Friday, December 19, 2003

Touchy Arab Pride

If this column is an accurate depiction of the typical Arab's psyche, it indicates that the Middle East is destined to remain mired in backwardness for ages to come.

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) - Was he an Arab hero or a dictator? This is the question being debated in newspapers in the Middle East and by Arab intellectuals faced with the image of a bearded, bedraggled Saddam Hussein in the hands of American captors.

Many are asking, too, if Saddam's downfall was a humiliation to the entire Arab world, not just to the ousted Iraqi leader. Others say that with Saddam's capture, it's time to drop any expectation that a great hero will unite the Arab world.

``A new humiliation to Arabs'' was the headline on a column this week by Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

``It was a shock for us, and a humiliation to millions of Arabs who saw the TV shots of the Iraqi president being subjected to the humiliating medical checkup. We hoped that he would have fought until the end, and fallen as a martyr like his two sons and grandson or chose Hitler's end,'' Atwan wrote, referring to the Nazi leader's suicide.

But Atwan was quick to find excuses for Saddam's succumbing to U.S. forces without a shot being fired after he was found in a spider-hole near his hometown of Tikrit.

``We only heard the American version of the story. Maybe they drugged him because if Saddam wanted to surrender this way, he would have ... accepted the many offers to leave power,'' Atwan wrote.

Instead, he added, Saddam had chosen ``to stand up to American arrogance.''

Apparently, many Arabs shared Atwan's view of Saddam's arrest on Saturday as a collective humiliation - and an intentional one.

In a telephone poll, the popular Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera asked viewers if showing Saddam being probed by U.S. military doctors was meant to humiliate Arabs. Al-Jazeera said that of the 1,500 people who called in, 97 percent said it was.

Kuwaiti columnist Ahmed al-Robei expressed anger at such talk of a hurt afflicting all Arabs. He wrote in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat that the worst thing on Middle East satellite channels since Saddam's arrest was the idea of ``humiliation to Arab dignity''

He added that Arabs were continuing to ignore that the Iraqi leader was a villain. ``The mass graves are not enough to wake the minds of some of us. Are we people who adore despots? It is a sad question,'' he wrote.

He said he wondered how long Arabs would go on ``glorifying oppressors and despots and portraying them as the saviors and leaders of this (Arab) nation, which is handed over from one executioner to another.''

One can only pity a people that chooses to identify so strongly with its' oppressors. If there is one hopeful sign, it is that most of those who actually had to live under Saddam do not share the view that his capture was any sort of blow to their pride.