Anti-Americans on the March

Inside the unlikely coalition of the U.S.'s sworn enemies, where Communists link up with Islamic radicals

Hezbollah, Chávez and London's 'Red Ken'

By ANDREW HIGGINS

Wall Street Journal

December 9, 2006

AYTAROUN, LEBANON -- Ibrahim Sayid was raised a Muslim, but he put his faith in class struggle, not Allah. He joined the Lebanese Communist Party at the age of 16. As a medical student in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, he cursed Mikhail Gorbachev as a "traitor" for jettisoning Marxism.

Today, back in his home village just a few hundred yards from Israel, Dr. Sayid, 44, still has little time for Islam. He is married to a Christian and shuns the local mosque, badly damaged when Israeli troops stormed into Lebanon this summer.

Instead of communism, he has embraced a new cause: Hezbollah, the militia and social movement rooted in Shiite Islam. The Party of God, as it is translated into English, is led by turbaned clerics and aided by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has ruthlessly persecuted communists.

[At a Damascus rally, protesters carry pictures of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara and Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.]
At a Damascus rally, protesters carry pictures of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara and Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

"We all have the same goals," explains Dr. Sayid, who now works in a Hezbollah clinic. The first of these goals is "resistance" against Israel, which during the summer war battled Hezbollah militiamen just outside Dr. Sayid's village. He says resistance also has a broader target: America, its allies in the Arab world and beyond, and global capitalism.

When the Cold War ended a decade and a half ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Sayid and others like him around the world mourned the apparent triumph of U.S. military, economic and ideological might. Many Americans rejoiced, with some embracing the theory that the demise of Marxism marked "the end of history," a period when ideological conflicts would give way to a world united in acceptance of a model typified by the U.S.

Al Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 didn't fundamentally alter this conviction. Political Islam was seen as a grave threat but seemed limited in its appeal by its dependence on religious zeal. Such assumptions are now under strain as secular rebels, antiglobalization militants and other strains of revolt rally to the banner of "resistance" offered by Islamist groups such as Hezbollah.

Religion, excoriated by Karl Marx as the "opiate of the masses," has become a great mobilizing force -- even for zealous atheists. The phenomenon extends beyond the Middle East to Europe, Latin America and Africa, too. Causes that a few years ago seemed moribund or at least passé -- socialism, Third World solidarity, strident anti-Americanism -- have been injected with the fervor, though rarely the actual faith, of Islamic radicalism.

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"We are all here to fight American hegemony," Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy chief, told hundreds of secular activists from around the world who gathered last month in a Beirut conference center. They were there to celebrate his Islamic movement's "divine victory" over Israel this summer and cheer a broader battle against America's vision for the world. Mr. Qassem was dressed in flowing robes and a cleric's turban. Many in his audience wore T-shirts or badges featuring portraits of Che Guevara, clenched fists and other emblems of secular radical chic.

Adding to its revolutionary cachet, Hezbollah is now battling to oust Lebanon's pro-American government. Along with assorted allies, the Islamist group staged a huge peaceful rally in central Beirut Dec. 1 and is the driving force behind a mass sit-in near the offices of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, a pro-business former banker. The protesters, encamped in tents for a week now, vow to stay until the government falls. Stoking fears the showdown may spiral into serious violence, Hezbollah has called for another mass demonstration Sunday.

Some of Hezbollah's biggest fans are in Europe. There, the hard left, demoralized by the collapse of communism, has found new energy, siding with Islamist militants in Lebanon, in Iraq and in a wider campaign against what they see as an American plot to impose unrestrained free-market capitalism.

"We are all Hezbollah now," read posters carried through London this summer during an antiwar protest march. Earlier, London Mayor Ken Livingston, once known as "Red Ken," invited a controversial Egyptian cleric to the British capital, arguing that his views have been distorted by the West.

In deeply Roman Catholic Latin America, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has become the exemplar of a new populism that sees common cause with Iran and Hezbollah. Mr. Chávez, re-elected in a landslide last Sunday, has met Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad several times and this summer was given the Islamic Republic Medal, Iran's highest honor. Amid the rubble of Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, portraits of Mr. Chávez now hang alongside pictures of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah put them up after Mr. Chávez denounced President Bush as the devil in a September speech to the UN. "Gracias Chávez," they say.

