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Revenge and the History of the Arabs - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The strong smell of sectarianism, spite, and revenge surrounded the footage of the late President Saddam Hussein’s execution. In brief moments, the footage sums up a long history of the nature of human relations in this afflicted part of the world, from the pre-Islamic period through to the history of Islam and the modern ages. It was clear that those carrying out the execution were not doing so on the basis of a law that ruled as such (as he had been sentenced to death before he was sentenced to death), or pursuant to the fact that the penalty was the natural consequence of the man’s crimes. Rather the underlying motivation was ultimately retaliation and the sectarian position. Yes, Saddam Hussein’s crimes against humanity afflicted many factions, sects, ethnic groups and communities; however, once he fell, he was executed in revenge for his crimes against one sect rather than in pursuit of abstract justice and this is where the mistake lies, whether through the manner or timing of his execution or those who oversaw the execution. Actually, the issue of Saddam Hussein’s execution is not the point here insofar as this image reflects a reality and history that overflows with violence and blood, driven by the principle of revenge between Arab tribes, clans and parties, causing one to lead to the conclusion that time has stopped at a particular moment of Arab history – whilst forms change, the content remains the same.

In the modern history of Iraq, the concepts of retaliation and revenge made up politics. Politics is presumably the framework of what has happened and is happening; however, inner feelings come first. On July 14, 1958, for example, the army carried out its bloody coup in which young King Faisal and the royal Hashemite family members were liquidated and some of the men of the royal era were needlessly dragged along the streets and this was motivated by a thirst for blood and revenge. In the era of Abdul Karim Qassim when he allied himself with the communist party to resist the Nasserite extension, the communist party’s militia liquidated all those linked to the nationalist ideology or the nationalist movement, whether Baathists, Nasserists or Arab nationalists, out of political and ideological motivation and inspired by statements of unilateral thought; however, the pleasure attained by the blood that was shed, the mania of retaliation for the past and the satisfaction of taking revenge were evident motivations. When Abdul Karim Qassim was killed in the first Baath coup in 1963, Baath militias took revenge for what happened under the sole leader, hunting down communists everywhere and drawing pleasure from dragging them along the streets and shedding their blood. When the Baath returned to power in 1968, it liquidated all non-Baathists, though allegedly allying with some of them.

With Saddam Hussein’s rise to power, it was not limited to Baathism and communism insomuch as it was draining the whole of civil society of any content. Taking the Arab dimension into account, we find that the Iraqi phenomenon is a universal Arab one, in both ancient and modern times, though it has been clearly embodied in the modern case of Iraq.

When Jassas Ibn Murra stabbed Kulaib to death, Al Zir Salim Abu Laila al Muhalhal, the brother of Kulaib, vowed not to drink wine, to have sex or use fragrances until he takes revenge for his brother. A forty-year war broke out between Bakr and Taghlib that almost annihilated both tribes before it subsided. The problem was that Jassas protected an elderly woman, al Basus, whose shabby she-camel grazed in Kulaib’s sanctuary. Having seen it grazing in his sanctuary, he launched an arrow at its udder and killed it. Jassas killed Kulaib, his sister Jalila’s husband. He did not carry out the murder because Kulaib was a despotic tyrant but rather because he insulted and underestimated him. Hence began the War of Basus. Similarly motivated, Amr Ibn Kulthum killed Amr Ibn Hind because he wanted to humiliate his mother, so he instructed his own mother to order Ibn Kulthum’s mother to serve her at the dinner table. The mother of Amr Kulthum shouted in response to the humiliation that befell her. Ibn Kulthum promptly killed Ibn Hind, reciting his well-known ode that best explains the nature of politics in the modern Arab world until today and the to the concept of revenge:

“And we shall drink the purest of water,

Yet others are left to mud and mires.”

In other words, it refers to “I” whilst others are not important.

The War of Dahis and Ghabra was ultimately caused by reciprocated killings, with everybody taking revenge; hence it was the war that annihilated everything.

In the Islamic era of the rightly guided Caliphs, the golden age of politics in the Islamic history, wars broke out between Ali, the fourth lawful Caliph, and Aisha, Talha and al Zubair. Later, there was the emergence of Muawiyyah Ibn Abu Sufyan, raising the same slogan and demanding revenge from Uthman’s assassins since this was the exclusive right of lawful Caliphs. Power was the ultimate motivating force, but the slogan of revenge was the one raised even if in a concealed manner. This is demonstrated by the fact that the call for retribution of Uthman’s assassins ceased as soon as Muawiya took over and was established in power. When Husayn Ibn Ali declared revolt against Yazid Ibn Muawiyyah and left Mecca for Iraq at the request of his followers in Kufa, who pledged allegiance to him, he was killed in Karbala after these followers abandoned him. This was the tragedy that gave birth to the Shia as a political movement and an independent school that adopted the slogan “In revenge for Husayn.” When the Abbassids took over, they entirely liquidated all of which belonged to the Umayyads and even dug up the graves of the Umayyad Caliphs, crucifying those whose remains had not disintegrated, which suggests taking revenge even from the dead.

Yes, the Arab moment of time has stopped at one particular point from when Jassas killed Kulaib until the execution of Saddam Hussein, a moment that revolves around itself in acts of revenge — And we shall drink the purest of water, Yet others are left to mud and mires. However, why do not we all drink clear water regarding relations between the various sections of society or those between the various sections of the world? At one point or another, the motivator for revenge may be the tribe, the family, the sect, or the party. It might have been a tribal or nationalist slogan yesterday or a religious one today. Forms change; however, the thirst for blood remains the same.

What is going on in Iraq and even in Lebanon, the Sudan, Algeria, Somalia and other parts of the Arab world is the result of an antiquated, unchanging and unchangeable culture that is self-producing in an odd way and is protected by strong guards to the extent that even a religion such as Islam could only subdue it for a brief period until it contained Islam. We have become sects, schools of thought, ethnic groups, tribes, clans, customs and traditions; everybody has killed everybody in defense of Islam, while it was power, wealth, fanaticism and ignorance that stood behind all of that. Some have done so consciously whilst others did so out of ignorance and fanaticism. Al Muhalhal is not dead, Kulaib’s blood continues to boil, the skirmishes between Bakr and Taghlib have not come to an end and Ibn Kulthum’s self-conceit is not over; they all still live amongst us until we decide to expel them… but when? This is the question.

Turki Al-Hamad

Turki Al-Hamad

Turki Al-Hamad is a distinguished Saudi Arabian political analyst, journalist and novelist. Mr. Al-Hamad was educated in Saudi Arabia and the United States, where he obtained his PhD from the University of Southern California, later returning to Riyadh to teach political science. He retired in 1995 to take up writing full time.

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