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A populist movement of Lebanese Shi’i Muslims that first emerged in 1975, Amal has become an important political force in Lebanon.

Political Mobilization of the Shi`ah. Against a background of social exclusion and economic deprivation, the Shi`ah of Lebanon have emerged as major political actors on the Lebanese scene. Well into the twentieth century, the Shi’ah were only bit players in Lebanon. They were unnoticed by other Lebanese, given scant attention by scholars, and presumed insignificant by Lebanese politicians. Socialized into a religious tradition that extolled sacrifice and presumed temporal injustice, the Shi’ah found ready confirmation for their beliefs in their mundane surroundings.Lebanon’s confessional (sectarian) political equation-in which privilege, office, and political rights were allocated according to sectoperated to the disadvantage of the Shi`ah. This became pronounced as their population grew disproportionately to the country’s other major sects. In a political system dominated by Maronite and Sunni politicians, the Shi’ah were trapped by their confessional identity.

Although they lagged behind non-Shi`is, the Shi’ah were still very much affected by the rapid modernization that had marked Lebanon since independence in 1943. Access to education produced a growing pool of individuals who were no longer content to confine their horizons to subsistence farming. Improved transportation eroded the geographic isolation of the community. A rapidly growing communications network, both within and outside of Lebanon, brought the outside world-with its political ideologies and its modern ideas and technologies-into even the most remote village.

Modernization of the agricultural sector, including an increasing emphasis on cash crops and farm mechanization, led to underemployment and unemployment. Many of the Shi’ah were forced to move off the land in order to survive. As the modernization process began to have an effect, and as the Shi’ah gained from exposure to horizons wider than the village, they became more aware of the disparities between them and their relatively affluent neighbors. Fleeing the poverty of the village and the drudgery of farm labor, many Shi’ah took work where they could find it in Beirut, usually as petty laborers or peddlers. This migration of labor led to the swelling of the population of the Lebanese capital by the 1960s. The Shi’ah made their homes in the squalid suburbs; although some actually escaped from poverty, most remained dreadfully poor. Not surprisingly, these migrants from the country became a fertile pool for recruitment by radical parties that claimed to have answers to their difficulties.

More important, the dearth of economic opportunities withinLebanonfactored into the movement of many Shl’i men overseas, where opportunities in the Gulf states, and especially West Africa, provided a way out of poverty. Some made their fortunes and thereby gained the wherewithal to support political movements in their image. Later, the money earned by these Shi’i migrants would play a crucial role in financing the growth of Shi’i political activism within Lebanon. Though the Shi’ah as a whole are still relatively impoverished, many Shi’is have done well as merchants, building contractors, and professionals. Yet, even among the affluent, there is an ethos of deprivation, a lingering memory imparted by a lifetime of accumulated grievances and slights.

The 1960s and 1970s also exposed the Lebanese Shi’ah to the vibrant and dynamic leadership of Sayyid Musa al-Sadr. Although born in Iran, Sadr traced his ancestry back to southern Lebanon and the village of Marakah. He moved to Lebanon in 196o from Najaf,Iraq, where he had been studying Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) under the sponsorship of several of the most important ayatollahs of the day. He was a looming presence in the pre-civil war period, and it was under his direction and leadership that the Harakat al-Mahrumin (Movement of the Deprived)-the forerunner of the Amal movement-emerged in 1974. Sadr was a populist leader with an agenda of reform, not destruction and revolution.

Although the Movement of the Deprived claimed to represent all of the politically dispossessed Lebanese, regardless of confession, it was transparently a party of the Shi`ah. The charismatic Sadr skillfully exploited Shiism’s potent symbolism to remind his followers that they were people with a heritage of resistance and sacrifice. He revitalized the epic martyrdom of Imam Husayn (the grandson of the prophet Muhammad) at Karbala in 680, and he inspired his followers to emulate the imam’s bravery.

Despite his magnetic appeal for many Shi’ah, Sadr’s movement was only one in a field of organizations that successfully mobilized the Shi’ah into political action. In Lebanon, as in Iraq among the Shi’ah, the Communist Party was the party of prominence in the 1970s. Only later, and under bizarre circumstances, did Sadr’s movement assume center stage for the Shi’ah. With the civil war that began in 1975, Sadr’s popular following was challenged by a number of militia organizations, including the Palestinian Fida’iyan, which recruited many Shi’ah youths. Sadr’s appeal diminished in a setting where guns became commonplace adornments and the rhetoric of hatred and cruelty overwhelmed his rhetoric of reform.

War’s exuberance faded predictably, and in the south, the heartland of Shiism in Lebanon, the conflict destroyed villages, took lives and livelihoods, and alienated many Shi’is from their political alliances. Increasingly, throughout 1977 and 1978, Shi`is often found themselves in the crossfire between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) andIsrael. This was a period of heightened suffering, especially in southernLebanon, where a heavy price was paid for the armed Palestinian presence.

