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Saddam’s Islamist legacy

Turi Munthe
5 October 2003

Hussam is a friend: a prominent Baghdad architect, and once dean of the faculty of engineering at the city’s university. The view from the café where we meet is miserable: pock-marked streets and shattered windows, rubble and razor-wire. “We have been caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: between our hatred of western imperialism and a bastard. I hated Saddam and I hated the United States. Whose side do you take? Either way, you’re a traitor to yourself.”

He has a theory for the woes of the Middle East. “Back in the 1930s and 1940s, there was real progress. Slowly but surely, we clawed our way towards democracy, we fought our way into modernity. And then there was 1948. The creation of Israel polarised the Middle East. It made Arab politics incendiary. The slow train to modernity was hijacked by anger: we replaced progress with ideology.”

Whether it was Israel or imperialism or impatience with the existing political regimes in the region, Arab politics in the 1950s did polarise. Revolutionary romanticism swept the region with the same force as early Islam. Pan-Arabism, Arab nationalism, Nasserism, Ba’athism were not parties to be followed, not mere vehicles of social policy, they were creeds to be believed. A paradox: Middle Eastern politics clamoured for modernity in a romantic language – the language of pre-modern belief.

Ba’athism, blending socialism with proto-mysticism, was one such language. “We loved Michel Aflaq” (the Syrian Christian founder of the Ba’ath party), says Hussam; “he was romantic, he was a believer, he was almost a Sufi”. But in Iraq, Ba’athism also meant Saddam Hussein and a political experiment that was not so much failure as catastrophe.

Saddam Hussein’s destruction of Iraq also implicates and compromises secular revolutionary politics in the country. And the legacy of his failure is a continued, perhaps even inflamed, sense of emergency.

The demise of revolutionary politics is not peculiar to Iraq. Across the Middle East, the flames of secular ideology have died down – some would say ignominiously, others would call it natural. Those countries upturned by its early vigour – Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq itself – have seen principles turned into patriarchs. The message became the messenger. A famous Iraqi children’s song written by Ghazi Dir‘ al-Ta’i makes the point: “We are Iraq and its name is Saddam/ We are love and its name is Saddam/ We are a people and its name is Saddam/ We are the Ba’ath and its name is Saddam.”

The outward form may remain conservative in these jumlukiya, or monarchical republics, (the word is a conflation of jumhuriya and malikiya, Arabic for republic and monarchy), but the culture of dissent, even of revolution still swells. In Iraq today, it has burst to the surface.

A new source of meaning

For thirty years, the country has subsisted, and Saddam survived, on a diet of revolutionary meaning. As his position weakened, starting with the early military setbacks against the Iranian army in 1981, Saddam started to justify his policies in increasingly apocalyptic terms. For eight long years, Iraq became the frontier against the evils of Islamism, an Arabist dam against the colonialist advances of Iran. His battle against Iran was portrayed as a repeat of Qadisiyya, the epic 7th century victory over the Persians.

After the first Gulf war of 1991, and the sanctions that followed, Saddam portrayed his country as the underdog against the American monster. As food stocks dwindled and progress halted, Saddam fed his people on meaning – on romance. The basic commodities of life had disappeared; he offered them higher purpose.

Saddam’s thirty years of rhetoric told Iraqis that they are a chosen people. In the absence of anything else to believe in – progress, prosperity, justice – that culture of messianism lives on under US occupation, and is perhaps even reinforced by it. Saddam failed to quell the anger and the urgency of Iraqi political discourse. That powerful sense of emergency, fed by despair, still courses through Iraq. But it has taken a different turn. Saddamism, Saddam’s Ba’athism, has also damned the culture of secularism.

Sadr City is a suburb of Baghdad – a splayed slum, low dust buildings splashed over wide dust streets. The country’s cultural mutations can be charted in its successive names. When it was first built in the idealistic 1960s, it was called Thawra, or Revolution. Then it became Saddam City. Since the toppling of the regime in April, it is called after Imam Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr, luminary of the Shi’a religious aristocracy murdered by Saddam in 1999.

Here is the home of Sheikh Abbas al-Ruba’i, the editor of the Shi’a newspaper al-Hawza that sells more copies than any other paper in Baghdad. He is a story in himself. He looks like a left-bank intellectual – half-moon glasses and a crew-cut. Born into a wealthy family, he studied painting at the Baghdad college of fine arts. In 1993, after graduating, he joined Imam al-Sadr to study with him. Why did he stop painting? “It didn’t have any meaning. I needed meaning.” Even then, culture, the locus of belief, was moving from the secular to the religious.

That cultural shift has swept the political arena. Homegrown Iraqi estimates, both on Sunni and Shi’a sides, suggest that up to 60% of adult Iraqi Shi’a are linked directly or indirectly to the Hawza – that amorphous institution of Shi’a authority. The country has swung towards Allah, and in the process has pulled Allah into politics.

The Hawza is run by clerics who play politics – just, one might say, as ‘Ali did. It is divided not into ahzab (parties) but into shiya (factions). Just as in the high days of anti-colonialism of the 1950s and 1960s, Iraqis are looking for a saviour from amongst their people. Then, those potential saviours were (arch-secularist) generals and doctors; now, they are imams – Ali Mohammed al-Sistani, Muqtada al-Sadr, and the martyred Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim.

In Iraq under Saddam, the five daily prayers were performed on television. Each programme was followed by a short dictum or aphorism of the president, or a wise saying from the writings of Michel Aflaq. Ba’athist school text books taught Islam as a form of Arabism. Caught, like Hussam, between the devil of Saddam and the deep blue sea of western power-projection, Iraqis have found an alternative place of meaning. Here is a bitter irony: Saddam Hussein’s true legacy in Iraq today is politicised Islam.

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