Hezbollah's men of terror are both the strength and the Achilles heel of a movement that seeks to spread Islamic states, says Amir Taheri
The scene is Beirut, some years on, when Hezbollah has driven out the "Crusader-Zionists" and begun building the model Islamic state it has promised since the 1980s.
The rallying cry of Tony Blair — for western democracies to remain united in the global war against terror and engage in a battle of values — has not been heeded. The western powers, led by the United States, have run away from the Middle East, allowing the Islamic republic and its newly acquired allies in Al-Qaeda to set the agenda.
The former American University of Beirut has been replaced by the Iranian-sponsored Islamic University. As teenage "volunteers for martyrdom" chant "Allah, Koran, Khomeini", the new chancellor of the Islamic University prepares to read a message from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.
He calls on the Lebanese to prepare for more sacrifices because his "jihad to wipe the Jewish stain of shame" off the map is only the beginning. He plans to liberate Egypt, north Africa and Spain.
Much has changed in Lebanon since the Party of God seized power. Women have been put into purdah and men forced to grow beards. Bars, pubs, discotheques, hotels with a louche reputation, and other "places of sin" have been closed.
Swimming on some beaches is allowed, though not for women, and men are required to enter the sea fully dressed. Gone are cinemas, theatres, the opera, comedy saloons, and bookshops selling publications that are "at variance with Islamic values".
Newspapers and magazines that had once criticised the Party of God or its patrons in Tehran have been banned. In accordance with the slogan "Hizb faqat Hizballah" (Only one party: Hezbollah!), Lebanon has become a one-party state.
All that is but a glimpse of what Lebanon could look like if and when Hezbollah, armed to the teeth and flush with Iranian cash, realises its dream of extending south Beirut to the whole of Lebanon.
The Lebanese know what all that could mean because they have seen it first hand in Beirut's suburbs controlled by Hezbollah. But how many might wish to live in such a system? The answer came in Lebanon's first free general election last year: Hezbollah and its allies won 14 of the 27 seats allocated to the Shi'ite community in the 128-seat national assembly. This means that some 89% of the Lebanese, including half the Shi'ite community, do not share Hezbollah's vision of an Islamic state modelled on Iran.
Much of Hezbollah's current power and prestige is due to the fact that it is the best funded and best armed political-military machine in the country, feeding thousands of families through employment in its businesses or with subsidies and stipends.
Nevertheless, it would be naive to deny the fact that the message of Hezbollah, which is in fact that of the Khomeinist revolution in Iran and the various Salafist movements in other Muslim countries, appeals to large segments of opinion in the Islamic world and beyond.
The message, first put by Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, is simple: the modern world, a creation of Crusader-Zionists, cannot reflect the values and aspirations of Muslims. It declares that Islam has the right, indeed the duty, to offer an alternative to the western model.
To build the Islamic model, Muslims must expel the Crusader-Zionists from their land, regain control of their destiny, build powerful states and proceed to liberate Muslim lands lost to the "infidel".
The same message is put by Muhammad Khatami, Iran's former president, in a more sophisticated way: the modern West, a child of the Renaissance, has led to colonialism, imperialism and world wars, pushing mankind to the brink of extinction through thermonuclear exchanges or environmental collapse. Western civilisation has undermined the family, done away with moral scruples, encouraged sexual licentiousness and promoted greed as man's highest motivation. It is Islam's mission to offer all nations, Muslim or not, an alternative vision.
Such a purely political interpretation of Islam illustrates why the West must engage in a battle of values, as Blair suggests. For this political interpretation has several advantages for its proponents.
It challenges western-style nationalist, liberal, democratic, socialist and communist parties. It also prevents theological discussions that would reveal divisions within Islam, even inside rival Sunni and Shi'ite camps.
Inside the Muslim world rival sects persecute and murder each other because of religious differences. The Egyptian government does not allow Shi'ites to have a mosque in Cairo while the Khomeinist regime denies that right to Sunnis in Tehran. Sectarian killings have become part of daily life in some Muslim countries, most glaringly in Pakistan and Iraq.
The more fanatical Sunnis and Shi'ites even refuse to shake hands with one another for fear of being "sullied".
However, when it comes to hating the West and dreaming of planting the flag of Islam on every capital, they are at one.
Another advantage of transforming Islam into a purely political anti-West movement is that it can attract support for its various "causes" inside the West itself.
There are many westerners who, prompted by self-loathing or as a result of ideological passions, share the hatred that Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda have for the "infidel" West. The problem is that while most self-loathers in the West no longer use violence to express their views, Islamism of the type represented by Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah is wedded to terrorism.
But there lies both the strength and the Achilles' heel of the Islamist movement.
Terrorism allows small groups to punch above their political weight. The Taliban militia consisted of just 6,000 men. The Fedayeen Islam, the backbone of the Khomeinist movement that rules Iran, originally consisted of just a few hundred assassins and their mentors. Even if we accept exaggerated figures presented by Israel, Hezbollah has a maximum of 8,000 fighters.
All those groups, however, were able, and some still are, to exert greater influence on their societies because they were ready to do something most people would not do: to use murder as an instrument of politics. By using systematic violence and terror, these groups hold their societies hostage. But terrorism could also be the undoing of Islamism.
The majority of Muslims abhor the use of indiscriminate violence even in response to genuine grievances let alone in pursuit of dreams of world conquest. And the history of the past three decades shows that Islamic terrorism can be defeated.
This happened in Egypt, where Islamists fought an exceptionally vicious campaign for a quarter of a century. It also happened in Algeria, where Islamic terrorism claimed some 150,000 lives in a decade. Turkey has managed to smash Islamist groups, most notably the Turkish branch of Hezbollah.
In the past five years Saudi Arabia has also crushed several Islamist groups, thus loosening their hold on segments of the population. Pakistan, too, has scored significant blows against Islamists — a fact largely ignored by the western media.
There is no doubt that force is often needed to break the terror machines that hold whole societies hostage. Algeria could not have returned to normal political life without defeating armed Islamists. Lebanon cannot live in peace unless Hezbollah is disarmed and turned into an ordinary political party.
Iraq will not know stability unless the insurgents and foreign terrorists are militarily crushed. But the war on terror has been won in several countries and can be won in others provided all those who wish to defeat Islamism remain united, resolute and patient.
The defeat of Islamism, an enemy not only of the West but also of the majority of Muslims, can be speeded up if force is complemented with political, ideological and cultural campaigns to reveal the bankruptcy of the Islamist doctrine. What is urgently needed is a common understanding in the West, and among modernising forces within Islam, of what is at stake.
This is not the first time that western values, of which many are now universal, have been challenged by mortal foes prepared to use violence, terrorism and war. In every previous instance those foes were defeated because they offered despotism and despair.
There is no reason why the outcome should be different this time — or that the Khomeinist University should ever replace the American University of Beirut.