Talal Chahine and the Hizbullah- A Community Question?

The famed La Shish Middle Eastern restaurant chain built by Lebanese Shia immigrant Talal Shahin was closed recently. The Free Press story written by David Shenfelter and Niraj Warikoo emphasized that the demise of the chain was caused primarily by the government’s labeling the owner a “terrorist sympathizer” for alleged support of the Hizbullah, a group the US classifies as a terrorist organization.
Talal Chahine, a prominent figure in Dearborn, is not known to be a religious person or a hard liner in any way. The government alleges that he broke tax laws. But his case was not labeled as a criminal tax case. The picture of him sitting next to Sayed Fadlallah, the alleged one-time spiritual leader of Hizbullah made the government accuse him of being a Hizbullah sympathizer and his criminal tax case a terror-related case.
The choice of the label “sympathizer” is interesting. The label “sympathizer” is not a legal term. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sympathize as “to be in accord or harmony with” or “to be in sympathy intellectually.” The fact that the government slapped this label on Mr. Chahin and that this label is the primary force dooming his restaurant, is troubling.
Most Lebanese Shiites, public opinion polls show, are sympathetic to Hizbullah, a group that is involved in a political struggle inside Lebanon to secure more political power to the Shia community in Lebanese politics.
It has long seemed odd how Hizbullah appeals to the Lebanese Shiites, of all classes, backgrounds and degrees of religiosity. I have come across Shiites who have married outside the faith, have no connection to Shiism in any way other than their heritage, rooting for Hizbullah and some getting emotionally scarred by any criticism of the group which the US classifies as a foreign terrorist organization.
One explanation offered for the appeal of the group is its success in driving the Israelis out of Southern Lebanon. Another explanation is its network of human services organizations that employs thousands of people and have benefited hundreds of thousands of Shia that allegedly the Lebanese government seems unwilling or unable to help.
While pride and the economic factors help in understanding the appeal of the group, these factors do not fully explain why the group appeals to most Shia Lebanese, even wealthy non- observant individuals who were born and raised in the West and have never stepped foot in the Arab world, strongly support Hizbullah (Overwhelmingly- this support is emotional and not of the illegal type).
Professor Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh, previously of the American University of Beirut, has an explanation in his excellent book, In the Path of Hizbullah. In this book, Dr. Hamzeh goes over the history of the Lebanese Shiites to make an argument for a Shiite “identity crisis” that made the community ripe for the appeal (some say crafty manipulation) of the Hizbullah.

Dr. Hamzeh writes that the Shia see themselves the legitimate interpreters of Islam that have been wrongly marginalized historically. Shiite Islam’s dominance in the 10th century had the Shiite Buyids dynasty ruling Iran and Iraq while the Shiite Fatimid Ismailis ruled Egypt, North Africa and Syria. This dominance ended with the conquest of Salah al Din Al Ayyubi and the Turkish Mamluks ending Shia rule with no signs of resurgence until the revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.
The defeat of the Shia rulers resulted in the Shia of Lebanon, Professor Hamzeh states, being pushed off lands in the coastal areas and Mount Lebanon. The beneficiaries of the loss were mainly the Druze, the Sunnis and the Maronites.
Today Hizbullah in its rhetoric alludes to this unfortunate history and positions itself as the protector of Lebanon’s Shia from possible uprooting. The Shia of Lebanon, partly due to Hizbullah’s rhetoric and actions, feel insecure and the Hizbullah offers itself as their protector. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the group, in his “divine victory” speech made the patently dubious allegation that the Lebanese government was slow in rebuilding the South because the pro- West government of Mr. Fouad Saniora and the West want to remove the Shia from their villages and replace them by the Palestinian refugees. While this allegation is wild and unfounded, it achieved its intended purpose of making the Lebanese Shia feel insecure. In this insecure environment, Mr. Nasrallah presented Hizbullah as the protector of the Shia who would rebuild their homes with “clean” Iranian money and thus stand in the way of their alleged forced removal.
The reality of it is that the Hizbullah group appeals to the overwhelming majority of the Shia Lebanese. However, this appeal is not a statement on American domestic or even foreign policy. Chahine is not the only American Shia Lebanese with some picture next to some Hizbullah symbol. Southern Lebanon is littered with pictures of Hizbullah icons or destroyed Israeli tanks with Hizbullah flags on them. Many of the Shia Lebanese and other Lebanese as well have taken pictures next to these symbols. A picture next to a Hizbullah symbol; and/or a blood, village or even a marriage relationship to a Hizbullah member, should not be construed as a relationship to a terror group or support to its goals.
A citizen's patriotism should not be questioned on the basis of internal politics of a foreign land. The appeal of the Hizbullah group is more a statement about the Shia and Lebanese politics. For this, mere sympathy to the group, is not a threat to the US and should not be a label used to bring demise.


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