Faith and Resistance argues that religion and rational thought are compatible.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Modern Times Review.
Published date: September 10, 2018

Faith and Resistance: The Politics of Love and War in Lebanon

Sarah Marusek

Pluto Press, 2018

In the West, religion is seen as a conservative force. And thus religious movements are considered reactionary or fundamentalist. However, this view fails to recognise the revolutionary potential of religious activism. Just think of Malcolm X or the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr during the American civil rights movement, or the Christian church in South Africa, which played an essential role in ending apartheid by releasing the Kairos Document in July 1985, challenging the church’s response to the vicious policies of the white regime in Pretoria.

Many continue to distrust religion because Western conceptions of faith and rationality were transformed during the Age of Enlightenment. Later on this deep scepticism was exported to the Global South through colonial systems like the bureaucratic state and the capitalist free market, both of which privilege a very particular form of instrumental rationality, often at the expense of what it means to be human. To a very large extent this is where we are today when it comes to Islam, and certainly regarding what is considered radical traits of that faith.

«Religion becomes a revolutionary force when activists refuse to reconcile religion with unjust conditions.»

Sarah Marusek, a researcher from Leeds University, set out to get under the skin of this phenomenon, and after two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Lebanon, she has written her account Faith and Resistance: The Politics of Love and War in Lebanon, focusing on Shia Islam and in particular on one of its most reviled representatives, the Hizbollah.

Social movement

According to Marusek religion becomes a revolutionary force when activists refuse to reconcile religion with unjust conditions. Throughout the greater part of Islamic history Shi’is have been longing for the return of the Twelfth Imam, also known as the Mahdi, but have not seen it as something that could happen in this world, only in the next. However, this changed during the twentieth century with its widespread utopian thinking, and Shia Islam has become a liberation theology seeking redemption by re-imagining the dominant ideas and practices of Western secular liberalism through a religious or mythical lens.

A key person in this development is the Iraqi ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr (1935-80). He sought a total rethinking of Islamic ideology by deconstructing Western ideas. He reinterpreted canonical texts in light of new scientific developments, and in a time when Arab socialism became popular he proved the superiority of Islam. But most of all he made the faith contemporary, by providing a modern framework for an Islamic economic system.

Al-Sadr paved the way for Ayatollah Khomeini who came to power in Iran in 1979, and he became the source of inspiration when the Shi’is of Lebanon united, first in the Amal movement, and later in Hizbollah. The latter arose as a social movement, benefitting the downtrodden Shi’is in the poorer districts of Beirut and rural Southern Lebanon. Modelled over al-Sadr’s thinking, Hizbollah used faith as a tool to create individual pride, and all along that journey love was the key word. Love for individual freedom and love for your fellow man, be it Sunni, Christian or Jew. Only when need arose with the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon did Hizbollah become a fighting force.

Ally of Assad

According to Marusek, Hizbollah has Islamised class struggle. Faith has empowered a disregarded population, and this is what the West fails to understand when Hizbollah is first and foremost regarded as a terror group. She argues that Robespierre and his Reign of Terror was exactly the same during the French Revolution, and points to the fact that the African National Congress was portrayed as a terror organisation during the struggle against apartheid.

But why, one must ask, did Hizbollah team up with a brutal dictator like Bashar al-Assad early on in the Syrian civil war? That is hardly progressive and modern because after all resistance is about fighting repression. During frequent visits in Lebanon, Marusek witnessed this development with great dismay, but she offers an explanation that only underscores the stereotypical thinking of the West: it is a regional matter. After the US-led coalition toppled the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Shi’is adopted a decidedly majoritarian attitude towards governing. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt embraced a similarly arrogant attitude to governing after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and developments within the global movement for Palestine were no different: Shi’is were excluded. In Lebanon this resulted in a breakdown in relations between the Palestinians and Hizbollah.

«Marusek delivers a sharp and nuanced analysis of the precarious situation of Shia resistance theology in Lebanon.»

The Palestinians sided with the opponents of Assad, and therefore Hizbollah decided to align itself with the dictator. Reasons were tactical, but for the West this was just another sign that Hizbollah sided with a sworn enemy of democracy, and therefore must be considered a terror group.

Sarah Marusek delivers a sharp and nuanced analysis of the precarious situation of Shia resistance theology in Lebanon, and along the way she offers new definitions of the term «terror», something that Westerners find hard to understand. But as she writes, diverging from the regular academic tone, «all this demonstrates that shit really is complicated».

Modern Times Review