Stacey Philbrick Yadav
From its humble pre-satellite origins in 1991, al-Manar (The
Beacon) has been a television station driven first and foremost
by the priorities of the Islamic Resistance, the armed wing
of Hizbullah. Since the end of the civil war and the signing
of the Ta'if Accord, Hizbullah has undergone a transformation,
becoming the largest party in Lebanon's parliament in 1993 and
growing in its influence and importance. This has entailed some
considerable transformation of the party's image and discourse,
and al-Manar has served as one of its principal vehicles for
During the 1990s,
al-Manar was an important site for debate over the future of
Hizbullah and its role in post-war Lebanon. It was during this
time that the station pioneered many of its now popular call-in
programs, as well as expanding its news coverage and sending
foreign correspondents to most of the region and parts of Europe
and North America.
Throughout the 1990s,
"public service" themes in al-Manar programming played
into Hizbullah's conscious strategy of working simultaneously
for the destruction of Israel and the development of Lebanon.
Programs on public health and sanitation, education, and religion
ran alongside increasingly elaborate video montages of the fighting
in Southern Lebanon or military exercises in the Biqa' set to
special Hizbullah theme songs. By 1996, ahead of the 1997 parliamentary
elections, the station had also begun broadcasting video clips
in Hebrew as a means of propagandizing to Israeli soldiers in
the occupied areas of the South. At the time, the two faces
of al-Manar could be reconciled by the claim that the armed
conflict against Israel and the struggle for domestic development
were both in defense of a unified Lebanon.
Hizbullah has also
relied on al-Manar to brand itself as a force in Lebanese and
international politics. The party committed to increasing the
sophistication of its broadcasts by adding a professional news
desk and attractive, if modest, broadcasters. In 2000, the station
first began satellite transmission, and within one year, eager
to reach beyond the confines of the Middle East, the station
added a daily English broadcast, produced by a graduate of the
American University in Beirut. All of this was designed to promote
Hizbullah's image as a modern, sophisticated party on a par
with the other local political factions.
But Hizbullah is
not just like the others, and some things did not -- and arguably
cannot -- change for the Lebanese party that built its reputation
on armed conflict in occupied Lebanon. In May 2000, the Israeli
military unilaterally withdrew from the occupied areas of the
South (minus the contested Sheba Farms) and Hizbullah declared
unfettered victory and claimed a place regionally as the only
group to effect such an outcome since 1948. At this point, one
might have anticipated a shift in al-Manar's coverage, an intensification
of its "Lebanonization" in response to shifting incentives.
But al-Manar has continued since that time to focus on its existential
conflict with Israel, albeit with some modifications. In keeping
with trends in overall Hizbullah discourse, the al-Aqsa Intifada
has become the organizing motif that has replaced southern Lebanon,
swapping occupation for occupation.
The problem that
this poses, of course, is that it is a direct challenge to the
process of "Lebanonization" that the party began more
than a decade ago. As a Shi'a party with ties to Iran and a
uniquely close relationship with Syria, Hizbullah has always
had to fight to maintain its relevance to Lebanese from other
confessions. Prior to the 2000 withdrawal, it made some sense
to focus on the conflict with Israel, and to use the station
as a medium for mobilizing fighters for the Islamic Resistance.
Similarly, in the run-up to the 2001 parliamentary elections,
the perceived success of the Resistance in effecting the Israeli
withdrawal was an important motif, yielding a substantial victory
and a multi-confessional voting bloc in the parliament -- the
Loyalty to the Resistance bloc -- under Hizbullah leadership.
But in the past several
years, al-Manar's continuing focus on Israel has entailed the
intensification of another function, and its critics have taken
notice. The station -- like the party -- is increasingly grasping
at straws, trying to convince the Lebanese to maintain a high
level of vigilance in the face of an ever-present threat. The
problem with this strategy is that it has required (a) an increasing
focus on the plight of the Palestinians, which is always a political
gamble in Lebanon, where the Palestinians often take the blame
for the civil war and Israeli occupation, and (b) the invocation
of familiar anti-Jewish motifs that have cost the party in the
international arena. As usual, al-Manar is at the center of
While the controversy
over al-Manar came to a head in Paris this fall, protests against
its programming have been mounting by American and European
governments for at least two years. In 2003, the US approached
the Lebanese government with a request that Beirut prevent the
broadcast of al-Manar's controversial Ramadan series, al-Shatat
(The Diaspora), a narrative of the foundation of the state of
Israel that drew heavily on the Protocols of the Elders of
Zion. But the Lebanese government demurred, defending the
station's right to freedom of expression.
While the United
States may initially have backed down in the face of arguments
about freedom of expression, others did not. The French Higher
Audio Visual Council issued a warning in 2004 of its intention
to ban al-Manar in compliance with French hate-speech laws,
again citing al-Shatat as a principal cause. In response,
Hizbullah spokesmen challenged authorities and viewers to disaggregate
anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism. While there are al-Manar programs
that are anti-Zionist, to be sure, there is little question
that some programming has crossed the line between protected
(anti-Zionist) and unprotected (anti-Jewish) speech under French
law, and al-Manar's legal position was untenable.
Following the French
warning, the station initially accepted the limits imposed by
the ruling, but its compliance was short-lived. Thus Eutelsat,
the station's local distributor, announced its decision to drop
al-Manar from its distribution package (a bundle of stations
targeting Arabic-speaking Europeans), at which point al-Manar
In December of 2004,
the United States initiated its own ban against al-Manar by
adding it to the Terrorism Exclusion List, a list of organizations
that are considered to be directly tied to terrorist groups.
