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Is it Safe Yet? The Saddam Illusion
Published on wednesday, December 24, 2003 by
Is it Safe Yet? The Saddam Illusion
by Salim Muwakkil

Has the capture of Saddam Hussein made the U.S. safer? Or was Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean correct when he said it hasn't?

Dean seems to have paid a political price for his contrarian opinion. But I think his assessment was correct. In fact, nabbing the former Iraqi leader is likely to make us less safe; it will increase the allure of the Islamist radicals who have declared war on the U.S.

Along with Syria, Iraq was a secular bulwark against the religious fundamentalism spreading in the area. One of the reasons the U.S. supported Hussein in the 1980s was his robust resistance to the Islamic evangelism of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iran. The U.S. assisted Iraq in its eight-year war against the neighboring Islamic republic because it considered Khomeini's jihad a greater threat than Hussein's Baathist pan-Arabism.

Hussein invaded the newly minted Islamic state in 1980 with the closeted support of the U.S. and other Persian Gulf states threatened by Iran's Shiite Islamic zealots. He cracked down brutally on some Shiite communities in Iraq as if they were Iranian agents--and some were. The Kurds also had aligned themselves with Iran and provoked Hussein to mount his infamous gas attacks on the Kurds that killed thousands in 1988. He already had used chemical weapons on Iranians, including the first battlefield use of nerve gas.

Hussein's cruelest policies and most notable massacres were motivated primarily by the war with Iran, but it was his determination to maintain Iraq's secular character that accounted for his hard-line policies against religious activists. It also marked him as an "infidel" to jihadist groups like Al Qaeda. In fact, the same people who declared war on the U.S. also counted Hussein as an enemy.

His ouster and public humiliation helps make their point that only an Islamic jihad can rebuff "crusading imperialists." In this sense, Hussein's "spider-hole" arrest serves their cause much more than ours.

The U.S. invasion of secular Iraq already had ignited a process of radicalization among Muslim youth. According to an Oct. 16 story in the British newspaper The Guardian, a study by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies has concluded that "the war on Iraq has swollen the ranks of Al Qaeda and `galvanized its will' by increasing radical passions among Muslims." As reported in The New York Times on Oct. 12, "two decades after Syria ruthlessly uprooted militant Islam, killing an estimated 10,000 people, the most secular of Arab states is experiencing a dramatic religious resurgence." This rise in religious passion is apparent throughout the region and is not intrinsically negative; but in the current historical context, it is likely to feed the fervor of jihadists. What's more, it makes the creation of the kind of secular governments U.S. policymakers think are necessary for democracy (and free trade) to flourish less likely. In much of the Islamic world, the word "secular" has become a curse.

There is a double irony here. During the 10 years of the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan, from 1979 to 1989, the U.S. spent billions of dollars galvanizing an Islamic religious force to fight those "godless" communists. "The Afghan mujahedeen [warriors of God] were to become the U.S.-based, anti-Soviet shock troops," wrote Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his book "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia." And when Soviet troops finally left Afghanistan in 1989, there emerged "a second generation of mujahedeen who called themselves Taliban [or the students of Islam]."

Osama bin Laden was an Arab member of that multi-ethnic anti-Soviet force and his faction eventually morphed into Al Qaeda, according to international journalist Jane Corbin's book "Al Qaeda: In Search of the Terror Network that Threatens the World."

The religious zealotry we encouraged and financed has come back to bite us.

And here's the double irony: We've also alienated the secular forces in the region that provided some indigenous resistance to the gusting winds of Islamist radicalism. Whatever else can be said about Hussein's autocratic regime, there is little argument that the Iraqi Baathists initially used the nation's oil wealth to create a modern secular society with a large and literate middle class. Iraq was one of the few Arab countries where women were a large and important segment of the work force.

But we have humiliated Iraq's Baathists and many within the Bush administration now are aiming bellicose rhetoric at Syria, that other Baathist bastion of secularism.

Bashing Baath leadership also plays well among jihadists. "Islam is proving appealing through much of the Arab world, including Syria, as a means to protest corrupt, incompetent and oppressive governments," wrote Neil MacFarquhar in the Oct. 12 Times piece. "The widespread sense that the faith is being singled out for attack by Washington has invigorated that appeal, at a time when the violence fomented by radicals had tarnished political Islam."

By conflating Hussein's secular tyranny with Islamist radicalism, the Bush administration's blunt, obtuse militarism has made America less safe. Rather than bash Dean for his views on Hussein's capture, Democratic candidates would be better served endorsing his critique.

Salim Muwakkil is a Chicago journalist and a senior editor at In These Times


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