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Opinion: Hezbollah Rising

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-13

The ubiquitous presence of young men in yellow T-shirts in front of McDonald's on Beirut's fabled corniche says it all. They are worn by Hezbollah acolytes, who stop vehicles and demand contributions for the cause. They receive few rejections.

It used to be that these young men - most of them hirsute, others with a pre-teenage breakout of wispy facial hair and acne - would turn up on Fridays, Islam's holy day of prayer and alms giving, on the elegant, palm-lined corniche. They would set up a display in front of a large mosque that's contiguous to McDonald's, one of the busiest intersections in this beautiful city on the Mediterranean. They would pass out pamphlets extolling Hezbollah's role as a major provider of social services agricultural support, and in running schools and hospitals for thousands of Lebanese Shiites, who constitute less than 25% of Lebanon's population of 3.8 million. And they would politely, almost shyly, ask for money.

The growing numbers of yellow T-shirts on the corniche have become a metaphor for Hezbollah's confrontation with America and Israel: Hezbollah seems to have corralled a secular culture into its violent crusade. The symbolism generated by the terrorist movement's youthful recruits standing across from the golden arches of McDonald's - perhaps America's most prominent cultural and culinary export - is edgy, even terrifying. Even in the darkest days of Lebanon's civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, Beirut always seemed a culturally tolerant place.

It would have been unimaginable when Hezbollah was formed in Lebanon as an umbrella organization of anti-Israel terrorist groups that within a quarter century it would, in effect, be running the only secular state in the Middle East and openly planning to transform it into a theocratic Islamic nation. It would have been unimaginable that Iran-financed Hezbollah would break out of its traditional nest in the Bekaa Valley and burst forth into what many people still regard as the Paris of the Middle East.

It would have been unimaginable, even as recently as half a decade ago, that Hezbollah would hold 20% of the seats in the unicameral national parliament, the 128-member Assemblee Nationale, or that it would be given three posts in the 24-person cabinet of President Emile Lahoud.

To understand how much Hezbollah has advanced its ambitions, one needs to look no further than its impact on The New York Times. It may be a stretch to suggest that The Times is a handmaiden of Lebanon's terrorist caudillo, of course, but the role of a valued Times partner, The Daily Star of Beirut, in serving as a virtual spokesorgan for Hezbollah has been a key to its acceptance as a legitimate political force in Lebanon and much of the Sunni Muslim dominated Arab world.

The Star's publisher and editor in chief, Jamil Mroue is a Shia Muslim who was educated in America and Europe. His daily paper is published in cooperation with the Times-owned International Herald Tribune, which The Star distributes around the Middle East. From being a newspaper that accurately reflected the political sensibilities of Lebanon's multi-ethnic society - roughly 40% Maronite Christian, 30% Sunni Muslim, 20% Shia Muslim, and 10% Druze - it has steadily become an apologist for Hezbollah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrullah.

The 46-year-old Sheikh Nasrullah isn't a reader of The Daily Star, much less the International Herald Tribune. He privately believes that the New York Times is a Zionist propaganda tool. But he's savvy enough to know that Hezbollah needs the press on its side. So exit Nasrullah the Jew-baiting Shia, enter Nasrullah the espouser of education and primary health care.

The sheikh is probably surprised how quickly The Star - the country's only English language daily newspaper - and most other Arabic and French language publication have fallen to bended knees in praise of his new avatar. There are days when their editorials seem to spring from the ideological hothouses of Hezbollah.

Those editorials are implacably in opposition to Israel, of course. Indeed, technically Lebanon is still in a formal state of war with Israel. But from carrying expressions of political outrage against Israel, Lebanon's papers have made the transition to breathlessly investing Sheikh Nasrullah and his Hezbollah with hugely benign intentions, and lauding their skills at selfless governance.

The sheikh is lapping it up. He has said that although the Hezbollah doesn't currently wish to see Lebanon transformed into an Islamic theocracy, he wouldn't mind if it does. His comments send shivers through Lebanon's Maronite Christians and even Sunni Muslims, who don't share the sheikh's enthusiasm for outlawing alcohol, gambling and Western lifestyles that have long contributed to Lebanon's reputation as the playground of the Middle East.

It is telling that those yellow T-shirts aren't confined these days to Beirut's corniche. They are everywhere. So is Hassan Nasrullah's face - on posters that one finds plastered even on walls of churches.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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