COVER

ISLAM AND THE GULF WAR

WHY MANY MOSLEMS SUPPORT IRAQ

D’ARCY JENISH February 11 1991
COVER

ISLAM AND THE GULF WAR

WHY MANY MOSLEMS SUPPORT IRAQ

D’ARCY JENISH February 11 1991

ISLAM AND THE GULF WAR

WHY MANY MOSLEMS SUPPORT IRAQ

In the city of Lahore, Pakistan, thousands of people have marched through the streets since the war in the Persian Gulf began on Jan. 17, shouting “Saddam Hussein, superman.” In the Pakistani coastal city of Karachi, university students wore badges with the words “Love Saddam, love Islam. Hate America.” At the same time, Saudi Arabian troops, after helping win the battle of Khafji against Iraqi forces, invoked the same Islamic religion and the same God on their behalf. “Allahu Akhbar,” they chanted—“God is great”—waving their rifles in the air. On Jan. 31, 60,000 Algerians marched through the streets of the capital city, Algiers, burning coalition flags and chanting “Victory to Islam and the Moslems.” While most Western governments portrayed the Iraqi president as a ruthless dictator and the cause of the Gulf War, popular opinion in at least half a dozen Islamic countries quickly swung behind him— and against their fellow Moslems fighting with the forces of the UN coalition. As a result, some Western analysts predicted that the divisions in the Islamic world will have a lasting effect on the political climate in the Middle East.

Said Rachad Antonius, president of the Montreal-based Centre for Arabic Studies:

“The whole region will be a religious volcano for years to come.”

With the war in its third week, pro-Iraqi demonstrators had raised their voices— and their fists—in nations across the Islamic world, including Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Algeria and Pakistan. Meanwhile, Hussein portrayed the conflict as a jihad, or holy war, between the Moslem faithful and Western infidels. Those emotional appeals stirred strongly held and centuries-old Islamic beliefs (page 39). President George Bush has tried to prevent the war

from becoming a religious conflict. But in addressing religious groups, he, too, invoked God and prayer in support of the allied cause. He and his wife, Barbara, also spent the night the war began at the White House with evangelist Billy Graham.

In a speech to the annual convention of the National Association of Religious Broadcasters, Bush described the Gulf War as a struggle between “good versus evil, right versus wrong, human dignity and freedom versus tyranny and oppression.” Bush said that the struggle epitomized religious values, but that it was not a war over religion or between competing faiths. Added Bush: “The Gulf is not a Christian war, a Jewish war or a Moslem war. It is a just war.” And after 11 U.S. marines west of the Saudi Arabian town of Khafji died in the first land actions of the war, Bush declared last Sunday a national day of prayer.

But Hussein continued to insist that Allah, the Islamic name for the Deity, was on Iraq’s side. In a 90-minute interview with the Atlantabased Cable News Network televised on Jan.

29, an apparently relaxed Hussein, wearing a stylish blue business suit, declared that he was utterly confident of victory. Speaking through an interpreter, the Iraqi leader said: “The allies were defeated the moment they signed the decision to launch the aggression. We are convinced we have God on our side, and whoev-

er has God on his side is never defeated.” Among members of the UN coalition, Hussein’s pious declarations, and his attempts to enlist the support of devout Moslems, aroused skepticism and, in some cases, contempt. Mohammed al-Akkas, a religious scholar in Dammam on the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia, said that Iraq is among the most secular of Arab states. He accused Hussein of murdering political rivals, gassing innocent civilians and embarking on the military conquest of a neighboring Moslem country — Kuwait—all actions that, he said, violate Islamic principles. Said al-Akkas: “Saddam has been known by everyone to be a disbeliever, a blasphemer. Then, he goes on TV showing himself praying. It makes you shiver. It makes you feel disgusted.”

Divisions: Indeed, as one sign of the religious and political divisions that exist within the Moslem world, some Saudi servicemen declared that ^ they were the true defenders 2 of Islam and the holy sites of £ their faith. Before climbing 8 into the cockpits of their high^ tech F-15 fighter jets to wage r war against Iraq, pilots in the Royal Saudi Air Force invariably prostrate themselves and pray. “Whatever Saddam Hussein says about a holy war, we are the ones who have been given a special mission by God,” said Maj. Mohammed abu Amnah of the Saudi air force. “Every time a Saudi jet fighter takes off, it is going to fight for the defence of Islam. Every attack we carry out against the Iraqis is

carried out in the name of Mohammed.”

