WASHINGTON—The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad on Wednesday was a pivotal moment in the history of the Arab peoples, symbolizing not only the collapse of a brutal dictatorship, but also the last death rattle of the defiant Arab nationalism he embodied.
In Washington, the television pictures of Iraqi men dragging the head of a Saddam statue through Baghdad's streets may appear to be a vindication of President Bush's policy, and of the notion that the Arab world is yearning for Western-style democracy.
But to many Arab intellectuals and historians, and to many ordinary people throughout the Muslim world who still revel in their history as one of the world's most glorious and most powerful civilizations, this is another profoundly sad moment. It may be even more humiliating than Israel's defeat of the Arabs in 1967, when the Israelis seized the West Bank and Gaza.
Although Saddam was not beloved in the Arab world, his regime's demise is being seen in the Middle East and beyond as another sign of Arab weakness, and as a powerful testament to the Western domination of the region since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the collapse of the last Caliphate, the spiritual leadership of Islam, in 1924.
The fallen statue and the footage of cheering Iraqis dancing through Baghdad are forcing the Arab world to reassess both its past and its future.
The rampaging Iraqi men did not rid themselves of Saddam's evil; they needed American Marines to do that for them. Other Arab leaders did not send armies to liberate the Iraqi people; President George Bush did. And even the feared Islamic jihadees (holy warriors), for all their threats of suicide bombs and terrorism, proved too weak to defeat the Arab leader they hated most.
The fact that it was Israel's friend and protector that toppled Saddam will not be lost on millions of Arabs, either.
"It is a very painful experience that the Arabs are undertaking at the moment," said Clovis Maksoud, a former ambassador of the Arab League to the United States and the United Nations.
"There will be a lot of soul searching, a period of ferment in the next few months. Profound changes are going to take place."
Saddam Hussein was a complicated character who meant different things to different people. His Baath Party once flew the banner of pan-Arab unity, a secular ideal espoused by such legendary Arab figures as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and Syria's Hafez al Assad, the father of Syria's current ruler.
After his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam saw an advantage in reshaping himself as a stalwart of Islam, summoning the Muslim faithful to support him in his self-proclaimed jihad against Western imperialism. The pose won him little support from devout Muslims, who did not believe that the same Saddam Hussein who had used poison gas against his own people and brutally crushed religious parties had suddenly become a defender of Islam.
"There are three ways you can look at what's happened," said Sulayman Nyang, an expert on the Arab world and Islam and a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "If you're an Iraqi who has even openly questioned the rule of Saddam Hussein, you are celebrating with great jubilation. The nightmare has come to an end.
"But if you are in Iraq and an Iraqi Baathist loyalist, this is the worst nightmare possible," he said. "This is parallel to the fall of communism if you are a communist."
For Arabs outside Iraq, he added, this is yet another "humiliation by the West."
James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, warns that too much can be made of Saddam as a symbol of the Arab quest for unity and self-determination.
"Saddam does symbolize the anger in the Arab world. He does symbolize the divide with the West. But I don't see this as a defeat of Arab nationalism or a defeat for the Arabs. It's the downfall of a brutally repressive regime."
Zogby fears that Saddam's defeat could strengthen Islamic extremists as Arabs search for some way to reclaim their independence from the American conquerors of Baghdad, long a seat of religious authority and education in the Islamic world.
"Whatever happens, it is undeniable that Wednesday marked the start of a new relationship between the United States and the Arab world," Zogby said; "one that is fraught with great danger."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.