Hezbollah: An Outsider’s Inside View
1- How and why did your interest in Lebanon and Hezbollah start?
So little has been written about Hezbollah in Lebanon, at the time Western media and politicians try to hammer it constantly. This year, Lebanon's book fair witnessed the signing of a unique book that provides the viewpoint of an American woman on Hezbollah. She is Brenda Heard; a writer, a teacher and a human rights activist.
Brenda has travelled repeatedly throughout the US, Canada, Europe, India and the Middle East. Having taught university and business level English for over a decade, in 2006 she founded the Friends of Lebanon organization, based in London, England.
She has continued to manage this international support for a better and more peaceful Lebanon and has written numerous articles that have been published across the web. Based on eight years of research and hands-on experience, she offered a Western insight into the people behind the name Hezbollah.
The following is a detailed interview on her book writing experience, the motives behind it, the obstacles she faced, her interaction with the Hezbollah people and a lot more.
1- How and why did your interest in Lebanon and Hezbollah start?
It was the July 2006 War that really captured my attention. I was appalled by the news reports of this seething bombardment of Lebanon. At the time, there were huge demonstrations in London calling for an immediate ceasefire. When some friends asked me to join them, I agreed. We could not just sit back and watch "Israel" unleash such a deadly fury that it seemed to be trying to obliterate everything in its path. There had to be a better way toward peaceful co-existence.
After the July War, the Lebanese situation remained precarious. Despite everyone's saying that they wanted a peaceful, stable Lebanon, few agreed on the role of Hezbollah in achieving that goal. Some people vehemently accused Hezbollah of causing the war. Others praised Hezbollah for defending Lebanon and bringing an end to the war. Growing out of this contradiction, my curiosity led me to research the facts of the history.
2- How much did you know about the region and the Shiite party before you started conducting your research?
I've always loved to travel and had been to Lebanon briefly as a tourist. Perhaps I was particularly disturbed by the July War because I'd actually seen for myself how beautiful the country and its people were. I was, of course, generally aware that there had been problems in the region, that various groups had been in conflict with Western interests, but my primary interest had always been cultural, not political.
While I had an interest in the arts of the region, though, I knew very little about the religious angle. I've always believed any religious conviction to be a private matter, and thus had a mere basic, academic understanding of the many faiths of the world. And so it was with no preconceptions that I began my research.
3- You said it took you around 8 years to conduct research and talk to people to finally publish your book, how was the interaction with the Lebanese Shiites you had interviewed, and was communicating with them easy? Were they only fighters? Politicians?
To write this book I wanted to form my own opinion of the highly contentious group called Hezbollah. That required meeting the people who are Hezbollah, people who support Hezbollah, and indeed those who oppose Hezbollah. It also required that I confirm my observations with historical research, built on as many primary source materials as possible. So I took my time and dug deeply. As I researched, I formed more questions, which in turn prompted further research. A lengthy process.
During this time period, I conducted numerous interviews-question and answer discussions-with the people of Hezbollah. I also simply spent time visiting with them in more informal, social settings. Both styles of interaction are needed to create an informed understanding. I also got to know other Lebanese, both Shia and non-Shia, who were or were not supportive of Hezbollah. It was important to consider, for instance, why a person with a Shia heritage might prefer a different party, or who might shun policies adopted by Hezbollah. Likewise, it was important to consider why various Christian, Sunni, Druze or non-religious Lebanese either supported or opposed Hezbollah as a party.
As for the people of Hezbollah, communication was easier than might be expected. There are a few points to expand. One, language. My knowledge of Arabic is only basic, so unless they spoke English or French, I used several different interpreters. That added step can be a bit tedious in theory, but I never noticed any impatience on the part of my Hezbollah dialogue partners. Many would apologize for not speaking English, and would try as much English as they knew, despite interpreters always being at hand. It seemed they wanted to -- let me know that they wanted to speak with me, to help me understand.
