Journalists keep the Hizbullah myth alive

(By Tony Badran)
Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s speech last week, in which he rehashed an old conspiracy theory featuring former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, offered an opportunity for a critical examination of the harmful effects of Arab political culture and journalism. This review needs to extend beyond Arab journalists to their Western counterparts, who, for various reasons, have been complicit in the glorification, legitimization and perpetuation of the violence epitomized by Nasrallah’s discourse.
For years now, a personality cult has developed around Nasrallah. The mythology, carefully nurtured by the party, has also been enthusiastically embraced and built up by Western journalists. A central tenet of the legend is that the Hizbullah leader’s word is always truthful, unlike your typical Arab politician or autocrat. Of course, Hizbullah has backed this cult of personality by the implicit, and at times explicit, threat of violence against those who dare tarnish it. 
All too frequently, Western reporters affirm his sainthood through the repetition of the stock phrase about Nasrallah’s (and, more broadly, Hizbullah’s) “reputation for honesty.” This also often takes the form of anecdotal quotes from pious followers along the lines of, “Unlike all the other politicians, [Nasrallah] is not a liar.” 
However, his unshakable image finally came under scrutiny following Nasrallah’s “Martyr’s Day” speech last Thursday. Expounding on the alleged “Western conspiracies” against Lebanon and “the Resistance,” Nasrallah presented supposed evidence of these plots from recently published memoirs of former US President George Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Nasrallah also dedicated considerable time referencing one of the Arab world’s favorite bêtes noires, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. 
Nasrallah quoted what he claimed was a letter written by Kissinger in 1976.  It was a response to an open letter from Lebanese Christian politician Raymond Edde. In brief, Kissinger’s alleged letter contained well-rehearsed elements of what’s commonly known in the Arab world, and Lebanon especially, as the “Kissinger conspiracy.” 
The conspiracy theory holds that Kissinger, the Jew (of course), whose loyalty is to Israel and who subjected US policies to Israeli interests, is the one who instigated the Lebanese war of 1975 in order to create ethnic states “like Israel.” Nasrallah told his followers that the Kissinger letter went on to say that US conspiracies in other Arab countries have failed because of the existence of a “national resistance,” naturally, and that spreading strife only works in divided lands, such as Lebanon, which also serves as a launching pad for plots against other Arab states. 
Nasrallah pointed his Kissinger segment to Lebanese Christians in particular, as a warning (and implicit threat) to all those who might put their faith in the US. Singling out Christians is another staple of the popular “Kissinger conspiracy,” which holds that the former American chief diplomat worked to have all Christians removed from Lebanon and shipped abroad. 
It was all standard Hizbullah discourse with its thinly veiled threats of violence being reworked to tackle the impending indictments by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. But many quickly pointed out to Nasrallah that the “Kissinger letter” never existed. Instead, what Nasrallah was quoting was a hypothetical response to Raymond Edde written by an Arab journalist. The journalist in question assuredeveryone that although he was the author, his information nevertheless came from official sources who had met with Kissinger. Similarly, the pro-Hizbullah al-Akhbar daily jumped to Nasrallah’s defense stating that while the form may have been different, the content was indeed accurate. 
This sad spectacle led veteran columnists like Hazem Saghiyeh and Abdul Rahman al-Rashed to lament the pitiful state of Arab journalism and politics, not to mention the general lack of knowledge among Arabs. But the blame does not lie solely with Arab journalists, despite their notoriously cavalier attitude towards facts and their willingness to engage in information operations on behalf of political patrons. When it comes to the Nasrallah legend, Western journalists bear their share of blame for enabling its continued dissemination.
For instance, in their bid to showcase Nasrallah’s sophistication and supposed deep grasp of his enemies, Western correspondents have latched onto a hallowed anecdote about how Nasrallah once told an interviewer that he was reading the biographies of Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. This oft-encountered conceit is regurgitated in the latest tome on Hizbullah by journalist Thanassis Cambanis, who adds the following starry-eyed remark to the mix: “I never heard an Israeli politician say he was reading Naim Qassem’s Hizbullah: The Story From Within.” 
There are various reasons for this behavior, some of it chronicled by Marvin Kalb after the 2006 war.  They range from outright sympathy to ensuring continued access to a party that has wielded this weapon rather effectively.  Despite these journalists’ mystification of Nasrallah, his understanding, and that of other Hizbullah officials, of the workings of the American political system, or even the policy community in Washington, is often deficient. 
A relevant example can be found in Hizbullah’s treatment of American policy papers, which are often produced as “evidence” in support of whatever conspiracy theory the party or its flacks are engaged in. Another example can be found in the hysterical reaction to an article by columnist Ralph Peters in 2006 that ostensibly “proved” beyond any doubt the American intention to “divide” the region into ethnic mini-states, much like the Kissinger conspiracy.
Alas, as Saghiyeh and Al-Rashed noted, this is part of a much broader problem in Arab societies, and it is part of the reason why Nasrallah knows that he is preaching to a receptive choir. What is more appalling is that he is effectively being cheered on by Western reporters too infatuated with their idealizations to realize or care that they are elevating obscurantism and exalting the most poisonous aspects of Arab political life. 
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first publish on NOW Lebanon.