Throughout the past weeks, thousands had taken to the streets all over Lebanon to express their frustration with the political elite. Initially, vocal opposition to corruption, economic hardship, and infrastructural problems has been at the core of the mass protests. In a televised speech during the early stages of the protests, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, voiced his support for the protesters and asked them to beware of foreign influence that could take advantage of them. Arab and international media was quick to misquote his words and present them as threats and conspiracy theories. Misinterpreting Nasrallah’s statements, media quickly and aggressively constructed an imaginary opposition between Hezbollah and the protesters, furthering Western journalists’ already powerful discursive location of Hezbollah and Shia Lebanese outside of contemporary civilization.
Foreign interference from different actors has always shaped Lebanon’s existence. This is not to say that the protests were orchestrated from the outside. Lebanon is indeed in an economic crisis, political corruption is more visible than ever, and the first protests emerged as a consequence of long popular frustration, anger, and fears.
Reactions to the protests from U.S. media and the White House showed very clearly how invested the United States indeed is in destabilizing Lebanon. While within Lebanon, the protesters had focused on the ruling elite as a whole, international media – from the United States to its Arab allies - have long distorted the protests into alleged anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iranian uprisings.
The Fascination with Hezbollah
Today, Orientalists of all backgrounds are obsessed with the Lebanese resistance movement and political party Hezbollah. There are plenty of reasons for this. Writing about Hezbollah for Western media outlets does not require any knowledge or research about Hezbollah or Lebanon, yet it can provide a spontaneous and easy source of attention and financial income. Factual reporting is not only unnecessary when it comes to Hezbollah. It is consciously avoided. Lebanon is a journalistic market and Lebanese are dehumanized into figures that can be exploited by the Westerner to earn some dollars and/or potentially make a name for themselves.
The Violence of Copy/Pasting
No matter what happens in Lebanon, all eyes are directed first and foremost at Hezbollah. The public discourse in the West locates the movement somewhere in a parallel universe and portrays it as an unpredictable threat and, at times, as a “terrorist organization.” The protests were, of course, no exception. And with the unfolding of the slightest newsworthy event, any journalist can suddenly transform into a Hezbollah expert, read the mind of every Hezbollah supporter and predict every step they will take.
The act of lazy Copy/Pasting from Orientalist archives is the preferred journalistic practice. Any writing about Hezbollah in Western media will, most likely, include the terms “Iranian-funded,” “proxy,” “Shiite militant group,” “Southern Suburbs,” and “Hezbollah stronghold.” In Western imageries, Hezbollah, and the people it represents, are dehumanized to an extent that anyone can easily feel entitled to talk about and on behalf of Hezbollah without having to face any consequences. The party and its supporters are deprived of any agency and presented as executers of Iranian wishes. Not only do such words collectively insult everyone associated with Hezbollah. In obscuring Hezbollah’s raison d’etre, this rhetoric whitewashes the threats and violence, such as those emanating from Israel, that Lebanese have to deal with and, consequently, it also rationalizes violence against Shia and non-Shia Lebanese.
U.S. Imperial Fantasies
Through a blatant anti-Hezbollah rhetoric, corporate media in the United States has long adhered to the State Department’s wishes for regime change in Lebanon. The ongoing protests provided yet another opportunity for journalists to display their linguistic capacities to relentlessly recycle the same articles with new synonyms, always presenting Hezbollah not as part of the people but as an authoritarian, oppressive regime dichotomous to the population.
That the United States is invested in a regime change in Lebanon is not a conspiracy theory. The latest protests triggered, once again, hawkish fantasies in Washington, D.C.
Walid Phares, a Lebanese-born U.S. right-wing Republican, who serves as an advisor to Trump, has been quick to exploit the protests. In an absurd tweet addressing Donald Trump, he claimed that
“2 million Lebanese citizens have been protesting in Beirut against deep corruption in their Gov. & Hezbollah terror threat. They see you as the leader of the free world & their voice for justice. They want to make Lebanon free again!”
Phares, known for his pro-Israeli views and outspoken anti-Islam rhetoric, previously urged Israel during its occupation of Lebanon to partition the country and create a Christian State in South Lebanon, arguing that “Christians of Lebanon are the only potential ally against the advance of the northern Arabo-Islamic threat against Israel.” It is thus unsurprising that Phares abused the protests to call for regime change. Setting up a “free government,” he argued, would be embraced by the United States and its allies and welcomed with economic privileges. His rhetoric is based largely on anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iranian fear-mongering.
