The Lebanese Association of Arts – Rissalat
Hezbollah established the Lebanese Association of Arts (LAA), also known as Rissalat, in 2006 according to LAA’s official Facebook page. However, some sources place the date of its establishment in 2004. It was registered with the Lebanese Ministry of the Interior under its official name “The Lebanese Association of the Arts – Rissalat” on December 27, 2007.
LAA is located on El Imam Mousa El Sadr Street in Beirut’s Bir al-Hassan neighborhood. LAA owns a theater, officially known as the Cultural Center of the Municipality of Ghobeiri, Rissalat Theater. Mohammad Imadeddine Kawtharani is the LAA’s director and representative to the Lebanese government.
Rissalat explains that its official purpose is to “disseminate a culture of religiously-compliant art and present it in various creative artistic formats.” However, its actual goal appears to be using various artistic formats as vehicles to disseminate Hezbollah’s ideology and propaganda. As Kawtharani elaborates, LAA’s goal is to disseminate “resistance art” which he defines as “the art of Islamic revival or renaissance that revitalizes the umma and wakes it up from its hibernation.” Rissalat’s General Supervisor, Ali Daher, also notes his opposition to what he calls “purposeless art.”
Rissalat says of itself “We use art to improve the way of life in the community of the Resistance, through research, training, production, and activities.” It defines its mission as “Building a comprehensive creative environment (theories, programs, interactive frameworks…), appropriate for those interested in art (intellectuals, academics, specialists, experts, talented individuals, etc.) in the Resistance community in Lebanon and worldwide…We in Rissalat believe that art is now the most expressive language, and the most effective in [establishing] contact and communication.”
Art therefore isn’t a value in and of itself, only insofar as it is a vehicle to convey ideological and religious truths – as defined by Hezbollah – or to strengthen the linkage between the Lebanese Shiite base and the group, and this base and Iran and the broader Resistance Axis.
According to Joseph Alagha, Hezbollah’s and Rissalat’s use of art to disseminate the Resistance ideology takes a cue from the teachings of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who stresses that the successful dissemination of any message, call, civilization, or culture can only be done through artistic form.
Alagha elaborates that this view is particularly pragmatic, deriving from the concept of maslaha (interest). Despite the traditionally restrictive view on music adopted by Islamic jurisprudence, Shiite tradition – particularly Hezbollah – adopts a more pragmatic view, realizing the value of music and art as a vehicle to disseminate its ideological message. Critical to understanding this is grasping the concept of maslaha and its meaning in classical, but particularly contemporary, Shiite jurisprudence. As Joseph Alagha explains, “Such an exploration reveals how the concept of maslaha understood by Hezbollah’s leaders and cadres has allowed for an open, lively artistic cultural practice.”
Alagha explains that this view rests on four interlocking Islamic jurisprudential concepts:
- Avoidance of vices is preferable to obtaining interests
- Necessities permit what is prohibited – prohibited things or social practices could become sanctioned in some favorable contexts
- Matters are attribute things to their final causes – everything has a purpose, maslaha, in life
- Tazahum or “mutual competition” – in the case of conflict of duties, priority ought to be given to the most pressing duty over the least pressing duty, or the one deemed more important than the other
Alagha explains that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini argued that negligence of maslaha, or its non-execution, would lead to serious disorder in administering the affairs of the umma, hindering its advancement, development, and prosperity. Khomeini argued that the effectiveness of Islam and its civilizational role hinges upon the implementation maslaha, and in a 1988 edict concluded that maslaha of the Islamic order takes precedence over everything else. Tazahum intersects here, wherein the case of competition between a public good and a private good, the former always takes priority. For example, “the government can one-sidedly annul any religious injunction agreed upon with the people, if the government deems it in opposition to the interests of the country or Islam.”
