Saddam's Regime is a European Import:
By Bernard Lewis
National Post | April 4, 2003
(See Timelines at the end of this article.)
In the Western world, knowledge of history is poor -- and the awareness of history is frequently poorer. For example, people often argue today as if the kind of political order that prevails in Iraq is part of the immemorial Arab and Islamic tradition. This is totally untrue. The kind of regime represented by Saddam Hussein has no roots in either the Arab or Islamic past. Rather, it is an ideological importation from Europe -- the only one that worked and succeeded (at least in the sense of being able to survive).
In 1940, the French government accepted defeat and signed a separate peace with the Third Reich. The French colonies in Syria and Lebanon remained under Vichy control, and were therefore open to the Nazis to do what they wished. They became major bases for Nazi propaganda and activity in the Middle East. The Nazis extended their operations from Syria and Lebanon, with some success, to Iraq and other places. That was the time when the Baath Party was founded, as a kind of clone of the Nazi and Fascist parties, using very similar methods and adapting a very similar ideology, and operating in the same way -- as part of an apparatus of surveillance that exists under a one-party state, where a party is not a party in the Western democratic sense, but part of the apparatus of a government. That was the origin of the Baath Party.
When the Third Reich collapsed, and after an interval was replaced by the Soviet Union as the patron of all anti-Western forces, the adjustment from the Nazi model to the Communist model was not very difficult and was carried throughout without problems. That is where the present Iraqi type of government comes from. As I said before, it has no roots in the authentic Arabic or Islamic past. It is, instead, part of the most successful and most harmful process of Westernization to have occurred in the Middle East.
When Westernization failed in the Middle East, this failure was followed by a redefinition and return to older, more deep-rooted perceptions of self and other. I mean, of course, religion.
Religion had several advantages. It was more familiar. It was more readily intelligible. It could be understood immediately by Muslims. Nationalist and socialist slogans, by contrast, needed explanation. Religion was less impeded. What I mean is that even the most ruthless of dictatorships cannot totally suppress religiously defined opposition. In the mosques, people can meet and speak. In most fascist-style states, openly meeting and speaking are rigidly controlled and repressed. This is not possible in dealing with Islam. Islamic opposition movements can use a language familiar to all, and, through mosques, can tap into a network of communication and organization.
This gave to religious arguments a very powerful advantage. In fact, dictatorships were even helping them by eliminating competing oppositions. They had another great advantage in competing with democratic movements. Such movements must allow freedom of expression, even to those who are opposed to them. Those who are opposed to them are under no such obligation. Indeed, their very doctrines require them to suppress what they see as impious and immoral ideas -- an unfair advantage in this political competition.
These religious movements have another advantage. They can invoke the very traditional definition of "self" and "enemy" that exists in the Islamic world. It is very old. We see it, for example, in historiography. We can talk of European history as a struggle against, for example, the Moors, or the Tartars. If you look at contemporary historiography for the Middle East's Muslim peoples, their struggle is always defined in religious terms. For their historians, their side is Islam, their ruler is the lord of Islam, and the enemy is defined as infidels. That earlier classification has come back again. Osama bin Laden's habit of defining his enemies as "crusaders" illustrates this. By "crusaders," bin Laden does not mean Americans or Zionists. "Crusaders," of course, were Christian warriors in a holy war for Christendom, fighting to recover the holy places of Christendom, which had been lost to Muslim conquerors in the 7th century. Bin Laden sees it as a struggle between two rival religions.
I say again: To blame the Saddam Hussein-type governments on Islamic and Arabic traditions is totally false. Those traditions led to the development of societies that, while not democratic in the sense of having elected bodies, produced limited governments. That is, governments limited by the holy law, limited in a practical sense by the existence of powerful groups in society, like the rural gentry and the military and religious establishments. These acted as constraints on the power of the government. The idea of absolute rule is totally alien to Islamic practice until, sad to say, modernization made it possible.
What the process of modernization did was to strengthen the sovereign power, and place at the disposal of the sovereign power the whole modern apparatus of control and repression. Modernization also weakened the intermediate powers, which previously limited the powers of the state and had acted as a countervailing force. Modernization meant a shift from old elites living on their estates, to new elites who regarded the state as their estate.
Modernization has not erased the fact that the peoples of the Muslim Middle East have a tradition of limited, responsible government. While not democratic, this tradition shares many features of democratic Western governments. It provides, I believe, a good basis for the development of democratic institutions -- as has happened elsewhere in the world. I remain cautiously optimistic for their future.
Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, at Princeton University. He has written numerous books about Islam, including, most recently, The Crisis Of Islam: Holy War And Unholy Terror (March 2003). This essay is adapted from the 8th Annual Barbara Frum Lecture delivered by Prof. Lewis in Toronto which will be broadcast on CBC Radio's IDEAS on April 24.