Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Saddam Hussein!!!

Like all Americans, I grew up hearing endless stories of the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s cruelty, his gassing of the Kurds, his invasion of Kuwait, and of course, his elaborate torturing methods. I imagined that the only authentic supporters of the regime were those who benefited directly from it. However, while living and studying during this current academic year in Jordan, I have been stunned at the extent of the implicit, even explicit, support of this brutal dictator. Undoubtedly, the American public, as well, is surprised to learn of the relatively wide backing of the larger Arab public towards Saddam. While some of this support is rightly attributed not to Saddam himself or his former regime, but instead to the widespread anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there are, in fact, concrete explanations for Saddam’s standing in Jordan and the larger Arab world. I will attempt to explain this phenomenon from the Jordanian perspective, as well as assess its implications.

I have witnessed Jordanian approval, if not admiration, of Saddam Hussein in numerous conversations within a variety of communities, ranging from Ba’athist Christians, pious and secular Sunni Jordanians, Palestinian refugees in Jordan, and even a Kurdish woman. This is quite the spectrum! Even in the words of those who maintain that they hate Saddam, there are hints of respect. The reasoning, I believe is threefold.

First of all, because of the intense communal tensions between the various religious and ethnic groups in Iraq, many people are convinced that only a strong leader can hold that country together. Their view, of course, is validated by the U.S.’s inability to maintain any sort of security. Yes Saddam was repressive, even cruel at times (Jordanians often claim that much of this has been propagated and exaggerated by the Western media). However, this strong-hand was necessary in order to preserve his regime and more importantly, the stability of Iraq. Whatever crimes may have been committed were unfortunate, but a necessary price for security, safety, and unity.

Secondly, support of Saddam is justified given the close political relationship between Saddam Hussein and the beloved former King Hussein of Jordan (unrelated). Many Americans may recall King Hussein’s refusal to join the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam in 1990. Throughout the Saddam regime, Jordanians enjoyed large subsidies on Iraqi oil, and like all Arabs, they studied in Iraq for free. The pocketbook often guides political attitudes, and since the toppling of Saddam’s regime, Jordanians no longer receive free education or oil subsidies, causing a huge strain on the economy.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, although Saddam was a harsh dictator, he is the only modern Arab leader to stand up to the United States and Israel. The Arab people are desperate for a hero, for a leader to rescue them from the traps of loss after loss, humiliation after humiliation, suffering after suffering. Although this is most acutely expressed with respect to Palestine, Arabs generally feel that they are subject to the whimsical decisions of the West, Israel, and their ‘puppet governments’ in the Arab world. Saddam had what Arabs tend to respect more than Westerners, power and force. He was strong, and he resisted the West. The Middle East is a region without hope, and Saddam offered hope. Although he undoubtedly failed as a politician, undertaking reckless wars (Iran-Iraq War, invasion of Kuwait) that ultimately destroyed himself and his country, many Arabs view him symbolically. He bombed Tel Aviv. He said no to the United States. Yeah, he gassed his own people. Yes, he is sitting in an American prison. But much like Gemal Abdul Nasser in Egypt forty years before, Saddam offered hope that the Arab world could be united against its enemies, that it could liberate Palestine. This is especially true for the Palestinians living in Jordan, which make up over one half of the population. For that ‘hero’ to now be in the hands of the U.S., while Iraq is meanwhile in the midst of a civil war, is a major emotional blow.

Many Jordanians are torn between the various ideologies pulling at them: their Islamic belief system, Arab nationalism, and tribal loyalties (the backbone of the monarchy). Most of these ideologies, however, rarely surface politically. Pragmatism rules, and in the end, this is perhaps the ultimate maintainer of the Jordanian government. There remains a decent condition of life, economically, socially, and politically, and the monarchy is relatively concerned for its citizenry and building consensus. Equally important is the strong government suppression of opposition and the subsequent risk attached to political activity. Motivation must be extremely high to oppose the monarchy in any manner. The current King Abdullah II’s critical assistance in the Iraq invasion, overthrow of Saddam, and current occupation clearly angers many Jordanians, and some are willing to act on those beliefs, including men such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the Iraqi insurgency and plotter of the November 9th attacks in Amman. Others, however, maintain that they support the government’s stance on the Iraq War because of the benefits that a relationship with the U.S. brings to Jordan.

In the politics of today’s post-9/11 “with us or against us” world, the Jordanian monarchy has been placed in the difficult position of either turning its back on an alliance with the United States, one that provides important assistance, or collaborating with policies that the vast majority of its population despises. The Iraq War and our unwavering support for Israel’s controversial policies have radicalized both Jordanian society and the larger Arab world. While both the individual Jordanian and larger Jordanian society are a complicated mix of ideology and interests, Jordanian admiration for Saddam Hussein is only likely to increase with the daily violence in Iraq, strange as that may seem.


Blogger katherine said...

robin, thanks for your thoughtful explanation of the support of saddam. it's hard to understand how people could support someone who has abused his power so badly, but these reasons make sense. thanks for posting!

2:41 PM

Blogger Scotter said...

It does make me wonder how far could a u.s. president go if he/she delivered policies to special interests. What would the Christian Right accept in return for banned abortion and gay marriage, and mandating school prayer. Or the more classic example would be, what would the Left accept in return for greater social welfare among the poor. I'm not saying we would accept Saddam, but I think that we would accept more than we think we would.

2:52 PM


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