U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has particularly aggressively interfered in Lebanese domestic politics. On an official visit to Lebanon in March 2019, Pompeo peddled anti-Iranian policies under the ridiculous guise of supporting Lebanese democracy. His stay in Lebanon mostly focused on his obsession with Hezbollah, which he characterized as an “Iranian-funded terrorist organization.” Pompeo incited the Lebanese to rise up against Hezbollah, and clearly offered U.S. support for efforts against Hezbollah from within Lebanon.
Pompeo was as well quick to add a white savior narrative to the latest protests. He recently publicly took pride in his activities as former CIA director, when he bragged to a laughing and cheering crowd: “We lied, we cheated, we stole.” Commenting on the protests in Lebanon, he lied that “in the streets of Beirut” people were “rising up against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” “They want to be Lebanese, not Hebollah,” Pompeo claimed. According to the U.S. Secretary, the Lebanese want their country back as “[t]hey are discovering that the Iranian regime’s top export is corruption, badly disguised as revolution.”
Beyond Pompeo’s geo-political and economic considerations, his stance towards Hezbollah is emblematic of the wider problem the United States has with the resistance movement. Born out of the necessity to react to the brutal occupation and warfare of Israel in Southern Lebanon, Hezbollah emerged as a movement against Israel’s exploitation of the Lebanese population. Over the past three decades, it has consolidated its role as a local, national, and regional bulwark against various forms of violence that plague Lebanon. Within Lebanon, this stance has translated into practical resistance against Israeli warfare. As such, Hezbollah represents a staunchly anti-Zionist position.
Pompeo’s politics are informed by his embrace of Christian Zionism. Pompeo wants Jews to move to Palestine in order to trigger the coming of Jesus. Thus, beyond current political events, Hezbollah poses a structural threat to these apocalyptic colonialist, Christian fundamentalist, and anti-Semitic endeavors.
Yet, the United States decides which lives are livable and which are not. Accordingly, Lebanese need to be punished for having voted for the “wrong” parties in last year’s parliamentary elections and for resisting, to a certain extent, the wishes of the empire. Hence, either Lebanese are coerced into rising up against Hezbollah or they will suffer.
This quest for regime change is evident in headlines in major U.S. papers, for example, in the title of David Ignatius’ writing in the Washington Post: “Hezbollah had been nearly untouchable in Lebanon. But the people are fighting back” – an Orientalist masterpiece providing a perfect copy/pasting of the most common tropes. This comes as no surprise, given that the author’s recent articles include “Syria is lost. Let’s save Lebanon.”
Ignatius presents the protests as being “in open defiance of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia that dominates Lebanese politics.” He claims that the “protesters have ignored threats from Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader,” and that “gangs of Hezbollah militants” tried to suppress the protests.
The media obsession about an incident where individuals clashed with some protesters was contrasted with the same media’s ignorance of the immediate official statement by Hezbollah’s media office that clarified that this incident was neither organized nor endorsed by Hezbollah. However, Hezbollah’s own words do not matter.
Similarly, Roger Cohen wrote several articles in the New York Times, constructing a dichotomy between Hezbollah and the people. His text, “Lebanon Battles to Be Born at Last” was introduced with the patronizing line, “[t]he Middle East could use a decent country.” That this offensive sentence was later removed does not change the fact that the whole text is replete with deeply Orientalist tropes. According to Cohen, Lebanon is the “most sectarian of countries” and that with “one thousand conspiracy theories.” Patronization is combined with the neurotic need to locate everything that happens in Lebanon within sensationalist categories. Cohen writes: “Lebanon … is last to the Arab Spring, or at least an Arab something.” The author’s contempt for the histories and realities that shape Lebanese lives forces him to reduce them to colonialist word plays like “Arab something” – because every breathe people in the Middle East take can be rhetorically exploited for the title of a potential Wikipedia article.
