Syria & Iraq: now and then

I am struck by two things: firstly, the language used by both government leaders and the opposition.  And, secondly, the similarities between what is happening now and what happened in the past, in Damascus, Baghdad and other centres of Muslim rule in the Middle East and North Africa.

(Published in Daily Times, 25 July 2012)

The Syrian uprising which began in the small town of Daraa in March 2011 and has taken nearly 20,000 lives thus far, has now reached Damascus.  Top four security chiefs, including the president’s brother-in-law, have been killed by a bombing while holding a meeting in their headquarters.  The Syrian army chief appeared briefly on television, vowing that the military will “cut off every hand that harms the security of the homeland and citizens.”  In response, one Rami al-Sayyed, an opposition activist in Damascus, is quoted as saying: “Today we cut the head of the snake, but we still have the tail.”

As I follow the progress of the revolts in the Arab capitals, I am struck by two things: firstly, the language used by both government leaders and the opposition. Moammar Gaddafi referred to demonstrators as cockroaches and rats and invited his supporters to eliminate them.  And, secondly, the similarities between what is happening now and what happened in the past, in Damascus, Baghdad and other centres of Muslim rule in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Statecraft and politics in this region do not allow for compromise.  The victor takes all and the vanquished flees for dear life if he can escape death or imprisonment.  Libya’s Qaddafi, the latest victim, was lynched by his captors and his corpse was desecrated. Yemen’s Yahya Saleh survived an assassination attempt with severe burns, attempted a comeback, but soon left the country. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is in jail; Tunisia’s Ben Ali has fled to the safety of Saudi Arabia. 

Iraq’s transition from monarchy to republic in 1958, through a coup led by Brig Abdul Qassem, was achieved by executing members of the royal family, including 19 year-old King Faisal II, who were hung by their feet outside the palace.  Hysterical crowds dragged the body of Abd al-Ilah, the king’s uncle through the streets of Baghdad, where it was hacked into pieces.  Prime Minister Nuri al-Said escaped, dressed as a veiled woman, but was caught and dragged through the streets from a car until there was nothing left but half a leg.  Qassem himself was tortured and killed five years later. 

Saddam Hussein’s rise from vice-president to president in 1979 was spectacular.  At a meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council on July 22 he suddenly started reading the names of “enemies of the state”. There was a stunned silence as the list included the names of many of those present. “As names were read from the list, each was arrested and taken away from the council meeting. Within a mere hours, 21 of the men that Saddam named were dead”.

In Syria, Hafez Al Assad razed parts of Hama city in 1982 to crush a simmering Islamist opposition.  At least 20,000 people were killed in one month.

Going back in history, the power struggle between Muawiyah, who was governor in Syria, and Caliph Ali, who had moved his capital from Medina to Iraq, continued after their deaths between their sons.  The forces of Yazid I, who was now Caliph, cut off the head of Hussain after seizing him at Karbala.  “His body was trampled under the hoofs of Umayyad cavalry with savage ferocity and subjected to every ignominy”.

Upon the abdication of Caliph Muawiyah II in 684, another struggle for power ensued, from which Marwan I emerged victorious.  When his son Abdul Malik succeeded him, he was contested by his cousin Amr bin Saeed, whom Malik removed “by inviting him to a feast and then killing him”.

At the turn of the seventh century, there were three caliphs in the Muslim world, namely, Abdul Malik (in Syria and Egypt), Abdullah bin Zubair (Hejaz and Basra) and Mukhtar (Kufa and Mosul).  In this triangular contest, resulting in numerous battles and countless deaths, many prominent heads rolled.  These included Shammar and Umar bin Saad, who were responsible for the murder of Hussain. 

“Their heads were cut off and sent to Zainul Abidin, the son of Imam Hussain.”  Also killed was Ubaidullah bin Ziyad, commander of the Syrian force, whose “head was cut off, and sent to Kufa where it was displayed in the audience hall where Ubaidullah had at one time displayed the head of Hazrat Hussain.”  Under the rule of Hisham, there was an uprising in Kufa in 740, led by Zaid, the grandson of Hussain.  The revolt failed, “Zaid was arrested, his head was cut off and sent to Hisham in Damascus”.

Towards the middle of the tenth century, “Baghdad presented the spectacle of three personages who had once held the highest office in Islam (Caliph) but were now deposed, blinded and objects of public charity.” Deposed Caliph Al-Qahir (932-34), one of the three who were blinded, spent his last years “begging on the streets of Baghdad”.

In its 500-year history, the Abbasid Caliphate had a total of 37 Caliphs, of whom 9 were killed, 3 blinded and one imprisoned. Abul Abbas, who founded Abbasid rule after overthrowing the Umayyads, chose for himself the title of “As Saffah” (the blood-shedder).  His able uncle Abdullah, governor of Syria, invited the 80 or so surviving Umayyad princes in Damascus to a banquet.  “At a given signal, a band of executioners entered the banquet hall and clubbed them to death.”

Politics in the Third World can be rather unpredictable and dangerous, but in the Middle East it is, quite literally, a deadly serious issue, a life-and-death matter.  In a region where the vocabulary of political discourse is infused with such expressions as “cut off the hand”, “chop off the head”, “kill the snakes”, “eliminate the cockroaches,” etc., the road to high political office is a perilous one, frequently littered with corpses. 

Aspirants to political power must tread with care, for one premature move, wrong step or ill-advised utterance could cost one his liberty or life.  And those fortunate enough to reach the pinnacle of power must never let down their guard.  Where defeat means almost certain death, one is inclined to fight to the bitter end, holding hope even when there is none, as Bashar Al Assad is doing now and Gaddafi did before him.

by Razi Azmi

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5 Responses to Syria & Iraq: now and then

  1. Ishtiaq Ahmed says:

    A fantastic review of the Arab tradition of vendetta and inability to forgive. Not much has changed if anything has changed at all.

  2. Javed Agha says:

    Very true, brutality runs in their genes. History speaks for itself. You have described it well.

  3. Jacob Kipp says:

    Such bloodshed is not unique to Muslim history. But it should give us pause in seeing such figts as stuggles between light and darkness, progress and regression. In the Syrian case there is good evidince that religious and ethnic divisions within Syria will make for bloody repraisals. The spread of arms among a population does not reduce violence, just amkes it more arbitrary as the state’s control of such violence declines. Foreign powrs should tred lightly when considering intervention in societies which they do not understand and have neither interests or humanitarian justifications to sustain a long and costly intervention.

  4. Kamath says:

    Razi: Excellent portrayal of what happened during the period of early Islamic history. I never learnt in my History 101 course, that history of Arabs and Middle East next few centuries after the death of the Prophet was so colorful!! After all all these themes play havoc in the popular imagination for centuries afterwords. Remember, the Last Moghul Aurangzeb had the head of his brother cut off and presented to his father Shah Jehan in Agra fort.

    Another typical case. Daniel Pearl met a similar fate and few more innocent journalists and policemen in Pakistan!

    Do you think, we should stop reading about human history. what do you say?
    My regards to you.

  5. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi Sahib, Brilliant and stunning article. You have added so much to the knowledge about Syria and Iraq (the region in fact) for everyone. Your conclusions can only be agreed with.
    Keep enlightening us with your knowledge.

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