A photograph of Iran’s late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini hangs on the wall of Hezbollah’s Mahdi School for children 3 to 13 years old. But then, so do pictures of Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker and Donald Duck.
A plastic collection box in the shape of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock mosque stands behind a plant in the entryway, discreetly soliciting donations for guerrillas fighting to oust Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. “The resistance is your pride and dignity, so support it,” it says in Arabic.
Otherwise, there is no sign that the modern, two-story school belongs to Hezbollah, or the Party of God. There are no yellow flags with the Hezbollah logo of a raised Kalashnikov assault rifle. No murals of Hezbollah “martyrs.” No political slogans.
“This is a Lebanese school. It is Hezbollah, but it is Lebanese,” said Eman Sahah, an art teacher educated in Tehran. “When I go to class, I teach about the Lebanese flag, not the Hezbollah flag. We teach Islam, not Hezbollah Islam.”
With 1,000 students, Mahdi is one of five such schools that Hezbollah runs in the part of southern Lebanon that is not occupied by Israel. It is part of Hezbollah’s vast network of social services meant to win broad-based support for the Islamic movement through deeds rather than propaganda.
Funded by Iran, Hezbollah has established the Islamic Health Society, with a hospital in Nabatiyeh and 46 health and dental clinics throughout the country. Its Jihad (Holy War) Construction crews rebuild homes damaged during the conflict, now in its 14th year. And the Philanthropic Martyrs Assn. supports the families of combatants or civilians killed in the conflict.
All of the services are open to Hezbollah party members and nonmembers alike. And like the school, they put forward a moderate, multifaceted image to try to assuage Lebanese fears about the fundamentalist Shiite Muslim movement and its terrorist roots.
At the Mahdi (Messiah) School, in a village outside Nabatiyeh, the girls and boys receive dual messages: Islam and modernity, Khomeini and computer science, religion and one of the best academic programs in the south.
On a rainy day, kindergartners play games inside an auditorium that is decorated with a mural of an Islamic soldier on horseback. “There is no god but God,” says the flag he is waving along with a sword.
Upstairs, a teacher dressed head-to-toe in a black chador drills her class in English grammar using Lebanese public school texts.
“We walk to the grocery store to buy some meat. Where is the subject of the sentence?” she asked the class of 12-year-olds.
“When we moved into our house, we walked to the store to buy some meat. Main or dependent clause? Think before answering,” she continued.
The heavy emphasis on English-language instruction at the Hezbollah school is because “English is the language of the world. It is necessary,” said Director Mohammed Fahz, dressed in a navy sport coat.
Open. Moderate. Of the Western world. That is the image Hezbollah wants to project, while distancing itself from Islamic extremism, be it the kidnappings in Lebanon during the mid-1980s, the anti-American stand of Iran or the terror in Algeria.
“Our goals are linked to the principles we believe in through Islam, the religion we consider to be the religion of justice and equality,” Fahz said. “Politics has nothing to do with education. The school is owned by Hezbollah, but Hezbollah has its own politics outside of the school.”
Politics that the Islamic party hopes the students from Mahdi School will one day embrace.