Ruminations on Saddam’s Guilty Verdict and the March of History

November 11, 2006

Yes. So I have been silent on Saddam’s guilty verdict and death sentence. But I promise you this: it is not the same kind of silence into which virtually all Arab heads of state have sunken -more like a dazed stupor, when not outrage and indignance. My silence has more to do with my chronic slothfulness that is about to ruin not only my blogging schedule by also my entire future academic career and graduate school plans. On the other hand, what is happening on the Arab street and in the Arab officialdom is a willing abandonment of conscience.

With the exception of Egypt’s Mubarak, who has publicly voiced his opposition to the death sentence (of course for political and pragmatic reasons and not because it will set a terrible precedent for all those who have ruled their countries long and hard), an eerie silence is ringing in the hollow of all Arab courts’ domes from Riyadh to Amman. There are more than a couple of reasons for this. And dutifully aware of the promise of this blog (i.e. no bars on cynicism) I shall recount them here.

First of course is the simple fact that when it comes to the Iraqi question, the Arab world is blinded by prejudice. Iraq is the only Shi’a majority Arab state, and the only other Muslim country with a Shi’a majority besides Iran -itself universally villified in the Arab world. So it is no surprise -especially after similar eerie silences in the aftermath of Samarra bombing and the large-scale daily massacres of Shi’as- that in the eyes of many Arab heads of state -and many in the Arab street- Saddam did not deserve the punishment handed down to him. If Saddam get’s a death sentence for crimes against a disenfranchised majority in his country, what about the Saudi royal family -whose official policy has been to root out religious minorities deemed untasteful by Wahhabi theology whether directly in the south of the Arabian Peninsula or by proxy as far away as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (On which point, it is worth mentioning cursorily that this summer’s Hezbollah victory in Lebanon, while seemingly reclaiming Arab honor lost to Israel in the 1967 war, was in reality, a bitter pill for Sunni Arab statesmen to swallow -but alas, we shall not digress.)

Which brings us to the second point: Am I next? This is the question that is in the minds of all those Arab heads of state who have to answer for one crime or another that they have committed during their long tenures -in other words, all Arab heads of state; from monarch to the president, from general to the colonel, and from temporal to the ecclesiastic. Saddam’s trial and pending execution is an unwholesome reminder to the many other strongmen of the region that there is a slight chance that they too will suffer a similar reversal of fortunes and end up in the same defendent’s dock. And when you have something to answer for, even a slight chance that you will be questioned is a big inconvenience.

However, by far the biggest fear from Saddam’s execution is the fear of what I shall call a “Charles the First Effect,” -and here I shall slip into my favorite ‘historicist’ mood. When Charles I was executed in England 1649, it was not just another violent death -it had a profound impact on the people’s understanding of their relationship viz-a-viz their ruler. It did that thing that is most dangerous to all tyrants and enemes of open society -that is, stretching the ordinary person’s imagination -an irreversible damage. There have been topplings, murders, and natural and unnatural deaths of assorted kinds in Arab politics -but rarely an execution that has resulted from however shoddy a process of justice. Saddam’s trial is a first in this regard -and therefore a momentous occasion. Sure, it will have little or no positive impact on the situation at hand -but the situation at hand is but a ‘blip’ (is that the term Condi used to describe it?) when we speak of the ‘inexorable march of history’. The serious point is, Saddam’s trial and execution will open up possibilities in peoples minds -of justice and accountability for those who have always stood synonymous with handing out law and what was called justice. And many of these types abound in the Arab world today, and cringe at Saddam’s fate.

And for what it is worth, I will admit that that the imaginary ‘balance of justice in the world’ that I keep in my head, and that has been turning steeply lopsided in favor of injustice lately, did defy gravity momentarily with the verdict.