Khomeini believed – and his successor Khamenei agrees – that maslaha plays a prominent role in contemporary Shiite jurisprudence, especially in relation to art. But maslaha has its limitations. Per Mohammad Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s Loyalty to the Resistance Parliamentary Bloc, Hezbollah tries to prevent religiously prohibited matters from societally manifesting, while encouraging the realization of the permitted displays “in conformity with its religious vision.” According to Alagha, Khamenei “asserts that cultural work is always an antecedent to political and military work because,” he argues, “without culture no society can prosper,” and “the Islamic Revolution needs to have a strong, enriching cultural background.”
Khamenei likewise believes that culture is one of the means to achieve the aims of the Islamic Revolution, employing it instrumentally in the service of the maslaha of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Purposeful movies and theatrical works are intended as a means of awakening and knowledge production,” and are therefore, “sanctioned to be filmed and shown to the public because they disseminate Islamic culture and contribute to conscience raising, especially among the youth.”
Hezbollah’s existence, strength, and durability depend on its bee’a hadina, or host environment, to thrive, and the existence of this environment in turn depends on this base having a cohesive and distinct culture. Hezbollah has various tools to cultivate that culture that is unique to its environment, that sets it apart from other Lebanese and even other Shiites who do not adhere to the Khomeinist stream. As a result of its Khomeinist heritage, “purposeful art” and the “culture industry” guided by it has become one of Hezbollah’s four central, interlocking, and mutually reinforcing spheres to cultivate and maintain this support base — the others being the military, social services/NGOs, and political spheres.
As scholars Lara Deeb and Mona Harb explain, ideology and culture packaged in propaganda disseminated through artistic expression is a particularly effective tool to cultivate this Khomeinist Islamist milieu in Lebanon. Indeed, Hezbollah views art and resistance as intertwined endeavors. Naim Qassem, the group’s Deputy Secretary-General, and arguably the most cogent articulator of its ideology, considers art a “purposeful mobilization tool.” Hezbollah has thus long propagated and encouraged “art with a mission” (al-fann al-hadif) or “Resistance art” (al-fann al-muqawim), based on Khamenei’s recurring dictum that art is the most eloquent and effective means of ideological propagation.
Hezbollah held this concept of “purposeful art” as early as 1985, expressed in the party’s musical band’s military marches and anasheed – canticles of a religious or martial nature. Hezbollah’s theory on art is that “art and revolution are languages that coalesce and live within the human being; when one wakes up, the other ensues. When the time was ripe for action and resistance, it was inevitable for the language of art to appear on the scene and to accompany this revolution…”
The group has established various organs to propagate this “resistance art” – with the term “art” understood in the broadest sense. Rissalat/LAA is one such entity. Other vehicles for dissemination of this broad understanding of “art” include Hezbollah’s Al-Intiqad/Al-Ahed newspaper, its unofficial Al-Akhbar mouthpiece, Al-Nour satellite radio, Al-Manar TV, and Al-Mayadeen TV.
Per Deeb and Harb, Rissalat/LAA fulfills this need by producing exhibitions, videos, billboards, concerts, and other artistic media that commemorate political and religious events, celebrate the party’s achievements, and narrate the ideals of this “resistance society.” When promoting this culture, Hezbollah is simultaneously promoting its vision of a moral lifestyle – which is all-encompassing, affecting the individual’s religious, but also political, choices and views.
A designer at LAA quoted by Deeb and Harb explained, “You can control people by narrating a specific heritage and memory. This is what the Israelis do. We are fighting their culture by providing a counterculture. We want to fix our memory through architectural and design language. Few people read books, but many people come to visit a building, a museum, or a heritage site.”
Rissalat’s Propaganda Products
Per its now-defunct website (archived here), the LAA disseminates Hezbollah’s propaganda to the group’s support base through various forms of media, including music, visual arts, films and video clips, theater and performance art, and literature.
