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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

The Lebanese Shi'a and Political Violence



This Discussion Paper attempts an analysis of political violence in Lebanon with a focus on the Shi’i community. The spectacular and widely publicized events most often associated with the recent history of the country - car bombings and the rash of abductions of Western citizens, for example - are revealed as only the most visible manifestations of frustrated attempts by the Lebanese Shi’a to obtain recognition and rights within the state structure.

The first part of the paper considers the historical context of political mobilization and violence within the Shi’i community since the creation of the Lebanese state in 1920. The birth and acceleration of this violence are explained by demographic, sociological, economic, legal and constitutional, as well as strategic and military variables. The combination of these variables, the staggered nature of their respective evolutions, and their impact on the Shi’a explain why members of the community, and organizations acting in its name, resorted to certain types of political violence. Three phenomena in particular are especially significant. First, the Lebanese Shi’a, as a group, was transformed in the space of forty years from an underdeveloped and submissive group to a community capable of rapid economic mobility and social mobilization. Second, the transformation from social mobilization to political mobilization was blocked, however, in part because the Lebanese communitarian system is governed by a set of rigid rules. Consequently, the Shi’a saw their identity reinforced, their borders established, and their mobilization as a “community” strengthened. Third, by using to their own advantage the failure of a new consensus within the Shi’i community and the impossibility of expanded political participation, outside forces intervened and propelled the discourse and practices of the Shi’a towards conflict and violence.

The paper offers a description and analysis of the various acts of political violence in which the Shi’a were implicated from 1974 to the early 1990s. By dividing the acts into three categories - extra-institutional protest in the form of mass demonstrations and protests, revolutionary insurrection (armed struggle) and terrorism - it shows how successive frustrations led to the transition from one form of violence to another: from a violence that was mainly symbolic and verbal in nature to a physical violence committed by armed militia groups, even against civilians. The analysis emphasizes the role of violence in structuring the cohesion and dynamics of the Lebanese Shi’a as a social group.

The paper then considers the phenomenon of violence itself as a means of reviving the past of the Shi’i community and of mobilizing its members. It examines the socioeconomic, psychological, military and security aspects of the militia phenomenon which “structured” Lebanese society at the local level during the worst years of war when state order had totally collapsed. To illustrate how collective beliefs and values were used within the Shi’i community, it examines religious discourse as a way of structuring and giving meaning to anti-state and anti-Western political violence. In particular, it analyses the annual Ashûra ritual, which evolved from a religious celebration into a political performance as a means of galvanizing collective mobilization.

The paper ends by looking at the recent evolution of the Shi’i movement during the period of reconstruction of the Lebanese state since the end of the war. It considers the choice faced by the Shi’i movement between compromise with the state including the accession to power, or refusal of the path of normalization through withdrawal into a society that at some future date could remobilize.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Apr 1993
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD