Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hezbollah and Socially Engaged Buddhism

posing with hezbollah flag
Photo by Paul Keller, some rights reserved.
Posing with Hezbollah flag, Khiam, Lebanon, 2007.

The system stinks, as Robert Aitken Roshi liked to put it.

We now possess the productive capacity to eradicate hunger, most infectious diseases, and provide everyone on the planet with the basic necessities, a basic education, and basic healthcare. We have the technology to do that sustainably. Yet billions continue to scrape by at a subsistence level. Hundreds of millions are illiterate. We're using up natural resources at nearly double the sustainable rate. A small minority of us live lives of luxury—including yours truly—and a tiny, tiny fraction become obscenely rich.

"Whoever dies with the most stuff, wins" is a pretty sorry excuse of a foundation for society. Buddhists might have some ideas about how to improve that.

It's clear that there is a case for change. Nobody can do that alone. Change can only happen socially. For that to happen, two things are needed: a degree of consensus, and a degree of organization. Religious groups provide both. Socially engaged religion is a natural development. It would be surprising if this never happened with Buddhism.

When considering the question of socially engaged Buddhism, it might be worthwhile to look at a highly successful example of socially engaged religion.

A history of oppression

Independent Lebanon was a Maronite Christian project. The Maronites are Roman Catholics who follow the Syriac rite. They have had close contacts with the French for over 500 years. When the Ottoman empire broke up and the European colonial powers carved up its provinces, France got dibs on what is now Lebanon. With their help, the Maronites created what was to be a homeland for Christian Arabs on prime Syrian coastline. They did what anyone would have done in their place—they grabbed as much land as they could get away with.

Much of that land was inhabited by Shi'ite Muslims. Already in Ottoman times, the Shi'ites were at the bottom of the totem pole. Most were illiterate peasants or sharecroppers eking out a subsistence-level existence, as their feudal overlords—a small number of rich, cosmopolitan families quite at home among the Ottoman aristocracy, and later with the Maronite elite—kept them in a tight grip.

In the 1960's, one Imam Musa Sadr entered the scene. He founded a group called the Movement of the Disinherited. Its purpose was to organize the Shi'ites in order to help them improve their lot. Imam Musa Sadr was a remarkable character. Like some of his Lebanese contemporaries, his vision transcended sectarian divides: he wanted justice not only for the Shi'ites, but for everybody. Naturally, he got himself removed from the scene: he disappeared into thin air on an official visit to Libya in 1978.

Then, in 1982, Israel invaded.

To start with, the Shi'ites as represented by Amal, the successor to Musa Sadr's movement, didn't feel too bad about that. Southern Lebanon had been under Palestinian control, and just like everybody before them, the PLO was keeping them cowed with violence and terror.

Israel didn't leave. What's more, it just stepped into the shoes from which it had ousted the Palestinians: it allied with the Christian minority of South Lebanon, recruiting them into a proxy army, and continued to stomp on the Shi'ites.

This time, they fought back.

Imam Musa Sadr's work had left them with an effective political organization, and had given them their first taste of being able to do something to look out for themselves. The Palestinians languishing in their refugee camps told them what the alternative to fighting would be, and the PLO the Israelis had ejected had given them a taste of military organization and guerrilla tactics.

Then they found a powerful supporter a few countries across to the East, in Iran, where the Islamic Revolution of 1979 had ousted the Shah and put their coreligionists in power.

The conditions, the consensus, the organization, the skills, the precedent, and the means had come together. Out of these ingredients stewed in the witch's cauldron of the Lebanese civil war arose Hezbollah—a movement that combined the social engagement and mutual-help activism of Imam Musa Sadr with a fierce fighting spirit, a reverence for martyrdom, ruthless tactics born from having to fight dirty because fighting clean never was an option, and a massive grudge with every one of their historical oppressors.

Hezbollah in power

Hezbollah is continuing Imam Musa Sadr's work. Every year, Beirut's Southern Suburbs are looking less like a slum and more like a regular part of town. Impressive mosques, schools, and hospitals appear between cinderblock homes. Roads have been paved. Sewers and streetlights have been installed. Order is being maintained. Most Shi'ites now have access to primary education and basic health care. The Hezbollah even provides social security of a kind—more to families of martyrs for the cause, but others as well. Many are learning foreign languages—especially French, since English is associated with American cultural imperialism.

Hezbollah's social work is not a cynical ploy to maintain the support of the population. It is fundamental to their values, program, and vision. It is not a very big exaggeration to say that the Hezbollah is Shi'ite Lebanon.

