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Tyranny or Self-criticism
by George Shadroui
22 December 2003

Only in a society suffering from severe crisis can a mass killer like Saddam be lauded as a hero. It takes a cosmic shock, sometimes, to force a culture into self-critical mode.

Back in 1991, as a reporter covering the Gulf War from Cairo, I found myself often in the company of a half dozen Sudanese who all worshipped Saddam Hussein.

In the days leading up to American-led liberation of Kuwait, they would gather in my flat (they were friends of a roommate) and gloat about how Saddam Hussein was going to teach the Americans a lesson. I tried but failed to persuade them that Saddam represented the nadir of Arab culture, not its hopes for a better future.

When Saddam’s troops disintegrated and fled, these same men became morose and instantly turned on their beloved leader. “I hate Saddam. I hate life,” one of them said. In failing to liberate the Arabs from yet another humiliating defeat, Saddam was instantly transformed from righteous leader to pathetic loser.

I can only imagine what the ensuing decade has done to those same Sudanese. It has to have been a disorienting experience. Saddam’s ability to survive while defying the world community no doubt rehabilitated him in their eyes, only to be disillusioned again by his military failures in the face of the American and British led attack earlier this year. They raised their heads in pride, no doubt, when the insurgency began to attack American troops and innocent civilians, as they convinced themselves Saddam was leading the resistance. And then a week ago the "great leader" was found cowering in his rural hideaway outside of Tikrit, looking very much like the madman he is. Heads down in shame again, if you please.

So it goes in the surreal world of realpolitick in the Arab street. It is being reported that many Arabs are more upset that Saddam did not kill a few American soldiers than they are by his decades of massacring men, women and children in the most brutal form. Had Saddam just put up a fight, they would have you believe, it would somehow have vindicated something. What, we cannot be sure.

Tawfiq Hakim, the Egyptian playwright, tried to explain the love of the tyrant in his book, the Return to Consciousness. Egypt had been mesmerized by Gamal Abdel-Nasser even as the leader became increasingly repressive (and he was a mild tyrant when compared to Saddam.) Likewise, Russia experts will tell you there are still plenty of folks in the former Soviet Union who insist that Stalin was a great man who had no choice but to starve, purge and murder for the sake of the nation.

The need to embrace authoritarian methods and leaders becomes more tempting as a nation or culture spirals into chaos or, equally dangerous, embraces the self-serving notion that might makes right. Societies do go mad, clearly, how else to explain a modern nation state like Germany handing over power to the likes of Hitler? When times become desperate, people will often turn to desperate men and means. War, hunger, political upheaval – all of these can create dangerous momentum toward tyranny, even in cultures normally stable and democratic.

Societies under such stress display signs. Conspiracies abound, an indication that rational thought is taking a holiday. The enemy is everywhere and only victory over that enemy, even one’s own citizens, can undo the humiliation and set the nation on the right course. The perception of mysterious forces and enemies gives the tyrant an excuse to consolidate power. Once the security state is erected, the regime turns on its internal opposition.

Only in a society suffering from severe crisis can a mass killer like Saddam be lauded as a hero. In the Arab world, there is plenty of evidence that much of the population is consumed with fear and self doubt. Every day, they find a reason to resurrect the many years of domination and humiliation by Israel and the West. Thus, we have prominent business people blaming the downing of an Egypt Air flight by a disturbed pilot as an act of Israeli sabotage. Tourists taking photos are a target of concern – they might be Israeli spies. Even the attacks of 9/11, they would have you believe, must be traced to some nefarious plot on the part of their enemies in Israel or the West.

I don’t mean to suggest that some of this is not understandable. In the clandestine world of Israeli and Arab intelligence, such activities have taken place. One need only read the Moshe Sharrett diaries to get a glimpse of it. America, too, has suffered its fits of paranoia – from Jim Crow race wars to the red scares of the 1920s to the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. The lessons of oppression are not reserved for any group or culture, but clearly the turbulent political situation in the Middle East is fertile ground what might be called collective political dementia. Every problem is blamed on outside forces. Self criticism is not only not allowed, it is a sure path to exile or execution.

This situation has not gone unnoticed by Arab thinkers and critics, some of whom have been trying to steer Arab culture away from the abyss of totalitarianism toward a more enlightened path. Two of them, Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, author of Cruelty and Silence, and Moroccan Fatima Mernissi, whose books include Islam and Democracy, have explored these issues with an honesty that deserves attention both in their homelands and in a United States woefully ignorant of Middle East culture. Wrote Mernissi a decade ago:

“The dance of death between authority and individuality is for the Muslim repressed, for it is soaked in the blood and violence that no civilization lets float to the surface; it is awash in the inexhaustible rivers of blood that our teachers hid from us and that we hid from ourselves while rhapsodizing about the benefits of unity and solidarity within the umma, the Muslim community.”

Makiya, in the wake of the Gulf War, underscored the problem:

“Violence has been spreading within individual Arab countries to embroil larger and larger numbers of people. What's more, it has crossed over from one country to the next. Not only religious minorities and ethnic groups but also entire religious majorities today feel more threatened than ever before and they are responding in kind. The spiraling logic of violence in the Middle East in recent years is both cause and effect of the increasing inability of individuals and political groups to establish an identity for themselves that is not exclusively reactive and hostile to difference or `otherness' in its origins.”

It takes a cosmic shock, sometimes, to force a culture into self-critical mode. After the 1967 war, Arab thinkers and scholars began to question long-held assumptions. Fouad Ajami explores this issue in his study, The Arab Predicament. Likewise, Cecil Hourani wrote a courageous essay, “The Moment of Truth,” included in the Israel-Arab Reader (editor Walter Laquer) in which he challenged Arabs to embrace a new mindset with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Alas, the much needed reformation sputtered as Arabs chose entrenchment and more war; a dire choice, for it is no accident that the some of harshest regimes in the Middle East came to power after 1967 – Arafat revived the terrorist operations of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Baathists took charge in Iraq and Syria, and Khadafi took power in Libya. Tyranny, not self-righting critique, won the day.

The trial of Saddam Hussein and his ruling elite represents another opportunity for transformation. Arabs will confront, in a way they never have, the nature of their modern political culture and its leadership. The trial will not be a process of revolution, violence or tribal enmity, but one of due process. The inner workings of the Nazi-like Iraqi state will be revealed and shared around the globe, including in the Arab media. Perhaps some courageous Arab writer will document the event, an Arabic Eichmann in Jerusalem.

The pure horror of the revelations might spark a wave of self criticism and even underscore (again) the need for cultural and political change. That must be our hope, in any case, for the alternative – a continuing embrace of Islamic fascism or tyranny – offers only more violence and tragedy for all of us.

George Shadroui has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com.

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