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Saddam's War of Words

Saddam's War of Words
Politics, Religion, and the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait

This landmark book offers the first in-depth investigation of how Saddam Hussein used Islam and Arab nationalism to legitimate his invasion of Kuwait in the eyes of fellow Muslims and Arabs, while delegitimating the actions of the U.S.-led coalition and its Arab members.

April 2004
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288 pages | 6 x 9 | 2 maps |

From a Western perspective, the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 largely fulfilled the first President Bush's objective: "In, out, do it, do it right, get gone. That's the message." But in the Arab world, the causes and consequences of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and his subsequent defeat by a U.S.-led coalition were never so clear-cut. The potent blend of Islam and Arab nationalism that Saddam forged to justify the unjustifiable—his invasion of a Muslim state—gained remarkable support among both Muslims and Arabs and continued to resonate in the Middle East long after the fighting ended. Indeed, as this study argues in passing, it became a significant strand in the tangled web of ideologies and actions that led to the attacks of 9/11.

This landmark book offers the first in-depth investigation of how Saddam Hussein used Islam and Arab nationalism to legitimate his invasion of Kuwait in the eyes of fellow Muslims and Arabs, while delegitimating the actions of the U.S.-led coalition and its Arab members. Jerry M. Long addresses three fundamental issues: how extensively and in what specific ways Iraq appealed to Islam during the Kuwait crisis; how elites, Islamists, and the elusive Arab "street," both in and out of the coalition, responded to that appeal and why they responded as they did; and the longer-term effects that resulted from Saddam's strategy.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Historical Background and Inter-Arab Politics prior to the Invasion of Kuwait
  • Chapter 3. Historical Background and Inter-Arab Politics after the Invasion of Kuwait
  • Chapter 4. Iraq, Deep Culture, and the Employment of Islam before the Invasion of Kuwait
  • Chapter 5. Fi Sabil Allah: Iraq and the Employment of Islam in the Invasion of Kuwait
  • Chapter 6. Islam and the Region at War
  • Chapter 7. Reflections on Jihad and the Other Gulf War
  • Chapter 8. Closing Reflection: The View from the Mountains
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Jerry M. Long is Director of Middle East Studies and Assistant Professor in the Honors College at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.


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"In, out, do it, do it right, get gone. That's the message."
—President George H. W. Bush, just prior to Operation Desert Storm

The American president had a ghost to fight. He also had a new world order to launch. And when Saddam's tanks rolled across the Kuwaiti border in the early morning hours of 2 August 1990, President Bush seized the opportunity. In his view the opportunity was clear-cut: the conflict, he told religious broadcasters, counterposed "good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, human dignity vs. tyranny and oppression." Thus, determined not to repeat the mistakes of Vietnam, and supported by generals who argued for the importance of decisive force vigorously applied, the president drew his line in the sand between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and set about building an impressive coalition to liberate Kuwait and inaugurate his vision of a new world order. After the most rapid deployment of military forces since World War II, the U.S.-led coalition accomplished the decisive victory the president desired and that informed military analysts had anticipated.

Most in the West who think about the Gulf War think of it in those terms: well over a half million coalition troops arrayed against the Republican Guards; thousands of air strikes by B-52s; the vindication of PGMs, or precision-guided munitions; the 100-hour ground war; Iraqi capitulation; a victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue led by the "Bear" himself, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. "In, out, do it, do it right, get gone." That, the West recalls, was the Persian Gulf War. But the conclusion is too hasty, markedly incomplete. Other factors were at work.

Away from M1-A1 tanks, resupply lines, and ship-launched cruise missiles, other battles were being waged, battles that antedated the second of August and which lasted well after the cease-fire at the end of February 1991. These battles pitted Arab government against Arab government, ruler against ruled, cousin against cousin, rich against poor, mufti against ulama. These battles used religion as a weapon, made radio and TV and sermons their venues, and drew their resupply from wells of ancient hostility. Culture and politics were the stuff of these battles. As they raged, they challenged the legitimacy of governments and institutions throughout the region, even as the combatants looked to history and religion for legitimation. For the military historian, the most difficult task in chronicling these battles is that of drawing the battle lines. Unlike Bush's clearly demarcated line in the sand, these lines crisscrossed, weblike, through mosques, bazaars, universities, parliaments, diwans, palaces, refugee camps.

