The Militarization of Sex

The story of Hezbollah's halal hookups.

Mohammad, a 40-year old Lebanese Shiite who lives in Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs, was holding forth on the virtues of resistance, loyalty, and sex. "You could create the most loyal army by providing political power, social services and fulfilling the desires of your men -- namely, sexual ones," he declared.

"And Hezbollah has been very successful in this regard," Mohammad continued. It is hard to disagree. Hezbollah liberated South Lebanon from Israeli occupation, expanded the Shiite community's political power within the country, and has provided social services, such as health care and education, to its constituency since the 1980s. Today, it is also working to fulfill the sexual needs of its supporters, though a practice known as mutaa marriage.

Mutaa is a form of "temporary marriage" only acceptable within Shiite communities, one that allows couples to have religiously sanctioned sex for a limited period of time, without any commitments, and without the obligatory involvement of religious figures. In conservative Muslim societies known for their strict sense of propriety, mutaa offers an escape clause. The contract is very simple. The woman says: "I marry myself to you for [a specific period of time] and for [a specified dowry]" and the man says: "I accept." The period can range between one hour and a year, and is subject to renewal. A Muslim woman can only marry a Muslim man, but a Muslim man can temporarily marry a Muslim, Christian, or Jewish woman, as long as she is a divorcée or a widow. However, those interviewed for this article confirmed that Hezbollah-the "Party of God"-has allowed the practice to spread to virgins or girls who have never married before, as long as the permission of her guardian (father or paternal grandfather) is obtained.

Temporary marriage has long been practiced by Shiites around the world. However, it has recently become more commonplace in Lebanon, notably within Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut's southern suburbs and in southern Lebanon after the 2006 war with Israel,

Hezbollah's recent encouragement of this phenomenon highlights the compromises it had been required to make in order to remain the preeminent force among its domestic Shiite constituency.  As the party gained strength due to its effectiveness in fighting Israel, it was forced to cope with the reality that many Lebanese Shiites did not share the Iranian-inspired religious beliefs of Hezbollah's leaders. They came to dominate a community that was shaped by the secular leftist trends of the 1970s and 1980s, and the cosmopolitan culture embodied by Beirut. Today, Lebanese Shiites are exposed to pop icons such as sexpot singer Haifa Wehbe, countless Western advertisements and programs, and technological innovations such as online dating. Allowing these Shia to balance their sexual desires with their support for the "Resistance" against the "Zionist entity" is a vital ingredient to Hezbollah's staying power.

According to Shiite writer and activist Lokman Slim, Hezbollah party members are not allowed to practice temporary marriage for security reasons, unless assigned by the party to do so. "We should make a clear distinction between Hezbollah as an organization and Hezbollah as it runs the community's culture and social affairs," Slim said.

But for everyone else, Hezbollah apparently decided to expand its support for this practice after the 2006 war, to maintain its support base and keep the Shiites in Lebanon under its control. "After the 2006 war, Iranian money came to Lebanon in abundance, and money opened the door to sexual luxury that could not be ignored or controlled," noted Slim. "Therefore, Hezbollah decided it is easier to allow sex under certain religious titles in order to keep the control over the community."

The havoc wreaked by the 2006 war and a more difficult domestic political situation also encouraged Hezbollah to shift its position in order to consolidate support. Sheikh Mohammad Ali Hajj, imam of the Imam Ali Mosque in the Sad Bouchrieh district of Beirut, remarked that after 2006, Hezbollah had to strengthen its support among its communities. "They created a military group, The Resistance Saraya, which took in anyone ready to join, religiously and ideologically committed or not," he said. "They had to contain the Shiite community around it with all its aspects, the good and the bad, and found measures to control it, including the temporary marriage," he added.

Hezbollah is in charge of enforcing resolution in the event unpleasant scenarios arise, such as pregnancy or disagreements between couples. "It is only a matter of more control rather than being tolerant," Slim explained.

There is no doubt that Hezbollah's legitimization of mutaa has created semi-official channels that Lebanese Shiites use to hook up. Hassan, a 30-year old Shiite from Beirut's southern suburbs, is a high school teacher. He graduated from the Lebanese University with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, and considers himself secular but supports the resistance as a political, not a religious, movement. He is enthusiastic about the initiative taken by a number of Hezbollah party members and supporters to act as matchmakers between couples, and sometimes turn their shops, bookstores and workplaces into meeting places for young men and women.

"My cousin, a hard-core Hezbollah supporter, finds pleasure in using his mini-market as a hub where both men and women refer to him to hook them up in a temporary marriage. He even has Excel sheets to help him organize and control the contacts, and of course he practices temporary marriage himself," he added with a smile.

Nevertheless, Hassan remains very critical of those in the community who use this kind of marriage as a cover for prostitution networks functioning inside the suburbs. "Some made it a trade and Hezbollah usually turns the blind eye to these networks because they do not want the Lebanese Internal Security to interfere in its stronghold."

