Hezbollah’s Boy Scouts

Posted October 14th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in A Privilege to Die,Writing

Where can you learn how to brush your teeth well, tie a knot, articulately recite a Hassan Nasrallah speech, and if you’re lucky, how to join the war against Israel? The answer is the Mahdi Scouts, Hezbollah’s contribution to the international scouting movement. Drawing liberally on Western scout movements as well as the Iranian revolution, Hezbollah has put together a dynamic movement that effectively instills its ideology and tactics in the very young. The Mahdi Scouts showcase Hezbollah’s dual approach — building community through religion and at the same time, mobilizing their devotees through an appeal to fight a unifying enemy.

This extract from A Privilege to Die published today in Foreign Policy describes the day I spent with a Mahdi Scout troop in Khiam.

Mohammed Dawi, the sweaty and plump scout leader, met us at the entrance to Khiam town. He was a redhead with freckles, and looked more Irish than Lebanese. The younger scouts were waiting in the basement of a high school a mile or so from the prison. The troop leader led them in a chant of welcome. Most of them wore blue shirts with epaulets, white scarves, and oversized badges featuring a photograph of a scowling Ayatollah Khomeini. Two boys who looked about ten wore full military fatigues.

It seemed the day’s activities had been planned with my visit in mind. The children marched downstairs single file and broke up by age group. The “buds,” six or seven years old, assembled for a puppet show, emceed by a man in a worn panda suit who sang lines from Nasrallah’s speeches. The “sprouts,” eight to ten years old, sat around tables at the rear of the room drawing pictures, their ideas inspired by a chubby and soft-spoken young woman named Malak Sweid. She was a graphic design student and zealous party apparatchik.

In “guided drawing,” the kids drew pictures of Israelis weeping in defeat, denoted by Stars of David on their helmets, or of Israelis stepping on Lebanese. Other children, with evident direction by Malak, depicted crosses and crescents, symbolizing the Lebanese Christians and Muslims, chained by vicious Stars of David. Other pictures spoke less to the conflict with the Jews than to Islamic values. One child’s picture showed women in low-cut gowns holding martini glasses and cigarettes in old-fashioned holders. “Smoking Harms Your Health” was the title.

Read the rest at Foreign Policy.