Together, these battles composed a war, a war of which many in the West have been unaware, a conflict that could appropriately be named the "Other Gulf War." The Arab world certainly remembers the Other Gulf War, and it does so largely negatively. In their remembrance, this Other Gulf War was not simply a neat military conflict neatly ended, but an irruption that tore at the social, political, and religious structures of the region. Neither was it a brief conflict that spanned only seven months. The causes of the conflict had long been in the making. Preceding the second of August was an "Arab Cold War," which Malcolm Kerr had written of so eloquently earlier. Only in a quite limited sense, then, did 2 August 1990 mark a strict terminus a quo for the war. Saddam himself claimed repeatedly than an economic war had been underway for some time prior. Although the claim was patently self-serving, many in the region could see his logic and agree. And, as will be noted in the next chapter, this was not the first significant border dispute (or even border incursion) involving Iraq and Kuwait. Similarly, the Other Gulf War had no real terminus ad quem in spring 1991. The cease-fire might temporarily have stopped bullets and PGMs; it could not erase hostility. It is a war that continues in myriad ways, as the concluding assessments made here will suggest.

Against that background, this work will examine one aspect of the Other Gulf War, and that is the way in which religion itself (in this case, Islam) became one of the weapons of warfare. The war, of course, was fought for quite secular aims; it was a matter of earthly politics pursued by other means. But by a Machiavellian twist, the combatants resorted to the language of religion to achieve political ends. Indeed, that use was not merely incidental and certainly not ornamental, but deliberate and pervasive. The introduction of foreign troops provided occasions for even more pointed use. The very presence of non-Arab and non-Islamic troops furnished Saddam with pretext. Now, he could defend his actions as building a bulwark against the new Christian crusaders. Religion, then, made sense as a weapon; and by carefully fusing appeals to both Islam and Arab nationalism, Saddam employed a joint discourse—both religious and secular—that resonated with great numbers of people on multiple levels.

To be sure, what occurred in the Gulf War with respect to religion was not unique. Cultures have found multiple uses for religion over the millennia. For the searching, the bereaved, the lonely, and the fearful, religion has been guide, encouragement, and strength. Yet whereas millions have found solace in their various faith traditions, some have used those traditions as the avenue to other, less than heavenly, aims. Of course, intended public uses of religion may be relatively benign, or at least perceived to be in support of the commonweal. But religion is often appropriated in ways more directly self-serving. Edward Gibbon observed of the various Roman divinities that the people believed them all, the philosophers disbelieved them all, and the politicians found them all equally useful. Thus it has been for ages.

Often it is in war that the state looks to religion. Religion can powerfully legitimate policy decisions. If war calls young men and women to make the ultimate sacrifice, religion can supply the ultimate rationale. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, Horace said; sweet and honorable it is to die for one's country. Religion's role has been to say why that is so. A nation summons its sons to war because an enemy threatens what is most dear. Religion then furnishes ontological grounding for that assessment; it describes why what is considered dear must be considered dear. It supplies, as well, the discourse of war. Religion helps make an enemy categorically different, the antination that malevolently advances against one's own. After making out an enemy to be distinctly and necessarily other and then furnishing the terms of discourse, it can next offer the hope of paradise for those who die. Having depicted the enemy as marching forth from hell, religion can then make the deaths of one's own to be deeply significant for earth, and depict battle-death itself as the high road to heaven.

This analysis will not, however, be an argument against just war or against all uses of religion to describe conflict or for simple moral equivalence. Quite the opposite. The working premise here will be that just war is possible and that a statement like "Germany committed a heinous and unwarranted aggression against its neighbors" carries moral import and intelligibility. Religion may be used to frame the ethical dimension of war and, in my view, to demonstrate why war may sometimes be necessary and the concomitant sacrifices deeply significant and warranted. The book will explore the 1990-1991 conflict as an instance—and it is only one of many—where religion was specifically manipulated to legitimate specifically nonreligious aims. To adapt Milton, one could say religion was summoned from heaven to justify the ways of man to man.

To examine the uses of religion in the Persian Gulf War, this analysis will first describe that region's perspective on the war. This will include looking at the political precursors of the war, Saddam's explicitly political reasons and rationales for invading Kuwait. and the response of the Arab nations both to the aggression and to Saddam's blandishments. The subsequent fracturing of Arab unity and the political turmoil that followed the deployment of outside forces will be taken up next. Politics merged with Islam when Saddam's religious justifications for what he had done, though not unprecedented, increased as the scope of the conflict enlarged. The Saudis also turned to religion—but for different reasons. Their task was both to counter Iraqi religious propaganda and to justify bringing 500,000 non-Arab, non-Muslim troops into lands regarded as sacred to Islam. Islam, then, served both defensive and strategic roles, justifying actions taken and delegitimating the actions of opponents.

These appeals and counterappeals to Islam constitute the principal research area of the present work. The major focus will be on Saddam as a secular Bacthist who made an instrumental employment of religion in support of his larger strategy. The analysis will next extend to elites, the ways in which they felt compelled to respond, and the reactions of nonelites. Four related research questions will guide:

  1. In what ways and for what reasons did Saddam employ religion during the Gulf War?
  2. How did other governmental and Islamic elites respond?
  3. To what effect did they use religion?
  4. What implications may be drawn from their use of religion?

