Saddam's legacy thrives in the Arab world

Why does Butcher of Baghdad remain such a heroic figure to so many?

saddam in cage 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
saddam in cage 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Saddam Hussein killed more Arabs and Muslims than any other Middle Eastern leader in recent history. He committed genocide against the Kurds, launched wars of aggression against Iran and Kuwait, launched missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia, tortured innocents without compunction and imposed totalitarianism in Iraq. His regime brought unprecedented war, terror and misery to the region. Why, then, does the Butcher of Baghdad remain such a heroic figure to so many Arabs? Two decades ago, famed historian Bernard Lewis wrote a prescient piece in The Wall Street Journal titled "Not everybody hates Saddam" in which he examined the pro-Saddam narrative of some Arabs. Since then, not much has changed. On a recent trip to Amman, I asked dozens of Jordanians how they felt about the dictator. Tragically, though not surprisingly, Saddam still has a great many fans in the Arab world. Nearly every single Jordanian I spoke with had high praise for the deceased tyrant. "He gave us free oil," said one. "He stood up to the West," opined another. One cab driver, who had pins with Saddam's picture covering his dashboard, informed me that Saddam was the greatest leader in the Middle East - "Only he was capable of keeping order in Iraq." TWO PREDOMINANT themes emerged in all my conversations. First, Saddam was seen as the leader of resistance to America and Israel. He fought two wars against America in slightly over a decade and launched dozens of Scud missiles at Israel while other nations stood by. Second, he imposed order in Iraq. True, it was an order of rape, pillage and plunder, but at least it was order. Prizing stability over liberty is the root of so many of the region's ills. In Arab societies, one quickly realizes that anything can be excused in the name of opposing the West. Some in the Jordanian public had high praise for al-Qaida, for example, when it was hijacking planes and bombing American civilians, but support for the group dropped dramatically once it struck in Amman in 2005. Most Jordanians also never felt the sheer terror of Saddam's regime. They were never suffocated by sarin and VX nerve gas raining down from the skies, never had to flee from helicopter gunships mowing down innocents by the tens of thousands and never had to worry that Uday Hussein, the notorious rapist, would take a liking to their daughter while prowling the streets. Infuriated by the adulation I heard for Saddam, I asked a friend who had served as chief of staff to one of Iraq's highest politicians to help make sense of this madness. "That is the prevailing mentality in the Arab world," he said. "People in this region are historically insecure. For at least 1,000 years there was nothing but darkness. The glory of the past is so important for them because there is no present, no contribution to modern civilization. Modernity means nothing. History is a continuous crusade-Zionist conspiracy against them, etc. etc. I have no other explanation." AT LEAST one Jordanian informed me that he did not like to talk politics, but that his entire family was killed by Saddam during the invasion of Kuwait. I mentioned the adulation I had heard for Saddam over the past week and he just shook his head with quiet indignation. Worship of a genocidal dictator mustn't be excused under any circumstances. To do so is to fall prey to the "soft bigotry of low expectations," to quote a former US president. Admiration for Saddam is a mix of abject ignorance and colossal moral failure. Such madness should not be met with tepid academic interest or casual dismissal. Rather, it must be castigated in no uncertain terms and righted as soon as possible, primarily through education. Those who cheer tyranny from the sidelines are no less responsible than the tyrant himself. Email the writer The writer is the coordinator for democracy programs at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies and the director of The article was first published by the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, at the Shalem Center, at