Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Piety and politics in the Dahiyeh

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Luna Safwan]

One didn’t need to be told where to find Monday night’s rally in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Long before we reached the arterial Hadi Hassan Nasrallah Street, we saw them: the men, women and children in their tens of thousands, swarming in a single mass through the alleys and sidestreets like a tidal wave washing ashore.

And we heard them. “Libayka ya rasool Allah!” roared a voice several blocks away (the phrase roughly translates as “We’re at your service, Messenger of God!”). Once on the ground in the midst of the marching crowd, we saw the source of the noise: dozens of men on platforms, spaced every few hundred meters apart, reading chants from a prepared sheet through a gigantic set of loudspeakers. “Death to America, death to Israel!” came next, followed by “America, America, you are the greatest Satan!”

So large was the procession – spanning several kilometers and snaking around right-angles – that when Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s voice first sounded, nobody around us realized he was speaking in person from a stage up ahead. They assumed they were listening to a video transmission. For those witnessing the moment of his appearance, of course, it was a different story entirely.

Demonstrators, who did not give their names, offered discrepant reasons for turning up when interviewed by NOW Lebanon, ranging from simple offence at the “Innocence of Muslims” film that has sparked outrage around the Muslim world, to a wish to show defiance against what they see (and what Nasrallah described on Sunday) as an American-Israeli plot against them.

“We are here because a movie insulting Prophet Muhammad is out,” said a man in his early twenties. “We want to send the message to the world that we are here to defend the prophet. We hope for the movie to be banned for the sake of respect for religion.”

“We came to this protest to defend Prophet Muhammad, and also to show Israel that we are here and that we won’t keep quiet,” said a woman of around eighteen. “The movie should be taken down.”

“I came because Sayyed Hassan requested us to come, also out of respect for Prophet Muhammad,” said a man in his fifties. “America should lay off our back. This movie has to be taken down, otherwise things might escalate.”

That refrain was echoed by a woman of around thirty, who told NOW that, “It is requested of every Muslim to participate for this is an insult to Islam. We hope that they take the movie down because if they don’t, something else might happen, something bigger.”

Indeed, in his speech Nasrallah warned that “America, which is objecting and deceiving [others] under [the pretext] of freedom, needs to understand that the complete broadcast of the film will yield very dangerous repercussions.”

Ali al-Amin, a prominent analyst of Lebanese Shiite politics, believes that this threat is essentially empty, being in reality a counter to the violent reaction of the Sunni community. It was “part of the general political rhetoric [in Lebanon],” he told NOW. “The Shiite street seemed as if it were not reacting to the film” as much as its Sunni counterpart, and thus Hezbollah sought to one-up their rivals by “taking stances embellished with threats.”

Amin argues that the demonstration in general was a means of deflecting attention from the ongoing killings in Syria – a view shared by veteran Lebanese blogger Mustapha Hamoui. For Hezbollah, the film arrived “on a silver platter,” said Amin. “Previously, Hezbollah used to take a defensive position, e.g. when justifying the Syria issue. This time, Hezbollah was not required to talk about Syria.” All the same, a number of demonstrators chose to assert a pro-Syrian government stance, waving the red, white and black national flag as well as posters of President Bashar al-Assad.

The calls for “death” notwithstanding, the rally was comparatively civil overall. Unlike other protests against the film in such countries as Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, there was no burning of flags or effigies, and no violence (though two people were reportedly wounded by celebratory gunfire).

However, it remains to be seen what may unfold if the full film is made public. As NOW was leaving the rally, a bespectacled man in his forties approached, speaking a mixture of English and French. “I don’t care about the filmmaker,” he said. “God will give him his own punishment. Listen, Hassan Nasrallah is not a bad guy. Muslims are not bad. We’re not going to attack you first.”

“But if you attack us, we’re going to attack you back.”

Noam Raydan contributed reporting.

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