Hezbollah-controlled areas are also more or less off-limits for people who are of a different color—politically, or physically, in the case of pale-skinned foreigners. You might come across a shiny new KFC, but the row of yellow-and-green posters facing it, with their grim men sporting beards and turbans, make it clear that you're not in Kentucky anymore.

Most significantly, Hezbollah is a major pain in the ass for anybody who isn't a supporter, as well as being a serious obstacle to peace—both civil peace in Lebanon, and regional peace among Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, with the Iranian involvement amplifying the movement's power to make it globally significant.

Social movements expressed in religious form

Hezbollah is a social movement first and foremost. It springs from massive injustice. It takes its form from Shi'a Islam. Many of these forms are extremely well suited for war and politics—a reverence for martyrdom, a theological justification for defensive war, a detailed template for ordering a society.

These are not essential ingredients.

Any religious identity would have served as a basis for a movement much like it in the conditions that gave it birth. If the Shi'ites had been Buddhists, I have no doubt whatsoever that something very similar would have emerged.1

When the conditions for social mobilization of religious movements are present, such mobilization will happen. The Roman Catholic Church played a central role in breaking the hold of Soviet Communism in Poland. Expressed through Liberation Theology, Catholic clergy are working to better the lot of the weakest in Latin American society. The IRA and the UDA in Ireland were based around Catholic and Protestant identity. Jewish social and political engagement runs the gamut from Neturei Karta to Kach. Buddhist monks constitute the sole organized opposition to the Burmese military junta.

The Heavy Cost of Success

Hezbollah has done a tremendous amount of good for Lebanese Shi'ites. Without the movement Imam Musa Sadr started, they would still be living in abject poverty and ignorance in third-world conditions. They would not have a voice in Lebanese society, let alone a voice that is heard around the world. The Maronites, Israelis, Palestinians, or their old feudal overlords would not have looked out for them. Yet now they have painted themselves into a corner.

The problem for Hezbollah is that the greatest strength of socially engaged religion also sets its limits. Hezbollah is a movement of, by, and for Lebanese Shi'ites. They cannot step outside those bounds, nor can they let anyone else in. This puts them permanently at odds with the other sects in Lebanon and with the Israelis to the South, and makes their alliance with the Syrians a marriage of convenience at best.

This illustrates a fundamental dynamic in socially engaged religion. The common ground given by identity and ideology gives such movements a cohesiveness and power that makes them astoundingly effective. At the same time, they by definition divide people into 'us' and 'them,' and keep 'us' in and 'them' out. A movement of socially engaged Buddhists would, by definition, exclude Christians, Muslims, Jews, or the nonreligious, even if they should share many of their goals. Such a movement also puts pressure on 'us' to be 'in,' even if we have qualms about it, or its goals.

Social movements based on religious identity can be incredibly powerful and effective; powerful enough to fight one of the strongest militaries around today to a standstill. That power comes at a great cost. That price must be paid if the movement becomes successful, and almost invariably the price poisons the very heart of the spiritual practice from which the movement sprung.

The very existence of a social movement with a religious identity accentuates and deepens divides between religious identities. Hezbollah has become a bogeyman for America, and, in a way, a very hostile public face for Shi'ite Muslims in general. In Lebanon, its existence and power has made an already bad case of sectarianism much worse.

The worst outcome is having a religious based social movement gain power. As systems of governments go, theocracies are just about as awful as it gets. I would have hated living in old Tibet at least as much as in modern Saudi Arabia or Spain of the Very Catholic Ferdinand and Isabella.

Tikkun olam

Had I been a Lebanese Shi'ite in the 1960's, I would have enthusiastically supported the Movement of the Disinherited. If I was a South American Catholic clergyman, I would embrace Liberation Theology. If I was a Burmese monk, I would use that special position in society to resist the military junta.

But I'm not.

The divide between Muslims and Westerners—both Christians and those who consider themselves heirs to the Enlightenment—is the single greatest structural threat to world peace today. Islamophobia in the West has its flip side among Muslims, and those who are working to bridge the divide rather than widen it seem to have their voices drowned out ever more effectively. I am not convinced that adding yet more social movements with sectarian identities would help with this problem. It did not help for Lebanon. I do not see any reason why it should help for the world.

Tikkun olam—healing the world—is a Hebrew expression for a universal concept. There is an imperative to heal the world in any spiritual practice. The bodhisattva vow is to liberate all beings. To defer that to some future date when you have first become perfectly enlightened yourself empties it of all meaning. A spiritual practice that has no ethical component is not worthy of the name. Anyone sincerely pursuing such a practice will find himself practicing not just on the zafu, or in church, or when reciting the Shahada. There is not the smallest shred of doubt in my mind about that.2

Whether that engagement should be made under the banner of that particular practice is a different and more complex matter. In the circumstances where I find myself, I choose not to do so. I would not wish to participate in a sangha that came with political baggage. I believe that in the context of an open society where opportunities for social and political engagement abound, there are better ways to take my practice to the world. Some of these ways certainly involve political activity. Just not under the banner of Buddhism.