Development and Activities of Amal. By the late 1970s many-but by no means all-of the politicized Shi’ah deserted the political left and joined or supported the rejuvenated Amal movement. Amal means hope, but it is also an acronym for Afwaj al-Muqawamah al-Lubnaniyah (Lebanese Resistance Detachments). In 1978 the Israelis increased their military pressure on south Lebanon, thereby helping to stoke the tensions between the Shi`ah and the PLO, although subsequent Israeli errors would indicate that theirs was a very incomplete understanding of what was taking place among the Shi ah. Amal began to take shape as a loose grouping of village homeguards, intent on circumscribing the influence of the PLO and thereby reducing the exposure of the Shi’ah to Israeli preemptive and retaliatory strikes.

With the Iranian Revolution gathering momentum in 1978, many Lebanese Shi`ah took inspiration from the actions of their Iranian coreligionists. If the Islamic Revolution was not a precise model for Lebanon, it was still an exemplar for action, and Amal, as an authentically Shi’i movement, was the momentary beneficiary of this enthusiasm. Sadr was known to be a key supporter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) and an adversary of the shah (although his opposition had been tempered by a good dose of realism). Moreover, several key Amal officials, including the Iranian Mustafa Chainran, took up key positions in the new regime.

Ironically, it was also Sadr’s disappearance in 1978 that helped to retrieve the promise of his earlier efforts. In August 1978 he visited Libya with two companions, Shaykh Muhammad Shihadah Ya’qub and journalist `Abbas Badr al-Din. The party has not been heard of since. Sadr became a hero to his followers, who revere his memory and take inspiration from his works and his plights. The symbol of a missing imam-reminiscent of the central dogma of Shiism-is hard to assail, and even blood enemies were heard to utter words of praise for the missing leader. The reform movement Sadr founded became the largest Shi`i organization in Lebanon. By 1982, whenIsraellaunched its invasion of Lebanon, Amal was arguably the most dynamic force in Lebanese politics.

Amal’s calls for the reformation of the Lebanese political system went unheeded, however. The Maronite Christians, who have enjoyed the dominant role in the politics of modernLebanon, were intent to preserve their power, not to share it. The Sunni Muslims, the Maronites’ junior partner, were also little interested in seeing the diminution of their privileges to the advantage of the Shi`ah. Thus, the answer to Amal’s demands was calculated intransigence. The predictable result was increased anger and frustration among the Shi`ah.

True to its reformist origins, the Amal leadership sought a role in the Lebanese political system in the exuberant second half of 1982. Although Lebanon’s civil war did not definitively end until 1990, the expulsion of the bulk of the PLO’s fighters from Lebanon and the energetic engagement of U.S.diplomacy seemed to signal that the worst was over. Amal leader Nabih Berri, the Sierra Leone-born son of a Shi`i trader, waited in vain for a call that never came. Meanwhile, though Israel earned the gratitude of many southern Shi’ah for expelling the widely disdained Palestinian gunmen,Israelr emained in occupation of much of Lebanon, including all of the south.

By 1983, the hopes of 1982 were in tatters.U.S.diplomacy proved to be clumsy and poorly conceived, and Syria, defeated soundly byI srael in 1982, was determined to undermineIsrael’s gains and America’s ambitions in Lebanon. An increasingly potent Lebanese resistance emerged, based initially in the parties of the left, but by the autumn of 1983 Amal was deeply implicated in the resistance. From 1982 onward, the Shi`i community became increasingly militant, in no small measure because of an arbitrary campaign of intimidation and arrests by the Maronite-led government.

The high point of Amal’s organized military power was in 1984. Amal fighters were heavily engaged against the Israeli occupation of Lebanese soil, and, in Beirut, Amal confronted the central government. After terrible shelling of the heavily populated southern suburbs by the army, Nabih Berri called successfully on Shi’ i soldiers to lay down their arms, whereon Amal became the dominant force of the moment in West Beirut.

Shortly thereafter, in early 1984,U.S.marines withdrew from their positions in Beirut. Following the disastrous attack on the marine barracks in 1983 that killed more than two hundred marines, the departing marines left their positions to Amal militiamen. Amal moved to solidify its power position, while also maintaining pressure on Israel in the south, where the invading army consolidated its positions. Deadly, intense attacks promptedIsraelto extricate most of its forces from Lebanon, while, in 1985, retaining a foothold in a selfproclaimed “security zone.”

For a time, the Amal leaders had some faith in U.S.promises, but, by 1985, those promises rang hollow and Amal was heavily influenced by Syria. Given the extant hatreds, Amal did not need much prodding to move to suppress surviving PLO positions in the environs of Beirut, but Syria was a generous supplier of arms and ammunition for Amal’s bloody war of the camps, which lasted until 1988.

Amal’s ascendancy, however, was promptly checked. A tactical alliance with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt crumbled, and among the Sunni Muslims fears of Shi’i suzerainty sparked a variety of organizational ripostes. Amal’s moment of singular power was over.