However, once the sex trade got out of control, Hezbollah finally requested the ISF to enter the southern suburbs to help control some of the community's illegal practices, such as traffic, drugs, and prostitution.  This month, The ISF began coordinating with Hezbollah and the heads of local municipalities in the southern suburbs under the slogan "Order comes from Faith," initiated by Hezbollah, to control these crimes.

There is also no shortage of ways that Shiite men and women make contact to form a temporary marriage; sometimes, the experience ends up bringing them closer to Hezbollah. Ali, for example, is a 26-year old man from southern Lebanon who has "temporarily married" a number of girls in the last two years. "I usually meet them in Hezbollah's public library or the center, where young men and women gather to attend religious and political preaching," he explained.

The men and women are put in separate rooms, but he finds a way to communicate. "If I want to approach a girl, I ask her for her number and call her later, but mostly I get approached by girls who directly ask me if I am interested in temporary marriage," Ali said. "Although they are veiled from top to bottom, you can always guess how she looks like from her face and eyes," he added with a wink.

With his designer jeans, trendy haircut, and sharp sense of humor, Ali seems to be an unlikely Hezbollah supporter. He has always supported the resistance and what Hezbollah has achieved in this regard; however, in the last couple of years, he has developed a strong support for Hezbollah on issues he was previously critical of, such as its affiliation with Iran, involvement in domestic politics, and its religious rhetoric.

Coincidently or not, these developments took place as he was drawn to practice temporary marriage. In his southern village, it is difficult to meet girls and have normal relationships with them, and he acknowledges that getting closer to the party's social network has helped him meet more girls who were open to this kind of marriage. Gradually, Ali stopped drinking alcoholic beverages, took up praying and fasting, and never skipped a Hezbollah's rally or village events, where he also meets potential "wives." However, it is obvious that the slickly dressed Ali never gave up his love of fashion.

It is, of course, not only men who take advantage of mutaa. Zahra, a fully veiled 25 year-old Shiite woman who is completing her master's degree in English literature, comes from a family of Hezbollah supporters and party members, and has been a lifelong Hezbollah member herself. She explained that she practices temporary marriage because it is a religious duty.

"I take good care of myself, and make sure I look perfect every time I go into a mutaa marriage because I should please my husband, temporary or not," she said. "It is my religious duty to do so. God allowed this kind of marriage for a reason, and I never question God's wishes."

Zahra is divorced and believes that Islam has acknowledged sexual desires for both males and females, which is why temporary marriage is permissible. "It is also a religious duty to fulfill your sexual desires," she insisted, noting that temporary marriages with women whose husbands had been killed fighting Israel were especially encouraged. "[T]hose who satisfy widows of martyrs have more reward in heaven," she said.

While the practice of mutaa may sound exceedingly strange to those outside of these communities, it is an important outlet for many Lebanese Shiites. As the community is increasingly defined by Hezbollah's conservative ideology and isolated by the increasing sectarian divisions in Lebanon, it is more and more difficult to form relationships with people from different backgrounds. In this sense, mutaa marriage has become a convenient and practical solution. However, it comes with a cost: Hezbollah has increasingly been able to harness the appeal of mutaa to bolster its support within its constituency. And there should be no doubt that Hezbollah's increased control over Lebanese Shiites comes with consequences that are anything but temporary.



The Al Qaeda Diaries

As the Pakistani soldiers moved into South Waziristan, they found something almost as valuable as al Qaeda itself: the diaries and books that explain how militant ideology binds the diffuse world of terrorism together.

Until the Pakistani Army swept into this small, hill-flocked valley on Nov. 3, Sararogha had served as the South Waziristan headquarters of the powerful terrorist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan -- known in English as the TTP. Despite the chaos since the death of its founder -- Baitullah Mehsud, killed by a U.S. drone strike on Aug. 5 -- the TTP had the area firmly in its grip, and made it a virtual black hole for government security and intelligence forces.

The TTP had seized the town in a surprise raid on a paramilitary fort on Jan. 25 last year. They instantly executed half of the two dozen Frontier Corps soldiers, a move that filled the roughly 8,000 inhabitants with fear and forced them into silence. The stones and debris still litter the ground of the fort -- the result of heavy artillery fire that the army used while entering the town. "It all started from here, the challenge to the state of Pakistan," Brig. Muhammed Shafiq, the commanding officer, told me during a recent visit. "Sararogha has turned into a symbol of the TTP terror in the region."

But this month, the Army overtook the town and its southern ridge -- Point 1345 -- which overlooks Sararogha and the road to the periphery of the valley. The fight for this point has been fierce and bloody, with one soldier losing one of his legs to gunfire from the TTP and al Qaeda militants. The soldier is currently under treatment at a military hospital in Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani Army is headquartered, and officials will not name him for security reasons. Officials claim they have killed more than 550 militants in the current campaign thus far, while suffering close to 100 casualties themselves.

