3 MAY 1997, Page 17


. . . asked the Hezbollah man of John Casey,

at the start of their chat about Mohammed, Christ, Hitler's Holocaust, etc

IN THE courtyard of a mosque in which I was standing in Tripoli during Friday prayers, I found myself exposed to the everyday sights and sounds of the Lebanon: the call of the muezzin, the chanted prayers of the congregation, the splashing of a fountain, and the ear-shat- tering supersonic boom of an Israeli war- plane flying extremely high overhead. I had not heard this sound since the days when Anthony Wedgwood Benn, as Minis- ter of Technology, sent fighters flying supersonically all over the British Isles in a crazy experiment to see whether we could be persuaded to get used to the noise. We could not. But although the ground and building shook, the worshippers did not even look up.

It must be extremely curious to see your adversary once or twice a day, as a tiny spot in the sky causing such a din down below. I suppose it is facile to point to the obvious symbolism of how the Lebanese must see the Israelis — so powerful, so close, and yet living in a different world.

This Friday was the first anniversary of the Israeli bombardment of the United Nations camp at Qana, just outside the Israeli security (or as the Lebanese say, `occupation') zone. More than 100 refugees had been killed. The Israelis insist that the shelling was an accident, and that they had been trying to return the fire of Hezbollah guerrillas who were near the camp. The Lebanese claim their Qana as the site of Christ's first miracle, rather than Cana of Galilee. But it was the shelling, rather than the miracle, which was the national theme of the day. That afternoon there was an elaborate ceremo- ny of remembrance at Qana. The speaker of the Lebanese parliament delivered an oration on a platform festooned with the yellow colours of Hezbollah.

You see the Hezbollah colours through- out the country. Around Baalbek (a Hezbollah stronghold, where some of the British hostages may have been kept for a time) they are supplemented by pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and other Iranian leaders. Young men and children with plastic buckets flag down passing cars to collect money for the cause.

Hezbollah (the party of God) are undeni- ably popular in Lebanon. They elected 12 members in the parliamentary elections, and got one of the largest popular votes. They shore up their support by bringing water into the poorer districts of Beirut where they have installed 'reservoirs' water tanks about six by six feet, painted with the Hezbollah insignia. They have also built schools and hospitals. Now they seem to be going into commerce. I was shown an unfinished complex which is to be a com- bined shopping centre, hospital and televi- sion station. Like the Islamists in Egypt, they claim to deliver local welfare untainted by corruption — which is almost unheard of in the Lebanon.

This is not the side of Hezbollah which has made most impact on the West. We know them as an Iranian-funded terrorist group who took Western hostages. We also connect them with suicide bombings. An attack on the United States embassy in Beirut killed 63 people, including all the CIA heads in the Middle East. In October 1983 what one book describes as 'a smiling suicide bomber' drove a lorry into the com- pound of the French and American marine bases, setting off a 4,000-pound bomb which killed 300 soldiers. It is said to have been the largest single explosion since Nagasaki. It persuaded President Reagan to withdraw troops from the Lebanon. But now Hezbollah has entered politics, and is willing to talk to foreigners without making them a captive audience.

Two local journalists took me to a Hezbollah headquarters in a suburb of Muslim west Beirut. It was full of hard- looking, bearded young men. My conversa- tion was to be with Mr Mousawe, one of their intellectuals, who has a chat-show on Hezbollah television.

Our conversation began with theology: `You have a distorted image of Islam in the West. Our duty is to give the real picture. Do you admire Thomas Carlyle? As early as the 1840s, in Heroes and Hero Worship, he was able to understand the Prophet. He said, "How can Mohammed have been a false prophet, when his words have inspired millions of people over the centuries?"' In fact, On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History is the only work of Car- lyle which I find entirely readable, and I do admire the chapter on Mohammed. Car- lyle respected Islam as resembling Chris- tianity, and the Koran as a sort of poetic rhapsody. But he was writing at a time when no one thought that Islam as a sys- tem of politics could become current again.

I said, 'Unlike Carlyle, you surely think that politics and religion are interconnect- ed?'

`Islam is unique among religions in hav- ing a principle of government. Islam has a remedy for the disease of modem life. It has the solution to all the problems we are facing.' Hezbollah wish, of course, to set up an Islamic republic in Lebanon.

I remembered that V.S. Naipaul, in his book Among the Believers, had just this sort of conversation in Iran: 'But what are these solutions? Naipaul wrote that when he pressed Iranians on this, all they came out with was that in an Islamic state there would be no mixed bathing and women would wear the veil. Does Islam even have an answer to the question of bank inter- est? You forbid usury, yet a modem econ- omy depends upon it.'

`Well, you cannot just apply Islam to a modem economy. It does not have answers in that way. But its principles are the key to understanding politics.'

I said, 'We tried the experiment of a religious state in Europe. We had the Puritans in England, and there was Calvin in Geneva. That is why we believe that religion and politics do not mix.'

`Ah, but the Puritans had another agen- da. They had other aims, they were not trying to apply Christianity. Anyway, Christianity is not that sort of religion.

`The greatness of Islam is that we com- bine Judaism and Christianity. Jesus freed enslaved hearts, he was able to release human feeling, to reveal a kingdom of peace. Jesus's realm was the realm of soul. Jesus is soul; Moses is mind, the mind of the legislator. In Islam we interweave both.'

