Saddam Hussein and Arab Honor: NYT Tackles Arab Mentalities

A remarkable piece in the NYT on how Saddam has become a martyr in much of the Arab and Sunni Muslim world illustrates many of the mechanisms of honor-shame culture, from the power of the gesture, to the lack of concern for past guilt, to the slippery slope towards conspiracy theory.

Images of Hanging Make Hussein a Martyr to Many

Published: January 6, 2007
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 5 — In the week since Saddam Hussein was hanged in an execution steeped in sectarian overtones, his public image in the Arab world, formerly that of a convicted dictator, has undergone a resurgence of admiration and awe.

On the streets, in newspapers and over the Internet, Mr. Hussein has emerged as a Sunni Arab hero who stood calm and composed as his Shiite executioners tormented and abused him.

“No one will ever forget the way in which Saddam was executed,” President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt remarked in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot published Friday and distributed by the official Egyptian news agency. “They turned him into a martyr.”

In Libya, which canceled celebrations of the feast of Id al-Adha after the execution, a government statement said a statue depicting Mr. Hussein in the gallows would be erected, along with a monument to Omar al-Mukhtar, who resisted the Italian invasion of Libya and was hanged by the Italians in 1931.

In Morocco and the Palestinian territories, demonstrators held aloft photographs of Mr. Hussein and condemned the United States.

Here in Beirut, hundreds of members of the Lebanese Baath Party and Palestinian activists marched Friday in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood behind a symbolic coffin representing that of Mr. Hussein and later offered a funeral prayer. Photographs of Mr. Hussein standing up in court, against a backdrop of the Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem, were pasted on city walls near Palestinian refugee camps, praising “Saddam the martyr.”

“God damn America and its spies,” a banner across one major Beirut thoroughfare read. “Our condolences to the nation for the assassination of Saddam, and victory to the Iraqi resistance.”

By standing up to the United States and its client government in Baghdad and dying with seeming dignity, Mr. Hussein appears to have been virtually cleansed of his past.

“Suddenly we forgot that he was a dictator and that he killed thousands of people,” said Roula Haddad, 33, a Lebanese Christian. “All our hatred for him suddenly turned into sympathy, sympathy with someone who was treated unjustly by an occupation force and its collaborators.”

Just a month ago Mr. Hussein was widely dismissed as a criminal who deserved the death penalty, even if his trial was seen as flawed. Much of the Middle East reacted with a collective shrug when he was found guilty of crimes against humanity in November.

But shortly after his execution last Saturday, a video emerged that showed Shiite guards taunting Mr. Hussein, who responded calmly but firmly to them. From then on, many across the region began looking at him as a martyr.

“The Arab world has been devoid of pride for a long time,”
said Ahmad Mazin al-Shugairi, who hosts a television show at the Middle East Broadcasting Center that promotes a moderate version of Islam in Saudi Arabia. “The way Saddam acted in court and just before he was executed, with dignity and no fear, struck a chord with Arabs who are desperate for their own leaders to have pride too.”

This is an extremely important theme. Unfortunately, for the world in which Saddam’s crimes are dismissed in a moment because he shows such dignity, the notion of what it means to “have pride” comes down primarily to defiance. Guilt for crimes against ones own people, for example, carries no weight when put in the balance with defiance of outsiders who “humiliate” Arabs.

Ayman Safadi, editor in chief of the independent Jordanian daily Al Ghad, said, “The last image for many was of Saddam taken out of a hole. That has all changed now.”

At the heart of the sudden reversal of opinion was the symbolism of the hasty execution, now framed as an act of sectarian vengeance shrouded in political theater and overseen by the American occupation.

In much of the predominantly Sunni Arab world, the timing of the execution in the early hours of Id al-Adha, which is among the holiest days of the Muslim year, when violence is forbidden and when even Mr. Hussein himself sometimes released prisoners, was seen as a direct insult to the Sunni world.

The contrast between the official video aired without sound on Iraqi television of Mr. Hussein being taken to the gallows and fitted with a noose around his neck and the unauthorized grainy, chaotic recording of the same scene with sound, depicting Shiite militiamen taunting Mr. Hussein with his hands tied, damning him to hell and praising the militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, touched a sectarian nerve.

“He stood as strong as a mountain while he was being hanged,” said Ahmed el-Ghamrawi, a former Egyptian ambassador to Iraq. “He died a strong president and lived as a strong president. This is the image people are left with.”

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian media critic and director of the online radio station, said: “If Saddam had media planners, he could not have planned it better than this. Nobody could ever have imagined that Saddam would have gone down with such dignity.”

Writers and commentators have stopped short of eulogizing the dictator but have looked right past his bloody history as they compare Iraq’s present circumstances with Iraq under Mr. Hussein.

In Jordan, long a bastion of support for Mr. Hussein, many are lionizing him, decrying the timing of the execution and the taunts as part of a Sunni-Shiite conflict.

Was it a coincidence that Israel, Iran and the United States all welcomed Saddam’s execution?” wrote Hamadeh Faraneh, a columnist for the daily Al Rai. “Was it also a coincidence when Saddam said bravely in front of his tormentors, ‘Long live the nation,’ and that Palestine is Arab, then uttered the declaration of faith? His last words expressed his depth and what he died for.”

