Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hezbollah's Youth Outreach

Graduating Hezbollah Mahdi Scouts saluting during a graduation ceremony in August in Lebanon. Affiliations with Hezbollah can start young and touch all parts of daily life.

By Robert F. Worth

International Herald Tribune [November 20, 2008]

شكراً لصديقتي عايشة لإرسلت هذه مقالة

("Thank you to my friend Ayesha for sending this article.")

RIYAQ, Lebanon: On a Bekaa Valley playing field gilded by late-afternoon sun, hundreds of young men wearing Boy Scout-like uniforms and kerchiefs stand rigidly at attention as a military band plays, its marchers bearing aloft the distinctive yellow banner of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite movement.

They are adolescents - 17- or 18-year-old - but they have the stern faces of adult men, lightly bearded, some of them with dark spots in the center of their foreheads from bowing down in prayer. Each wears a tiny picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shiite cleric who led the Iranian revolution in 1979, on his chest.

"You are our leader!" the boys chant in unison, as a Hezbollah official walks to a podium and addresses them with a Koranic invocation. "We are your men!"

This is the vanguard of Hezbollah's youth movement, the Mahdi Scouts. Some of the graduates gathered at this ceremony will go on to join Hezbollah's guerrilla army, fighting Israel in the hills of southern Lebanon. Others will work in the party's bureaucracy. The rest will likely join the fast-growing and passionately loyal base of support that has made Hezbollah the most powerful political, military and social force in Lebanon.

At a time of religious revival across the Islamic world, intense piety among the young is nothing unusual. But in Lebanon, Hezbollah - which means the party of God - has marshaled these ambient energies for a highly political project: educating a younger generation to continue its military struggle against Israel. Hezbollah's battlefield resilience has made it a model for other militant groups across the Middle East, including Hamas. And that success is due, in no small measure, to the party's extraordinarily comprehensive array of religion-themed youth and recruitment programs.

There is a network of schools largely shielded from outsiders. There is a nationwide network of clerics who provide weekly religious lessons to young people on a neighborhood basis. There is a group for students at unaffiliated schools and colleges that presents Hezbollah to a wider audience. The party organizes non-Scout-related summer camps and field trips, and during Muslim religious holidays it arranges events to encourage young people to express their devotion in public and to perform charity work.

"It's like a complete system, from primary school to university," said Talal Atrissi, a political analyst at Lebanese University who has been studying Hezbollah for decades. "The goal is to prepare a generation that has deep religious faith and is also close to Hezbollah."

Much of this activity is fueled by a broader Shiite religious resurgence in Lebanon that began after the Iranian revolution in 1979. But Hezbollah has gone further than any other organization in using this to build its own support base and to immunize Shiite youth from the temptations of Lebanon's diverse and mostly secular society.

Hezbollah's influence on Lebanese youth is very difficult to quantify because of the party's extreme secrecy and the general absence of reliable statistics.

It is clear that the Shiite religious schools, in which Hezbollah exercises a dominant influence, have grown over the past two decades from a mere handful into a major national network.

Hezbollah and its allies have also adapted and expanded religious rituals involving children, starting at ever-earlier ages. Women, who play a more prominent role in Hezbollah than they do in most other radical Islamic groups, are especially important in creating what is often called "the jihad atmosphere" among children.

As night fell in the southern Lebanese town of Jibchit , a lone woman in a black gown strode purposefully into the spotlight on a makeshift stage. Before her sat hundreds of Mahdi Scout parents, who had come to a central event of their young daughters' lives.

"Welcome, welcome," their host said. "We appreciate your presence here tonight. Your daughters are now putting on this angelic costume for the first time."

Munira Halawi, a slim 23-year-old Hezbollah member with the direct gaze and passionate manner of an evangelist, was the master of ceremonies at a ritual known as a Takleef Shara'ee, or the holy responsibility, in which some 300 female Scouts aged 8 or 9 formally donned the hijab, or Islamic head scarf.

For the girls, the ritual was a moment of tremendous symbolic significance, marking the start of a deeper religious commitment and the approach of adulthood. These ceremonies, once rare, have become common in recent years.

It was a milestone as well for Halawi, who had been practicing with the girls for weeks: she was now a Qa'ida, a young female leader who helps supervise the education of younger girls.

Halawi is in some ways typical of the younger generation of female Hezbollah members. She grew up after Hezbollah and its allies had begun establishing what they called the hala islamiyya, or Islamic atmosphere, in Shiite Lebanon. She quickly became far more devout than her parents, who had grown up during an era when secular ideologies like pan-Arabism and Communism were popular. She married early and had the first of her two children before turning 17.

As Halawi finished her introduction, the girls began walking up the aisle toward the stage, dressed in silky white gowns with furry hoods. Bubbles descended from the wings. White smoke drifted up from a fog machine. A sound system played Hezbollah anthems sung by deep male voices. The parents applauded wildly.

The two-and-a-half hour ceremony that followed - in which the girls performed a play about the meaning of the hijab and a bearded Hezbollah cleric delivered a long political speech - was a concentrated dose of Hezbollah ideology, seamlessly blending millenarian Shiite doctrine with furious diatribes against Israel. Through it all, Halawi was the presiding figure on the stage, introducing each section of the evening and reciting Koranic verses and her own poetic homages to the veil.

