As I looked at the half-naked Syrian prisoners being led away by their captors from the Islamic State, I suddenly had an epiphany and wondered how I hadn’t realized this earlier. The crimes being committed by IS are merely an improved and more public version of those that were committed before it, by the “secular” dictatorships. The prisoners of Arab regimes looked exactly like the IS prisoners, running naked and terrified under the clubs of guards beating them. In Iraq it was Saddam Hussein; in Syria, Hafez Assad, in Saudi Arabia it was the royal family, and so on in the other countries, some more monstrous, some less.
Iraqi poet Mudhafar al-Nawab wrote in his time, “When they removed my shackles, my flesh peeled off with the shackles,” and “The Arab world is adjacent prisons … each guard holds the hand of another guard.”
Whoever says that the dictatorships of old were more merciful ought to remember that they were the hothouse in which the current bitter tree grew. Unfortunately for those tortured by them, their torturers wore fancy suits and talked about socialism, nationalism and ... human dignity. The dirty work was hidden in the backyard, and their opponents who called for freedom were defined as collaborating with the two devils, Israel and America.
While the massacre carried out by Hafez al-Assad in Hama was exposed only years later, today we are witnessing a new strain of bloody dictatorship that displays its horrific crimes in real time, and this is just as well. Because if the regime in Saudi Arabia, for example, had bragged about its barbarism, it would be history by now.
The old dictators not only functioned as incubators of these newest monsters, today they are their backbone. Ten years after the second Gulf War, officers of Saddam Hussein are manning the Islamic State’s military headquarters, while Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam’s right-hand man, has become an Islamic State ally and recently “announced” to the Iraqis that he had returned to Baghdad. The king is dead; long live the king.
The Islamic State tree, even in the new Iraq, grew in an environment of corruption and repression. Nouri al-Maliki, the resigning Iraqi prime minister, gave his son and two brothers-in-law key roles in running the country, and his regime is padded with members of his sect, who are usurping the places of large communities in Iraq. If that weren’t enough, he had started to imprison his opponents.
The armed uprising against him began in 2012, but the huge push took place in April of this year, after he “won” a majority in the parliamentary election despite the accumulated bitterness against him. The regime fell into his hands like a ripe fruit without him needing to make any effort. The decadence and decay rampant in the Baghdad were practically an invitation to the Islamic State’s primitive battalions.
The mysterious link in all this mess is Qatar, a country half the size of a neighborhood in Cairo that wants to play in the big leagues. Their souls yearn for an Olympics! Bravo, in eight years the emirs will be enjoying the tennis and fencing competitions. Now it turns out that because of some spare billions in the bank, they want to be a superpower. With the largest American base in the Middle East located on their land, we have horse-trading at its best: The Americans, or so they declare, are fighting Islamic fanatics, while the beneficiary of its patronage leaves no hole untainted with its money, from the fanatics to the pseudo-nationalists.
The Arabs say about those who soar too quickly that “his jump is not a jump of life.” He will fall as quickly as he rose. That’s how a pumpkin plant grows; within days it reaches the height of a palm tree, but within days it’s back on the ground. That was the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and that will be the Islamic State’s fate in Iraq and Syria. The challenge of the Arab world is to dry up the swamps that produce these sicknesses, by introducing social justice, democracy and human rights.
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