Lina Khatib, Dina Matar, and Atef Alshaer, The Hizbullah Phenomenon: Politics and Communication. London: Hurst UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Lina Khatib, Dina Matar, and Atef Alshaer (LK/DM/AA): The idea for the book was born out of an intellectual as well as methodological interest in the relationship between politics and communication in non-Western contexts, and particularly in relation to Islamist movements and non-state actors. When we conceived the idea for the research on which this book is based, Hizbullah had just emerged from the 2006 war with Israel. The group and its media billed the war as a “Divine Victory,” which earned it the admiration of thousands in the Arab World and beyond. While many studies had already discussed Hizbullah’s political evolution, identity, and ideology, a gap existed in the study of the role of communication in Hizbullah’s transformation into Lebanon’s most powerful political party at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In fact, our starting point was that Hizbullah’s evolution went hand in hand with its political communication strategy, which, as we show, combines elements of professionalized political and marketing strategies popular in Western election campaigns with a culturally-sensitive communicative model of mobilization that actively selects, appropriates, and disseminates meaningful symbols, images, and language to construct and sustain a constant interchange of communally-relevant knowledge.
This strategy operates simultaneously and continuously at different levels, in formal and informal spaces of social interaction, in the private and in the public, in the political and the cultural spheres. At the same time, it consistently relies on, and uses, traditional networks of sociability embedded in popular culture. The institutionalization and centralization of Hizbullah’s political communication strategy meant that all visual and discursive forms of cultural output would carry the same messages in order to appeal to the target audience during a particular historical juncture.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
LK/DM/AA: The book offers a detailed and empirically informed chronology of Hizbullah’s transformation from a relatively small resistance group to the main political party in Lebanon between 1982 and 2012. Principally, the book addresses the evolution of Hizbullah through practices and discourses that recorded and substantiated its presence within Lebanon and in the Middle East. It also shows how discourses and careful consideration of media dissemination are essential to Hizbullah’s identity as a movement.
The book explores the methods, tools, and practices Hizbullah employed since its inception in 1982, focusing on the dynamics between agency and structure—that is, the activism of its elites and ideologues functioning within organized and deeply-rooted structural arrangements, and the dynamics of culture and language. The objective was to show that Hizbullah’s political communication strategy went hand in hand with its evolution and that the group’s political, economic, military, and cultural mobilization and activism cannot be seen as natural, or taken-for-granted, responses to accumulated grievances (as suggested in much of the literature on political Islam) or as a reactionary product of a cultural essence (Islam). Rather, Hizbullah’s activism and mobilization are the product of the agency of its elites and ideologues and their implementation of a political communication strategy intended to widen its support base and increase its influence.
Using a detailed chronological analysis of image and discourse, the book examines different elements and aspects of Hizbullah’s strategy, including evocative images, speeches, pamphlets and communiques, poetry and figurative references, acts of reclamation and memorialization, DVDs and television productions, as well as the speeches and image of its leader Hassan Nasrallah. While the book is informed by and makes reference to previous works on Hizbullah, it differs from them in that it uses an interdisciplinary approach to address the dynamic relationship between politics and communication and the relationship between language and culture, both of which are important resources for the implementation of various strategies and calculations.
J: What methodologies did you use in working on this book?
LK/DM/AA: We used a mixture of archival, discourse, and visual analysis with a particular focus on different aspects of communicative practices that reflect the crucial link between language, image, and culture. We used archival research of all cultural products of Hizbullah since 1982, including newspapers, films, posters, images, DVDs, merchandise, artefacts, books, visuals, and public spaces. We also paid special attention to the image of Hassan Nasrallah, his language, style, and demeanor, and his centrality to Hizbullah’s political communication strategies.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
LK/DM/AA: The book is connected to the authors’ previous research through combining their multidisciplinary backgrounds while building on their previous published work. Khatib began writing on Hizbullah’s political strategy, as well as its use of images following the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the 2006 war with Israel, and was keen to expand this work to become a historical study of the group and its evolution that went beyond the focus on visuals, which she had written about in her book Image Politics in the Middle East (2013). Matar, who works on political communication in non-Western contexts, also began working on the image and charisma of the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah after the 2006 war, focusing on his speeches and the mediation of his image, which she published in an article in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication (MEJCC) in 2008. Alshaer built on his research on discourse analysis and literary studies.
