The big idea

The big idea

The single biggest idea I’ve ever had, and an idea that still informs much of my thinking, is the subject of my BA thesis. I posited that we don’t have a name, or a category, for Hamas and Hizballah or any organization like them; that all the terms we use for them don’t describe those organizations and their functions in a useful and accurate way. In turn, I believe that the defective terms we use (state within a state, insurgency, terrorist [yes, they engage in terrorism, but there’s more to them than that], etc) actually stop the academic and political communities from perceiving and engaging with these groups in a way that reflects their true roles, natures, and actions.

So I created a term: “parallel government.” It’s a theory intended to reevaluate Hamas and Hizballah in terms of what kind of organizations they really are, their relationships with the Palestinian and Lebanese governments, how and why they have been consistently successful, and what purpose they serve.

I’m putting it online because I want people to see what it’s all about, discuss, and hopefully pass the idea around. If you want to quote, riff on, send, cite, or in any way use this stuff, PLEASE DO—just please credit me and link back here. This is my pride and joy, so as long as everyone maintains its connection to me, I’m more than happy for it to be used and shared.

1. What a parallel government is and why it matters: “Efficacy of ‘parallel government’ as a tool for analyzing Hamas and Hizballah”

“Parallel government,” despite its inclusive meaning in general use, is a distinctly appropriate term for the phenomenon represented by Hamas and Hizballah, as it embodies two essential aspects of their natures. First, a parallel government is parallel to the “normal” or primary government by virtue of the compatibility, when viewed broadly, of its aims with those of the primary government; the complementarity of its politics and aptitudes with those of the primary government; and the coexistence with the primary government that the parallel government has sought without seeking to destroy it, separate from it, or take it over from the top down. “Compatibility” is appropriate here because while the two governments disagree broadly on methods, outcomes, and even principles, their ultimate aims—a free, independent, and united Palestine, and a strong, functional Lebanon free of sectarian violence—are the same. The deep differences between the parallel and primary governments result from their differing visions of what the achievement of these aims would look like in practical terms: for example, while for much of its existence Hamas opposed the two-state solution endorsed by the PLO and then the PA, its traditional goal of a Palestinian state encompassing the entirety of historical Palestine would achieve the same objectives with regard to Palestinian independence.

“Complementarity” is here intended to refer to the fact that each player, the primary and the parallel, has severe limitations, but when taken together their alliances, capabilities, and philosophies encompass a necessary range. The primary government maintains diplomatic relationships with Israel, the U.S., and their allies, complies with many of the associated demands, and maintains the state institutions that are necessary to be taken seriously internationally, such as a state army, courts, legislative body, and police force. However, by virtue of this internationalist orientation it is unable to deal with the anti-Israel and often anti-US forces in the Middle East, unable to stand up to Israel in a material sense, and—partly by virtue of these limitations—unable to command respect of popular elements that take the opposing stance. This weakness, particularly as it pertains to its own population, is compounded by its financial and governance shortcomings, which weaken it in the peripheral areas of its own territory. The parallel government, on the other hand, is allied with respected anti-Israel forces in the region, willing and able to undertake meaningful resistance to Israeli hegemony over peripheral areas of the state’s territory, and capable of drawing on alternate funding mechanisms and delivering much-needed civil services in the peripheral areas that are underserved by the primary government. When viewed this way, the parallel and primary governments can be seen as collaborating to maintain the internal coherence and external political importance of the state across boundaries that are difficult for a single entity to straddle.

Finally, “coexistence” alludes to the point that the parallel government does not seek to totally separate from the state, as distinct from the primary government; rather it sees itself as realizing a different, better vision of what that state should be. It is significant to this point that both Hamas and Hizballah have chosen to participate in state-run elections, demonstrating the organizations’ desire to remain within the overarching framework of a Palestinian or Lebanese nation-state. Hamas, for example, has seen itself as “articulat[ing] the true aspirations and needs of the Palestinian people, expressing the real meaning of the Palestinian national ethos” (Mishal and Sela, “The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence), and Hizballah has repeatedly and forcefully designated itself a patriotically Lebanese movement, asking what could be more patriotic than bleeding for one’s country (Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah in “The April Understanding”). This is a state of mind categorically different from one promoting partition. The groups’ participation in elections furthermore shows that they are not interested in simply overthrowing the primary government or the state structure, and in the period prior to their participation they have each generally avoided direct clashes with the primary government as much as possible.

Second, a parallel government is particularly a government rather than a state, insurgency, or other political entity because it is concerned with “the correct manner of managing individuals, goods and wealth (Michel Foucault, “Governmentality”),” performing governance services such as education, economic redistribution and aid, and policing and defense. It is in particular not a state (belying the also-popular characterization of Hamas# and Hizballah# as states-within-states), as the organizations forming the body of the parallel government are defined by a political agenda, a decentralized and non-bureaucratic structure, and an array of leaders, rather than by a set of neutral institutions. In addition, a parallel government does not always exclusively control its territory or monopolize violence; its territory is irregularly defined, with borders that shift as the parallel and primary governments continually and tactically revise their power relations; it does not openly collect taxes or revenue from the population through an institutionalized channel signifying sovereignty, but rather relies on monies obtained through donation, particular mechanisms of religious tithing, and the assistance of foreign powers. In sum, it lacks several defining features of statehood.

Next, I’ll back up a little and explain why we would even want a new term to begin with, for anyone who’s skeptical. After that I’ll delve deeper into what the model suggests and explains regarding the two organizations.

(still deciding what and how much should go here without destroying my ownership of the idea, so this is under construction).

One last time: if you want to reproduce any of this, please, PLEASE let me know and credit me. I worked terribly hard developing this idea, and I really want to know if it’s spreading! If you have any questions, I’d be delighted to discuss them in comments.


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