Africa, too, is boarding the bandwagon. A summit of the 53-nation African Union this summer in Gambia featured two special guests: Mr. Chavez and Mr. Ahmadinejad. Back in Tehran, Mr. Ahmadinejad in November hosted Zimbabwe's authoritarian Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, an erstwhile devotee of Mao Zedong. Fulminating against President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Mugabe said likeminded countries must "fight against these evil men and their evil systems."

In the U.S., the principal target for both Islamist and leftist anger, there has been little sign of any ideological realignment of the kind seen elsewhere. The anti-American movement overseas poses scant immediate threat to U.S. pre-eminence. Still, it could complicate American diplomacy, particularly in the Middle East, where the Iraq Study Group and others are urging Washington to reach out to Iran and Syria, both vocal foes. It also risks emboldening America's many critics in Europe and Latin America, aggravating friction on a host of issues from the Israel-Palestine dispute to trade.

With America's reputation badly blemished across much of the globe, widespread anger at Washington's foreign policy is fusing with local grievances in an unstable mix of discontent. The result is a motley assemblage rife with contradictions and competing agendas. The Islamist-led protest movement has none of the central organization once provided by the Comintern, the body set up by Vladimir Lenin to coordinate global communism. Nonetheless, it is giving voice and a sense of common cause to those opposed to America's plans.

Leading the way in embracing it are mostly fringe groups with names redolent of the 1960s: The Global Peace and Justice Coalition, The Socialist Workers Party, The League for the Fifth International. While such outfits are quirky, they "magnify trends in the mainstream," says Nick Cohen, a British writer who is publishing a book next year about the alliance between Islamists and leftists, "What's Left?" Karl Marx, he says, would be horrified.

"The sight of Godless communists in alliance with Islamo-fascists is one of the wonders of the modern world," Mr. Cohen says.

Mainstream left-of-center parties still generally shun Islamists but chunks of their support base don't. Mr. Blair in Britain, for example, has come under fire within his own Labour Party for supporting President Bush's troubled Middle East policy, which critics say demonizes Islamist groups. In Spain, the socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, has reached out to Muslims, propounding what he calls "an alliance of civilizations" and voicing sympathy for Hamas and Hezbollah. He has good relations with Mr. Chávez, Fidel Castro of Cuba and Bolivia's populist leader, Evo Morales.

At the Beirut conference last month, a Mexican Marxist denounced America for "colonizing" New Mexico. A South Korean foe of free trade raged against American beef. A Turk fumed about American military bases. A Frenchman denounced American genetically engineered foods and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. There were even a few Americans. One thundered against big business, another against the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A big part of Hezbollah's appeal is simply that, unlike other tarnished icons of revolt, it can point to successes. It has defied Israel's military, by far the region's most powerful. It prodded Israel to end its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 and unexpectedly bloodied Israeli troops in clashes this summer.

Hezbollah shows that "resistance," whether fuelled by religion or secular zeal, "can break governments and roll back the American project," says John Rees, a former editor of the journal International Socialism and a leader of Britain's anti-Iraq war movement. Hezbollah, he says, isn't a terrorist outfit but a social movement seeking better living conditions for its supporters. "It is better to think of it as an AFL-CIO with guns," he says.

An American who traveled to Beirut in November to cheer Hezbollah, who identified himself as Bill Cecil, summed up the appeal of Islamism to non-Muslims: "Your enemy is our enemy; your victory is our victory," he told a conference. Mr. Cecil, an activist for a radical group in New York, later appeared as a guest on the breakfast show of Hezbollah's television station, al-Manar. America, he told a veiled female presenter, is "not a democracy ... but a dictatorship of giant corporations." America "needs a government that provides for the people like Hezbollah helps people here."

[Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad make a clenched-fist salute during a trip to the Orinoco River basin in southeastern Venezuela to witness the opening of a new oil well in September.]
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left) and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad make a clenched-fist salute during a trip to the Orinoco River basin in southeastern Venezuela to witness the opening of a new oil well in September.

Nowhere is the Islamist-leftist axis more potent than in Lebanon. The three-day Beirut jamboree, which featured fiery anti-American oratory and field trips to buildings bombed by Israel, was hosted jointly by Hezbollah and the Lebanese Communist Party, once-bitter enemies now united by what they proclaim as common goals.

