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  • Toleration and the New Arab Politics
  • Kanan Makiya (bio)

During the Gulf Crisis of 1990–91, Saddam Hussein—like Gamel Abdel Nasser 30 years before him—seemed to many Arabs, however fleetingly, like a Bismarck or even a new Saladin. Prominent among those seduced by his appeal were numerous Arab intellectuals who would themselves never have dreamt of living under his rule. One of these was Hisham Djaïet, an authority on Islamic history, a graduate of the Sorbonne, a member of the French Legion of Honor, and probably Tunisia’s best-known intellectual. In an interview with L’Express, this onetime critic of Saddam’s Ba’ath party observed that the Iraqi president had “the edge” over the Arab states belonging to the U.S.-led coalition ranged against him. Saddam’s newfound Islamic vocabulary, Djaïet added, “corresponds to a reappropriation of self, to the restoration of a deep identity.” 1 “Iraq and Saddam Hussein,” Djaïet continued, “bring hope to the Arab world. For 20 years, the Arab world has been stuck in a frigid, depressing, virtually rotten order: a Saudi-American order whose horizon does not go beyond petrodollars.” In answer to a question about how he could justify the annexation of Kuwait, Djaïet replied:

I need not remind you, Europeans, that your nations were born out of wars. In annexing Kuwait, Saddam Hussein has entered into the dynamics of history. . . . He was undertaking the beginning of the unification of the Arab world. Sometimes legitimacy is more important than legality. . . . War has the merit of clarifying things. With respect to your [End Page 90] contradictions and with respect to ours. We have everything to gain from this clarification. We have nothing to lose from this war, even if it ended in defeat. Because thanks to Saddam Hussein, it is taking place on the level of realities—oil, military force, etc.—and no longer on the level of symbols.

This way of seeing things was not shared by the thousands upon thousands of Arabs—both Kuwaitis and Iraqis—who were forced to bear the consequences of Saddam Hussein’s actions. In fact, in the aftermath of the war, Iraqis on the ground did what was in Arab politics the unthinkable: they rose up against Saddam and called on the very imperialists who had rained bombs on Iraq for six weeks to finish the job by toppling the tyrant in Baghdad.

Such a concatenation of events and reactions to events had never before occurred in Arab politics on this kind of grand scale. The events of 1991 clearly differed from the Suez Crisis of 1956, as well as from any one of the Arab-Israeli wars that have been the defining landmarks of Arab politics since the state of Israel came into being in 1948. Yet the Suez Crisis and the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973 remained the dominant reference points for many Arab minds. Intellectuals, especially, had been formed by that history to such an extent that they no longer knew how to think outside the boundaries and assumptions that it had created.

After the Gulf War, the political terrain began to change. War does have, as Djaïet put it, “the merit of clarifying things.” Reality imposed itself on the Arab world in a particularly painful way after Iraq’s crushing defeat. The occupation, annexation, and sacking of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein and his subsequent ouster by an Allied coalition of 30 nations left Iraq broken and rotting, and sent shock waves through the Arab polities that far exceeded even those generated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Moreover, a decade and a half of compounded cruelty—wars, civil wars, intifadas, and increasingly brutal state repression—had come to a head in the internal brutality and strategic overreaching of Saddam Hussein. In the Gulf Crisis, the things that Saddam stood for were tested, and exposed for what they were. The political and ideological dust still has not settled.

With great drama and at a terrible cost in human suffering, in particular Iraqi suffering, the war highlighted the failure of so many postcolonial nationalisms to produce even...