What Saddam Politics 101 Has to Teach Us
By: Ayad Rahim
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, October 18, 2004
The appeal to anger and hatred in American politics over the past year makes me, an immigrant from Iraq, think of how Saddam came to power, and how Arab dictators maintain control and keep their people powerless by preying on the basest of emotions.
Saddam's party took control of Iraq a year after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Arabs viewed the massive defeat as deeply humiliating. Moreover, the Arab world was mired in the depths of a centuries-long decline - economic, political, military and cultural - from which Arabs felt great despair and a further devastating blow to their pride. Into that breach stepped extremists of various stripes, promising to resurrect Arabs' "past glory."
Rather than looking inward to find ways to improve their societies, Islamists and Arab nationalists generally blamed others for the magnitude of their defeat and for nearly all else that ailed the Arab world. In centuries past, the scapegoats were the Crusaders and colonialist powers. Recently, they have been joined by America, Jews and Israel.
In addition to blaming external "enemies," the Iraqi Ba'ath Party's campaign for power featured a search for internal scapegoats. After the '67 war, while the Iraqi government imposed further restrictions on Jewish citizens, Saddam and his comrades fired up crowds by pointing the finger of blame at "the Jews." In particular, they demanded action against local agents of Zionism and imperialism, who, they claimed, had undermined the war effort by spying for Israel. Ten Iraqi soldiers died in the '67 war.
Almost immediately after Saddam's Ba'ath Party seized power, it announced that it had "broken major Zionist spy rings." They then conducted a series of spectacular televised trials of "enemies of the people," including public confessions. This culminated in January 1969, when 14 "Zionist" and "imperialist" agents were hanged in Liberation Square, nine of whom were Jewish Iraqis. During the 24-hour "festival" before as many as half a million onlookers, schoolchildren bused in from all over Iraq had to kick the bodies; others spat and threw stones at the hanging corpses. Thus, by using Iraqi Jews, who had been social pariahs for 20 years, and deploying widely accepted "truths," abstractions and villainies, the Ba'ath drew people to their vision and legitimated themselves.
To consolidate power and further stifle opposition, the hunt for invented enemies widened and grew. The conspiracy trials, elaborate enemy plots, fabricated public confessions and hysterical mass demonstrations continued for years, though fewer and fewer Jewish villains were needed now. Iraq's president nonetheless repeatedly speechified that "one hand lies behind all the crimes." Iraqis soon became cowed, and "the republic of fear" was born. Nor were Iraq's leaders the only Arab rulers to so stoke and exploit mass rage and hysteria.
In the '80s, Saddam used his war with Iran, which he dubbed Qadisiyyet Saddam, to portray himself as the Arabs' leading knight, fighting for their glory and defending them against foreigners. In 1990, his stock among Arabs rose exponentially. That year, he hanged Iranian-born British journalist Farzad Bazoft (who'd surreptitiously gathered soil with traces of polonium and uranium, whose only purpose was a nuclear bomb); gobbled up Kuwait, in another bid for regional hegemony; and threatened to burn half of Israel with chemical weapons. Arabs did not dissent, for the killing of demonized Israelis was fair game, and Saddam was confronting the West and "Zionist designs." The appeal of the Saddams and bin Ladens is, simply, that they struck at or "stood up to America" and/or Israel - in the case of Saddam, by, himself, surviving American opposition for 13 years and by launching missiles at Israel.
What, one might ask, does all this have to do with our electioneering?
Although America hasn't reached the levels of mass hysteria that have gripped the Arab world for so long, the tone of anger and vilification employed by some here are reminiscent of what reigns there. In some American quarters, the mere utterance of the names George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Ashcroft, Richard Perle, Fox News or Halliburton evinces fear and loathing, as if one had just announced the arrival of Satan. Indeed, prominent individuals such as George Soros, Bill Moyers and Peter B. Lewis have likened George Bush or his administration to Adolf Hitler and Nazi rule. Kurt Vonnegut recently suggested, without a hint of humor, sacrificing a neoconservative baby.
Howard Dean, for example, cast himself as the "fighter" who consistently "stood up" to George Bush. He made that his raison d'etre, and it became his cause celebre among supporters - that he, alone, steadfastly opposed President Bush throughout his candidacy. Those are the same reasons Arabs express for their support of Saddam Hussein and Usama bin Laden. The same holds true for Wesley Clark, the other most-vehement Bush-basher among the major candidates, as they tried to tap into the "anger and dissatisfaction" 80% of Democrat-primary voters told pollsters they felt towards President Bush. Nor has the right been immune from such extremist vilification, as some have described Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry as a traitor and dangerous to human liberty.
Nevertheless, the demonization from the left has been more striking. Bush, his administration and its policies are not merely criticized, they are viewed as intentional and absolute enemies of humanity, the environment, the economy and freedom, people whose every word and deed is impugned with nefarious motives and purposeful ill will. Witness the slanders in Michael Moore's movie, its popularity and the plethora of Bush-bashing books in the market. Some say, this is politics as usual. However, it's not only a matter of disagreement; it has reached the level of dehumanization and demonization - a campaign of vilification that's resulted in reflexive, unthinking hostility, with the consequent potential for doing harm to the lives of the people thus demonized.
In the Arab world, that is essentially what prevails, a demonization of Jews, Israel and America, that justifies almost any death and destruction, so long as it's in the name of anti-Zionism, anti-Americanism or anti-imperialism- with nary a peep. The end-goal of Americans doing likewise - of defeating a demonized president - justifies saying almost any and all things about him and his supporters. The forces of hate that are thus unleashed, in spite of the checks in our system, would be, I imagine, difficult to contain.
Just as Jews in Iraq feared for their lives, I now fear for the lives of America's leaders, for they have been so demonized by some, that, given the opportunity, an opponent might feel it his duty to eliminate one of them - not a far stretch from the "call" of jihadis and suicide bombers.
Thus, are demagogues and dictators born. That statement might seem drastic to some, but we mustn't forget that Hitler came to power through elections, as have lesser dictators such as Juan Peron, Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez.
We've had a chance to view how politicians prey on people's basest instincts. Let us not avert our eyes, and quickly pass on, beyond this episode, as Arabs have done for centuries. Let us look inside, and see how we got here, and what might have been -- or what might yet be.
Ayad Rahim, a Cleveland writer, returned recently from three and a half months in Iraq, writing the blog "Live From Baghdad," at AyadRahimTripToIraq.blogspot.com.
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