In Lebanon, a state manned by discredited elites seems on the verge of disintegration, with an armed group backed by Iran poised to seize control, just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan with Pakistani backing. Pictured: Hezbollah members in Baalbek, Lebanon on November 12, 2019. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)
Remember 9/11, the catchphrase that was seen as a wake-up call for a world lulled into sweet slumber by “The End of History”? Nearly two decades ago today, the twin terror attacks on New York and Washington propelled a new threat to world order at the top of international concerns: the threat of non-state groups seizing territory for use as a base for advancing ideological aims through terror and war.
Though it contained some new features, the attack on the United States recalled a model used by other ideological movements on small and large scales. In a sense, both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had been built on a model that rejected the concept of nation-state as developed by the Westphalian treaties of the 17th century. The Third Reich and the USSR could not behave as normal nation-states concerned with the normal interests of nation-states such as security, trade, access to markets and resources, cultural exchanges and prestige. Their prime interest was “exporting” their ideological brand, by war if necessary.
Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, regarded Russia only as “a base for the world proletarian revolution”. He was even prepared to accept the loss of Russia’s European possessions through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in order to secure the “base” he had gained in Petrograd and Moscow. In his book The State and Revolution, Lenin argued that a state made sense only as a vehicle for revolution in the name of the proletariat. For Hitler, too, Germany was more of an abstract concept than a here-and-now reality, a base for world conquest in the name of the “Herrenvolk” (master race).
The same concept provided the intellectual motif of the group that planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Their aim was not to seize territory in the US but to promote their ideological brand. The group that had planned the attacks had originally been based in Afghanistan. Forced to leave Afghanistan, it transferred to Sudan where it enjoyed welcome for several years. Then, having been forced out of Sudan, it relocated back to Afghanistan. In both cases, it treated Afghanistan and Sudan as nothing more than chunks of land from which to “export” their ideological brand.
Using a piece of land as an ideological base, and not primarily as a nucleus for a state in the normal sense of the term, has been a model for many trans-national groups across the globe.
The most important example is provided by the victory of the Fedayeen Islam in Iran in 1979. In dozens of speeches, the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, made it clear that he was not bound by national boundaries. He wanted Iran for his revolution, not the other way round. The goal was, and for his heirs remains, the conquest of the whole world, starting with Muslim nations, for his ideological brand.
Lenin created the Comintern to “export” his revolution. Hitler had his outfit for “coordinating” with fascist parties in more than a dozen countries in Europe, South America and even in Iran of the 1930s. Khomeini set up an office to export his revolution, headed by Hojat al-Islam Hadi Khsrowshahian, while another Hojat al-Islam, Hadi Ghaffari, created the Hezbollah which went on to found branches in 17 countries, notably Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.
That ideology and not territory is the key factor for most similar groups is shown by the experience of Marxist guerrilla outfits in Latin America and Africa between the 1960s and the end of the last century. At one point, Latin American guerrillas even fought in Dhofar (Oman), Ethiopia and Somalia.
In the past two decades, however, the model has been mostly used by groups using or abusing Islam as an ideology. Flushed out of Afghanistan, the Taliban relocated in Pakistan’s badlands in the Swat Valley and Baluchistan and villages in eastern Iran.
Driven out of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda also relocated in Pakistan and then created branches in Iraq. In conjunction with kindred groups, al-Qaeda even managed to set up the “Islamic State” in chunks of Iraqi and Syrian territory. To show that it was ideology, not location, that mattered the group later created branches in north and west Africa, notably in Libya and the Sahel. The group known as Boko Haram has had a similar trajectory. It started in Nigeria but has now spread to half a dozen West African countries, with offshoots even in Chad and the Central African Republic.
Regardless of the obvious differences of belief systems and discourse, all ideology-driven movements from Lenin and Hitler to Khomeini and Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi aim at replacing the biological human with an ideological one, ostensibly to complete the work of nature or providence.
Long before Khomeini, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, the Islamist revolt led by the Akhund of Swat in Pushtunistan and by Mullah Hassan in Somalia had provided models of using territory as a launching pad for ideology.
In that context, it is not surprising that the official media in Iran presents the current crisis in Lebanon as a fight between the Khomeinist revolutionary brand, on the one hand, and a coalition of “arrogant” powers led by the United States on the other.
The daily Kayhan, assumed to reflect the views of top decision-makers in Tehran, describes Lebanon as a “front-line bunker” for the Khomeinist Revolution with the local branch of Hezbollah as the forward unit. That analysis represents a perversion of the roles both of religion and state.
The fact is that Lebanon isn’t just another chunk of land to be used as a launching pad for ideological conquests.
To be sure it shares some features with countries that fell to ideology-driven maniacs of different kinds. Lenin seized power in a Russian state that had become an orphan with the fall of the Tsarist state. Hitler inherited the orphan state left by the failed Weimar Republic. Khomeini came to power when the Shah simply left Iran as an orphan state.
Afghanistan after the fall of the Communist regime, Iraq after Saddam Hussein and Libya after Muammar al-Gaddafi were other examples of orphaned states creating vacuums filled by ideological terror groups.
At first glance, the same fate may look as if it is threatening Lebanon. A state manned by discredited elites seems on the verge of disintegration, with an armed group backed by Iran poised to seize control, just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan with Pakistani backing.
Fortunately, all options are not yet closed for Lebanon.
There is some talk of international “tutelage” led by France, an unworkable option in my opinion. There is also talk of a more direct Iranian suzerainty, something that Tehran, sinking in its own troubles, would be foolish to attempt. A third option is to return sovereignty to the Lebanese people. This means to help the orphaned family assume control of its own destiny.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.
© 2020 Gatestone Institute. All rights reserved. The articles printed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editors or of Gatestone Institute. No part of the Gatestone website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied or modified, without the prior written consent of Gatestone Institute.