Through combining Khatib’s expertise in visual analysis, Matar’s in non-Western political communication, and Alshaer’s in language and culture, the book took the authors’ existing research portfolio to a new level of interdisciplinarity that supports the argument that to understand any political actor’s communication strategy, one needs to go beyond the boundaries of distinct research fields like politics, media, or literature. The book therefore highlights how the Hizbullah phenomenon is best understood at the intersections of those disciplines.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LK/DM/AA: In the highly charged political climate of the Middle East, we hope the book offers a model for further research and analysis of the role of image, language, and historically- as well as culturally-informed aesthetics to understand how and why movements mobilize support and in which context. The book will be valuable to political scientists, historians, and sociologists interested in the evolution of movements, particularly Islamist movements. Its methodological and empirical focus, with the special attention to Arabic sources and language, offers a valuable analytical model for students of political transformations and change in the region.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LK/DM/AA: Khatib is researching the strategy of the Islamic State, among other policy-oriented work on the international relations of the Middle East. Matar is working on the PLO’s communication strategies between 1967 and 1993. Alshaer is working on the relationship between poetry and politics, extending his research in his forthcoming book “Poetry and Politics in the Modern Arab World” and focusing on the poetry of Hamas and other Islamist movements.
Excerpts from The Hizbullah Phenomenon: Politics and Communication
From the Introduction
Since its inception in 1982 Hizbullah has used a sophisticated communication strategy that has run parallel to the group’s political evolution. This strategy combines elements of the professionalized political and marketing strategies that are popular in Western election campaigns with a culturally sensitive communicative model of mobilization that actively selects, appropriates and disseminates meaningful symbols, images and language to construct and sustain a constant interchange of communally relevant knowledge. This strategy operates simultaneously and continuously at different levels, in formal and informal spaces of social interaction, in the private and the public, the political and the cultural spheres. At the same time, it consistently relies on, and uses, traditional networks of sociability embedded in popular culture. In contrast to secular, liberal and leftist groups already competing for power and influence in Lebanon, Hizbullah managed to build on, and expand, pre-existing national and transnational “thick networks” of religious and social relations set up by Shiite clerics in the second half of the nineteenth century.…
As its organizational structures became more formalized and its political communication strategy more institutionalized, Hizbullah would establish and expand formal media outlets and platforms to reach out to a larger audience outside of the Shiite constituency of Lebanon, its original target group. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Hizbullah’s communication strategy had developed into a constant process of strategic communication or a permanent discursive and visual campaign that used professionalized political campaigns characterized by “excessive personalization, a political star system, mass media impression management and an increasing negativity.”...To put the chapters in context, and drawing on a diversity of conceptual approaches, the evolution of Hizbullah’s image can be understood with reference to two interrelated dynamics. The first is the relationship between organizations and the environment, or political opportunity structures, which movements use to mobilize supporters and achieve hegemony….The second dynamic is the relationship between language and culture, both of which are important resources for the implementation of various strategies and calculations.…
As this book reveals, Hizbullah has used culture and language as a dialectical relationship between system and practice. It used culture as an instrument in achieving its objectives, and it used language, imagery and symbols not only to articulate its own identity but also to excavate and respond to pre-existing socio-historically accumulated values and practices that define ordinary people’s lives on many levels. In other words, Hizbullah used language in different forms and ways to create and sustain a “hegemonic ideological space” through which it managed to define people’s lives according to plans, schemes and political calculations. In this way, to borrow from Gramsci, hegemony by consent is not induced through different state apparatuses but through associational, everyday and cultural spaces, including mosques, religious centers, popular ceremonies, parades, rallies, public spaces, poetry recitals and festivals, as well as formal media channels and platforms.
From Chapter Four
The argument this chapter puts forward and illustrates is that poetry, particularly political poetry, is complementary to other forms of Hizbullah’s political communication practices. In the case of Hizbullah, poetry serves to solidify and constitute ideologies, hail Hizbullah leaders, fighters and affiliates, and enhance their appeal and authenticity. Poetry is generally perceived as a residue of past authenticity, underlining the authority and legitimacy of those who use and embrace it, and this aspect comes across in the writings and speeches of Shiite pioneers whose ideas and activities gave rise to the organized political community epitomized in Hizbullah today, including Musa al-Sadr, whose conception of culture is worth noting here. For him, culture is “what connects heaven and earth, life and the afterlife, the individual alone and the society with God....Thus culture acquires divinity, holiness and power, and in this, it satisfies all the feelings of human beings.” Such an organic and holistic view of culture, according to Joseph al-Agha, has increasingly become symptomatic of Hizbullah as it operates and competes with other political players within Lebanon, and also in its “treatment of Islam as a cultural and social force,” underlining that Hizbullah seeks to be, in effect, “an existential necessity.” It is in this sense that Hizbullah’s poetry and the poetry associated with it are integral to the group’s worldview of rootedness within its socio-political conditions. In other words, it serves as an integral part of its political communicative reservoir, partaking in all its political and existential aspects, or as an extension, if you wish, of other communicative practices—another level of communication that bestows on its members and the wider Shiite community in Lebanon a sense of authenticity and rootedness.
