any specific event, issue, policy or the like, he does present the major issues that have shaped Hezbollah since its inception in 1982 up until the 2006 hostilities against Israel. With the interjection of certain discussions on Shi’ism, Iran, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Amal[1], and key individual figures, Norton provides a coherent overview of key influential actors and factors that shaped Hezbollah over the decades into what it became in 2006, which arguably was a more politically oriented organization than what it was initially. With that said, when reading this book one should keep in mind that Norton’s objective does not appear to be an in-depth account of Hezbollah but rather a broad overview of key events that has brought this organization into the mainstream of Lebanese politics as well as inter-Middle Eastern relations.

To understand the beginnings of Hezbollah one should understand the beginning of Lebanon and Shi’ism within Lebanon. Norton begins his book explaining just that; how Lebanon came into existence in the 1940s, how the political make up was formulated based on community size, and how the Shi community fit into that equation. In other words, between the Maronites, Sunnis and Shis, it was the Shi community that had the smaller population and thus had the smallest impact within the Lebanese government. However, overtime, as the Shi community increased, their political advancements did not. Furthermore, the Sunni-Shi tension that already existed was further amplified by Palestinian refugees who challenged the Shis in the work force. As domestic strife emerged and continued for the coming decades, the Shis concentrated on mobilizing its political efforts.

With the backdrop of the Lebanese civil war and Amal’s involvement, along with issues with the Sunnis and Palestinian refugees, the 1979 Iranian revolution brought about a shift within the Shi community inside Lebanon, and the emergence of Hezbollah. From what started as an adjunct militia and an extension of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah grew stronger over time and gained the support of the Shi community due primarily to two reasons: their (Hezbollah) ability to shape Shi sensibility within Lebanon through rituals such as Ashura[2] while accompanied by the backing of some prominent Ayatollahs, and a string of campaigns (primarily under the umbrella of the Southern Lebanon Conflict between 1982 to 2000 when Israel withdrew) that largely benefitted Lebanon as well as Hezbollah’s image with the Lebanese people.

To the point where Norton takes the reader, Hezbollah went through a number of transformations. Beginning as a militia-proxy for Iran, to a violent-terrorist organization, then as a resistance-liberation group (for Lebanon against Israel), to a political party. This last transformation did not come about without some internal struggles. That is to say, initially, Hezbollah was very much against the Lebanese government, but over time realized that in order to make any sort of significant change, domestically, they would need to become more involved and participate within the political system. Furthermore, two additional experiences persuaded Hezbollah in becoming more politically conscience. The first was the end of the South Lebanon Conflict, where the Lebanese people grew tired of not only fighting but also Hezbollah’s rhetoric. The second was the 2003 US lead invasion of Iraq which also showed Hezbollah toning down its rhetoric and attacks against Israel.

Ultimately what can be concluded from Norton’s assessment of Hezbollah is that, in order for an Islamic organization, like a Hezbollah, to have some longevity and success they will need to adapt to the conditions of their time and conduct business within the confines of their respected governmental institution and not resort to “other” means of action, like terrorism, anti-government rhetoric, and things of that nature. Norton does a great job in developing this argument from one chapter to the next, and provides a concluding remark that really speaks volumes to what Hezbollah was up until 2006: “Nasrallah and his colleagues [members of Hezbollah] have repeatedly declared that the prospects for establishing a state based on Islamic rule will probably never exist in Lebanon…Hezbollah [however]…is committed to the survival of Lebanon as a diverse, multicultural society.”

[1] Amal is a Lebanese political party that is associated with the Shi community.

[2] Ashura is the tenth day of Moharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. It was within this month that the third Imam of Shi Islam – Imam Hussain (along with many of his followers and family members) – was brutally murdered. It has become customary and tradition in modern history that the Shi faithful take this time to observe those events and mourn the death of their third Imam.


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