The best lack all conviction
While the worst are full of passionate intensity.
– W B Yeats, The Second Coming
DAMASCUS – The discreet green-and-white tomb of the greatest warrior of Islam, Saladin – by the splendid Ummayad Mosque in the former seat of the caliphate – may be the ideal place to meditate on if, where and when Islam may be shaken again by the advent of a new Saladin, nine centuries after the illustrious deeds of the great Muslim general.
Saddam Hussein, not least because he was also from Tikrit (although Saladin was a Kurd), fashioned himself as the genuine article – fighting (twice) the infidel Christian armies of the US. He is now no more than a martyr for a minority. Osama bin Laden carefully fashioned his iconography as a cross between Saladin, Che Guevara and the Prophet Mohammed. But as in the immortal line in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, “his methods are unsound”; despite the marketing success in the expansion of the al-Qaeda brand, bin Laden will never be able to capture the collective conscious of the ummah.
The new Saladin might be the son of a Palestinian refugee victim of the Nakhba (“catastrophe”) 59 years ago. He might be a computer wizard too sophisticated to be tempted by al-Qaeda’s Salafi-jihadism. He might be an angry young man straight out of the “sanctions generation” in Iraq – deprived of everything while he was growing up, courtesy of the “international community.”
He won’t be a tourism developer in Dubai, self-styled “city of captivating contrasts” (between the Western/Arab business elites and the South Asian slaves, maybe?). He won’t be the pampered son of the Sunni business aristocracy in Damascus showing off his Porsche Cayenne. He won’t be a billionaire international playboy posing as politician a la Saad Hariri in Beirut. He won’t be a gas-dealing executive in gas nirvana Qatar.
Divide and rejoice
Conditions are more than ripe for the advent of a new Saladin – after the Nakhba, the 1967 lightning Israeli victory against the Arabs, the failures of pan-Arabism, the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Israeli attack on Lebanon, the limited appeal of Salafi-jihadism, the non-stop stifling of nationalist movements by Western-backed brutal dictatorships/client monarchies.
When the future Saladin looks at the troubled and dejected Middle East, the first thing he sees is US Vice President Dick Cheney shopping for yet another war – skipping the “axis of evil” (Iran, unofficial member Syria) and ordering support from the “axis of fear” (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, the Emirates) in his relentless demonizing of Iran. After inflating sectarianism in Iraq, this time the imperial “divide and rule” weapon of choice is Arabs vs Persians.
The administration of US President George W. Bush may have taken a leaf from former colonial power France – which invented Greater Lebanon as a confessional state, thus prone to perennial turbulence – to apply it in Iraq. But plunging Iraq into civil war to control better it is not enough (and there’s still the matter of securing the oilfields).
Forcing a practically de facto partition of Iraq into three warring crypto-states – a Kurdistan, a southern “Shi’iteistan” and a small central, oil-deprived Sunnistan – mired in a sea of blood in the heart of the Middle East is not enough. For Cheney, the industrial-military complex and assorted Ziocon (Zionist/neo-conservative) warriors, the big prize is the subjugation of Iran. Because Iran, apart from its natural wealth, is the only power capable – at least potentially – of challenging regional US hegemony.
Yet the trademark Cheney threats – with the standard high-tech aircraft-carrier background – are not cutting much ice. Al-Jazeera has been rhetorically bombarded by everybody and his neighbor – from retired Egyptian generals to Emirati political analysts – stressing that the Middle East will not support another US war. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, in a swift move, has just been to the United Arab Emirates – the first visit by any Iranian leader since the Emirates became independent in 1971, and all the more crucial because of a still-running dispute over a bunch of Persian Gulf islands.
The House of Saud – for which the only thing that matters is its own survival – desperately wants a solution as soon as possible for the Palestinian tragedy, before they may be buried six feet under by the terrible sandstorms blowing from Mesopotamia (think of hordes of battle-hardened Salafi-jihadis coming home after fighting the US in Iraq).
King Abdullah is not bent on antagonizing Iran. On the contrary: the most important guest at the recent Riyadh conference was Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki. Saudis and Iranians want to prevent US-provoked sectarianism in Iraq from spreading regionally. And King Abdullah wants a better deal for Sunni Arab Iraqis (hence his identification of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as an Iranian puppet).
While Cheney wants to pit Saudi Arabia against Iran, a discreet, behind-the-scenes Saudi-Iranian pact of no aggression may be all but inevitable, diplomats tell Asia Times Online. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said as much on the record: “Stop any attempt aimed at spreading sectarian strife in the region.”
Iran of course can be very persuasive, holding some tasty cards up its sleeve – such as hard-earned intelligence directly implicating the Saudis in training the Sunni Arab muqawama (resistance) in Iraq on explosive form penetrators (EFPs), which the Pentagon foolishly insists come from Iran. Everyone in Iraq knows it is operatives from “axis of fear” allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt – and also Pakistan – who have provided the Sunni Arab guerrillas in Iraq with technology and training on improvised explosive devices and EFPs.
Thus we have another Bush administration foreign-policy special: Cheney coddling guerrilla-arming Sunni Arabs – who are facilitating the killing of American soldiers in Iraq – to support an attack on Shi’ite Persians (allied with the Iraqi Shi’ites supported by the Americans …).
Anyway, Iraqi Shi’ites are more than winning the US surge game. The surging US soldiers are fighting various strands of the Sunni Arab resistance and al-Qaeda in Iraq. Meanwhile, the officially ensconced Badr Organization and its shady death-squad spinoffs are free to apply a lot of deadly pressure on the Sunni Arab civilian population. The Mehdi Army, on Muqtada al-Sadr’s orders, is just lying low – not taking the bait of fighting the Americans. Nothing will change the reality of this surge picture in the next few months.