Here’s an interesting read of Hussein’s religious orientation. At least as far as this writer is concerned, the religious dimension represents his true and deep self.

Another Jordanian journalist, Muhammad Abu Rumman, wrote in Al Ghad on Thursday: “For the vast majority Saddam is a martyr, even if he made mistakes in his first years of rule. He cleansed himself later by confronting the Americans and by rejecting to negotiate with them.

Here we have a nice package of “honor-shame” themes that is as eloquent for what it doesn’t mention as it is for what it does: Saddam made “a few mistakes” at the beginning. Does that include killing large numbers of innocent civilians? Isn’t that what the Arab world is so furious about the Israelis doing? But by confronting America and refusing to negotiate, all his earlier sins are “cleansed.” This is the same kind of logic that made Yassir Arafat a hero in the Arab world, in particular his refusal to make a deal at Camp David. With a public like this, how on earth can the Arabs ever move on?

Even the pro-Saudi news media, normally critical of Mr. Hussein, chimed in with a more sentimental tone.

In the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, Bilal Khubbaiz, commenting on Iranian and Israeli praise of the execution, wrote, “Saddam, as Iraq’s ruler, was an iron curtain that prevented the Iranian influence from reaching into the Arab world,” as well as “a formidable party in the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Zuhayr Qusaybati, also writing in Al Hayat, said the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, “gave Saddam what he most wanted: he turned him into a martyr in the eyes of many Iraqis, who can now demand revenge.”

“The height of idiocy,” Mr. Qusaybati said, “is for the man who rules Baghdad under American protection not to realize the purpose of rushing the execution, and that the guillotine carries the signature of a Shiite figure as the flames of sectarian division do not spare Shiites or Sunnis in a country grieving for its butchered citizens.”

In Saudi Arabia, poems eulogizing Mr. Hussein have been passed around on cellphones and in e-mail messages.

“Prepare the gun that will avenge Saddam,” a poem published in a Saudi newspaper warned. “The criminal who signed the execution order without valid reason cheated us on our celebration day. How beautiful it will be when the bullet goes through the heart of him who betrayed Arabism.”

Mr. Safadi, the Jordanian editor, said: “In the public’s perception Saddam was terrible, but those people were worse. That final act has really jeopardized the future of Iraq immensely. And we all know this is a blow to the moderate camp in the Arab world.”

Reporting was contributed by Mona el-Naggar from Cairo, Nada Bakri from Beirut, Rasheed Abou al-Samh from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Suha Maayeh from Amman.

I find it interesting and telling that the multiple contributors to this article could not find one voice of dissent among all of this honor-shame group think. My guess is that a) they didn’t look, b) no one particularly wants to go public in dissent on this right now, and c) the authors, for all their commitments to “modern journalism”, share the sentiments they report. But that’s pure speculation.

What is less speculative is the evidence that “Arabism,” as the Saudi poem has it, is still alive, and well, and poisoning the lives of Arabs with as much gusto as ever. Churchill once famously remarked that “Arabs don’t mind being oppressed as long as it’s by their own.” This reaction not only illustrates the dictum, but explains the mechanism behind so self-destructive an attitude.

In any case, it seems to me that any “human rights” activist with honor and dignity should remember this response well, so that the next time some Arab waxes eloquent on the death of nine civilians due to an Israeli shell, he or she can respond: “I don’t understand. Why are these lives so precious that you cannot forgive the Israelis and insist that they are genocidal murderers, but you can forgive Hussein in an instant, despite the fact that he has killed over a million Muslims?” Or is that asking too much of human rights folks? Are they more drawn the Carter model — confront the democracies, comfort the dictators?

4 Responses to Saddam Hussein and Arab Honor: NYT Tackles Arab Mentalities

  1. Abu Nudnik says:

    Forgive me if I don’t speak of the novel above but I just wanted to say how much this cleansed of sin stuff reminds me of the Biblical King David.

  2. Eliyahu says:

    RL, The apparently irrepressible spirko character has unloaded an ad for his book for the second time at least on your site. I don’t think you’re bound to give his ad more than one appearance, if that.

    The NYT article –wittingly and willingly, or not– essentially refutes spirko’s silly argument. It demonstrates that there is a widespread Arab-Muslim mentality that is an obstacle to peace in itself. In my view, peace between Israel and the Arabs will only be possible if and when the Arabs undergo a cultural revolution. Meanwhile, the major Western powers and other world political factors encourage the worst in Arab-Muslim culture and politics. Think of one Alistair Crooke, a British intelligence agent notorious for his pro-Hamas sympathies. Crooke was formerly attached to the EU mission in Gaza, if I am not mistaken, in which role he advocated support for Hamas. The Euro press, especially what is called “Left,” regularly promotes Hamas, not that Hamas is essentially different from Fatah, which is more hypocritical [for now] than Hamas because it pretends a certain moderation.

  3. Mike says:

    should he be taunted at the time of execution? no
    however, thanks god he was executed and may all his defendants and followers join him soon.

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