Since access to the area -- dubbed the "terror den" by many Army officials -- is extremely limited and the military has choked all the arteries leading into it, independently verifying these claims is not possible. The entire civilian population has moved away, taking away potential sources of context. There are no precise counts of how many TTP and al Qaeda fighters there are in the region, though local journalists generally say 10,000 to 15,000. Regardless of the exact numbers, the most important consequence of the latest offensive is that the Army has wrested control over an area it had once lost.

Two things made this possible. First, squabbling between politically tainted Asif Zardari, the president, and Nawaz Sharif, the former two-time prime minister, following last February's elections resulted in uncertainty, inaction, and confusion in the war against militants. With power consolidated, the military has made swift, effective moves against the TTP and other forces.

Second, the terrorist bombings in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 26, 2008, halted fighting against terrorists in Pakistan as well. The civilian government "soft-pedaled" after allegations that Pakistani intelligence figures helped in the India plot emerged. The mistrust between the civilian government (considered to be too pro-American) and the military establishment (led by Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani) heightened, delaying action against militants in Waziristan. This allowed the Taliban and al Qaeda to perpetrate a reign of terror that almost completely eroded the writ of the government. It also led to an uptick in suicide attacks on civilians and the security apparatus in Pakistan.

But now, Pakistan is fighting in Waziristan again. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the Army's spokesperson, says taking the areas back from the militants is crucial to signal to "all and sundry that we would not tolerate any challenge to the state." In another hilly town claimed by the TTP and al Qaeda, Laddah, he said that you cannot allow a bunch of criminals to bully the state.

When the soldiers pushed the militants back, they found dozens of Arabic books, magazines, and teachers' manuals on warfare and bomb-building. These documents and others left at the seminaries in Sararogha and Laddah suggest not just the presence of Arab fighters but the convergence of al Qaeda and local militant groups.

Several hand-written notebooks explain how al Qaeda ideology binds followers of various shades of Islam together. One diary, belonging to someone named Shehzad Akmal -- a member of the Sunni Deobandi strand of Islam and a native of the Arabian Sea metropolis of Karachi, Pakistan -- describes his journey from the southern coast to the tiny mountainous town in Waziristan, from 2002 to the present. It took him to Kashmir, where militants have battled Indian forces since 1989, then to Lahore, where he twice attended the grand congregation of peaceful Muslim preachers in 2004.

Another diary appears to belong to a fighter with the Tehrik ul-Mujahideen. He details the evolution of his anti-India outfit, naming places and people and dates. The TM, one learns, is a Wahabbi organization that draws its ideological inspiration from the Saudi Arabian version of Islam.

The fact that the two authors belong to different branches of Islam and mention several Arab names as their contacts indicates that al Qaeda has galvanized Muslims across the spectrum. They put behind their ideological differences to join al Qaeda for its stated cause: Fighting the infidels led by America.

One of the pages of another notebook contains some interesting questions. What will the fate of our jihad against America be if Pakistan remains the same? How do we best fight the American-Jewish conspiracy against the Muslim umma?

This trove of materials, which also explain the configurations of suicide jackets and improvised explosive devices, underscores how these al Qaeda techniques of insurgency have traveled from Saudi Arabia through Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A careful consideration of the campaign -- based on interviews with displaced persons as well as journalists from the region -- also explains how the TTP and al Qaeda took control in the first place. Swiftly and systemically, militants led by Baitullah Mehsud and now by his successor Hakimullah Mehsud pushed out the entire local civilian administration, murdered suspected government "collaborators," and then simply set up shop.

The Sararogha high school building, now damaged by artillery fire, served as Baitullah Mehsud's "court," where he met his regional commanders and pronounced punishments on opponents and dissidents.

A journalist threatened by the TTP who now lives quietly in Peshawar corroborated some of the horror stories collected by the Army and government officials. The U.S.-led ISAF troops in Afghanistan and Pakistani troops in Pakistan chased al Qaeda operatives on both sides of the Durand Line, the thousand-mile border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This military concentration makes it unsurprising that the Taliban and al Qaeda have murdered more than 800 pro-government tribal elders and intelligence officials in the region in the past four years. The Islamist groups witch-hunt for collaborators, and then execute (often by beheading) the "spies." This practice has reached particularly alarming levels in Waziristan since 2008 as a result of the paranoia created by the drone strikes and other targeted killings by U.S. forces.

Since the Army offensive, these remote and deserted towns and villages seem in control. But the real challenge lies in retaining and consolidating that control and creating an environment that would allow the return of the civilian government officials and the tens of thousands of internal refugees who fled the bloody standoff.

Viewed against the scale of threat posed by the consolidating pan-Islamist forces, the Pakistani Army seems to be stuck in the Waziristan region for the medium to long term. But its presence here has certainly changed the dynamics of the militancy in the no-go tribal areas. The state is finally showing its teeth to an unholy alliance of local and foreign, al Qaeda-inspired and al Qaeda-sponsored non-state actors. The message this time around seems to be loud and clear: No matter what it takes and no matter for how long, such lawless behavior will not be tolerated.