The war has brought millions of Westerners face-to-face with Islam, a profound and noble religious doctrine. Its basic principles and doctrines are found in the Koran, a sacred text made up of 114 chapters, which believers say is the word of Allah as revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. Practising Moslems follow the “Five Pillars” of their faith. They accept and repeat the creed “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah.” Moslems also pray five times daily by kneeling and bowing towards Mecca, the religion’s holiest place, in Saudi Arabia. The most commonly recited prayer is the fatiha, the Islamic equivalent of the Christian Lord’s Prayer, which begins with the words “Praise belongs to God, the Lord of all being.” On Fridays, men attend a mosque for congregational prayer and a sermon. Fasting during the month of Ramadan, which begins this year on March 17, is obligatory, as is almsgiving. Every Moslem is expected to make a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca once in his lifetime, and every year millions do so.

Afterlife: The Koran also describes in vivid detail the Islamic version of heaven and hell. Those who are admitted to heaven, primarily on the basis of their faithfulness to Islamic principles, are known as the “Companions of the Right.” Their reward in the afterlife is “a station secure among gardens and fountains, robed in silk and brocade,” according to the Koran. It promises that they will dine on “such fruits as they choose and such flesh of fowl as they desire.” Those who reject Islamic principles, the unbelievers known as the “Companions of the Left,” are doomed to spend eternity in a blazing fire, with “burning winds and boiling waters.”

Almost every aspect of social, political and private life is regulated by the Islamic law known as shari’a, or the path in which God wishes men to walk. The shari’a is primarily based on the dictates of the Koran and upon hadith, or tradition. The Koran prohibits the consumption of alcohol and the practice of gambling. Both are described as “Satan’s work.” Fornication, or sexual relations outside

of marriage, is also regarded as indecent and evil. The Koran encourages generosity towards relatives, orphans, the needy, travellers and beggars. It also advises children to respect their parents, regardless of age.

Schism: Within a century of Mohammed’s death in 632 AD, a great schism occurred, leading to the development of the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite, which still dominate the faith. Currently, about 80 per cent of all Moslems are Sunni, practising an orthodox brand of Islam that adheres strictly to the shari’a. The central belief of the Shiites is that God apis points a series of powerful § imams to lead the Islamic 2 community on earth, dictatÍ ing correct behavior and social norms.

ja Increasingly, a new and po§ tent force has swept through - parts of the Moslem world in the form of Islamic fundamentalism. Millions of Moslems in a number of countries, including Iran, Egypt and Algeria, have embraced fundamentalism and rejected what they regard as the pervasive and dominant influence of secular or Western values and customs. Perhaps the most startling illustration of that development for Westerners was the Iranian revolution of 1979, in which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini unleashed a popular uprising and overthrew the U.S.-supported Shah of Iran.

Islamic fundamentalists then took American diplomats hostage and held 52 of them for 444 days.

The rise of fundamentalism has underscored one of the underlying differences between the Christian and Moslem worlds. Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis, a highly regarded expert on Islam, contends that Christianity has from its beginnings recognized that church and state were separate realms and the idea became firmly entrenched in the Western world during the past 300 years, notably in the United States. But Islam makes no such distinction. In his 1988 book, The Political Language of Islam, Lewis noted: “The principal function of government is to enable the individual Moslem to lead a good Moslem life. This is the purpose of the state, for which alone it is established supporters by God, and for which alone

statesmen are given authority over others.” The strength of the Islamic union of religion and politics was evident from the powerful support aroused among Moslems, from North Africa to Central Asia, by Hussein’s appeals and his actions. But the growth of pro-Iraqi sentiment created internal political difficulties for many Moslem regimes. In Pakistan, a nation of 110 million where Islam is the official state religion, pro-Iraqi street protesters burned American flags and carried placards bearing such slogans as “Long live Uncle Saddam.” One religious leader, Maulana Noorani, claimed that 110,000 Pakistanis had signed documents declaring their desire to fight for Iraq. However, the Islamic Democratic government of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has close and long-

established ties with the United States and, indeed, has committed 11,000 troops to the allied coalition against Iraq.

Meanwhile, Palestinians living in Jordan, where they make up 60 per cent of the population, and on the Israeli-occupied West Bank were among the most enthusiastic supporters of Saddam Hussein. With war raging, both Jordan and Israel tried to maintain tight controls over their Palestinian populations. Still, a group of Palestinian protesters danced in the streets of the Jordanian capital, Amman, after learning that an Iraqi Scud missile had hit Tel Aviv on Jan. 19. “For us, Saddam Hussein is already the victor,” said Abu Adnan, a member of a council of elders that runs one of the Palestinian refugee camps near Amman. “He has won because he has succeeded where all other Arabs have failed up to now—in hitting Israel.” Jordan’s King Hussein faced a particu-

larly delicate situation as popular support grew for Saddam Hussein in a country that has tried to remain neutral in the war.

