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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
in the wake of the Gulf War, underscored the problem:
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.”
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
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.
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.
Shadroui has been published in more than two dozen newspapers
and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com.
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