A few days later, relaxing over tea at her sister's house, Halawi expanded on the theme of the ceremony, still dressed in a black abaya. Religious education now begins much earlier than in her parents' time, she explained. Islamic schools, some run by Hezbollah, begin Koranic lessons at the age of 4, and it is common for girls to start fasting and donning the veil at 8. In all this, the mother's guidance is the key. "This is women's jihad," Halawi said.

From a distance, it resembles any other Boy Scouts camp.

But planted on sticks in the river, come two huge posters bearing the faces of Ayatollah Khomeini and Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah.

"Since 1985 we have managed to raise a good generation," said Muhammad al-Akhdar, 25, a Scout leader. "We had 850 kids here this summer, ages 9 to 15."

This camp is called Tyr fil Say, one of the sites in south Lebanon where the Mahdi Scouts train. Much of what they do is similar to Scouts' activities the world over. Akhdar described some of the games the young Scouts play, including one where they divide into two teams - Americans and the Resistance - and try to throw one another into the river. The Mahdi Scouts also get visits from Hezbollah fighters, wearing camouflage and toting AK-47s, who talk about fighting Israel.

The Mahdi Scouts were founded in 1985, shortly after Hezbollah itself. Officially, the group is like any of the other 29 different scouts groups in Lebanon, many of which belong to political parties and serve as feeders for them.

But the Mahdi Scouts are much larger; with an estimated 60,000 children and scout leaders - six times the size of any other Lebanese scout group. Even their marching movements are more militaristic than the others, according to Mustafa Muhammad Abdel Rasoul, head of the Lebanese Scouts' Union.

Because of the Scouts' reputation as a feeder for Hezbollah's armed militia, the party has become extremely guarded about the Scouts and rarely grants outsiders access to them.

"After age 16 the boys mostly go to resistance or military activities," said Bilal Naim, who served as Hezbollah's director for the Mahdi Scouts until last year.

Another difference from most scout groups lies in the program. Religious and moral instruction - rather than physical activity - occupy the vast bulk of the Mahdi Scouts' curriculum, and the scout leaders adhere strictly to lessons outlined in books for each age group.

Those books, copies of which were provided to this reporter by a Hezbollah official, show an extraordinary focus on religious themes and a full-time preoccupation with Hezbollah's military struggle against Israel.

The chapter titles, for the 12- to 14-year-old age group, include "Love and Hate in God," "Know Your Enemy," "Loyalty to the Leader" and "Facts about Jews." Jews are described as cruel, corrupt, cowardly and deceitful, and they are called the killers of prophets.

In the West, the image of Hezbollah is often that of its bearded, young guerrilla fighters. But Hezbollah's inner core of fighters and employees - its full-time members - is a far smaller group than its supporters. This broader category, covering the better part of Lebanon's roughly one million Shiites, includes reservists, who will fight if needed; doctors and engineers, who contribute their skills; and mere sympathizers.

In that sense, a more representative figure of the party's young following might be someone like Ali al-Sayyed. A quiet, clean-cut 24-year-old, Sayyed grew up in south Lebanon and now works as an accountant in Beirut. Hezbollah has offered him jobs, but he prefers to maintain his independence.

But his entire life has been lived in the shadow of Hezbollah. After school and during the summers, he was with the Mahdi Scouts. Later he became a scout leader.

He will not shake hands with women - and mentions his willingness to fight and die for Hezbollah as though it were a matter of course.

Yet Sayyed's generation is also in many ways more exposed to the temptations of Lebanon's secular society than its predecessors.

That shift is apparent even in Dahiya, the vast, crowded enclave on the southern edge of Beirut where most of Lebanon's Shiites live, and where Hezbollah has its headquarters.

Once an austere ghetto where bearded men would chastise women who dared to appear in public without an Islamic head scarf, Dahiya is now a far more open place. There are Internet cafés, music and DVD shops, Chinese restaurants and an amusement park called Fantasy World. There is no public consumption of alcohol, but the streets are thick with satellite dishes and open-air television sets. Lingerie shops display posters of scantily clad models, and young women walk past in tight jeans, their hair uncovered.

The café where Sayyed was sitting was typical. Hezbollah banners were visible on the street outside, but on the inside young people sit at aluminum tables sipping cappuccinos, eating donuts and listening to their iPods.

"Hezbollah tries to keep the youth living in a religious atmosphere, but they can't force them," he said, gazing uneasily at the street outside.

Sayyed mentioned Rami Ollaik, a former Hezbollah firebrand who left the party and earlier this year published a book about his indoctrination and gradual disenchantment. The book recounts the author's struggle to reconcile sexual yearnings with party discipline, and his disgust at the way party members manipulated religious doctrine to justify their encounters with prostitutes.

Hezbollah officials say they cannot coerce young people, because it would only create rebels. Instead, they leave them largely free in Lebanon's pluralistic maze, trusting in the power of their religious training.

But there is a limit to Hezbollah's flexibility. All young members and supporters are encouraged to develop a security sense, and are warned to beware of curious outsiders who may be spies.

After Sayyed had been talking to a foreign journalist in the coffee shop for more than an hour, a hard-looking young man at a neighboring table began staring at him. Suddenly looking nervous, Sayyed agreed to continue the conversation on the café's second floor. But he seemed agitated, and later he repeatedly postponed another meeting.

Finally, he sent an apologetic e-mail message explaining that he would not be able to meet again.

"As you know, we live in a war with Israel and America," he wrote in stumbling English, "and they want to war us (destroy) in all the way."

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