Karam has reached his boiling point. He’s had enough of the Western journalists, students and assorted intelligentsia smitten with the Islamic Resistance. “They can have their fun,” he says, “but see if they’d like it if an armed gang ran through the streets of New York, London or Paris. Then let’s see if they’d love Hezbollah.”
It must seem confusing to many Lebanese like my friend Karam. After all, most March 14 supporters figured that the reason Westerners here liked Hezbollah was a function of US politics. The American left-of-center hated Bush, and since he supported March 14, Lebanese politics could be taken as a proxy battle in an internal American political struggle. But now with Obama in the White House, it’s clear that it’s not about US politics.
Nor is it about Lebanese politics. To be sure, Hezbollah’s Western fans argue that the Islamic Resistance and its allies represent the authentic voice of Lebanon; that the so-called “liberals” constitute a very tiny part of the country’s political culture. But liberalism is always a minority current. Look at the US civil rights movement; its ultimate success was thanks to a very small number of activists whose energies were channeled through those parts of the federal government that are most easily swayed by liberal sentiment, the executive and the judiciary branches. Had the civil rights movement depended on the branch of government that is most responsive to mass opinion (the Congress), it is unlikely Barack Obama would be the current US president.
It’s not about class, either, even if liberal Westerners are flattered to think of themselves as defenders of the downtrodden, the wretched of the earth. Many of the same Americans and Europeans share the same habits as those well-to-do Lebanese they disdain they drink and eat in the same Gemmayzeh bars and restaurants, dance and party at the same nightclubs, shop at the same markets and malls, and many of the bureau chiefs here even have live-in foreign maids just like the Lebanese they mock for their aristocratic pretensions. More to the point, most March 14 supporters are not wealthy, but middle- or working-class, hardly more privileged than those precincts the Westerners like to think they are defending.
Nor is it about values. Many of the veterans of the Western left are at pains to point out to their younger colleagues that their admiration for the Islamic Resistance is misplaced, that Hezbollah does not share their progressive values, their interest in, say, women’s rights or gay marriage. But it is the old-time leftists who are mistaken, for the rising generation that admires Hezbollah knows all that and as I said, it is not about values. Indeed, to couch it in the terms appropriate to the matter at hand, there has been a trans-valuation of values.
To understand why the Western left admires the Islamic Resistance, it is most useful and timely to consider Iran’s Islamic Revolution, and its most famous Western advocate, Michel Foucault. The French historian was the most talented heir to a long line of mid-twentieth-century French intellectuals whose formative experience was World War II. Writers like Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris were among those who, in the wake of two Europe-wide wars that left many tens of millions dead, spoke of the purgative nature of violence. What the conflagration had exposed, in their view, was that more violence yet was required to cleanse the West of its hypocrisy, the sickness that started with the Enlightenment and culminated in those two wars.
The intellectuals turned against liberalism, and all it entailed. “Industrial capitalism,” Foucault said, had emerged as “the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine.” Foucault sought out other politics and practices, and in 1978 the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra sent him to Tehran to cover the revolution then taking shape. He wrote, “It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and most insane.” Don’t be confused by what has become mainstream anti-globalization rhetoric; the main theme is in the insanity.
Foucault’s hero was Nietzsche, apostle of the will to power. In the view of the European post-Nietzscheans, the real problem with liberal humanism wasn’t its repressive nature, but that it repressed the wrong people. It leveled the playing field with the result that everyone was mediocre. What Nietzsche called slave morality meant in effect that slaves were to be granted the same rights as their masters, the bourgeois were entitled to the same privileges as the aristocrats of spirit. Democracy and liberalism had stripped the world of its primordial magic. Rather, the authentic life was to be found in the charisma of the great leader and his stark displays of power, the superman who transcended bourgeois values. It is said that Foucault was later disappointed by the Iranian Revolution, but make no mistake: He knew exactly what he was looking at in the orgiastic violence and the bright blood spilled in the streets of Tehran.
Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution and a quarter century after the death of Foucault, an entire generation of Western Europeans and Americans, the cream of our cultural elite, has been shaped by an intellectual current that despises liberalism and dismisses as mediocre the universal humanism that prizes the same values across cultures, from the US and Europe to the Middle East. Instead, it welcomes the return of the magic, the blood and power, the violence of the strongman. Why we never imagined that these ideas would affect how people interacted with the world around them and interpreted it is hard to explain. What is easy to explain is why Western journalists, academics, writers and artists are in love with the Islamic Resistance it is not despite the violence, but because of it. So how would they like it if an armed gang ran through New York, London or Paris? In effect, it already has.