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Waiting for Saladin

April 05, 2003

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As the allied armies grind their inexorable way towards Baghdad, the brave but token Iraqi resistance has made many observers invoke the name of Salahuddin Ayubi or Saladin when speaking about Saddam Hussein.

This legendary 12th century warrior-king is a familiar figure to every Muslim around the world, and his name resonates deeply as a symbol of valour, chivalry and compassion. So when people started talking about Saddam as a second Saladin, I reached for 'Warriors of God', a biography of King John the Lionhearted and Saladin, the two principal protagonists in the Third Crusade by James Reston, Jr.

In his foreword, Reston writes: "But it is not only for his military prowess that Saladin is venerated. He is also remembered for his humility, his compassion, his mysticism, his piety, and his restraint". Now even his most sycophantic Baath Party hack would not have dared claim these qualities for Saddam Hussein.

It is true that Arabs have been waiting for a second Saladin for centuries of humiliation and despair. As a dominant and aggressive West carved up and exploited a weak and backward Middle East, Arabs fell back on recalling their glorious past and praying for a second Saladin. Working on this legend, pan-Arab leaders who have sought to achieve the unity Saladin actually managed to attain have invoked his name: Nasser, Hafiz Assad, and Qadhafi are only some of those who have used the famous name to try and rally support.

The Palestinians in particular, with no state of their own and subjected to daily persecution by the hated Israelis, venerate the memory of Saladin in their desperate struggle. The 'Saladin Brigades' have been named after their hero, and his portrait hangs in many homes. Westerners do not understand how the forces of the Crusade have been transformed into the Israeli army in the mind of the Arab world.

In this context, Saladin has acquired a special significance as he is the one who united the Arabs and threw out the invading armies of the West. Seen in this light, one can understand why many Arabs feel it is just a matter of time before Israelis meet the same fate. After all, it took the Arabs 80 years to finally eject European forces from Jerusalem; Israel has only been around for 55 years.

When the Ottoman Empire was defeated and broken up after the First World War, its Arabian possessions were divided between the conquering powers. Syria was split into Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and in July 1920, General Henri Gouraud entered Damascus and walked up to Saladin's tomb and according to Reston, uttered these words that evoked the Crusades: "Saladin, we have returned. My presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent." I don't suppose the American general who first enters Baghdad will say anything as inflammatory.

But first let us dispense with any parallels people might draw between Saladin and Saddam in these emotion-charged days. Apart from the accident of history that caused both of them to be born in Tikrit, the two could not be more different. Where Saladin was a deeply spiritual man, Saddam has cynically used religion when it has suited him. Where the great warrior-king freed even his most vicious enemies (often to the chagrin of his own commanders), the Iraqi dictator delights in torturing and killing people for any hint of dissent. And where Saladin understood the thinking of his adversaries, Saddam is to this day oblivious to how the wider world works.

Although understandable, this 'waiting for Saladin' syndrome has cost the Arabs very dear. Instead of depending on their own strength and unity in the face of a common enemy, they have frittered away much time in dreaming of another era and hoping it will miraculously return one day. Unfortunately, history seldom repeats itself.

The thing to remember is that during the crusades, there was very little military or technological difference between the two sides: perhaps the Arab cavalry was fleeter and more manoeuvrable while the Europeans, wearing heavier armour, used larger, slower horses. The Arab armies were more numerous while the crusaders were more disciplined. But there was none of the current imbalance of forces. The present disparity in Iraq is of a magnitude that makes the conflict a complete mismatch.

It is this monopoly the West enjoys in the field of science and technology that has given it the huge edge it has over the rest of the world today. This is as self-evident as the fact that the sun rises in the East and yet no Muslim leader has done anything about it. Saddam's attempt to acquire his 'weapons of mass destruction' has led to his on-going downfall: the West has decided it wants to maintain its monopoly and does not want bullies like Saddam to have access to WMDs, despite having helped him develop this capacity in the first place.

Even Pakistan's nuclear arsenal may well turn out to be its Achilles' heel as a victorious West seeks to deny these weapons to countries that might possibly pass on this technology to present or potential adversaries. If it is established that we helped North Korea develop its nuclear capability, there will be hell to pay once Iraq is out of the way. It does not take a military genius to realize that technology is what divides America from the rest of the world, and once this monopoly is cracked, others might rise to challenge Washington's hegemony.

The Muslim world has been too divided and self-occupied to reach and internalize this self-evident truth. Countries have bought weapons systems off the shelf, thinking this is just as good. But as many of them have learnt to their cost, this may be what the Americans want but is not necessarily what is good for the importing nations. One problem is that attaining technological parity implies a major shift in thought processes, allocation of resources and the system of governance. All this takes much effort and political will.

It is much easier to just sit back and wait for the second Saladin.