I asked Mr Mousawe whether in his Islamic republic there would be freedom of thought. Would it be possible to apply modem methods of criticism to the Koran and the Hadith (the traditional Sayings of the Prophet)? I had met an Egyptian pro- fessor a couple of years ago who was dis- missed from his academic post and briefly imprisoned for denying that any of the Sayings are authentic.

Tut we Shias are much more open- minded than the Egyptian Sunnis. We allow new interpretations of scripture, new theories. We understand that poetry and religion are interconnected.'

I said, 'It seems to me that Islam, as you describe it, is quite close to Judaism.'

Ali, but we respect Jesus Christ (peace and the blessings of God be upon him). The Jews have the practice of spitting on the Cross.'

I thought I had misheard. 'I beg your pardon? What did you just say?'

`They spit on the Cross.'

`No, I am sure you are wrong. I have never even heard that suggested.'

`I tell you — it is a well-known ceremo- ny.'

I found this mixture of respect for Judaism and a belief in what sounded like mediaeval anti-Semitic legends disturbing, but also puzzling in the midst of this con- versation. I said, 'Perhaps the Arabs are invisible to our European imaginations because we see only Hitler and his crime against the Jews. And you Arabs cannot see Hitler's crime because all you see is Israel.'

`Perhaps that is right. But I do not know what is the truth about what Hitler did. There could be many problems in killing so many people.'

`Are you saying that the Holocaust did not take place?'

`No, I say that I am not an expert. I do not know.' • `May I say two things? Even just from the point of view of propaganda, I think that it would be most unwise for you to deny the Holocaust. You would look like admirers of Hitler. More to the point, the evidence is overwhelming that it did take place.'

`All I am saying is that I do not know.' This was already a free and frank exchange, so I thought we could move on. `I should like to discuss the ethics of sui- cide bombings.'

`We prefer to call them "self-sacrifice operations". Suicide attacks are of course forbidden, except when they count as self- sacrifice operations.'

Tut how do you defend them? In Europe we have a theory of just war, as developed by St Thomas Aquinas. That forbids attacks on unarmed civilians. So how can the Tel Aviv bomb [which killed two women] possibly be defended?'

`That was Hamas, not Hezbollah. We are a resistance movement. We attack the armed enemy. Our struggle against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon is entirely lawful. We attack the enemy, not civilians.' Then a look of modest pride came over Mr Mousawe's face. 'Our first one — that took out more than 50.' He was (I suppose) referring to the embassy bomb. 'Self-sacrifice operations are allowed when they are the only way to avoid a larger danger. For instance, if there is a fire, you may have to blow up a house to stop it spreading.'

`Is that how you see it?'


This was eerily like the sort of conversa- tion I imagine one might have with a mem- ber of Sinn Fein. The difference is that Hezbollah has incomparably greater sup- port. To preserve the fiction that the Lebanon is divided, in roughly equal num- bers, between Christians, Sunnis and Shias, no proper census has been taken since the 1930s. Many suspect that the Shias are now a majority of the popula- tion, and Hezbollah is well on the way to becoming the majority Shia party.

I visited Chatila, the Palestinian refugee camp which, along with Sabra, was the scene of a notorious massacre in 1982. Christian Phalange gunmen, enraged by the assassination of their president, entered the camps and slaughtered 1,200 people, mostly women and children. The Israeli army was near at hand, but did not intervene. They almost certainly did not know what was going on. Nevertheless, an Israeli inquiry found a culpable lack of foresight by the army, and a failure to control their Pha- lange allies. It recommended the dismissal of the defence minister, Ariel Sharon, and of the chief of staff, General Eitan.

I heard about it from Mohammed, who was a witness: 'They came at night. They threw flares over the wall, then they came in. I saw four women running away in ter- ror. Later I found the four bodies, with children near them. The women's bodies had beer cans dropped on them. The head of one woman had been cut off and left at her side.

`The Phalange had got hold of a bull- dozer. At dawn I found 300 bodies. I opened the door of a shelter and found a whole Lebanese family massacred. Then snipers began firing at me, so I hid.

`The militia entered the hospital at Sabra. They killed all the doctors they could find and burned the hospital. They buried the bodies of both camps in mass graves with bulldozers. Some people were buried alive.'

I asked, 'How do you know some were buried alive?'

`I hid as I was trying to escape. I heard people crying out, "Don't bury us alive." They were as sheep to the slaughter.'

I asked, 'What do you think of Hezbol- lah?'

`They are our shield and our spear.'

I spent the rest of the day exploring the giant building site which is now Beirut. The Prime Minister has staked all his govern- ment's credibility — as well as £30 million of his own money — on Beirut's emerging physically from the ashes of war, attracting huge foreign investment and becoming, once again, the premier city of the Levant. It is an immense gamble and requires, above all, peace.

In the course of reconstruction, quite a few Roman and earlier sites have been uncovered, but in the interests of the build- ing plan they are all going to be buried again. I suppose that the interests of peace in the Lebanon and the Middle East gener- ally require that Sabra and Chatila, and other horrors on both sides of the border, become simply 'inveterate scars/Appeasing long forgotten wars'.