Two, access. My first access to Hezbollah personnel in Lebanon was a man who works in their Foreign Relations Department. He actually continued to work with me on the book project, arranging tours and interviews. I soon got to know his wife and children, as well as his friends and colleagues. Sometimes he would set up and accompany me to a formal interview, such as with fighters or with administrators. Other times we'd stop for tea and his friends would happen to spot him and come over to join us. Over time, my network grew. As you will read in my book, I talked with men working within many types of programs: social, media, medical, construction, and so on. I talked with founding members, with politicians, and with many who were fighters, spanning from the beginning to present. I talked with their families-mothers, fathers, siblings, wives, children. Without exception, they all were eager to share their time with me, meeting after meeting, always making me feel welcome.
Three, comfort. You might expect it to be awkward to ask such pointed questions as "why do you put your life on the line like that?" or "aren't you angry that your husband [or son] was killed [martyred]?" You might expect resentment or distrust or judgement. But not once did I feel I had imposed in any way. On the contrary, the people of Hezbollah-young and old, male and female-were consistently polite, even friendly. That's not to say they were ready to tell-all. If I asked a question that overstepped concerns for professional security, for example, they would simply decline to answer. That said, I found that they were eager to answer questions when asked about life in Hezbollah. While they were glad to share their opinions when asked, though, it was never preaching, never any more than conversation.
4- In an earlier interview, you touched on a New York Times article that claimed Lebanon's Mahdi scouts was turning kids into ‘suicide bombers.' Tell us about your interaction with these kids
Children are seldom politically correct. They make faces and blurt out whatever pops into their minds. Even older kids are more transparent than they might like to think. I was thus keenly eager to talk with children who had participated in the Mahdi Scouts program. Whether five or fifteen, they were at once respectful and friendly with me. Nearly all the children I visited with, boys and girls of various ages, had learned English in school. Being usually able to converse quite directly, then, we talked about school, friends, scouts, and wherever they themselves led the conversation. They were exuberant. They smiled and laughed and chatted away. They enjoyed scouts as a chance to play with friends, go camping, and do art projects-to learn and to have fun. When I nudged them onto topics of politics or religion, I found age-appropriate responses from children who were growing up where the ache of past wars and the threat of looming wars is just a fact of life.
5- How was your experience with the Hezbollah officials and people as an American woman?
If they took notice at all of my being American, it was to quickly reassure me that Hezbollah objected only to the US government's foreign policy in the region, that they held nothing against the American people. As example of this lack of antipathy, there are not just American fast food restaurants, but also numerous "American Stores," specializing in American brands and products, in neighborhoods supportive of Hezbollah. While they enjoy their own Lebanese culture, they also embrace the best of the West, including America. One evening, for instance, I was having a long, leisurely dinner with several Hezbollah families. At one point, several of the wives were engaged in an animated conversation about some little booklet they were passing between themselves. I asked what was so interesting. They smiled and showed me their Tupperware catalogue.
As for being a female, I have experienced the utmost respect from the people of Hezbollah. Both men and women invite my opinions and extend a sincere welcome. And despite the Hollywood cliché, no one has ever commented on my choice of clothing. Instead, they listen to what I have to say with professional and even warm attention. I have consistently been made to feel comfortable amongst them.
6- From what you have seen, how much Orientalism is there in what the Western media presents on Hezbollah and the region?
There has been a vast amount of orientalism. Whether naïve, malicious or egocentric, the Western view of the Middle East has been condescending from as far back as you wish to trace it. This attitude is certainly displayed in Western media coverage of Hezbollah, with its characterization growing more intensely derogatory as time goes by. This failure to acknowledge the people whom the Western powers have put in their crosshairs as just that-as people-has enabled the Western public to shrug off [or even cheer on] the wars waged upon them. Of course, this spirit of Western exceptionalism has crushed many, many other groups of people throughout history. It is certainly not unique to the attempted domination of the Middle East. Indeed, historically we've seen non-Western jingoism play out in violent conflict around the globe as well, for instance the Sino-Japanese wars.