Regarding the first two questions, the aim is not to evaluate normatively this employment of religion, but rather to lay out as objectively as possible the ways governments and nongovernment elites sought to enlist religion to justify policies, delegitimate others' policies, and respond to others' religious attacks. As indicated earlier, this was not simply a confrontation of Iraqis and Saudis along a single, neatly drawn battle line,but a conflict involving multiple, dynamic frontsand changing alliances. Governments convened conferences, sought fatwas (religious edicts by competent authorities) favorable to their policies, issued calls for jihad, and hosted special media events.

In examining the effects of this employment of religion, I conclude that the use of Islam proved both profoundly divisive and powerfully mobilizing. A broad Middle East audience responded vigorously to the religious entreaties. This, in turn, generated a new level of debate, prompted marches, and encouraged acts of violence. Religious authorities outside the immediate theater issued more fatwas, and new conferences were convened. It appears that this approach was dramatically effective, although not necessarily in the ways its employers intended. The use of Islam by government elites certainly generated considerable discussion among religious elites about whether religion ought to have been so used. Those debates have not yet ended.

Of course, this appeal to religion during the Gulf War was not unique to the Middle East. In describing the line the United States would draw in the sand—that "aggression in Kuwait [might] not stand"—President Bush freely and repeatedly made use of religious terminology. And Arabs noted, inter alia, that the president had invited a religious leader, Billy Graham, to spend the night at the White House just prior to the prosecution of the air war in mid-January. This certainly followed the example set by his predecessor, President Reagan, who unhesitatingly described conflict with the Soviets as one against "the evil empire." But to limit the scope of the study, the focus will be almost exclusively on the use of Islam by leaders in the Middle East and in the larger Islamic world. The similar employment of religion in the West, and often with explicitly Christian terminology, merits (and has received) careful review, but it falls outside the purview of this study.

Although studies have appeared that examine the Bush administration and its appeal to religion, no work has yet appeared devoted exclusively to studying the use of Islam by Muslim governments during the Gulf War. Articles that treat related areas have been published in journals, as chapters in edited works (including volumes of the Middle East Contemporary Survey), in weekly magazines (most prominently in The Economist), and as op-ed pieces. There has been no sustained treatment, however. It is certainly not a paucity of primary materials that accounts for the lack of treatment. The sources are abundant, with much available in translation, primarily through the BBC's Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), and regional newspapers published in English. The interested scholar may find speeches, interviews, regional news reporting, and other primary sources ready at hand. The supporting secondary literature is also quite extensive. In short, an abundance of research materials awaits treatment.

The importance of such a study may be justified on a number of grounds, but few are as critical as its implications for U.S. foreign policy. Richard Murphy, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, once wryly observed, "Reading the Middle East is not one of our national skills." Our postwar policies have underscored that lack of skill. The construction of a rigorous sanctions regime against Iraq and the maintenance of a large, visible military presence in Saudi Arabia seemed to have been planned with less than adequate regard for cultural sensitivities; in a sense, the United States continued to prosecute the Gulf War, doing so without taking the proper measure of the Other Gulf War. Although few in the region now regard Saddam as a great pan-Arab figure, there is still considerable resentment in large swaths of the Middle East toward the sanctions regime specifically and much of U.S. policy generally. Understanding the social and political dynamics of the Other Gulf War could help us understand why that is so. It could also afford lessons to apply elsewhere, especially in regions where religion undergirds society and could be manipulated by elites for political aims, whether in war or in peace.

Finally, the perspective of the author is one that supports, insofar as possible, separate and clearly demarcated realms for religion and politics. The interest of this research, however, is not primarily in critiquing governmental use of religion during the Gulf War. Neither is it to hold up the Western pattern as a template which Middle Eastern or Islamic governments ought to follow. The purpose, rather, is to furnish, as objectively as possible, an analysis of the use that was made of Islam and to do so without obtruding normative judgments. At the same time, the author is conscious of differing Muslim sensibilities about both the role of Islam and the proper ordering of church-state relations. It is worth underscoring, however, that while some Muslims may espouse an integrationist paradigm, many do not. And many of those who do, have nevertheless acceded to a de facto recognition of an autonomous sphere for politics, a point that James Piscatori has made with considerable force in his Islam in a World of Nation-States. During and after the war, Muslims made their own informed assessments, recognizing that Islam had been a tool of policy legitimation. Yet Eastern and Western perspectives still differ. This study, then, will seek to explore with sensitivity and objectivity the ways in which religion was politicized in the Persian Gulf War and the effects that followed, bearing in mind differing perceptions between Western and Middle Eastern cultures about faith, authority, society, and war—yet finding a common hope for a broadly shared peace in East and West.



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