September/October 2000

But What About Saddam?

by Ibrahim M. Abdil-Mu'id Ramey

If Saddam Hussein is a brutal thug and an international outlaw, then why not just send a CIA assassination team into Baghdad to "take care" of him? Or kill him with bombs and cruise missiles? Or at least cook up a plot that guarantees his political overthrow?

Before the Gulf War, the dinar was worth approximately three dollars. Now, there are approximately 2,500 dinars to one U.S. dollar. We've come to expect that kind of talk from the folks at the State Department and the Pentagon and the CIA, who make a living, in part, from creating or obliterating foreign governments, depending on their usefulness to US national (read: business) interests. The corporate media and the State Department have created a feeding frenzy among the US population over the notion of Saddam's ouster, if not his murder. They have made Saddam the rationale for the continuation of ten years of sanctions against the Iraqi people. And arguably, Saddam's persistence as the leader of Iraq is a key factor in justifying high levels of post-Coldwar Pentagon spending, as well as continued US military assistance to Israel.

But all of us must wrestle with this convoluted knot of a problem: How, in fact, do we view Saddam? And what, if anything, should we attempt to do about him?

Given the corporate media view of Saddam put out for mass consumption, it's easy to understand the incredible amount of fear and loathing directed against the Iraqi leader by US conservatives and liberals alike. Saddam is, after all, a man who waged an incredibly bloody (and insane) war against his neighboring nation, Iran; a man who directed the use of deadly chemical weapons (made in facilities built by Western corporations) against his own Kurdish population; and a man who, despite the clear mandate of the United Nations Security Council, reneged on the agreement to allow for UN inspections of biological, chemical, and possibly nuclear weapons. All of this is in addition, of course, to the ample evidence of a litany of heinous crimes directed by Saddam's Ba'ath Party and his military against a wide array of Iraqi dissidents, democratic opposition figures, and even members of his own ruling circle. (The writer Said Abourish, in his tell-all book entitled Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge, relates a particularly gruesome story in which, in a fit of rage,

Saddam removed one of his cabinet ministers from a meeting, only to usher the unsuspecting man into a side room of the Presidential Palace where he dispatched him - personally - with a bullet to the head.)

For most of the vast US political mainstream - good people who believe in freedom, justice, and the truth of everything printed in the New York Times - Saddam Hussein isn't just bad for Iraq: Saddam Hussein is Iraq. And never mind the long history of Western arms, money, and intrigue, including evidence of pre-Gulf war CIA intervention in support of Saddam, or even the sheer brutality of the overkill of the war and the (arguably) intentional US attacks on Iraqi people and infrastructure far away from the action in Kuwait. Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti is the epitome of unadulterated evil in the modern world, and this conflated man/nation must be opposed, and neutralized, at all costs. For many, including noted leaders in the civil rights and human rights community, if the cost includes economic sanctions against Iraq, then the cost is worth it.

The religious pacifist positions on the Gulf war, and on Saddam himself, are different. It is not easy to explain to others outside the orbit of our day-to-day work why we don't call for Saddam's "removal" in light of his ghastly record on human rights in Iraq. And given the demonization of Saddam in the US press, it is hard to establish the moral credibility, among some people, of our opposition to Iraq sanctions.

It is obvious to everyone working on behalf of the Iraqi people that the UN/US sanctions against Iraq are immoral and genocidal because they target civilians and kill the helpless and innocent. Yet Saddam's personal character, his penchant for political violence, and even his use of mass murder as an instrument for maintaining power, can neither be ignored nor dismissed as irrelevant to people of faith and conscience. Religious community solidarity against the sanctions (and against the waves of intermittent military attacks upon Iraq) is one thing. The Iraqi dictator is quite another. And while there is no huge amount of anti-Saddam rhetoric flung about in our political discourse (especially by those folks who have occasion to travel to Iraq), it's no secret that Saddam Hussein is regarded as a very, very bad man that most folks would like to go away.

So what do we say about Saddam? And how should that position shape and define our work on issues related to Iraq?

Our Marxist colleagues and fellow activists on the Left have sometimes been moved to defend Saddam as just one more victim of Western imperialism. And I do admit that, generally, the secular Left has a sharper and more historically detailed analysis of political economy than does the religious pacifist community. We should learn from this, and incorporate it into some of our worldview. Imperialism, particularly the US variant of it, is real, bloody, and extraordinarily oppressive, especially to peoples who have suffered from colonization and ongoing domination. The people of Iraq, like most of the non-European world, fall into this category.

But imperialism also requires the complicity of despots, crooks, hustlers, and murderers from the exploited nations, especially those with great appetites for power, glory, and guns.