Hope: In the Israeli-controlled territories, several Palestinians told Maclean’s of their unreserved support for the Iraqi dictator. “Saddam Hussein is the only hope we have right now to liberate Palestine and help us get back our freedom and dignity,” said Zamira Sabri, a 29-year-old schoolteacher in Gaza. Added Jonathan Kuttab, a West Bank human rights lawyer: “Palestinians had given up on the Arab world, which seemed not to care for their fate. Their hopes were revived by Saddam Hussein, especially by his missile attacks on Israel.”

One of the largest pro-Iraq rallies since the start of the war took place in Algeria. The protest march sponsored by the Islamic Salvation Front, a Moslem political party, drew an

estimated 60,000 people despite heavy rain. At the conclusion of the march, Front leader Abbasi Madani told his supporters: “The United States thinks it is the God of the time, but Allah has shown it is nothing.”

In Turkey, the war posed an agonizing dilemma for many Moslems. Although Turkey is a member of NATO and its government is officially pro-Western, many Turkish Moslems say that they oppose their government’s decision to allow American planes to attack Iraq from airbases in southern Turkey. But they K also hold Saudi Arabia in high esteem because a the Saudis have provided financial support for § an Islamic revival that is currently under way in ? Turkey. Saudi funds have paid for the construe| tion of mosques, the establishment of seminar5 ies and religious education. §

Even in countries where grassroots support “ for Iraq appeared to be strongest, some Mos-

lems said that they were concerned about Saddam Hussein’s repressive government and his invasion of Kuwait. Despite that, there was widespread admiration in the Islamic world for Hussein. Said Pakistani Senator Maheoob U1 Haq: “Even those who didn’t like Saddam Hussein one bit now admit to awe and admiration. There is a certain sympathy for the underdog here, the way he’s being beaten up.”

Jordanian journalist Rami G. Khouri, a columnist with the English-language daily The Jordan Times, said that the majority of Arabs initially opposed Saddam Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait. But Khouri added that Hussein has now become a symbol of Arab defiance in the face of Western domination of the Arab world. The longer Iraq can hold out against the 31nation coalition, Khouri said, the greater Hussein’s support will be in the Moslem world. He added: “The minute American forces landed in the region, the whole equation changed. The issue was no longer Iraq occupying Kuwait. It was Iraq standing up to the arrogant West. For all of us now, Iraq symbolizes the willingness to get up off our knees and confront our enemies.”

Indeed, some experts on Moslem history said that Hussein was exploiting a Moslem solidarity that can be traced back to the founding of Islam by Mohammed around the year 610 AD. Islam, which like Judaism and Christianity traces its lineage to the biblical patriarch Abraham, emerged from the heart of the Arabian peninsula in what is now Saudi Arabia. From the beginning, it aggressively sought to convert people of other faiths and religious beliefs. As a result, early Moslems almost immediately clashed with Christians, who had become well established in the Middle East.

According to historian Lewis, the conflict between the two rival faiths has continued unabated for the past 14 centuries. “It has consisted of a long series of attacks and coun-

terattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and re-conquests,” Lewis said. “For the first 1,000 years, Islam was advancing, and Christendom was in retreat and under threat. For the past 300 years, Islam has been on the defensive.” There are now an estimated one billion Moslems in the world, mainly concentrated in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as parts of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Smaller communities exist in Europe and in the Western Hemisphere, including Canada (page 38).

Principles: For many devout Moslems in the Middle East and elsewhere, Saddam Hussein is seen as a leader who violated basic Islamic principles by running a secular government and repressing religious leaders in Iraq. As a result, Saudi Islam scholar al-Akkas dismisses Hussein’s attempts to cast the Gulf conflict as a holy war and to enlist the support of Moslems everywhere. “Now, he is trying to play the socalled Islamic card,” said al-Akkas. “But it is total hypocrisy.” Added Montreal scholar Antonius: “Saddam is using jihad to mobilize support. But most Arabs and Moslems see through that. His regime has been combating Islamic tendencies for years.”

Still, as the war continues, as coalition bombs and missiles pound Iraqi troops and military installations, Hussein's image as a courageous underdog may grow in the volatile Islamic world. Said Jordanian journalist Khouri: “Saddam Hussein’s fearlessness in standing up to our enemies, Israel and America, appeals to the new spirit of the Arab world, a spirit that says we would rather die on our feet than live grovelling on the ground.” While the Gulf War is fought with bullets and bombs, another, perhaps equally important battle is being waged for the minds and the hearts of the Islamic masses.

D’ARCY JENISH