Though al-Manar denies that it is an official organ of Hizbullah,
the US State Department has long recognized the relationship
between the two and has suggested that al-Manar is being used
to raise funds and recruit fighters for Hizbullah's Islamic
Resistance. Al-Manar officials, however, have complained about
the timing of the ban, pointing out that they have been broadcasting
by satellite since 2000, and Hizbullah has been categorized
as a terrorist organization by the United States since 1997.
The station questions why this move comes only now, on the heels
of the events in France, insinuating conspiracy once again.
But the two bans
rest on different legal foundations, with the French ban focusing
on constitutional issues of expression, and the American ban
based on laws prohibiting the material support of illegal organizations.
At least in theory, then, the US is suggesting that their own
struggle against al-Manar is not based on the substance of what
it says, but rather on what it does.
For many in Europe
and America, this distinction is a question of splitting hairs.
For Hizbullah's efforts in the domestic arena, it may be paramount,
inasmuch as it determines how the station and the party can
respond. In the American case, to refute the allegations against
it, al-Manar would have to make the case that the Islamic Resistance
is not a terrorist organization. While the Resistance is still
popular in Lebanon, it is losing its salience in the face of
the current controversies over Syria, Lebanese sovereignty,
and Hizbullah's disarmament in compliance with the Ta'if Accord.
It is not too surprising, then, that this is a conversation
that the party is not too eager to have, just ahead of the scheduled
May elections. As a consequence, responses to the American ban
have been quiet in comparison to the public discussion of the
French ban, in which Hizbullah has successfully cast itself
in the role of a martyr to free expression.
One of the most compelling
features of the al-Manar controversy thus far has been its coverage
in the local Lebanese media. The station has been very successful
in framing itself as a sacrificial lamb, employing a discursive
strategy in line with the broader two-fold Hizbullah domestic
strategy of nationalization (or "Lebanonization")
and "naturalization." In Hizbullah coverage of the
al-Manar issue (on al-Manar itself, and in the pages of party
weekly al-Intiqad), they have reported diligently on
every effort undertaken by non-Hizbullah leaders in Lebanon
from across the confessional spectrum, leading all the way up
to Prime Minister Omar Karami and President Emile Lahoud. At
the recent Arab Summit in Algeirs, Lebanon's foreign minister
Mahmood Hammoud issued a clear statement against the ban, vowing
to push European decision-makers to "make the domain for
expression free for everybody." Thus, the party has attempted
to frame the struggle as a Lebanese one, an effort in which
they have been aided by the inflamatory labels applied to the
station by Western media sources, such as "Hate TV,"
"Terrorist Television," and "Beacon of Hate,"
which seem only to galvanize nationalist counterpoint.
But Hizbullah discourse
pushes beyond nationalizing the response to the bans. The particular
motifs of resistence to the ban employed by Hizbullah can also
be seen as a part of a strategy of naturalization that has characterized
the party's post-war discourse. The idea that the conflict with
Israel is both existential and national means, by implication,
that struggling against it cannot be viewed by any Lebanese
citizen as an act of anti-Semitism, but simply an act of national
self-articulation and defense. It is only "natural,"
accordingly, to fight against Israel, through words, actions,
and -- in recent electoral campaigns, including the one scheduled
for May 2005 -- votes.
On the one hand,
this is simply rhetoric, in the way that al-Manar claims to
represent, "the true reflection of what each and every
Muslim and Arab thinks and believes in." But it is a rhetoric
that matters, since it attempts to constrain the range of acceptable
attitudes that one can "reasonably" hold vis-a-vis
Israel and seeks to discursively implicate all Lebanese in Hizbullah's
struggle with the French over al-Manar by suggesting that to
not engage in such a struggle would be deviant.
Because this is not
the first time that Lebanese citizens have faced negative international
coverage resulting from Hizbullah actions, nor the first time
that the party has employed this strategy of nationalization
and naturalization, familiar buttons are being pressed. L'Orient
Le Jour, for example, has praised al-Manar's decision to
"voluntarily" cease broadcasting (days short of the
deadline for implementing the ban in France) so that the other
Arabic channels in the satellite group to which al-Manar belonged
would not be penalized. In this way, Hizbullah is seen to be
"sacrificing" for the other Lebanese stations.
And the Lebanese
are responding in kind -- by late fall, more than 50 independent
cable distributors across a range of Beirut neighborhoods initiated
a boycott of French Channel 5, a highly popular Francophone
station, in retaliation for the French ban. President Lahoud
himself decried the attempts by the French government "aimed
at veiling from the French public opinion the Lebanese and Arab
position." The height of al-Manar's successful campaign,
however, can be seen in the statement issued by former MP Ahmed
Sweid in which he attempted to turn the mirror on the French,
declaring that, "Al-Manar is assuming the role that the
Free French media assumed during the invasion of Nazi forces
While Hizbullah may
be using al-Manar controversially to assert the continuing relevance
of the Islamic Resistance and thus its continued militarization,
it still has managed to successfully "Lebanonize"
a controversy that stood to considerably hurt its domestic standing.
The party has succeeded in portraying itself, once again, as
a forward force in Lebanese politics, a kind of self-fashioned
scapegoat at the hands of Europe, the United States, and Israel.
This is a kind of spin not to be underestimated in a political
field like Lebanon, where the symbolic so often takes precedence
over the substantive.
Stacey Philbrick Yadav is a Ph.D. candidate in the
Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania
and a research fellow at the Center for Behavioral Research
at the American University in Beirut. She is currently conducting
field research in Lebanon as part of a comparative project tracing
the transformation of internal Islamist party discourse resulting
from Islamist-Liberal dialogue in Lebanon and Yemen.