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Between Pain and Power
Muqtedar Khan, Ph.D.
The modern Iraq was clearly the most advanced and developed of Arab societies. It matched Egypt in political and intellectual matters and with the additional help of oil resources, Iraq out stripped Egypt in matters of modernization and human resources development.
The transformation of Iraq from a prosperous, thriving and healthy society to a starving, devastated and pathetic dump is one of the most tragic tales of the twentieth century. The story of Iraq is also illustrative of the decadent and unenlightened politics of the Arab world in particular and the Muslim World in general.
The contemporary history of Iraq can be divided into three stages. The first stage was the chaotic development of a nation-state, driven primarily by geopolitical intrigue between global powers. The second stage marks the two decades of oil driven rapid development. And the two decades of gradual devastation as a result of two wars, each of which has lasted nearly a decade, marks the third and present stage.
During the sixties and seventies, Iraq made rapid strides. The oil crisis of 1973 had quadrupled oil revenues and the surplus was used to finance industrial and infrastructure development. Hundred of thousands of Iraqis went overseas to the US and Europe on government scholarships and came home with advanced degrees in science and technology. Universities thrived, new business were launched and once again, Mesopotamia the cradle of civilization, began to prosper.
However in 1979, Saddam Hussein became president and Iraq has since seen nothing but a downward spiral. Saddam inherited an advanced nation with a modern army and enormous financial resources. It is difficult to guess whether the geopolitical decisions he made were a result of miscalculation or a megalomaniacal mentality that refuses to see reason. Whatever the causes he made two big mistakes, one in 1980 and one in 1990 and both have caused Iraq untold damage.
In 1980 Saddam invaded Iran and began an 8 year war between Muslim nations that caused a cumulative damage of over 550 billion USD and took one million Muslim lives. Eventually the Iran-Iraq war came to an end in 1988 with no gain or loss to either of the two countries. Iraq had two reasons for initiating the war against Iran. In 1980 Iran was under great turmoil as the Islamic revolution was beginning to consolidate itself. Saddam may have thought that this was an opportune moment to start a quick war and annex some of Irans oil rich areas. The initial gains made by Iraq justify this line of thinking. But what he had not factored in was the spirit of the Iranian people. They threw everything they had including their children at him and made Iraq pay heavily for this misadventure.
Iran unfortunately was weakened considerably by this war, especially at the time when its Islamic revolution needed all its resources to withstand the economic war being waged against it by the US.
Saddam also feared that the call for internationalizing the Islamic revolution made by Imam Khomeini might be answered by the Iraqi Shii who are in majority in Iraq. Perhaps he calculated that the best way to preempt the spread of the Iranian revolution would be to attack it.
Within two years after the war with Iran, Saddam got into a dispute with another neighbor; this time Kuwait. Believing that the US would not intervene if he invaded Kuwait, Saddam invaded and annexed Kuwait in August of 1990. This single act has cast the spell of doom on Iraq. The US led a 128-nation coalition, which included nearly all Muslims countries in a war against Iraq. The war cost nearly 200 billion USD, of which Saudi Arabia and the royal family of Kuwait spent nearly 165 billion USD.
It is important that Muslims everywhere remember that the major part of the funding for the destruction of Iraq came from fellow Arab/Muslim nations. Iran interestingly remained neutral in this war.
The war and the subsequent sanctions (slow motion war) have systematically reduced a once prosperous, advanced, industrialized and sophisticated society into rubble. Today people, especially children are dying of malnutrition, epidemics and lack of food. Even though the sanctions regime is loosing its cohesiveness there seems to be no immediate relief forthcoming for the beleaguered people of Iraq.
The consciousness about the suffering of the people of Iraq has been on the rise and more and more people are campaigning against them. While Muslims in general are aware of what has happened to the Iraqi people, there is a need to put things in perspective.
The general feeling among Muslims is that the saga if Iraq is just another instance of the Wests unending campaign against Islam. Some Muslims, who have a slightly better understanding of Iraqs history, argue that Saddam is essentially an American agent sent to destroy Iraq. Some others, blessed with a more powerful imagination, manage to find a Zionist connection with Saddam.
