Latest News

Saddam an important symbol in the Arab world

WASHINGTON—Saddam Hussein may be under lock and key, but experts warn that the anger at the United States that he came to symbolize in the Arab world and Iran is far from contained. It still seethes in every capital from Rabat to Tehran, in the streets if not always in government.

"To some extent, Saddam was a measure of the depth of the region's alienation from the West," said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. "He symbolized the anger; he symbolized the divide."

Arab and Muslim anger is rooted in a long history of humiliation, by British colonial rule, by the creation of Israel, by poverty, by the failure of U.S.-backed governments to allow open democratic government and more broadly by the perceived inability of some Arab and Muslim countries to succeed in the modern world.

When American troops invaded Baghdad last spring, Iraqis rushed to topple statues of Saddam. It was a pivotal, yet for some Arabs humiliating, moment in the region's history.

The rampaging Iraqi men didn't rid themselves of Saddam's evil; they needed American Marines to do that for them. Other Arab leaders didn't send armies to liberate the Iraqi people; President 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 hated Israel's friend and protector that toppled Saddam wasn't lost on millions of Arabs.

As a result, according to Suleiman Nyang, a political scientist at Howard University in Washington, although Saddam wasn't beloved in the Arab world, his demise is seen in the Middle East and beyond as another sign of Arab weakness and degradation at the hands of the West.

"If it is a humiliation for the Arab people, it is one that Arabs themselves are accountable for," he said. "It is unfortunate that a guy like Saddam Hussein should have remained in power for so long. The Arab people don't fight for their freedom the way other people fight for freedom."

And any gratitude for what the United States did expired quickly, as attacks against American troops picked up speed amid popular discontent at the sight of U.S. soldiers patrolling Iraqi streets and neighborhoods.

"It is a very painful experience that the Arabs are undertaking," said Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League ambassador to the United States and the United Nations. "There will be a lot of soul searching, a period of ferment. Profound changes are going to take place."

"Will it be like what happened in the `90s creating an Islamic extremist movement?" Zobgy asked. "There will be a reaction, but we don't know what form it will take. Will it further accent the Islamic reaction, or will it take a new form?"

Saddam's regime was built on the mid-20th-century version of Arab nationalism, a secular, socialist ideal espoused by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Egypt from 1956 to 1970, and the late Syrian President Hafez Assad, who ruled from 1970 until his death in June 2000, succeeded by his son Bashar.

By emphasizing their common language, culture and heritage, Saddam's Baath Party proposed that Arabs could achieve self-determination, independence from the West and a revival of their once-glorious civilization. Arab nationalism was the antithesis of Islamic militancy, which promoted unity under the banner of the Muslim faith.

Like other secular Arab leaders, Saddam despised and feared the growing popularity of Islamic movements. He was especially leery of the Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq, whom he feared might launch an Islamic revolution like the one that took over neighboring Iran.

Even before Saddam's downfall, many Arabs had abandoned the movement he represented. Their secular leaders had proved to be despots, more concerned about holding on to power, enriching their cronies and crushing all efforts at democracy. Their powerful patron, arms supplier and role model, the Soviet Union, had collapsed.

Arab nationalists had proved unable to recapture Arab land from Israel; and some, such as Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Jordan's King Hussein, even had abandoned the struggle and signed peace treaties with the Jewish nation.

In the eyes of many Arabs, their secular leaders had become little more than puppets of successive foreign powers, from the British colonialists to the Soviets to the American invaders.

Increasingly, Arabs turned to a new movement to redress their grievances: militant Islam.

After Saddam's defeat in the first Persian Gulf War, he tried to recast himself as a born-again Muslim, summoning the faithful to support him in his self-proclaimed jihad against Western imperialism. The pose won him little support from devout Muslims, who didn't believe that the same Saddam who had brutally crushed religious parties and routinely violated nearly every principle of Muslim life had suddenly become a defender of Islam.

Yet with Saddam's regime relegated to history, the danger is that Iraqis and other Arabs will see a common enemy in the Americans who destroyed him, and keep fighting to end their occupation of Iraq.

———

(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

  Comments