As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor at California State University, Stanislaus, formerly wrote the Angry Arab News Service weblog. He’s also one of my favorite writers and commentators on the Middle East. You can, and must, follow him on Twitter @asadabukhalil. Back in August of 2019 I wrote an article here about Lebanon and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. Al Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper, expressed interest in reprinting the story and asked As’ad to interview me for a story accompanying the piece. For reasons I’m unaware of, Al Akhbar never reprinted the article or ran the interview.
I decided to publish it for two reasons. First, it’s a pretty good interview and there’s no point in wasting the time I put into it. We covered issues ranging from Lebanon and Hezbollah to the U.S. media’s horrendous coverage of the Middle East and its helping proselytize the ridiculous myth of “American Exceptionalism.” Second, I wanted to run this interview due to Facebook’s ongoing censorship of Washington Babylon, for reasons almost certainly linked to the 2019 story about Nasrallah and Hezbollah, as Andrew Stewart recently reported here. So here’s my interview with As’ad about that story, and much more.
1) What prompted you to write this piece?
I’ve been going to Lebanon since 2006 and have spent a lot of time in the southern suburbs during the course of roughly 10 visits since then, most recently two trips this year. I’ve always been struck by the huge gap between what’s reported in the U.S. media about Hezbollah and Hassan Nasrallah, and the way he is perceived in Lebanon, especially by Shias. His popularity among Shias is apparent and it’s not because they are religious fanatics who blindly worship him. He’s delivered real results to their communities and he and Hezbollah have heroically resisted Israel, which has overwhelming military superiority on paper, thanks to its U.S.-provided arsenal.
I’ve also been struck by Nasrallah’s personal appeal, charisma and political pragmatism. He surely has his flaws (who doesn’t?) but I see him as an inspiring revolutionary leader and one who is not corrupt, which is a real rarity in politics. I’ve written about Lebanon and Hezbollah a number of times, but had never written a story specifically about Nasrallah. As a journalist, I try to write stories that challenge the U.S. conventional media wisdom and what could be more counter-conventional than writing a critical but positive story about Nasrallah?
2) Have you gotten a reaction here in the US? How will the mainstream media react to your piece? What do you expect?
The piece has gotten more attention in Lebanon than in the U.S. which is what I expected. That’s partly because I ran it at my website which has a respectable but relatively small following, though it is read by a fair number of journalists and political players. But there aren’t many magazines or newspapers in this country who would have run the story, partly because it would be too controversial and offend too many readers. So the story will get a modest number of viewers but I’d be shocked if it gets any mainstream attention because the views I expressed are too counter to the conventional wisdom.
3) What is your view of the nature of mainstream Western media coverage of the region and of Nasrallah?
Mainstream coverage of the region and towards Nasrallah is terrible, even more terrible than it is towards most other parts of the world. The media credulously accepts the general idea of “American Exceptionalism,” which argues that the United States has a unique role to play in the world because it is morally superior to other nations. Every empire throughout history has portrayed itself in those terms, and all of them are obviously pursuing their own interests to enhance their financial and geopolitical interests. But the U.S. media credulously accepts the idea of a benevolent America Globo Cop defending liberty and justice for all.
Specifically in terms of the region and Nasrallah, Israel is an extremely close ally of the United States and it benefits from this in terms of media coverage. It’s obvious to most of the world that Israel is responsible for a hugely disproportionate share of violence and misconduct in the Middle East and that its treatment of Palestinians is criminal. But these things generally can’t be stated in the U.S. media, and on the rare occasions they are raised they are watered down. The U.S. media can be critical of presidents on domestic policy but rarely challenge a president — even Trump, who the media generally is hostile to — on foreign policy. When the American government goes to war, no matter how stupidly and no matter how preposterous the reasons offered — i.e. the Iraq War in 2003 — the U.S. media lines up in lockstep.
In terms of Nasrallah and Hezbollah, as I said earlier, the conventional wisdom is simplistic, ignorant and cartoon-like. If you follow the U.S. media he’s an evil man and Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. The world is a complicated place but the U.S. media sees it in black and white, like the U.S. government, whose lead journalists inevitably follows. I have yet to see a story in a mainstream U.S. media outlet that states the apparent fact that Hezbollah played the leading role in defeating ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria, and suffered the greatest battlefield losses. You’d think that rather noteworthy item would be mentioned, and Hezbollah’s efforts would be positively noted, but it doesn’t square with the official story line so no one discusses it. Given the terrible state of media coverage, I’d be shocked if most Americans don’t believe that Hezbollah is an ally of ISIS and Al Qaeda as opposed to its blood enemy.
4) What are your impressions of Lebanon, of Nasrallah and his foes? To what extent do you see US conspiring there?