All these theories are designed to blame the West for the misery and the evil in the Muslim world and to portray Muslims as innocent victims. I believe that all these conspiracy theories are a reflection of the simplistic models that inform popular Muslim thought. These theories are also a means to look away from the disturbing truth that there is indeed something deeply rotten in the Arab world.
Let us dismantle each of the above-mentioned conspiracy theories one after the other. Yes indeed, Saddam Hussein is a cruel leader, who does not care for the suffering of his people and is motivated only by desires of grandeur and glory for himself. A quick survey of the Arab world will show that he is not alone. In fact most of the Arab world, is ruled by such inhumane, authoritarian and self-serving leaders whose sole purpose is to prolong their rule for as long as possible.
Saddam Hussein is not an exception but the norm. He reflects the present ethos of the region, which is dominated by an authoritarian streak that has no respect for the rights, and dignity of the weak and the underprivileged. The condition of expatriate workers, women, religious minorities and the manner in which they are systematically abused and exploited by the culture as well as the states of the region is indicative. Abuse of power and lack of civility is a way of life. Every man is a despot in himself. Whatever their sphere of influence, from family, to business, to bureaucracy to the state, the Arab wishes to dictate. It is no accident that democracy has taken root in nearly all regions of the world except in the Arab world. It is also in the Arab world that one still finds the presence of real monarchs who exercise excessive control over their subjects. Saddam Hussein is not alien to this culture. He is merely representative of excess in the current maladies of the region.
During the Iran-Iraq war most of the Arab nations supported Saddam Hussain, morally, politically and financially. No one cared for the utter misery he brought first upon the Iranian people and then on his own people. He was hailed as the great hero who stood up to the Shii nation. Muslims did not take out processions or lament the lost of one million Muslim lives that were lost in that war. In his war against Iran, Saddam was an Arab-Sunni agent, not a Western or Zionist agent. The fact that he weakened both Iran and Iraq, much to the delight of Israel and the US, does not mean that he represents their interests. These interests coincided with the interests of the Gulf nations and so he was hailed as an Arab hero.
During the Gulf War, Muslims admired Saddam. He was hailed as the new Saladin. Muslims looked forward to the mother of all battles. Their mouths watered at the prospects of seeing American blood flow in the deserts of Arabia. Saddam suddenly became the embodiment of Jihad and there was no talk of his being an American or a Zionist agent. The same people who condemn he today, hailed him then. If Iraq had become another Vietnam, then Saddam would forever has become a great Muslim hero. But in his defeat he also lost the support of Arabs and Muslims. The new Saladin suddenly became a Western agent.
Even today, Muslims have not condemned Saddam for using chemical weapons against Kurds (who are also Muslim) and Iran.
On the subject of sanctions Muslims condemn the US and have conducted several protest marches in New York and Washington. Muslims must realize that these sanctions are still sought by Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Saddam is not a US agent, it is the US which is a Saudi-Kuwait agent destroying an Arab nation to protect other Arab nations from it. These sanctions cannot work without the complete cooperation of Muslim nations bordering Iraq.
Muslims all over the world, who were with Saddam when he invaded Iran and stood up to the US, are as much agents of the West as Saddam is. They supported him knowing fully well that he has the blood of over a million Muslim on his hands.
The misery and the suffering of the Iraqis, the Arabs and all the Muslims will continue even after Saddam. For as long as authoritarianism is encouraged in Muslim cultures it will continue to produce dictators.
When as a culture we do not respect human rights, individual dignity and democracy, we only abuse ourselves. The culture of despotism in the Arab world which has produced dictators like Saddam, Assad, Mubarak, Ghaddafi, and Nasser, has brought pain, indignity and suffering to Arabs and not to anybody else. Someday we will realize that, and as families, as groups, as communities and nations, we will imbibe the virtues of shura and mutual respect.