About that clash
A possible Saudi-Iranian entente would be a classic case of local powers taking the destiny of the region in their own hands. In a parallel register, in southern Beirut – prime Hezbollah territory – there are plenty of banners in front of buildings destroyed by Israel last summer. They read: “The Zionist enemy destroys, the Islamic Republic of Iran builds.”
Unity in the Muslim world is not a chimera: crypto-scientific Western babble of the “Arabs are extinct” variety is plain silly, as are nonagenarian Bernard Lewis’ pontifications on the “clash of civilizations” – the “perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage.” The new Saladin would tell Lewis to get a grip on reality and admit that the unabated political repression, tremendous social inequality and prevailing economic disaster all over the Middle East are direct consequences of decades of “divide and rule” Western imperialism plus some extra decades of non-stop meddling coupled with rapacious, arrogant and ignorant local elites.
The new Saladin knows how the US and Britain initially supported the Muslim Brotherhood – and then the Brotherhood supported the birth of Hamas. He knows how the US and Britain initially supported Iranian clerics – especially the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – against the shah. He knows how the US and Britain initially supported the Taliban. The aim was always to stifle any form of progressive, secular movement by socialists, communists or Arab nationalists.
A possible Saudi-Iran entente is still a dream. There is the parallel emergence of a coalition of top members of the “axis of fear” – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan – with Turkey and, of all players, Israel. Common objective: the containment of Iran. And not only Iran, but also Hezbollah and Hamas. King Abdullah was persuaded of this strategy by notorious Prince Bandar bin Sultan, aka “Bandar Bush,” former Saudi ambassador in the US for 22 years, a close friend of both Bush and Cheney, and now the head of the Saudi National Security Council.
The strategy was in fact masterminded by a pedestrian version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Cheney; Bandar; US deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams; and former US ambassador in Iraq and Afghan jack-of-all-trades Zalmay Khalilzad. What the popular masses in the Middle East think about this is of course irrelevant. In majority-Sunni Egypt, for instance, the most popular politicians are by far Hezbollah’s Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Khalid Meshal from Hamas, and Ahmadinejad. Two Shi’ites and a Sunni amply supported by Shi’ites.
About that ‘war on terror’
The Bush administration is cunningly trying to spin the theme of “Sunni solidarity” to push the dagger of fitna (dissent) even further into the heart of Islam, always focusing on the same target: total, unchallenged domination of the Middle East.
Cheney could not but have also enlisted Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf (who facilitates US intelligence on countless covert ops inside southeastern Iran organized from Balochistan in Pakistan). Some players are getting itchy, though. Turkey had to announce on the record that it would not join any “anti-Shi’ite alliance.” Turkey cannot afford to antagonize Iran – not with the coming November referendum on the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The new Saladin also sees that the “war on terror” is far from over – metastasized into more subtle forms of Islamophobia, and still directly related to the attempted oil grab in the “big prizes” of Iraq and Iran. The privileged strategy to conquer fabulous natural wealth in the lands of Islam has been predictable from the start; building a case against the “barbarian,” “uncivilized” and “pre-modern” Muslim world; vilifying Islam as a religion and Muslim culture and mores; promoting de facto discrimination and in may cases outright racism against Muslims in the wealthy north; equating Islam with terrorism.
The new Saladin knows it as much as virtually the whole 1.5-billion-strong ummah knows it.
And then there’s the Shi’ite world. As long as US so-called elites fail to understand the phenomenal power of Shi’ism, any brilliant armchair strategy they cook up is destined to fail miserably.
Shi’ites in Iraq will never be co-opted by any US agenda – no matter the Himalayas of wishful thinking involved. They will never sacrifice their collective consciousness – forged by oppression and exclusion – nor their profound sense of historic victimization to the benefit of a made-in-America “liberal” utopia. Shi’ites will continue to stress their tremendous hostility to Zionism; to their society being corrupted by Western – especially US – popular and trash culture; and most of all to imperial designs on Muslim lands and natural wealth. It’s in the DNA of Shi’ites to see themselves as the guardians of true Islam.
The hour of the wolf
So where will the new Saladin come from?
He could be Nasrallah – who forced the formerly mighty Israeli army to back off, and who will inevitably prevail in a majority government in Lebanon through democratic elections.
He could be a young Sadrist who has never entered the Green Zone, and who before that was a member of the “sanctions generation,” growing up in absolute marginalization. Now he goes to al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, he will get his diploma, and he will be better equipped to fight for the true liberation of Iraq. He could be Muqtada al-Sadr himself – the legitimate popular leader of a national-liberation movement.
He could be the son of a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Damascus or Beirut, got an education, emigrated to Canada to perfect his skills, learn from the best the West has to offer, and then one day come back and enter politics with a vengeance.
He could be a Muslim Brotherhood intellectual in Syria. He would fully back the Sunni Arab resistance in Iraq. He would fully back deposing the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. He would fully back Hamas. As a Muslim Brotherhood Saladin, he would fight for a Sunni Arab Greater Syria capable of talking some sense into Israel.
He could be a Saudi-trained Sunni Arab sniper in Baghdad who posts his killing videos as manifestos on the Internet. Or he could even not be an Arab, but a Persian – a resistance hero in case of a tactical nuclear US strike.
The soul of Saladin may be impatient for an heir. So are hundreds of millions in the ummah. What rough warrior, its hour come out at last, slouches toward Jerusalem, Damascus or Baghdad to be born?
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007).