Samir al-Khalil, Republic of Fear: Saddam’s Iraq (California Press, 1989).

This book, first published a year ago at a time when — with a few honorable exceptions — most criticism of Iraq and its president was strangely muted, is a sophisticated and brilliantly savage denunciation of Arab populist politics, a politics of hate, lies, fantasy, brutality and despair. It shows how the larynx becomes a people’s mind, its consciousness and the mainspring of its action, how individuals are suborned, coerced, made instruments, stripped of will and dignity.

Republic of Fear has three general concerns: to show how Baathist pan-Arabism was developed into an all-embracing instrument of state power, to show how Saddam Hussein and his circle perfected it for this purpose, and, finally, to show how far this process has succeeded in compromising Iraq, the Arab world and every outsider who acquiesces in it. It succeeds in all these aims, though less well in another, less directly expressed: an examination of the responsibility of those who have acquiesced. In Germany in the 1930s, al-Khalil says, the Nazis put their measures into effect by legal and administrative means, fusing the “legal and moral orders”:

If one does not uphold the preposterous notion that Hitler perpetrated an enormous lie on the German people, then the legality of the gas ovens originated in this acceptance of this particular transformation of the German polity. Whether we like it or not, learning from the moral conundrums posed by such experiences necessitates putting aside the infantile notion that people treat all rulers who coerce them as illegitimate.

This seems problematic: Some, indeed, may believe and accept, either out of conviction or opportunism; some, with great courage and morality, may stand up to be counted; but the rest, those who are neither acolytes nor martyrs, will either vote with their feet and leave, or try to compromise in order to survive. The fact that most take the latter course seems to illustrate the depth of people’s fear rather than any “active” acquiescence in the Iraqi polity.

Nevertheless, Samir al-Khalil is right to draw our attention to the degradation of public life illustrated in such scenes as the frenzy surrounding the public hangings of “traitors and spies” throughout 1969. This is a symptom of a deep and profoundly repulsive malaise, however carefully orchestrated “the public” may have been. The sentiments expressed by the young Arabs queueing up to express their support for the Iraqi president’s annexation of Kuwait are striking testimony of a similar tendency. How is it possible that other Arabs should express, without shame and indeed with pride and confidence, their support for a man who has killed, tortured or made exiles of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen?

One of the few criticisms that can be made of this book is that al-Khalil does not directly address himself to the wider Middle Eastern situation, or Iraq’s role within it. The only explanation both for the scenes at the hangings and for Saddam Hussein’s support in Jordan and elsewhere must be in terms of what many Arabs see (especially after recent events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) as their total exposure to the whims of the West. They seize, in consequence, at any straw which might give the illusion, however short-lived, that an Arab is controlling the destiny of the Arabs, and is “standing up for them” against America and Israel. They are wrong, but the West must also consider the extent of the degradation and desperation that has come to distort their vision of the world.

Al-Khalil’s demolition of the monstrous aberrations of the Baath is masterly. He shows the importance of the obsessive fabrication of “enemies,” and the torturous logic that impels Saddam Hussein to maintain a state of perpetual alert against the enemies of Arabism, both within and without. The war with Iran and the “liberation of Kuwait” are obviously gambles, but they are also godsends in “proving” the existence of an imperialist-Zionist plot against Iraq and its brave leader — whom, let us not forget, the “imperialist,” as well as the “socialist” countries, sedulously supported until August 1990.

Al-Khalil shows, more clearly than in any other analysis of contemporary Middle Eastern policies, the way in which nationalist, in this case Baathist, ideology has developed and been employed in the service of state terror, ensuring that the state pervades as much of society as is physically possible; “this is a polity whose ideal is the transformation of everybody into an informer.” Another “achievement” is the appropriation, or confiscation, of the political arena — a fulfillment, perhaps, of the assertion made in 1943 by Michel ‘Aflaq, the principal Baath theoretician, that the Baath “represent the message of Arabism against the craft of politics.”

In essence, Baathism is little more than assertion and exhortation, the endless repetition of what are supposed to be self-evident truths. In common with all nationalisms, it cannot engage in dialogue or compete for attention, since to admit that any other point of view can be considered or expressed only dilutes the indisputable nature of its own “eternal message” (risala khalida). ‘Aflaq’s nationalism is “‘faith’ (‘love’ in earlier versions) before anything else,” faith in the spirit of the nation; anyone questioning or challenging such faith must be an enemy to be eradicated.

Al-Khalil also draws attention to an important respect in which ‘Aflaq’s design can sit easily with the audience he addresses. In the Arab world, true secularism is almost unimaginable; the regimes which the British and French introduced (apart from the evident linkages of the political actors with the colonial power) lost much of their legitimacy by being avowedly secular, and atheism (as well as “cosmopolitanism”) was the stick with which Arab nationalists could always attack their main local rivals, the Communists. In Baathism, the conflict is latent (because of a tendency to associate socialism with progress and Islam with backwardness), but it can be and to some extent has been overcome:

‘Aflaq’s genius lay in having adapted from his environment a deeply absorbed religiosity so it fitted in a world no longer made up of religious denominations. He ideologized the consciousness underlying pan-Arabism in such a way as to borrow virtually nothing of the constellation of values associated with the European Enlightenment. His way of thinking attracted large numbers of Arabs because it placed no demands on their traditional mores and because it fitted in with their view of the Arab place in history…. The party found its ultimate justification in a broadly defined Arab-Islamic definition of politics.

It will be obvious that Republic of Fear is a very gloomy book, and in his pessimism al-Khalil speaks for countless alienated Arab intellectuals who see no future, or at least no positive future, for their society. They can either be pressed into the service of a regime, speak out boldly, walk an agonizing tightrope, trying to maintain their integrity within constantly shrinking parameters, or go into exile. It is a stark and bleak choice, and there is no end in sight. Not all have sold out, and not all have left. The tightrope is fraught with danger; let us not underestimate the courage and dedication of those who take this risk.

To end with more immediately pressing concerns: In case we lose sight of the sort of person the Iraqi leader is, Samir al-Khalil makes the point plainly enough: “When Saddam Hussein tells the world that if it were in his power he would start World War III before ever relinquishing office voluntarily…he means exactly that.” We have all been warned, if not, alas, for the first time.

How to cite this article:

Peter Sluglett "Khalil, Republic of Fear," Middle East Report 167 ( ).
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