The prospect of using force against Iraq has brought numerous demands that the U.S. establish a definitive connection between the rogue state and the events of Sept. 11. But we needn't look for a "smoking gun" that would unequivocally tie Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda. The more important link -- of a more organic nature -- has already been established. Iraq and al Qaeda are two main tributaries of Arab radicalism.
The men who dominate these two sinister entities cross the border between religious faith and secular politics in a seamless way. While Saddam is technically a secular leader, the border hardly exists in the contemporary world of Arab politics. As the U.N. Security Council resolved last week to convene in an emergency session should Saddam fail to satisfy a new wave of weapons inspectors, that nexus became even more volatile. One of the considerations in confronting Iraq, whether in the form of unilateral U.S. action or through U.N. coordination, is how such a move will affect the Arab street. Will any military response, however thought out, be seen as rational by Islamists?
Some scholars have long held the view that politics and religion were always inseparable in the Muslim world. But the history of the Arab-Muslim lands does not bear this out: There was, for a good deal of the century behind us, a secular ascendancy. This trend is now in doubt.
It is out of that secular primacy that a man like Saddam emerged, although born destitute in 1937 in Tikrit, a forgotten town on the Tigris. The old order of the merchant-landlord elites which dominated his country, and that of the larger Arab world, was giving way. A new breed of restless, pitiless men stepped forth to press their claims, and they did it with terror and an authority given them by secular ideas.
Saddam Hussein has not, in the course of his brutal career, shown any burning interest in Islam. One of his most faithful servants, Tariq Aziz, is a Christian Chaldean; as is his new foreign minister, Naji Sabri. This is in keeping with the origins of the party, established by two Paris-educated Syrian intellectuals, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din Bitar in the 1940s -- the first Greek Orthodox, the second Sunni Muslim. Rather, the ideology of the Baath derived from the National Socialism of the Third Reich. After its conquest and consolidation of political power in Iraq, the Baath party's civic religion was to become the crude cult of personality surrounding the ruler.
To the pious, this hero-worship of the dictator is a form of idolatry: There is something Babylonian about the cult of Saddam. The more austere desert world of the Arabian peninsula wouldn't have permitted such a cult. That world was intimate, and precluded the awe at the heart of the system that Saddam put together. The royal despotism, the very physical scale of the ruler's monuments, the mystery of his whereabouts, the indecipherability and surprise of his deeds (he can imprison thousands, and then release them on a whim) all bear the mark of the Iraqi setting. There is Stalinism, to be sure, and the audacity of what dictators did in the age of communism. But Saddam manipulates older sources of despotism as well.
A decade or so ago, he even claimed an affinity, a spiritual descent of sorts, from the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar; his sycophants proclaimed him a "flagbearer" and a "grandson" of that ruler. Hammurabi was also pressed into service as part of the tyrant's legend. There were sediments of civilization in the Land Between the Rivers -- the Tigris and the Euphrates. And the Saddam Hussein appropriated them all.
Islam barely figured in the making of this regime. This was Iraq, and what religion was there was a matter of sectarian loyalty: In Baghdad and the belt around the Tigris, there were the Sunni Muslim Arabs (Saddam's community); in the south, there was the traditional home of Shiism. In the north, there were the Kurds, in their majority Sunnis, but set apart by ethnicity and language, and a growing sense of national separateness. The Baath glided over those communal and religious lines. Its ideologues insisted that their world was neither religious, nor sectarian. Indeed, for a time, before the Sunni Arabs emptied the Baath of all ideological pretense, and claimed power as the exclusive right of their clans, the Baath had been a natural home for the Kurds and the Shia and the remnants of the Christian communities. As the Shia were a majority of the country's population, it was convenient for the Sunni rulers to claim that they were the bearers of secularism.
It was in the name of secularism that Saddam decimated the ranks of the Shia religious class in the shrine towns of Najaf and Karbala in the late 1970s. He set out to monopolize the political world: the Shia clerics were in the way, and were shown no mercy. And it was in the name of secularism, as well, that Saddam had waged a brutal war against the Iranian Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Arab states, and powers beyond, had bought his legend, backed him as he posed as the secular, modernist sentry against the forces of the Iranian theocracy.