Even though orientalism perhaps just reflects an ugly aspect of human nature, though, its culmination is perhaps most vividly demonstrated in the "Israel"-project. Conceived in the 19th century, it grew from the notion that one set of people had a God-given right to seize the homeland of another people, because the conquerors were exceptionally worthy, and the natives were inconsequential obstacles to "progress." Colonialism. Manifest destiny. Bigotry. It is a long and complex topic, one that I discuss in more detail in the book. The result has been, on the one hand, promoting the aggressor and, on the other hand, demonizing the resistant people.
7- Do you think what you wrote can break the mainstream narrative and scare tactics built by Western Media on the Middle East region and Hezbollah in particular?
I wrote the book to share my experience. My hope is that in doing so I might encourage readers to be more intellectually self-reliant. I'd like readers to be able to re-visit this topic and consider factors they may have been unaware of. I've made all online sources readily available on www.insidehezbollah.com in order for readers to review these generally primary source materials themselves.
Opinions on this controversial topic may indeed have been manipulated, a tactic the US government has openly acknowledged. Note as examples: the 1955 Eisenhower Directive; the 2003 Joint Publication 3-53: Doctrine for Joint Psychological Operations; the 2012 Smith Mundt Modernization Act; the 2012/1014 Joint Publication 3-13: Information Operations. . . and many more. This is not the stuff of conspiracy theory. The Psyops publication literally states that the US delivers "information for effect, during peacetime and conflict, to inform and influence." And that the US conveys "selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence the emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals." Likewise, the Information Ops publication brags that "Influence is at the heart of diplomacy and military operations," using "IRCs [information-related capabilities] to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision making of TAs [target audiences] to create a desired effect to support achievement of an objective." This last US government publication literally quotes the 1992 film "Sneakers": "it's not about whose [sic] got the most bullets; it's about who controls the information."
Together with other allied countries, all with massive resources to sell the narrative that protects their own interests, the quest for discerning reality is a challenge. Can one book "break the mainstream narrative"? To quote a participant in a recent march calling for gun control in America, when asked if he thought he had the power to make change: "By myself, I don't think I have the power. But together with all these people here, I think we can make a change." It is up to us all to work for peaceful co-existence.
8- Have you had feedback so far from Western citizens who have read the book?
Surprisingly, I have received very little negative feedback. I hope that is because readers appreciate the sincerity with which I offer my observations. I have also received quite a bit of positive feedback. One reader recently sent a note that has been echoed by others: "In this world of cut and paste journalism that rarely ventures out to explore the on-scene realities of the world, yours is a far too isolated gem of excellent journalism as it should be done." Such focus in his comment indicates to me that he, like many other Western readers who have been in touch, actually want to see and think for themselves.
9- Do you have any intention to broaden your research and visit Iran, being the regional state actor that has been portrayed by the West as a country harboring "terror" in the region and supporting resistance movements like Hezbollah?
I would indeed like to experience first-hand lifestyles in Iran and to research more in depth its role on the international stage. Western governments, particularly the US and the UK, were happy with Iran when they themselves took control of the country and its oil resources. When the Iranian people shook off the Western exploitation, along with the brutality of the CIA-trained police, then the West decided Iran was the bad-guy. The US soon thereafter backed the Iraqi invasion of Iran. Apart from this defensive war, to my knowledge, modern Iran has been a peaceful nation. Yet the Western world has demonized and sanctioned Iran. Because it supports Hezbollah? But Hezbollah, too, has acted defensively. There is clearly a great deal that deserves thorough, first-hand research.
With John Bolton as US President Donald Trump's new National Security Advisor, however, I now hesitate to visit Iran. Just as Bolton praised "Israel's" bombardment of Lebanon in 2006, saying he was "damned proud of what we [the US] did" to prevent an early ceasefire, so too has Bolton been itching to wage war on Iran. His belligerent rhetoric is beyond all reason. Could a book reach such a man? Heaven help us all.