In wrongfully propagating that “[o]ne million Lebanese protesters are demanding change,” but that “Hezbollah has other ideas,” Cohen vehemently tries to misrepresent the protests as an uprising against Hezbollah. Indeed, some of the protesters in Beirut did implicitly or explicitly include Hezbollah as part of their anti-government chants – but what Cohen states is far from the truth. Some raised their anger indiscriminately against all politicians. Others, who chanted against Hezbollah, are people who are already opposed to the movement for partisan or sectarian reasons. Nothing seemed to indicate a separate anti-Hezbollah movement. In fact, protesters have focused on targeting several politicians, from Gebran Bassil to Samir Geagea. Sayyed Nasrallah was not central. Nor is there anything to indicate that Hezbollah has lost any support from its own base. Still, Cohen’s writing suggests that a million people took to the streets to oppose Nasrallah. Such assumptions reflect U.S. imperial fantasies rather than reality.
The rant continues with the dehumanizing “proxy” trope, when Cohen claims that “Lebanon, through Hezbollah, is Iran’s proxy on the border of Israel,” and, speaking on behalf of Lebanese, shows alleged concern that “young Lebanese are tired of being other people’s proxies.” According to Cohen, Lebanese would not resist Israeli state violence that they have been exposed to for decades if it was not for Iran’s incitement. Probably, the United States would rather see Lebanese passive, neutralized, and fragile for Israel’s brutal actions.
It took Cohen only four days to recycle his writing into another sensationalist article, “The Arab Spring Rekindled in Beirut” within the same Orientalist discourse. Eight years after the “Arab Spring,” Cohen claims, “the sources of Arab rage have not changed.” The so-called “Arab Spring” is, of course, a marvelous way to pack all Arabs into one category of an unenlightened and intellectually backward people, oppressed and unaware of their oppression, dormant, until they turn their genetically embodied incompetence into action. Professor Edward Said would probably turn in his grave.
In line with Western liberal assumptions, Cohen praises Hariri, claiming that the street protests brought down the Prime minister – completely ignoring the Saudi influence behind Hariri’s decision-making. Instead, Cohen blames all internal problems in Lebanon on Iran and talks about “Shia-Sunni balance,” “Shia Iran,” “Islamic Republic,” “Shia dominance,” and “Iranian overreach.”
Sadly, no other political party in Lebanon gets any attention. The crowds of Hariri supporters, for example, who took to the streets on cars and motorcycles after his resignation, blocked roads, and fired shots in the air remain absent from the Western narrative. And even if they were mentioned – as the dehumanizing language is reserved for Shia only, it is hard to imagine anyone referring to “Saudi-funded extremists,” “Sunni thugs,” or calling Lebanese Forces supporters “Maronite Catholic gangs,” or “Vatican-affiliated rebels.”
The Orientalist narrative stretches to a simplified depiction of the Lebanese war. According to Cohen, “Lebanon fought a devastating civil war in the late 20th century” due to sectarian divisions between Shia, Sunnis, and Christians. However, the Lebanese war was much more complex and emerged as an armed conflict between different political fractions, was fought within different sects, included fighting between Christians themselves, and was shaped by foreign involvement, such as U.S., Israeli, and Syrian interventions. The Israeli invasion facilitated, among other crimes, the Sabra and Shatila genocide and resulted in a decades-long brutal military occupation that was eventually ended with Hezbollah’s liberation of South Lebanon.
The last sentence of Cohen’s text is an ample summary of the white men’s fantasies of supremacy: “ ‘Run for Modernity,’ says a T-shirt I’ve been seeing on the seafront. Why not?” Cohen implies that Lebanese, and Arabs in general, are located within a backward time and space, inferior to him who looks down upon these natives.
Western Journalists and Experts in Beirut Screaming “Hezbollah”
These articles are only examples of an Orientalist archive that keeps on growing on a daily basis. Its expansion is facilitated by those Westerners who come to Lebanon to exploit the indigenous people’s lives for their own financial interest and attention deficit, i.e., self-professed “journalists” and “experts.” Probably more dangerous than establishment pundits, whose political line is hardly surprising, these Westerners disguise their biased, white, Orientalist narratives as journalistic reports and sell them “live from Beirut” to the highest bidder.
The malicious claim that Lebanon was an authoritarian regime and that Hezbollah controls every detail of people’s lives is in itself refuted by those who write exactly this, while they are comfortably hanging out somewhere between Hamra and Mar Mikhael in central Beirut.
