Sunday, December 31, 2006

Inattention to Religious Symbols May Create a Martyr

The Bush Administration --and who doesn't believe that the Bush Administration was behind the hanging of Saddam Hussein -- may have botched the timing of the gruesome spectacle creating ample opportunity for making him a martyr.

I am not addressing the injustice of the Saddam Hussein trial and the hanging here. Much has been written about it elsewhere. For example: Human Rights Watch: Hanging After Flawed Trial Undermines Rule of Law. My point is only this: The Bush Administration views Iraq as a military problem: go in and kill the bad guys. But that understanding is fundamentally flawed. As Lynn Tatum, Associate Director for Middle Eastern Studies at Baylor University rightly pointed out it is really a political problem, "a struggle for symbols and ideas."

It is clear that Bush would have wanted this done before the end of 2006. With domestic popularity plummeting, and a State of the Union speech less than 3 weeks away, in his Rove-like political calculation would have found this to be the ideal time. But by hanging him on the last day of Eid, the feast of sacrifice, they may have created a gaping opporunity for Sunnis to make him into a martyr.

Saddam was hanged on the first day of the Eid al adha, or Feast of Sacrifice. Celebrated by Muslims worldwide, it's a major holiday like Christmas or Hanukkah, commemorating the willingness of the Prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael to Allah, who stopped Abraham just before he killed Ishmael by giving him a lamb to sacrifice instead of his son.

The Eid al adha also marks the end of the Hajj - the pilgrimage to Mecca made by millions of Muslims each year. Every Muslim who can afford to do so is obligated to make this pilgrimage at least once in their life. After several days of rituals in Mecca, and a visit to Mount Arafat, the Feast of Sacrifice arrives. Traditionally, the pilgrim killed the animal himself, or at least oversaw the killing. These days, an animal may be killed in the pilgrim's name without the pilgrim being physically present.

Jews and Christians also believe that God spared Abraham from sacrificing his other son, Isaac. Christians give the story even greater meaning by symbolically connecting the Abrahamic sacrifice to Jesus, where "God so loved the world he gave his only begotton son..." to sacrifice his life for the sins of others.

In a farewell message to Iraqis written from prison, Saddam cast himself as the sacrificial lamb. He was giving his life for his country as part of the struggle against the US, “Here, I offer my soul to God as a sacrifice, and if he wants, he will send it to heaven with the martyrs,” he said.

Neither the Bush Administration nor the western media pays attention to religious symbols. Indeed from the western point of view, the trial and execution of Saddam may seem to bring closure to an era of brutality. But this is not the view in Iraq -- which is in reality three nations jostling for power within a very weak state. Mark Long, Director of Middle East Studies at Baylor adds: "From the Sunni perspective, their kinsman has been tried before a Kurdish judge and his death sanctioned by a Shia prime minister. His execution will likely cause a spike in violence and further deepen the sectarian divide.”

Click here for an article by Paul Wolf, a lawyer for Saddam Hussein: Dying for Our Sins


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