Empire and Trans-national Religious Identity

Empire and Trans-national Religious Identity

PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Dr Mohanad Hage Ali, the director of communications and a fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, to discuss his past work on “Empire and Trans-national Religious Identity”, completed while he was attending the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Kate McNeil: Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your research background, and how you ended up working on this particular project?

Dr Mohanad Hage Ali: I started my career as a journalist, reporting on Islamic movements, the Iraq war, and the ensuing Lebanon turmoil. As a copy editor and reporter at a pan-Arab newspaper, based in London, my scope of work covered different parts of the Middle East. However, the Iraq war was a major turning point in my career, given its significance in reshaping the region.

The toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, and the ensuing conflict, unleashed sectarian tensions across the region, with competing claims and narratives, much of which were not new but drew on earlier conflicts. And Iraq, given its tumultuous political shifts, embodied the transformations in the region. In the 1960s and 70s, Iraq was a hotbed of Arab nationalism, and witnessed in the 1980s, at the same time as Syria, a violent repression campaign by the Nationalist Baathist regime against a popular Islamist group (The Islamic Da’wa Party). Iraq’s Da’wa, just as the Moslem Brotherhood in Syria, made a claim to power, and emphasized the significance of the religious in both private and public life.

Following the Kuwait war, the Saddam regime itself utilized religion, and sought to reconcile its Baathist ideology with Islam. This Saddamist policy, known as the faith campaign (al-hamla al-imaniya), resonated later as we were trying to understand the role of Baathist officers in Islamic groups fighting against U.S. occupation and the Iraqi government forces. Saddam, just like Islamists, sought legitimacy from claiming to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and his cousin Imam Ali, also the first and most important Shiite Imam.

I was particularly interested in an insurgent group of mostly pan-Arab Baathist officers some of whom later joined al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. This transformation, and the links and overlapping features between nationalism and Islamism interested me, and subsequently became the focus of my work at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

What questions did your work seek to address?

The underlying question is the relevance of the central debates in nationalism studies, to the study of Islamist movements. I took Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shi’i movement as a case study, posing the question of how it produces/constructs its identity, and disseminates it in the Lebanese Shi’i community. How modern is Hizbullah? Who produces its version of Shi’i identity? What are this identity’s main pillars?

The research drew on the nationalism debates and studies to address the question of how modern is the Hizbullah phenomenon?

The reason why this question of “how modern” is important, is its relation to the Islamists identity project (based on their claims of continuity for legitimacy purposes), which consumes much of their attention and resources, whether in education, publications, and media production.

In the field of Nationalism studies, the central question of “the role of the past in the creation of the present”, as Anthony Smith articulates it, contests the raison d’etre of these movements. Nationalists claim some form of continuity with the ethnic past, and this fuels their legitimacy among the populace, leading to stronger mobilization of the masses in certain cases. Well, Islamist movements are not that different. They claim to represent a continuity of the Nation of the prophet Mohammad and his legacy until this day – so basically, we’re talking about 1442 years of continuity, and more, given that “the sacred” dates back to the birth of the universe. This claim, and in order to be recognized and to contest other pre-existing and often conflicting narratives, requires a great deal of reconstruction of events and histories. This partially explains why Hizbullah, with a wide set of subsidized and affiliated publishing houses, was after the end of the civil war, the country’s largest publisher, claiming nearly half of books, magazines and periodicals.

This is a nation-building project. Nationalists, as Smith contends, construct their nation as “political archaeologists” who selectively rediscover and reinterpret the past. Islamists are political archaeologists, and they’re really good at it, even more successful than the founding fathers of the modern Arab State. Hizbullah has fully engaged in this project, with little inhibitions, given the Lebanese State’s weakness and failures.

What kind of identity are these groups disseminating? Why? What is their communal impact? How are they changing communities? I believed these questions would help us, partially, understand the transformation of society, conservative attitudes, and how individuals think about their place in their region, their place in the nation, and their role as citizens.

How did you go about conducting this research?

Firstly, the research entailed a great deal of discourse analysis, which included news articles, pamphlets, magazines, books, and school curriculums. I spent a good deal of time at Hizbullah affiliated publishing houses and bookstores, to understand the scope of their dissemination effort.

Secondly, I conducted fieldwork at Hizbullah’s institutions, and interviewed members of the organization at both senior and lower levels. We discussed the questions of identity, history and the dissemination effort. Access was mostly difficult; however, I managed to phase out the fieldwork.

And what were some of your key conclusions, based on the research?

My main conclusion was that this is a modern phenomenon – basically Hezbollah, which claims to be the latest manifestation of a continuous history of resistance and adherence to an Islamist hierarchy, Welayat al-Faqih or the absolute guardianship of the jurist, is a modern construct. As in the case of all nations and national narratives, a great deal of historical invention goes into the Hizbullah narrative. And this is not only inclusive of the organization’s narratives and identity work, but also a good deal of its ideology, mostly based on the 20th century scholarship of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini. What the research focused on was the web of institutions, and its work on constructing and disseminating an identity. Hizbullah is not only an Islamic resistance organization, it is a wide-scale identity-building project for the Lebanese Shia. This work is disseminated through Hezbollah’s publications and institutions. Hezbollah runs a large number of institutions, including a microloan bank, schools catering for thousands of students, higher education institutions, and a media network with radio and TV channels catering to adults and children. They also established foundations/institutions to care for the injured, the poor, and the families of martyrs. All of these institutions are publishers too, with tailored content and educational activities based on the organization’s ideology and narrative. I tried to shed light on this nation-building project, which is at odds with both the official and sectarian Lebanese narratives.

However, as I worked on the topic, I tried to touch upon the questions of economic marginalization of Lebanese Shiites in Lebanon’s post-colonial era, and the impact of Israeli occupation and the brutal 1978/1982 invasions. These economic policies and the occupation years laid the ground for this transformation in Lebanese Shia politics and identity.

Another conclusion is how Hizbullah reconciles a supposedly transnational Islamic ideology with underlying ethnic claims. This is in line with Iranian claims, basically reconciling Persian identity with Islam. Hizbullah’s literature has this subtle claim that there is something special about the people of Jabal ‘Amel, South Lebanon. Their resistance and commitment to Islamic causes, is a recurrent feature in the Hizbullah narratives. These claims are intertwined with supernatural narratives in their literature.

What do you think the impact of this project was, and what have you been working on since?

The project resulted in a book, which received decent reviews and generated some conversation. It also picked up some coverage in Arabic newspapers, which I thought was useful, specifically as I haven’t translated the book. My hope was to have a follow up journal article looking at the wider lens of the work, specifically the study of political Islam as a nation-building project. Such an approach, building on the nationalism debates, I thought, would help us understand the wider changes in the region, the culture, collective attitudes towards the state, and the overall decline of tolerance. This is work in progress.

At the Carnegie Middle East Centre, I am currently writing on the growing Russian and Turkish roles in the region, and the impact on intercommunal relations and politics in an increasingly fragmented region.