What Made Saddam Run?

What was the driving force behind Saddam Hussein’s behavior?
Was it his Arabness? His Islam? Or just generic cruelty?

There is a famous story from the Jahiliyya, that long period
in Arabia before the emergence of Islam, about a Jew named Samaw’al (Samuel) B.
Adiya. He was entrusted with the heirloom armaments of a famous Arab poet and
promised to keep them (and the poet’s daughter) safe until his return.

But the poet did not return. He had been poisoned on his way
home, and his enemy demanded the prize entrusted to Samaw’al. Samaw’al was a
man of his word and refused to deliver them to his friend’s enemy.

He retreated into his fortress home, but the enemy managed
to capture his son. Samaw’al preferred to witness his son killed before his
eyes rather than betray the trust committed to him, and Samaw’al’s name thus
became proverbial among the Arabs to this day for fidelity and honor, even at
great personal cost.

This is not a pretty story from a Jewish perspective, and
Samaw’al did not follow the Jewish law of pikuach nefesh (saving the life of
another), which takes precedence over all Jewish law, aside from the three
absolutely cardinal sins of murder, adultery or public acts of idolatry. This
was because Samaw’al’s behavior — in fact his entire identity — was defined by
a complex combination of influences.

Two of those influences were his Jewishness and his
Arabness. Like Jews all over the world in those days and today, his personal
values and behavior were influenced by a combination of Judaism and local cultures.
He was both a Jew and an Arab. In this legend, Samaw’al’s Arab identity
overshadowed his Jewish identity.

There is no individual on Earth whose behavior is determined
by traditional Arab culture alone. All Arabs are also Muslims or Christians or
Jews. Even so-called secular Arabs are profoundly affected by the religious
environments in which they have been raised. Culture is actually a complex
matrix of influences, like the maps we used to see, where a basic geography is
layered with plastic overlays, each one adding more detail and complexity to
the picture. We should be grateful for the overlays of religion in human

With all the current condemnation of religion as the most
dangerous source of mass violence, the truth is that Islam softened the old
tribal brutality of Arabia. The greater the effect of the religious overlay of
Islam, the greater the civilizing of the old ways. The less religious overlay
over the old Arabian culture, the more barbaric the behavior.

Saddam was a secular Arab who emulated the mores of
pre-Islamic Arabian culture with a passion.

Jahiliyya, the term applied to Arabia before the emergence
of Islam, means hopeless ignorance. Pre-Islamic Arabia was the Jahiliyya
because it was rife with senseless and unceasing violence and brutality until
the softening influence of Islam.

In fact, the Jahiliyya was hardly different from the
unceasing tribal violence and cruelty of old Germanic tribes before the
mitigating influence of Christianity. The Vandals and Goths overran Europe,
raping and pillaging as they conquered and destroyed much of the continent.
Their lawless carnage was over when their culture was overlaid with

But although the anarchic brutality was ended, violence did
not really cease. The religious overlays of Christianity and Islam covered the
old cultures, but compassion did not replace the old inclinations.

In both cases, religious organization simply methodized the
madness and directed it outward. Witness the great conquests by the Islamified
Arabs and the Crusader destruction by the Christianized Europeans. But slowly,
the religious values of compassion began to seep into both cultures. This
didn’t end violence, to be sure, for human aggression appears to be a very
basic part of human nature. However, religion softened the tendency toward
cruelty in the treatment of the other.

Just take a look at the greatest perpetrators of mass
violence in Western history. Hitler, Stalin and Saddam all rejected religion.
Hitler and Saddam both tried to reclaim the old pre-religious cultures of
violence: the so-called “Aryan” culture of the pre-Christian Germanic tribes
and the old pre-Islamic Arab valor. Stalin, too, rejected religion in his
totalitarian communism. True religious compassion would have diminished the
murders of millions.

I am generally critical of Muslims who claim that their
fellows who sin by murder or inhumane violence against innocents are not really
Muslims, because such rhetoric abdicates responsibility for a brother’s
behavior. But in the case of Saddam, he really was not a Muslim. His cause
celebre was the old pre-Islamic Arab muruwa, roughly translated as machismo and
brutal manliness. As a Muslim, he would have strived for taqwa, roughly
translated as religious awe and fear of God.

We in the West often confuse Arab with Muslim and indigenous
cultural behaviors with Islam. Who could blame us? After all, Islam emerged as
an Arabian monotheism, and it contains some of the old Arabian norms. But like
Judaism, which represents a softening of the harsh and often brutal behaviors
evinced from the Bible, Islam has softened the harsh and often brutal behaviors
of the Jahiliyya.

Saddam was an Arab who aspired to Jahiliyya behavior. His
brutality, like that of Hitler and Stalin, was not a result of his religion,
but rather, a lack thereof.  

Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam
and the director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies at Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.