As I stated in my story, I deeply admire Nasrallah. I look around the world stage and see few leaders who rival him in terms of stature and accomplishments, from Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli occupation to inspiring and improving the lives of Lebanon’s Shia Muslims. Is he flawed? Of course, what political leader (or human being) isn’t? Do I agree with all of his positions? No. Do I want to live in an Islamic Republic? No. One of the reasons I love the country is its diversity and as far as I can tell Nasrallah, no matter what his personal beliefs, understands that imposing an Islamic Republic in Lebanon would not only fail and lead to disaster, but is not desirable. For some leaders, ideology trumps reality. Nasrallah — again, as far as I can tell — has accommodated his desires to the realities of Lebanon.
Anyone who looks at Nasrallah’s life story — rising from poverty to political leadership while maintaining empathy with the poor with any objectivity has to be impressed with his achievements. In the story I call him the Islamic world’s Che, because Che, imperfect too, was and remains an inspiration to many Latin Americans because of his stance, and actions, against U.S. intervention in Latin America and its undermining of democracy in that region.
I have a lot of Sunni and Christian friends in Lebanon and many of them have negative views of Hezbollah. I understand their criticisms, at least some of them, but their political leaders are far less appealing, and more corrupt, than Nasrallah.
In terms of U.S. conspiring, of course that’s the case. The U.S. is seeking to advance its own interests in the region — like any country — primarily through the Israelis and the Saudis. It dresses this up as being “humanitarian” and altruistic, but in the Middle East it out to expand U.S. influence and wealth, in particular but not exclusively oil wealth. It is not an honest broker but inevitably takes the side of Israel, no matter how many crimes it commits against Palestinians, and demonizes Iran and exaggerates its strength in order to justify aggressive policies against the regime. Again, I’m not a fan of the mullahs, but Iran, whether its led by religious or nationalist secular leaders, has legitimate interests that diverge from those of the United States and so it will always be an official enemy unless a compliant leader, like the Shah used to be, takes power down the road.
5) Have you suffered from Israeli lobby attacks over the years? How have you dealt with them?
I’ve been accused of being anti-Semetic a few times, which is ridiculous, and articles I’ve written in the past have been dismissed as inaccurate because I’m anti-Israel, instead of examining why I, like anyone who’s paying attention, is highly critical of Israel. It’s a way to deflect attention away from the facts and stifle debate. I don’t know that I’ve ever been put on an official Israel lobby attack list, though the Israeli lobby is extremely powerful in the U.S. and regularly attacks journalists. I think I have some protection because I’m Jewish and because I’ve written serious articles that are not simplistic. But I expect that at some point down the road, when it becomes handy, stories like the one I wrote Nasrallah will be dredged up to paint me as politically deviant.
I’m at a point in my career where I don’t pay attention to ideological attacks on my work — unless they reveal factual mistakes, which I retract if I was wrong. If my aim in life was to be popular and mainstream I would have followed a more conventional route in journalism, which was once open to me but no longer is. I was at the Los Angeles Times in the mid-2000s and left that job in part due to censorship of a story that was critical of Israel. The political positions I’ve taken have not helped my journalism career and I’m sure the story about Nasrallah is not going to get me any job interviews, but there’s no point in being a journalist if you’re always looking over your shoulder and censoring yourself to make sure you don’t offend anyone. I would prefer to do my best to investigate the topics I’m writing about and reach conclusions based on my reporting, not write stories in the hopes of pleasing mainstream editors who are far more biased and intolerant in their thinking than I am.
6) You say that you accept the existence of a Jewish state. I did not know that. Are you opposed to a secular state for all? What about the right of return for Palestinian refugees?
I mentioned that in passing in the story and think you misunderstood what I was trying to say. The impulse to create a Jewish state was quite understandable before and especially after the holocaust. My grandmother lived in a Jewish ghetto near Kiev and fled Ukraine for the United States in the early-1900s because of generalized anti-Semetism and pogroms. Half my family didn’t make it out of Europe during the 1930s and were killed in the holocaust. So Jews wanting a national state was reasonable, but it should — and this would never have happened, because the West never accepts responsibilty for its crimes, but in terms of justness — have been carved out of Germany, which carried out the holocaust, and Poland, where the death camps were built. Creating a Jewish state in Palestine on land that overwhelmingly belonged to Arabs was a terrible idea. If a new state was going to be created in Palestine it should have been a secular one, not a Jewish state. I favor an independent secular state and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land. The problem, of course, is that Israel has developed into a brutal apartheid state — I would not go there because of that — and is never going to allow that, nor will the United States, which sees Israel (along with Saudi Arabia) as its closest ally in the oil-rich Middle East. So it’s an incredibly depressing scenario.