Nasrallah’s rhetoric driven by fear, hate and grudges نديم قطيش: دوافع ومحركات خطاب السيد حسن نصرالله هي مركبات الخوف والكراهية والأحقاد Nadim Koteich/Arab News/June 30/2019
When Al-Qusayr, a Sunni city in western Syria close to the border with Lebanon, was retaken from Syrian revolutionary fighters by Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah in the summer of 2013, the battle marked a brutal shift in events: From a national popular uprising against a dictator into a sectarian war that transcends national borders.
Fighters from Hezbollah captured the moment on camera, as a group of them waved from the minaret of the city’s Sunni mosque a flag with “Ya Hussein” emblazoned on it. The video went viral and dovetailed with how Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah frames his battle in Syria.
From the outset of the Syrian revolution, he understood that any military intervention there could not simply be justified along the lines of “resisting Israel.” So, early on, Nasrallah warned that “armed groups are within close proximity of the Shrine of Zaynab,” adding that “they might choose to demolish it.” By calling on this deep, passionate and contentious memory, Nasrallah set the stage for a communications strategy based on fear and hatred.
Nasrallah succeeded in sublimating the war with continuing Imam Al-Hussein’s battle. He was settling centuries-old scores with the innocent Sunnis of Al-Qusayr and beyond; or so he led his fighters and community to believe.
The Al-Manar TV channel, Hezbollah’s media arm, played a major role in mobilizing the Shiite community to support the party’s role in Syria, investing in similarly divisive themes. It covered the funerals of fallen Hezbollah fighters extensively, broadcasting angry, yet proud, crowds chanting “Zainab won’t be taken hostage twice” alongside huge portraits of Nasrallah.
Through such historical parallelisms, the communications strategy that Nasrallah devised and championed contextualized the battle in Syria with hate and revenge, rendering innocent Sunni civilians in Syria “legitimate” targets and rallying Shiite support for a war that possesses all the features of a massacre.
From the outset of the Syrian revolution, Nasrallah understood that any military intervention there could not simply be justified along the lines of “resisting Israel.”
Nasrallah doubled down on his success in Syria, applying the same strategy to rally support for his party’s role in Yemen. During the mourning rituals of “Ashura” — commemorating the day Al-Hussein was killed in the Battle of Karbala — Nasrallah said: “We will carry the Yemeni flags along with the flags of consolation (a black flag bearing Al-Hussein’s name) and we will cheer for the resisting, struggling, oppressed Yemenis in the same way we cheer for Al-Hussein.”
In another Ashura ceremony, he bundled all the battles Hezbollah is fighting throughout the region into one big theme. “Through the war fronts, the convoys of the martyrs, the wounded, the families of martyrs, the mujahideen, we prove to Al-Hussein that we have not left him,” Nasrallah said.
After a stampede tragedy during Hajj rituals in Makkah in September 2015, Nasrallah opted for a similar strategy. More than 2,000 pilgrims were crushed to death, with Iranians the nationality most affected. As a result, saber-rattling was unleashed in Iran, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei saying that the victims were “murdered” by the Saudis. Nasrallah described the accident as “a disaster,” adding that the worst is that “no one is allowed to speak, complain or cry, just as was the case in Karbala.”
His communication and mobilization strategy is aptly built on the well-known Shiite slogan, “Every day is Ashora, every land is Karbala,” in a manner that is applicable to each and every political, military or even tragic development. It is a one-size-fits-all strategy, driven by fear, hate and grudges.
During several Ashura ceremonies, Nasrallah collapsed in tears, inflaming the passions of his followers and sharpening their hatred for the killers of Al-Hussein, no matter whether they are the real ones or the contemporary Sunnis who are their mere descendants.
In fact, anti-Sunnism is a fixed feature of Iran’s political culture, to which Hezbollah subscribes. The Safavid empire bloodily converted Iran from Sunni to Shiite Islam in the early 16th century, under the rule of Shah Ismail I. It was a brutal process that planted the seeds of an anti-Sunni political identity, defined by a sharp sense of otherness.
Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran, emerged more than four centuries later as the embodiment of the unintended effects of what Ismail started, turning Iran into a theocratic state.
Hate speech rooted in the enforced conversion process in Iran gave way to festive hate occasions, one of which is “the celebration of the death of Omar ibn Al-Khattab,” who was the second caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate that led Islam after Prophet Muhammad. Iran’s late President Hashemi Rafsanjani once criticized these practices. He blamed the rise of Daesh on such hate culture, to which Hezbollah is an adjunct and of which Nasrallah emerged as a preacher.
Under the banners of Al-Hussein, Zaynab and other Shiite figures, the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq have been killed, wounded, displaced and imprisoned in their millions. In the same divisive spirit, Nasrallah has become the Arabic-speaking threat-man of Iran against Saudi Arabia, the UAE and beyond.
There were times when Nasrallah’s portraits were raised in Sunni capitals, even in Al-Azhar itself, cheering the bravery of a man they saw fighting Israel and defending Palestine. It wasn’t until the war in Syria that they realized that “the road to Jerusalem,” which Nasrallah claims he is fighting to liberate, goes over their dead bodies and destroyed cities.
Once a symbol of bravery and resilience, Nasrallah will go down in history as the man who helped bring the worst episodes in the history of Islam back to life in the 21st century.
Nadim Koteich is a political satirist, commentator and talk show host. His show “DNA” airs Monday to Friday on Al Arabiya. He is a columnist with Asharq Alawsat. Twitter: @NadimKoteich.