Sitting beneath a portrait of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara in his Beirut office, Khaled Hadadeh, the general secretary of the Lebanese communists, admits that Hezbollah and the Communist Party hated each other for years. "We started out in blood," says Mr. Hadadeh, a Sunni Muslim by birth but now a firm atheist. Che Guevara, he says, "is our symbol, like Jesus Christ or Mohammed."

Hostility to Israel and the U.S. now trumps past differences. The Communist Party disbanded its own armed wing at the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1990, but 12 of its members died fighting alongside Hezbollah this summer, Mr. Hadadeh says. Piled in the corner of his office are trophies of this summer's war: an Israeli army helmet, an Israeli rifle and a Hebrew newspaper.

Mr. Hadadeh says he has met Mr. Nasrallah 15 times and admires him greatly. At their most recent meeting in a secret location this fall, he says, they discussed not just the recent war with Israel but also the need to develop "a counter-project to the neo-liberal model," the free-market policies backed by Washington.

Responsible for working out what this might mean is Ali Fayad, a political science lecturer and head of Hezbollah's in-house think-tank, the Consultative Center for Studies and Documentation. Mr. Fayad, who joined Hezbollah in the 1980s while still a student, now sits on the politburo of an organization that mimics the rigidly hierarchical structure of the Soviet Communist Party. Israeli bombs destroyed Mr. Fayad's offices, so his center now works from new premises in a half-built apartment block. Well-versed in Western economic and political theory, he runs a staff of more than a dozen researchers and has led the militant group's outreach to foreign supporters.

Part of Hezbollah's appeal lies in its tactical flexibility. Unlike many Sunni Muslim radical groups such as al Qaeda, which denounce non-Muslims and even many fellow Muslims as heretics who must be shunned or punished, Hezbollah's Shiite leadership doesn't care if its allies include atheists, Mr. Fayad says. "That is their problem not ours," he says, so long as "we have the same political position."

The friction between the two branches of Islam surfaced at the recent Beirut meeting. A Sunni Muslim from Jordan had to be ejected from the hall after he started cursing Iran -- Hezbollah's main sponsor -- for aiding Shiite militias in Iraq. Hezbollah's foreign fans watched in dismay as Shiite and Sunni attendees screamed at each other.

Despite such volatile tensions, Mr. Fayad still sees Islam derailing America's ambitions. Hezbollah's success in Lebanon, the debacle in Iraq and the victories of populist anti-American politicians in Latin America, he says, show that "it is now the end of 'the end of history.' " A recent article by Richard Haass, former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, has strengthened his conviction that America is in retreat, Mr. Fayed says. Writing in the U.S. foreign-policy journal Foreign Affairs, Mr. Haass declares that America's post-Cold War hopes for the Middle East have failed and that the region's "American era...has ended." Mr. Fayad is in no doubt about what comes next: "It is an Islamic era in the Middle East."

Among those grappling with this new perception of reality is Joseph Samaha, a secular Christian, former radical socialist and one of Lebanon's most-thoughtful intellectuals. Over the summer he became editor in chief of Al Akhbar, a new newspaper sympathetic to Hezbollah. He scoffs at Westerners who cheer radical Islam as "naïve." But he concedes that Islamists now represent the only viable alternative to corrupt, authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. "It is sad, but it is like that," he says.

The ideological reshuffling marks a curious reprise: Russia's early Bolshevik leaders, many of them Jewish, worked hard to cultivate Muslims, seeing them as a useful ally against Britain and other European colonial powers then ruling over large Muslim populations, notably in India and Indonesia. The alliance led to doctrinal gymnastics as Soviet theorists sought to reconcile atheism with the Quran. Some even argued that the Prophet Mohammed was a precursor of Karl Marx.

For much of the 20th century, however, the left and Islam were bitter enemies. Spain's right-wing dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco, recruited Moroccan Muslims to fight Soviet-backed foes in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. In 1962, Saudi Arabia, worried by Egypt's tilt toward Moscow, created the Muslim World League to rally Islam against communism. Three years later, Islamic groups in Indonesia joined in an army-led mass slaughter of communists. Anticommunist fervor reached its peak in the 1980s, when thousands of Muslims flocked to Afghanistan to battle the Soviet occupiers.

Much the same enmity existed in Lebanon. When Dr. Sayid, the surgeon, first joined the Lebanese Communist Party in the late 1970s, Mr. Nasrallah, now Hezbollah's leader, also was getting into politics -- partly out of disgust at the spread of atheistic communism.

