Exis Saddam and Millions Will Go Free

New Zealand Herald, October 23, 2002

Denis Dutton


It was a curious episode. Last month the Foreign Minister of Iraq travelled to Tehran to receive support from the ayatollahs against American threats to topple Saddam Hussein.

The axiom that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” comes to mind, but it was still an improbable picture to watch on CNN. Saddam Hussein is the very man who waged an eight-year war that killed about half a million Iranians. The Iranian people ought to despise him as much as Iraqis who for such a long, sad time have suffered his brutality.

The stories of Saddam’s barbarity beggar belief. Much is made of his destruction of 4000 villages and gassing of Kurds in the north in the late 1980s in which up to 150,000 people were killed. But we forget about the grotesque viciousness of his campaign against Sunnis, Christians and Shi’ites.

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, the German human rights activist and Marxist intellectual who is an expert on conditions in Iraq, has described the cruelty of Saddam’s war against Shi’ites around Basra, in which about 300,000 have died.

One technique for dealing with the Shi’ites (“dirty people, not really Iraqis,” Saddam has said) is to make them lie in the street and bury them alive in hot asphalt.

Osten-Sacken estimates that over the past generation Saddam has killed or deported one-tenth of the Iraqi population of 25 million.

Saddam’s control by means of a secret police is merciless. Osten-Sacken has described the fate of an intelligent young doctor who made a mildly indiscreet comment about a television programme. He was sent to prison and tortured for three weeks, returning a broken man.

Iraq is a place where anyone is at risk if there is no portrait of Saddam in the living room. It is not a land where foreign reporters can move about at will and accurately gauge people’s feelings about the regime through random interviews.

So why would the Iranian ayatollahs prefer a country controlled by a human reptile next door rather than, for example, a land resembling energetic, democratic Turkey?

The reason is not fear of the United States as such but fear of freedom itself. Unlike Iraq, Iran (population 66 million) is a country in which foreign journalists can get an accurate idea of public sentiment, and from everywhere the same picture emerges: the populace holds the ruling ayatollahs in open contempt.

Iran is said to have the youngest median age of any country on Earth. The Guardian reported figures indicating that 75 per cent of the Iranian population is under 25; an alternative breakdown from the CIA website has 41 per cent under 15. These young people are bereft of opportunities: only 10 per cent who do university entrance can be admitted and unemployment is vast.

This population is too young to empathise with official Government hate campaigns against the United States. They know what life is like in other countries because they use the internet to connect with members of the worldwide Iranian diaspora. Like their peers in Europe and the US, they enjoy youth culture and want to listen to pop music.

The black-clad public morality police who roam the streets looking for infractions of public decency (for example, a woman who shows too much hair from under her scarf) are despised in Iran.

The disdain for the Government and the mullahs is as palpable there as the pervading sense of silence and fear is in Iraq. A telling statistic is the official Iranian report of participation in Friday prayers nationwide for all age groups — a little over 1 per cent.

If Saddam falls, the Iranian mullahs’ rule will be doomed in the unrest that follows. Eventually, an archipelago of emerging democratic Islamic states could stretch from the edge of Europe into the heart of Arabia — Turkey, Iraq, Iran and even a civilised, independent Kurdistan.

There is plenty of oil around to support economic development. The peoples of these regions are the most educated, creative and entrepreneurial in the Middle East. Iranians thrive in Paris and San Francisco. We should not have to be reminded that the Saatchi advertising agency was founded by two Iraqi brothers.

Should it come to pass, this chain of democracies, which might connect through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the largest democracy in the world, India, would hang like an executioner’s scimitar over the great, corrupt, totalitarian theocracy of the region, Saudi Arabia.

The domino theory was once much on the minds of cold warriors. Today, it focuses the minds of the imams of Saudi Arabia. For if Iraq falls to democracy, then Iran, the Saudis may not be far behind.

For generations, the Saudis have convinced the West that stability was the key to continued oil for the world economy. Yet has the region ever had stability? Look at the history of the Middle East and the best analogy is to imagine that every New Zealand prime minister in the past century had come to power by murdering not only her or his predecessor but the predecessor’s whole family.

Between grisly coups, the stability of the Middle East is the stability of a hellish but well-ordered prison.

If the Mullah Omar and the Taleban had not been so incautious as to shelter a non-government organisation, al Qaeda, which slaughtered thousands of Americans, they would likely still be in power, shooting women through the head and cutting off men’s hands as public entertainments in the Kabul soccer stadium. That is Islamic stability.

In New Zealand, the reactionary left still calls it the war of the Americans against the people of Afghanistan. But it is a strange war against a people that ends with the losers breaking out their ghetto blasters and dancing for joy in the streets.

The Iraqis and Iranians do not need handouts. They merely need freedom and the chance to take their rightful place alongside the world's other democracies.

The call for stability in the Middle East masks the West’s lazy desire for its own comfort, no matter how hellish that stability is for oppressed peoples. It is time to apply our imagination and ingenuity, not to our own comfort but to ridding the world of Saddam and achieving a better life for all the peoples of the Middle East.

* Denis Dutton teaches philosophy at the University of Canterbury.