Access to Beirut seems to provide them with a feeling of entitlement and supremacy and allows them to reflect themselves back as experts to the places where they hail from and potentially make a career out of interfering and abusing any even marginally newsworthy event in Lebanon, and appropriating it in ways that will fit their individual understanding and simplified representation of Lebanon.
Lizzie Porter’s highly problematic article “Hezbollah will go to great lengths to protect the power it has won over decades” in The National is a prime example of this phenomenon.
The piece of this Beirut-based journalist includes some basic small talk about Hezbollah, mixes the most rudimentary facts with misinformation, decorated with catchy words and replete with Orientalist assumptions. It presents neither analysis, nor questions or investigation. Porter writes the usual about “Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs” and Washington’s pressure on “Iran and its proxies.”
As she correctly assesses, the protesters’ “accusations of corruption” were “aimed at Lebanon’s entire political elite.” She also acknowledges: “Even among protesters – many of whom openly dislike Hezbollah – the militant group’s disarmament is not one of the main concerns.” So, why does the author seem so concerned with Hezbollah then?
Porter further writes: “Supporters instigated violence against protesters trying to change Lebanon’s sectarian-based political status quo, from which the party benefits.” This ignores the socio-political background and history of Hezbollah and its stance on sectarianism – which is the exact opposite of what Porter claims. For anyone unaware of the developments in Lebanon, such a statement makes it seem as if Hezbollah has organized violence against protesters. Anyone thinking that Hezbollah would need to actually send people on motorcycles to incite violence probably does not understand what Hezbollah represents.
It is interesting that the same people who engage in fear-mongering over power of the movement seem to think that Hezbollah is desperate for teenagers on bikes to cause disturbances. But such words perfectly fit into the Western narrative. The fact that Hezbollah officially and immediately distanced itself from these actions is, unsurprisingly, not mentioned by Porter. And because talking about Hezbollah also allows the Western writer to predict the future, Porter knows that Hezbollah “will take measures to silence” Shiite protesters.
Throughout the piece, Porter is trying to make the protests all about Hezbollah, with sentences like: “Hezbollah is being challenged by widespread calls for an end to the overall political system in which it has won legitimacy and power.” The climax of this strange reasoning is reached in the text’s final sentence: “Without viable alternatives who have the financial and political power to challenge it, the group [Hezbollah] will live on.” One has to wonder what the sense and intention of such statements are. Is Porter asking for financial and political efforts against Hezbollah? Why would she question Hezbollah’s survival, which was not threatened at any point?
Porter wrote another superficial article in Prospect Magazine, which basically describes that Arabs are protesting. It follows the same bias: “Supporters of powerful political parties, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, have attacked protestors. Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned under pressure from the street.”
These two sentences reveal the main problem in Western media. Despite winning last year’s democratic elections, Hezbollah becomes a foreign implant, while Hariri is the Prime Minister, i.e., a more legitimate part of the domestic political system. If one refers to Hezbollah as Iranian-backed, why would one not also refer to Hariri as Saudi-backed? And why do commentators award Hariri with an individual political agency that is contestable? Hariri, for sure, did not resign out of mere respect for the protesters’ demands. Anyone familiar with Lebanese politics would know that Hariri would not have been able to resign without Saudi Arabia’s consent or even pressure.
Porter’s article says that Arabs in different countries are protesting. Okay. Syrians are protesting - and Algerians, too. What a sensation and incredible, new information. Or, rather, a desperate attempt to write basically anything: “In all of these countries, people are opposed to ruling elites, widespread corruption, and social injustice.” Sure, but so are people around the world, from Flint, Michigan, to Paris. Porter’s article does not add anything significant about the protests. Again, one has to wonder if Porter is making any point other than just typing “Hezbollah” twenty-two times?
These depictions serve as examples of Western media’s appropriation of the protests. The word “Hezbollah” is most newsworthy and allows for public attention and economic benefits without the need to do any intellectual efforts.
In this context, especially Beirut-based journalists appear as audacious and even dangerous. Marketing themselves as close to the source via their social media channels and evoking that they have access to some indigenous knowledge that goes beyond the average Westerner’s understanding, they construct themselves as experts, while avoiding any moral considerations about responsibilities that come with staying in a foreign country on other people’s oftentimes contested and previously colonized and occupied land and feeling entitled to speak about them and on their behalf to one’s own audience. This is the epitome of white privilege. The least such experts could do is not disrespect and misrepresent the indigenous population.