In an autobiographical account of his early years published in an Iranian newspaper, Mr. Nasrallah recounts how his own village was "turning into an area for the activity of intellectuals, Marxists and especially supporters of the Lebanese Communist Party." He left the village and joined a group called Amal, a Shiite organization.

Iran's Islamic revolution of February 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of that year soured communist-Islamist relations further, provoking often-bloody clashes in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Iran's new Islamic government launched a brutal crackdown on the Soviet-backed Tudeh party, a leftist group that had helped topple the American-backed Shah. And Iran sent Revolutionary Guard zealots to Lebanon to help set up Hezbollah and injected the new group with their own fierce enmity to atheism and communism.

Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 accelerated the rise of Islamist groups. It uprooted Yasser Arafat's secular Palestine Liberation Organization, which had bases in Lebanon, and left Hezbollah as the main force of "resistance."

Dr. Sayid moved to Minsk in the then-Soviet republic of Belarus to study medicine. He says he went there as a true believer and was appalled when Mr. Gorbachev began his program of "perestroika," or economic restructuring, and the Soviet system started to unravel. The reforms, he says, were a "counter-revolution."

In Lebanon, meanwhile, a vicious civil war raged. Moscow put its weight behind the nominally socialist and mostly secular forces of Walid Jumblatt, leader of the country's small Druze sect, an offshoot of Islam. In Dr. Sayid's village and other areas of southern Lebanon, previously strong support for the Lebanese Communist Party wilted as Hezbollah became the dominant force. Hezbollah's reputation was boosted by its fierce resistance to Israel and its provision of medical care and other services.

In its first public manifesto issued in 1985, Hezbollah declared itself hostile to "both the USSR and the U.S., both capitalism and communism, for both are incapable of laying the foundations for a just society." Though focused on the struggle with Israel, the manifesto also sought a wider audience, addressed to "all the Oppressed of Lebanon and the World." Eventually the Lebanese Communists began cooperating with Hezbollah, attracted mainly by its power but also finding common cause in its emphasis on championing the poor.

Amid the unraveling of the Soviet Union, few outside Lebanon paid much attention to the global pretensions of Hezbollah. Then came the al Qaeda attacks on America of 2001. Washington, traumatized, launched a "war on terror" against what it viewed as a small group of homicidal religious zealots.

As anger at the U.S. mounted in 2003 ahead of the invasion in Iraq, the snowballing antiwar movement took on a curious aspect, particularly in Europe: an alliance of forces that previously loathed each other.

Mr. Rees, the British radical who attended last month's Beirut conference, played a big role, allying his own organization, the Socialist Workers Party, with the Muslim Association of Britain, a group that says it wants to bridge Muslim and non-Muslim communities yet is accused by critics of siding with radical Islamic groups. The two organizations spearheaded the antiwar campaign in Britain. Today, Mr. Rees says he has reservations about some of his Islamic allies' views, particularly those regarding women and homosexuals.

"If there were a level playing field, I might choose different allies," he says. But he says America's own policies left him with no choice: "I find myself on the same side as Hezbollah, as Chávez. I didn't choose them. America did."

At a big Islamic festival this summer supported by London's mayor, Mr. Livingston, Islamist activists and left-wing politicians declared their solidarity. "Muslims and the left must and can come together, because we face the same enemies -- imperialism, colonialism and racism," said Redmond O'Neill, a senior aide to Mr. Livingston.

In Aytaroun, the Lebanese village near the border with Israel, Dr. Sayid, the Soviet-trained physician, has abandoned the socialist dreams of his youth. Communism, he concedes, "is not going to take root in this soil."

He has quit the Communist Party and now serves Hezbollah, working at a Hezbollah hospital bedecked with Islamic inscriptions and portraits of Iranian ayatollahs. When the war started this summer, his wife, an Orthodox Christian from Belarus, and three children left for her homeland. Dr. Sayid stayed behind to treat the injured, including Hezbollah fighters.

On a recent afternoon, Dr. Sayid sat with a group of Hezbollah activists in the office of the local mayor, also of Hezbollah. The mayor was wounded in the leg during the war and Mr. Sayid has been treating him.

One of the group showed off pictures of Hezbollah's "divine victory" -- an Israeli tank on its side, an Israeli warship in flames. Dr. Sayid says he is "not fully in agreement" with Hezbollah. But he believes it can succeed where communism failed. "It is strong. People support it." Hezbollah, he says, "shows the world America is wrong."