Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

32
The Middle East Crisis in
Historical Perspective

One of the most disquieting features of the Gulf crisis and war was the surge of emotional support for Saddam Hussein among Arabs and to some extent also in the broader Muslim world. This was by no means universal. Most Arab and other Muslim governments supported the UN decisions and the US–led action, but they participated with extreme caution and showed keen awareness of powerful trends of opinion in their own countries, among their own populations, in support of Saddam Hussein and against his opponents—even against his victims. This support was expressed not only in the Arab world but also, more openly because of the greater freedom that they enjoyed, among the Arab and Muslim immigrant communities in Western Europe and North America.

It is at first sight astonishing that anyone should choose so ogreish a hero. To quote two comparisons sometimes made by his critics, Saddam Hussein is like Hitler, but without Hitler’s charm, like Stalin, but without Stalin’s appeal, however perverted, to noble human ideals. He has appeared on the world stage as a tyrant to his own people, a plunderer to his neighbors, a terrorist to his remoter friends and enemies alike.

Even in specifically Arab and Muslim terms, Saddam would at first sight appear an unlikely candidate for the role of hero. By his elaborate cult of Babylon and the accompanying reassertion of the pre-Arab and pre-Islamic identity of Iraq and by his single-minded pursuit of what he perceived as Iraqi national interests, he has violated one of the basic rules of the pan-Arab canon and committed the sin of regional particularism. Egyptian leaders have from time to time been excoriated in other Arab countries for the equivalent offense and accused of Pharaonism—a crime against Arab unity. His stance in the 1980s as the champion of secular

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