Rissalat also produces art aimed at children. Rather than pure entertainment, it aims to inculcate Shiite Islamic values, as understood through Hezbollah’s Khomeinist-inspired prism, in its young target audience. One such play is “Close, Sesame” – produced in cooperation with 107 Artistic Group – aims to dissuade children from lying. Other plays, like “Yassine,” are more political in nature, with this particular play, for example, aiming to educate children about the ongoing war in Yemen, but through Hezbollah’s historical-ideological prism. It does so by connecting Shiite Imam Hussein’s passion during Ashoura to the current suffering of the people of Yemen at the hands of the Saudi-led coalition. Rissalat also helps produce televised content for children, like story-readings, through which Hezbollah’s religious values are imparted.
LAA also produces media to reinforce religious values, with particular emphasis placed on various forms of Ashoura programming, including poetic recitations of the life and passion of Imam Hossein. Not only is that event central to traditional Shiite Islam, but the Khomeinist variant places special emphasis on this episode of Islamic history because of Hossein’s struggle against oppressive rule – embodied in the Umayyad Caliph Yazid – which the Islamic Republic of Iran and its offshoots, including Hezbollah, claim to continue today against “modern Yazids” – like the United States, Israel, takfiri terrorists, and other actors. In doing so, Rissalat reinforces the link between Hezbollah’s Lebanese Shiite base and Tehran’s worldview.
Additionally, LAA furthers this Lebanese Shiite-Iranian link by hosting routine screenings of Iranian films dubbed into Arabic – of both a political and non-political nature – to create and strengthen a cultural connection between Hezbollah’s base and the Islamic Republic. Historical-political movies aim to strengthen Shiite identification with Iran’s plight and struggles. Orphanage – an Iranian movie that recounts a dramatized history of the British occupation of Iran in 1919 – reinforces the narrative of a free Iran’s perpetual opposition to destructive Western imperialism. “The Lost Strait” [Lit. the Strait of Abu Ghraib] recounts the last stand of the Iranian “Ammar’ Battalion in the Abu Ghraib straits during waning days of the Iran-Iraq War, preventing its capture by the legions of the Iraqi Army.” But not all the Iranian-produced movies screened by Rissalat are of a serious nature. Some, like the movie Prisoners, are comedies.
Beyond just cultural links to Iran, Rissalat uses art to reinforce the shared “Resistance Axis” culture that Iran has been attempting to create in the societies where its proxies operate, but particularly among the region’s Shiites. Some, like the movie Rozbeh about the life of Salman al-Farisi – produced by the Holy Shrine of Al-Abbas’ media arm – are of a religious nature, and use the medium of film to strengthen the shared religious outlook of Shiites.
Because Hezbollah – and by extension Rissalat – understands the value of narrative, much of its cinematic and artistic production also focuses on retelling historical events through the prism of “Resistance Axis” ideology. An example is Damascus Flight 2701, known in English as “Damascus Time.” Released on October 11, 2018, it is a joint production between Rissalat and Turkey-based Ayat Media.
The film centers on the Syrian towns of Foua and Kefraya, which are under barbaric and merciless ISIS siege, and eventually rescued by heroic Iranian pilots. Syrian regime soldiers are depicted as moral, merciful, and law-abiding even to captured ISIS fighters—in one case even preventing justifiably angry residents from taking justice against the ISIS fighters into their own hands. One regime soldier tells the angry residents, “We’re not animals like them, we’re the ones who know how to apply Islamic law.” A parallel narrative thread in the movie also aims to discredit domestic Iranian (or Lebanese and Iraqi) displeasure with, and opposition to, foreign intervention in Syria and elsewhere. The movie sets up this plot line by having the mother-in-law of the central hero, Captain Rustom, berate him for not being near his wife during her pregnancy, and angrily asks why he can’t fulfill his national duties domestically, as if “Iran doesn’t have enough problems?” As the movie unfolds, the viewer begins to understand that making such a personal sacrifice is for the greater good.
