Saddam Hussein is known among Muslims for adopting Islamic rhetoric in times of crisis, and flouting Islamic principles when it suits him. On the battlefield in particular, Saddam and his troops have long ignored Islam's ancient and sophisticated tradition of wartime ethics. We talked recently with Sohail Hashmi, assistant professor of international relations at Mt. Holyoke College and an expert on Islamic ethics, about Saddam and Islam.

Is Saddam waging a just war, according to Islamic tradition of jihad?
We have to emphasize right away that we are dealing with a secular regime. He's not claiming to be following the Islamic laws of war, nor have I found any of his field commanders making any such argument. Islamic ethicists have challenged Saddam's tactics as long as he's been in power. That includes the way he fought the Iran-Iraq War, which was heavily condemned by Islamic scholars. It was seen as a war of aggression, since he launched the war without provocation.

The argument was never that Iraq had violated Iranian sovereignty, as you'd hear in Western just-war debates. Iraq had initiated discord-the word in Arabic is fitna, civil discord among Muslims. That is a very serious offense in Islamic terms. The idea is that Muslims are all part of one family, culturally and religiously, and in the classical theory they were supposed to be united politically as well. Mischief-makers are dealt with very harshly.

How do Muslims view Saddam's adoption of Islam and the language of jihad as war began?
He appeals to Islamic rhetoric, of course, to rally support. He's making himself out to be an oppressed Muslim leader. This has been going on now for 18 years. In the Gulf War he clothed himself in Islamic garb very quickly and very completely.

If you look at the Iraqi flag prior to Desert Storm, there was no "Allahu Akbar" on the Iraqi flag--no "God is Greatest." The Iraqi flag is a very secular flag, the flag of Nasser, the Baathists, of all those who have nothing to do with Islam per se. All of a sudden, in January of 1991, "Allahu Akbar" appears on the flag, miraculously. This is Saddam's attempt to call Islamic fervor to his side. It abated when the threat abated, but now he's been playing it up again quite a bit.

So there is skepticism about Saddam. The Muslim scholars and jurists I've talked to are not naïve about him. They know that he's got nothing to do with Islam, that he's been oppressing Muslim groups in his country. There's a good deal of hatred for him. If Muslims had their act together, there would have been overwhelming support a long time ago for a collective action against Saddam. The big question is, Who is responsible for getting rid of him?

Yet a prominent Sunni cleric in Egypt recently said that defending Iraq is jihad. How does that fit into the Muslim view of Saddam?
This fits into a mindset bin Laden has been tapping into since before 9/11. All of his pronouncements have been couched in the language of defensive war. He says it's the West that has been attacking Muslims, repressing them, finding ways to denigrate them and now, of course, occupying their territory.

So the feeling is that Saddam is an evil man, but there is no justification for outside forces to overthrow his regime by invading Iraq and killing Iraqi civilians, no matter how much the war is not aimed at them. That's the view this cleric in Cairo is expressing.

Does Saddam's behavior, like hiding troops in mosques or using human shields, add to the skepticism from the Islamic world?
There is a famous Arabic adage: "Necessities make permissible what is impermissible." The Prophet never said it. It goes back to the pre-Islamic days. When your back is against the wall, you can do all sorts of things. There is under just-war theory too this notion of exceptions permissible under necessity.

But how many exceptions can you claim on the basis of necessity? There's a lot of debate on this topic. Some jurists might say the Iraqis have been driven to do something by necessity. They are fighting an overwhelming force they can't possibly defeat using their own means.

I'm not saying I agree with this view at all, but it's been advanced, for instance, by the Palestinians to justify suicide bombings. When their own lives are being threatened daily, they say, they can resort to all sorts of tactics to repulse the enemy. That argument has been made throughout Islamic history. It's in the classical sources and continues through the present.

In response, I would say that there are some categorical prohibitions that even defensive war doesn't allow you to transgress. One of the strongest is faithfulness to one's oaths or commitments. So for instance this practice of pretending to surrender and continuing to fight is reprehensible. There's a clear tradition going back to the Prophet that, if you engage in peace talks or surrender, you may not use that opportunity to act treacherously.