In a revealing illustration of Saddam's way with the faith, it was during Desert Storm that he fell back on religion. No sooner had American power broken his army, the Maximum Leader told his soldiers that "angels of mercy" would come to their rescue -- this, presumably, to compensate them for the air cover they lacked. And it was in the aftermath of his staggering defeat in that campaign that the Muslim incantation, Allah Akbar, God is Great, was scribbled on the flag of the country. To the gullible, this was a son of Islam, and of the Arabs, seeking solace in the faith against the infidels. But it was not for his piety that the crowd had hailed the Iraqi upstart. He had promised revenge and power, chemical weapons with which he would torch Tel Aviv, the sacking of the pro-American regimes in the Gulf, the sharing out of the loot of oil wealth to crowds in nearby Amman and far-off Casablanca. With his defeat, these hopes came to naught, and the crowd would set out in search of a new avenger.
The men who put together al Qaeda would be the new redeemers. >From state terror, there was a passage now to transnational terror. Two jihadists came together to give this terror its means and its ferocity: The Saudi plotter, Osama bin Laden, and the Egyptian Islamist and physician, Ayman al Zawahiri. Unlike Saddam, who had clawed his way out of poverty, these men hailed from the apex of their societies.
That bin Laden came from considerable wealth is known, but Zawahiri, too, was born to privilege. Politics was not a means of social advancement to these two. Bin Laden had come to a sense of holy warfare in Afghanistan. Boredom with Arabia had taken him into that anti-communist fight. But in the stern Arabia of his birth, there was no room for a restless jihadist. As for Zawahiri, it was the Kingdom of God, and the rule of the Sharia (Islamic law) that beckoned. Revenge, too, was a factor. Zawahiri was picked up in the dragnet that followed the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and was tortured. He took to the road with a deep determination that the regime of the peasant-officer Hosni Mubarak would be undone, and that Mr. Mubarak's American patrons would be bloodied along the way.
What these men thought of Saddam can easily be surmised. Worldly rule by tyrants is exactly what drove Zawahiri out of Egypt. But a common cause could be made across that secular/religious divide. Anti-Americanism was a bond, as was the shared determination to destabilize the conservative Arab states.
In February 1998, when bin Laden and Zawahiri declared the creation of their "World Islamic Front," and issued their incendiary fatwa authorizing the killing of "the Americans and their allies, civilian and military alike," the fate of Iraq, and the sins of the sanctions regime imposed on its people, figured prominently in the articles of indictment. "Despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the Crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded one million, the Americans are once again trying to repeat the horrific massacres as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation." No kind words had to be said about Saddam Hussein himself; it was the Iraqi people whose sufferings were invoked. It was enough to highlight that the sanctions on Iraq were imposed with the connivance of rulers in the Arabian Peninsula, and that the House of Saud was doing America's bidding.
It is the hallmark of unsettled societies to believe in the man on horseback, in millennial and sudden redemption, in the pretender who would transform and empower a broken world, but without labor and effort and empirical work. For all the outward differences, Saddam and the leaders of al Qaeda offered the masses that flocked to their banners an absolution from responsibility, and a dream of revenge. In both cases, the crowd worked itself into a frenzy, and then fell into despondency when the Pied Piper was unable to deliver.
There was a wave of genuine despair, it should be recalled, when Saddam's armies were shattered in 1991. In the same vein, the satisfaction with bin Laden and the terrible deeds of al Qaeda soon gave way to the old bitter sense of Arab disappointment that the new redeemer, too, had left his world unchanged, and that the base he had secured in Afghanistan was undone.
If and when America ventures into Iraq, it should cast aside the distinction between secular and Islamist enemies. The rule of reason and practicality, the delivery of the Arabs from a culture of victimology and abdication, the need to take on the sources of the anti-Americanism that brought terror to America's shores, all entail a reckoning with the same malignancies.
It was the sparing of Saddam in 1991 that nourished al Qaeda, and gave its masterminds and foot-soldiers ammunition, and an ideological pretext, for targeting America. Saddam had been through war and had been let off the hook; that had been part of the emboldening of the new purveyors of terror. America's enemies in that region are full of cunning. They should be read right; the banners they unfurl -- secular or religious -- are of no great significance. It is the drive that animates them that matters. What they bring forth, be they dictators in bunkers or jihadists on the run, is a determination to extirpate American influence from their world, and a view of history that the deep sorrows and failings of the Arab world can be laid at the doorsteps of the distant American power.