In 2020, Rissalat began hosting Resistance and Liberation Films Week – a new annual film festival co-hosted by LAA and Cinematheque Tunisienne. The first annual Films Week was hosted from January 20-27, 2020 in the City of Culture, Tunisia. At the opening ceremony in Ammar al-Khalifi Hall, the Director of Cinematheque Tunisienne Hisham Ben Ammar opened by saying, “Resistance and liberation are some of the important issues constantly on [Cinematheque Tunisienne’s] agenda,” and expressed his joy at cooperating with Rissalat. To add to the Film Week’s prestige, several celebrities and personalities were invited, including famous Tunisian singer and public figure Lotfi Bouchnak Featured appearance of famed Arab directors, producers, actors, and personalities – most of these participants were Syrian regime supporters – including Abdel Bari Atwan. Most of the films screened were about Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, including five Iranian films and a Syrian film named “Damascus Aleppo” – starring famed Syrian actor Duraid Lahham.
Beyond cinematic productions, Rissalat also organizes live concerts and music festivals where anasheed of either a religious or political nature are performed. These include annual concerts to celebrate the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran – co-sponsored by the Iranian Ambassador to Beirut. These feature musical performances by Hezbollah-affiliated musical troupes, like “Sun of Freedom Orchestra [Orchestra Shams al-Hurriyah]” playing “musical pieces that include several revolutionary anasheed, simulating the atmosphere of Resistance.” Rissalat also hosts a Musical Festival to Celebrate the May 25, 2000 anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon – so-called “Liberation Day” – a central historical event in Hezbollah’s resistance narrative.
Among Hezbollah’s foes, ideology is perhaps the group’s most underestimated asset. Yet, for Hezbollah, disseminating its beliefs among its Lebanese Shiites supporters has been a critical source of the Party of God’s longevity and durability. By crafting the worldview of its followers, the Party can then act as a filter for their reality. The group can then dictate the meaning of historical or current events, directing its base to support Hezbollah’s interests and oppose any harm or setbacks to the group. Given this importance of ideological dissemination, Hezbollah does not want it confined to the intelligentsia. While an elite group of idealogues is necessary for the formulation of ideology, confining it to such a small number of people would deprive Hezbollah of the broad support base on which it relies for its strength and legitimacy in Lebanon, restricting it to remaining an obscure ideological group in the Lebanese social fabric.
Hezbollah has long recognized the danger of restricting its following to a core of ideological elites. Naim Qassem, in his book Hezbollah: The Story From Within, notes that the “danger inherent in the structure of parties is that of restricting size to members, thus leading to the exclusion of ‘others.’ Whatever the organization’s scope or capacity, a party is still limited in terms of rank and functions…[which] could translate into a forfeit of human potentials…”
Hezbollah, from its inception, has therefore opted for a different model. While it is a party, and one controlled by ideologically and religiously committed intellectual elites, it is not an organization that exclusively caters to that particular class. As Qassem notes, the group has modeled itself on the “concept of the nation or body politic [which] rests on a platform that recognizes all, whatever their allegiances, obligations, or preparation for participation.” Hezbollah is “founded on the existence of a leadership that issues instructions to mosques, community clerics, and committees,” but with enough flexibility to be compatible with a “diverse society like Lebanon.” Its organizational framework therefore was intended from the outset to encompass “those segments comprising fundamental believers in the Party’s goals whole honoring and maintain inter-segment differences. It thus avoided the pitfall of excluding ‘others.’”
In his book, Qassem stresses that – in addition to this broad framework for party affiliation – Hezbollah’s “search continues for means to enlarge the circle and benefit from further supporters and Party admirers, means that would widen the scope of societal membership and the utilization of available potential.”
Popular culture and the arts, in the form of music, movies, literature, and other media, fit neatly into this framework. Their very nature, multiplicity of formats, and ubiquity all have broader appeal to intellectuals and commoners alike, spanning the spectrum of ideological and religious commitment. Rissalat therefore fills a critical role for Hezbollah’s dissemination of its ideology and the pursuit of constructing its followers’ worldview, particularly by offering such a broad selection of content and various media formats. It can thus appeal to the religious and less religious alike, injecting its narrative into their worldview through entertainment.