Hezbollah is a Lebanese militant group and political party with a long history of conducting terrorist attacks against Israeli — and a few American — targets. Yet its leader Hassan Nasrallah did something interesting on Friday: he declared that the Charlie Hebdo attackers were more offensive to Islam than the cartoons that prompted their killing spree.
"The behavior of the takfiri [jihadi] groups that claim to follow Islam have distorted Islam, the Quran and the Muslim nation more than Islam's enemies ... who insulted the prophet in films ... or drew cartoons of the prophet," Nasrallah said, according to Lebanon's Daily Star.
According to the AP, Nasrallah also cited beheadings and mass killings as behavior that shames the Prophet Muhammed more than cartoons.
So why is a hardcore Islamist like Nasrallah criticizing an attack on blasphemous Western cartoonists? Because Hezbollah is at war with ISIS and al-Qaeda over Syria.
Unlike Sunni ISIS and al-Qaeda, which are Sunni Muslim groups, Hezbollah is Shia. But this is more about the geopolitics of Syria and its civil war than about Islam.
Hezbollah's principal international patron is Iran; both of them are allies of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite Shia government. As such, Hezbollah soldiers have flowed across the Lebanon-Syria border in large numbers, fighting in support of Assad, which means fighting against ISIS and al-Qaeda.
What Nasrallah is doing in his statement on the Charlie Hebdo massacre is making an implicit ideological attack against ISIS and al-Qaeda. Those extremist groups recruit in part on the strength of their religious credibility: by presenting themselves as the "true" or "authentic" voice of Islam, they attract radicalized recruits both locally (in Syria and Iraq) and globally.
Nasrallah, by denouncing the Charlie Hebdo attack and unfavorably comparing it to beheadings and mass murders — i.e., what ISIS and al-Qaeda regularly do in Iraq and Syria — is trying to use this recent news to undermine ISIS and al-Qaeda's ideological credibility. And, yes, there is a real irony to Hezbollah, of all groups, arguing against acts of terrorism.
Now, it's unlikely that the Shia Nasrallah has a lot of sway among the Sunni extremists that ISIS and al-Qaeda tend to recruit from. Instead, it might be better seen as a way of rallying his own Shia supporters. By minimizing the theological significance of the Muhammed cartoons as compared to ISIS's crimes, Nasrallah is focusing his own supporters to see ISIS and al-Qaeda and what they represent as the greater threat.