The "anti-imperialist" camp needs to recognize that Saddam Hussein has, over more than twenty years, played this game to the maximum, especially during the Iraq-Iran war, when he treated the "imperialist" arms suppliers as a personal shopping mall. And while the Iraqi people are clear victims of imperialism, they are also victims of generations of home-grown tyrants who sometimes feed at the plate of empire and sometimes defy the imperialist powers, but always, always, mistreat and abuse their own people.

Our beliefs in both nonviolence and humanity demand that we respond to the mistreatment and suffering of the people of Iraq, whether these are caused by their own government, or by ours. And while confronting the horrendous policies of the US government must remain our first priority, we must not turn a blind eye to Saddam Hussein or dishonestly pretend that he is only a victim of US military violence and power machinations.

But there are some other things that people of faith must not do.

First, the demand for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein only strengthens the hand of the real imperialists - bankers, militarists, and CIA types - who lob cruise missiles and cruel sanctions on Baghdad in the mistaken notion that Saddam can be bombed out of power, or that his people, once sufficiently starved and bludgeoned by economic warfare, will rise up against him. It hasn't happened, and isn't likely to. And even if this scenario were to occur, it would hardly insure the transition to nonviolence and real, popular democracy - not the bogus made-in-the-USA variant - that is so desperately needed in Iraq (and for that matter, nearly everywhere else in the world).

Nor is it plausible to suggest that peace advocates, in conjunction with the US government, should openly encourage, arm, and assist the Iraqi opposition to strike at Saddam. Iraqi opposition leaders remember the last time the US made such promises at the end of the Gulf war. The US then pulled out, allowing the Kurdish and Shi'ite opposition, and innocent civilians, to be slaughtered by the Republican Guard and their chemical weapons. The United States government - the Left is right on this point too, I believe - would only manipulate the anti-Saddam opposition to be more compliant with US, rather that Iraqi, geopolitical interests.

Yet there are some things that we must do in response to Saddam, the US government, and most of all, the Iraqi people.

First, we must passionately advocate nonviolent and non-military solutions to the current crisis in and with Iraq, even when violence, to some, seems both plausible and inescapable. Military attacks, including the imposition of the notorious US-British "No Fly Zone" over Iraqi airspace, are not acceptable. Our long-term - and it may be very long-term - interests are in ending violence and oppression in all forms, not only when they are embodied in individuals whom we just love to hate. And, Saddam notwithstanding, we must relentlessly expose the role that the global arms trade and the multinational oil companies played, and continue to play, in maintaining anti-democratic and corrupt regimes in Iraq, and all over the world.

Second, we must work for the massive rebuilding of Iraqi civil society, and the reintegration of Iraq into the global community. Saddam is not the Iraqi people, and arguably, despite his enormous power, is not the same as their entire government, either. An Iraq suffering from economic attack and isolation isn't likely to be an incubator of either peace or democracy.

Third, we must support the building of a legitimate, strong, and un-bossed UN that can be a real arbitrator of global conflicts and, in the interim (some pacifists may disagree with this, but it's my essay), a genuine international force able to provide real protection for populations at risk of genocide.

Fourth, we must maintain a real arms embargo, but extend it to the entire region. We must create real sanctions against nations and corporations that insist on selling conventional, or other, weapons to Iraq. This embargo must be enforced within the context of a regional arms embargo (including Israel), and while advocating a global commitment to end the arms race, period.

Finally, and centrally, we must challenge the notion of a permanently oil-driven and profit-driven domestic economy. We must call into question the political and military apparatus protecting that economy at the expense of the well-being of the vast majority of the human community, especially the people of the Third World.

I certainly believe that understanding imperialism, as well as opposing it, is necessary. But our anti-imperialism must be, for us, part of a larger and deeper faith-centered opposition to all forms of human oppression and suffering, and not some one-dimensional rhetorical opposition to the United States and its frequently obnoxious foreign policy.

It is important for us to maintain the high ground, and the integrity, of faith-based nonviolence in our Iraq work. We must resist the tendency to either ignore Saddam's violence, or to explicitly or implicitly join with others who call for his violent overthrow. Nonviolence based on faith simply doesn't have tidy and immediate solutions to many violent political issues. But we do, and must, hold on to the belief that the trajectory of world events, and of justice, will eventually, in the long run, lead humankind, including the people of Iraq, to the beloved kingdom of the Creator's peace and justice.

I am commanded that I must not kill, or advocate murderous actions by others. And my work is not to destroy Saddam. My work is to strive to overturn systems of hatred, economic greed, and violence - in the United States, in Iraq, and wherever - so as to guarantee a different, just, and nonviolent future for both his nation, and my own.

Ibrahim M. Abdil-Mu'id Ramey is the peace and disarmament program director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and a member of the board of the Muslim Peace Fellowship. A different version of this article has appeared in As-Salamu 'Alaykum, the newsletter of the Muslim Peace Fellowship.