Like other political actors in the Middle East, who fitted poets within their circles and within state structures to legitimize and authenticate their political programs, Hizbullah embraced poets within its ranks to project a comprehensive image of itself.
From the Conclusion
The Syrian rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime that began in March 2011 presented the group with a serious conundrum….
Hizbullah’s open alliance with the Assad regime, coupled with the…way in which Hizbullah chose to handle the Syrian crisis marked a change in its communication strategy: Hizbullah’s public messages became firmly reactive, not proactive. Hizbullah was no longer setting the agenda, but seeking to limit the damage to its image and credibility. In doing so, Hizbullah resorted to familiar discursive frameworks: Lebanonization and resistance. But Hizbullah struggled to maintain an anti-sectarian position when it sought to justify its military intervention in Syria by using the language of victimization, arguing that the intervention was intended to confront the threat posed by Sunni takfiri jihadi groups to Lebanon….
The trajectory of Hizbullah’s communication strategy offers a number of important lessons for scholars of social movements, activism and political communication: first, communication strategy succeeds when a group can bridge the gap between the way it perceives itself and the way others perceive it, rather than remaining focused on the validity of its ideologies vis-à-vis those of others—the smaller the distance between these perceptions, the higher the degree of the communication strategy’s success. Second, no communication strategy can succeed if it lacks credibility. Hizbullah has consistently relied on notions of justice and liberty to prove its legitimacy to its audiences, claiming to represent the voices of the people, to speak for the oppressed and to seek “justice” for victims of Israeli aggression while branding itself as a “liberator” and “defender” of land and people. But this image was threatened when the Assad regime in Syria turned its weapons on its own people during the Arab Spring, as opposed to directing them towards the Israeli “enemy” in the occupied Golan Heights. Finally, in order to be successful, there is a need for a dynamic relationship between communication strategy and changing political contexts. Hizbullah`s evolving communication strategy is part of the party’s place within a larger political opportunity structure where “fixed or permanent institutional features combine with more short-term, volatile, or conjectural factors to produce an overall particular opportunity structure.” Before the Arab uprisings, particularly the Syrian revolt, Hizbullah had been largely successful at taking advantage of changes in the political environment to carve a favorable image, and simultaneously, to adapt its image according to changes in the environment. This highlights the fine balance that exists between political adaptability and reliability and between structure and agency. However, the uprisings, coupled with a significant shift in the visible performance of politics by ordinary citizens in the Arab world, thus far constitute the main impediments to maintaining the credibility of Hizbullah’s familiar communication frames, and consequently its ability to capture the imagination of its intended audiences.
 See Atef Alshaer, “The Poetry of Hamas,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 2, 4 (2009), 214-230. Similarly, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam writes, “I have argued that Islamisms advocate authenticity; they define autonomy as a virtue”; see A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them beyond Orientalism (London: Hurst, 2011), 248.
 See Shams ad-Din, Mohammad Mahdi, ‘Khitāb al-Imām al-Sadr al-thaqafī’ (Beirut: Markaz al-Imām al-Sadr lil-abhath wa-dirasat, 2000), 43.
 See Alagha, Joseph, Hizbullah’s Identity Construction (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011), 178-81.
 See Abu-Haqqa, Ahmad, Al-iltizam fī al-shi‘r al-‘Arabi (Beirut: Dar al-‘ilm lil-malayeen, 1979).
 The dictatorial Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was such an example who found many poets to praise and adulate him. In return, he lavished them with gifts and honors. One such a poet was Abd al-Razzaq Abd al-Wahid who wrote several poems in praise of Saddam Hussein (see Stephan Milich, “The Positioning of Baathist intellectuals and Writers Before and After 2003: the Case of the Iraqi Poet Abd al-Razzaq Abd al-Wahid,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, 4, 3 (2001), 298-338.
 Cliff Staten, “From Terrorism to Legitimacy: Political Opportunity Structures and the Case of Hezbollah,” The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution, 8, 1 (2008), 32-49.
 Kai Arzheimer and Elisabeth Carter, “Political Opportunity Structures and the Extreme Right,” European Journal of Political Research, 45, 3 (2006), 422.
[Excerpted from The Hizbullah Phenomenon: Politics and Communication, by Lina Khatib, Dina Matar, and Atef Alshaer, by permission of the authors. Copyright © Hurst UK and Oxford University Press 2014. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]