Competition with Hizbullah. Amal, which promised in the early 1980s to become the dominant organizational voice for the Shi’ah, faced a serious erosion in its following. Ineffective and even incompetent leadership, corruption, and more than a modicum of arrogance have undermined its support, especially in the environs of Beirut.

Hizbullah (or “the Party of God”), the Iranian-funded alternative to Amal, emerged since 1982 as a competent, dedicated, and well-led challenger. Although young Shi’i clerics dominate the leadership of Hizbullah, it is noteworthy that Hizbullah has been especially effective in recruiting among well-educated Shl’ah from secular professions, many of whom have lost confidence in Amal. In May 1988, fighting in Beirut suburbs, which saw the Hizbullah triumph over the Amal militia, underlined Hizbullah’s steady success in enlisting the Shi`ah, many of whom are ex-Amal members.

As the overall situation grew worse, Hizbullah gained supporters, although Amal remained a force with which to be reckoned. The persistent insecurity, the stalling of political reform, and the near total collapse of the Lebanese economy have made religion a refuge, skillfully manipulated to be sure, in a situation where there were no other answers. Taking its cue fromIran, Hizbullah has exploited the symbolism of Shiism to enlist support. For instance, `Ashura’, the day on which the Shi’ah commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn more than thirteen hundred years ago, and certainly the most significant day of the Shi i calendar, has become not just a plea for intercession or an act of piety, but a revolutionary statement.

Hizbullah has enjoyed much less success in south Lebanon, where about one-third of the Shi`ah live (the total population of Shi’ah in Lebanon is usually estimated to be at least one million, or 30-35 percent of the total Lebanese population, but it may be even higher). Anti-PLO animosity runs deep in the south, and Amal’s staunch stance against the restoration of an armed PLO presence in the area accurately reflects popular sentiment and distinguishes Amal from Hizbullah.

The civil war ended in 1990, generally along the lines of the 1989 Td’if Accord, which called for MuslimChristian parity in parliament and increased, marginally, the influence of the Shi`i Muslims in the Lebanese political system. In agreement with the accord, Amal was disarmed in 1991 and the movement’s militia phase ended.

Amal’s rival, Hizbullah, however, did not disarm and continued to enjoy the toleration of Syria and the support of Iran. In addition, although Amal leaders had long railed against the corruption and arrogance of the zu’ama’ (political bosses), senior Amal figures were susceptible to the same charges. Amal maintained an important core of support, especially in the south, but Hizbullah continued to siphon off members, who were attracted by Hizbullah’s network of social services and its reputation for integrity.

With the resumption of “normal” politics in Lebanon, Amal’s raison d’etre had to be modified radically. Although the killing stopped, for the most part, the aftermath of the civil war was a national economic crisis in which the real standard of living of the Lebanese declined dramatically. Amal’s capacity for conversion into a widely encompassing political movement has thus been limited.

Nonetheless, Nabih Berri, long a political outsider, ascended in 1991 to the position of parliamentary speaker, the highest political position allotted to a Shi’!, signifying both a personal success and a marker of Amal’s accomplishments since its creation in 1974. Popular movements tend to offer more than they can reasonably be expected to deliver, otherwise they would lose their populist base, and Amal is no exception. Yet, in the quest of the Shi’ah of Lebanon for dignity and political power, Amal’s role was central. The movement authentically symbolized the moderation and the project of reform that defines the vast majority of this community.

[See also Hizbullah, article on Hizbullah in Lebanon;Lebanon; and the biography of Sadr.]


Collings, Deidre, ed. Peace forLebanon? From War to Reconstruction.Boulder, 1994.

Crighton, Elizabeth, and Martha Abele MacIver. “The Evolution of Ethnic Conflict: Group Dynamics and Political Underdevelopment inNorthern Ireland and Lebanon.” Comparative Politics 23.2 (January 1991): 12’7-142.

Fisk, Robert. Pity the Nation: The Abduction ofLebanon.New York, 1990.

Hanf, Theodor. Coexistence in War time Lebanon: Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation.Oxford, 1993

Mallat, Chibli. Shi’i Thought from the South of Lebanon.Oxford, 1988. Norton, Augustus Richard. Amal and the Shi’a: Struggle for the Soul ofLebanon.Austin, 1987.

Piqard, Elizabeth. Liban, etat de discord: Des fondations aux guerres fratricides.Paris, 1988.

Sirriyeh, Hussein. “Lebanon: Dimensions of Conflict.” Adelphi Paper 243 (August 1989).

Theroux, Peter. The Strange Disappearance of Imam Moussa Sadr [sic].London, 1988.

United   States. Congress. House of Representatives. Committee on Foreign Affairs. Subcommittee on Europe and theMiddle East. “Islamic Fundamentalism and Islamic Radicalism.” Hearings before the 99th Cong., 1st sess., 24 June, 15 July, and 30 September 1985.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/amal/

  • writerPosted On: October 8, 2012
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