Recommended reading

Hala Jaber: Hezbollah: Born with a Vengeance


1The Druze of Lebanon are rather similar to Buddhists in many of their religious ideas. They organized into a highly effective—and bloody—militia as well.
2No, I don't think the converse is true—that a spiritual practice is a prerequisite for wanting to 'heal the world,' whatever that may mean. I've wanted to do that a great deal longer than I've had anything resembling one.


  1. It is funny, one side is called liberators and patriots and the other side calls them insurgents and terrorists. Who is right?

  2. All of them? It all depends on the point of view. Or choice of phenomenological framework, if you will…

  3. I don't think I have much left to say on these issues right now. There seems to be divide that people are hanging in - either religion must be divorced from the social/political realm, or it's driven by the same realm. I personally think it's a false divide, another dualism that fails us.

    You make some convincing points about social religious movements gaining power, and the disasterous results that follow. But you seem to see all such movements as inevitably leading to such an outcome - a point I disagree with.

    I believe in the power of grassroots, cross religious and secular coalitions. Major changes here in the U.S. historically didn't come from the engaged work of any single group, but from many working together, across their differences.

    This is where my interest in engaged Buddhism lies, being part of a group that actively puts what we have learned as Buddhists into the larger social/political realm in a way that allows us to work with Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, etc.

    A lot of the time, there is failure. Perhaps big mistakes are made that bring about a lot of suffering. And this is where I think a lot of people are stuck on - fears that getting involved will create a lot of suffering. The thing is, no one is on the sidelines. Just being alive, within a given society, means you are involved. But because many people are passive in that involvement for various reasons, a select few control far too much. Perhaps you and others think this will always be the case. I don't.

    Just as history is a great teacher, it's also important not to get trapped by how things have happened in the past. We talk all the time about this on a microlevel, and I see it as important on the macrolevel as well.

    That's all I have right now.

  4. I only think it's inevitable if the movement in question gains power. As long as it's grassroots and the underdog, it can maintain its integrity, for a very long period of time, even.

    This is a complex topic, and I don't think there are any simple answers. I'm certainly not categorically against social engagement under the Buddhist banner. I believe it depends on circumstances—as I said, it would be hard to argue against it in the Burmese case, for example.

    But, as I said, in the context of an open society where opportunities for political and social engagement abound, I have a preference for opportunities that are not exclusionary by definition, as socially engaged religious movements are. I tried to explain some of my reasons in this post.

    I also agree with you about the false dichotomy. I tried to express some of that in this post too. IOW, I don't think our differences are as big as you might think—I rather think we're in agreement about the big picture, although we may (or may not—I don't know of the specific circumstances you're in) disagree about a specific case of applying it.

  5. Yeah, your comment clarified a few things, and I think we are mostly in agreement.

    I've actually never been involved in a socially engaged Buddhist group working on particular issues before. All of my social action work has been with secular organizations so far. And it might continue to be so in the future. I don't know.

    What's funny is right now, I am probably the least "socially engaged" that I have been in several years. I'm feeling a need to be more internally focused, but know that I will turn outward again at some point. Whatever writing and commenting I am doing now is all I am offering. And that's just fine.

    I've been learning to live with the ebb and flow of life more, with less judgment and attempts to push it in a certain direction.

  6. "it would be hard to argue against it in the Burmese case, for example."

    What would be interesting is to hear all the different thoughts about how best to engage the Burma situation. I think it is an excellent subject that Buddhists could unite in, but for me, I feel the use or the threat of force would be needed, much like NATO in Serbia back in 1996-98. So much suffering going on, beyond the cameras and out of sight of the eyes of the world. What would it take for that junta to step aside and for the horrid human rights violations to end?

    I don't know, but certainly military force would be a reasonable option.

  7. I agree, Petteri
    Further, with all the divisions of sects, and the various solutions any given Buddhist would hold, the divides would happen as among Muslims. I am for keeping inner practice separate from politics. Why mix up all those banners -- they are banners, after all. Turf.

  8. @Kyle – I disagree about military intervention in Burma. They results are rarely what's intended, and the downside risk is huge. In my view, a military intervention is only justifiable in truly extreme cases, such as mass murder on an industrial scale. Rwanda, Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, that kind of thing. That's not the case in Burma, as odious as the regime is.

    But that's a discussion I'm not interested in having at this time. Perhaps another post.