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Opinion: Tariq Aziz and “The Mistake of the Wise” - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In an interview conducted after the fall of Saddam, Tariq Aziz—who held several posts at the time of Saddam Hussein—appeared on the television channel Al-Arabiya. Ali Al-Dabbagh, the former minister and spokesperson for the Iraqi government, hosted the interview, in which Aziz seemed balanced, clever and, most importantly, an experienced diplomat.

This interview alone will not be sufficient to judge Saddam Hussien’s rule in Iraq, which spanned a quarter of a century, or his adventures and wars—both the good and the bad. Nonetheless, the interview managed to illuminate some of the dark areas in that long period.

Without doubt, the interview was significant and managed to raise many interesting points; the guest expressed a profound sense of patriotism and loyalty, and showed extensive knowledge. With all due respect, however, neither the host nor his crew matched Aziz’s memory as a witness to history; moreover, they were not as knowledgeable as this highly educated politician.

He spoke about Iraq with grief. He also talked about the reforms that he longs for. He expressed his vision of the situation that has befallen Iraq, making direct comments on members of the current Iraqi leadership—who effectively have his noose in their hands—such as Nuri Al-Maliki, who only seems moderate, and Massoud Barzani.

Aziz made some noteworthy points on the major developments in his country, a number of which are similar to the ones taking place in the Arab world in general. For example, he was asked about his position on the issue of Western democracy being transformed to and implemented in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and whether people in these countries are ready for such a political transformation.

The interviewer asked him, “Nations and peoples are in a state of constant change, and now tables are turned and the pre-2003 Iraqi regime is over. There is a new rule which says, ‘I want to build a democratic country.’ To what extent do you think this is applicable in Iraq? I mean building a liberal democratic system in Iraq.”

Aziz answered: “I believe it is hard, because there are several elements in Iraq, a mixture of Kurds, Arabs, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Al-Qaeda elements and Christians.”

In spite of Aziz’s emphasis on the difference between Saddam’s era and the current situation in Iraq, and that a comparison between the two eras does not hold, his host asked him, “Do not you think that the Iraqi population is varied?”

Aziz responded: “It is too varied.”

“Do you not think that this democratic system will gather the varied elements, telling them to ‘come and rule the country’?” the host said.

“The current regime is wearisome … very wearisome,” Aziz answered. “Very wearisome, but does it suit Iraq?” said the host.

“Iraq as a whole is weaker,” Aziz replied.

Aziz’s interviewer failed to grasp the huge discrepancy between the tyranny of the individual, such as Saddam, and that of democracy. Dabbagh did not understand the difference between the supposition that democracy is universally applicable, and that differences in societies that may be an obstacle. Furthermore, the host failed to comprehend that democracy is a “dynamic system that is incomplete and vulnerable to be overthrown,” in the words of the noted American political scientist Charles Tilly.

The interviewer seems to have forgotten what Imam Muhammad Abduh, the Muslim scholar who out of experience and complete knowledge decided to renounce politics. He termed it “the mistake of the wise,” claiming that “it is unwise for people to be given that which they cannot handle. This would be similar to give a minor the right to manage their financial affairs before they reach adulthood or receive the education required for proper and useful behavior.”

Besides, the diseases of backward countries, such as racism, sectarianism and tribalism and the like, have deeper impact than formalities that are based on imitation rather than creativity. Indeed, it was noted that “out of this understanding of democracy, during Khedive Ismail’s reign Muhammad Abduh objected to those who pressed for a constitution, considering these demands as a sort of a blind imitation of the other.”

Many intellectuals and politicians in the Arab world believed that copying Western democracy, with both its positive and negative aspects, was the only way for the Arab world to overcome backwardness and tyranny, and that reform should begin with the political system rather than society and culture. However, we can find many French and European thinkers who argued, two centuries ago, that gradual reform is always better than revolutions, which they heavily criticized. Muhammad Abduh likewise insisted, during his final days, that long-term, gradual reform of education and society is the best solution, and that reform should begin with society and culture before touching on the political structure. This is what Tariq Aziz points to in the Al-Arabiya interview.

It may be that this debate has become obsolete and antiquated in the West; however, it remains a hot topic in the Arab world. The issues that concerned Muhammad Abduh and his contemporaries a century and a quarter ago are still being debated today. This debate has escalated, becoming more urgent in the wake of the radical and fundamentalist Arab Spring. Accordingly, it arises from the present, not history—from the future, rather than the past.

Tackling these complicated and interrelated issues should go beyond the limits of mere theoretical argument. Many of us have seen what democracy ‘on the back of tanks’ did to Iraq and Afghanistan, at least on the level of political stability. Today also, we are witnessing how ‘democracy dropped from parachutes’ leads us to describe the status quo in radical Arab Spring countries—such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya—as the “stability of chaos.”

Eventually, testimonies like the one given by Tariq Aziz should be cherished and brought to the public. They are a valuable tool for researchers and historians, as well as being a source of pride for the media outlets standing behind them.