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.

The majority of the population is Shiite Muslim, whom Saddam has brutalized. How will that affect Muslims perceptions of the war?
It was [predominantly Shiite] before the Gulf War. Now we don't know what the demographics are like, because Saddam has waged a war of genocide against the Shiites. He's done this not through bullets but by environmental destruction. He destroyed the marshes that supported the southern Iraqi rural population, which was overwhelmingly Shiite. The expectations are that the Shiites are still in the majority, though.

If there's any place that welcomes the Americans, it will be the south. It just depends on how long the troops stay. The historical analogy is when the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. They were welcomed by the Shiites of southern Lebanon, because they liberated the Shiites from the PLO, who were also secular Arabs, like Saddam's regime. But by 1985, the Shiites had turned against the Israelis, having realized they wouldn't be leaving anytime soon.

The Shiite's holiest shrines are in Iraq, isn't that right?
There are two major shrine cities in the south of Iraq. One is Najaf, where Ali is buried, and the other is Karbala, which is all-important because that's where the Prophet's grandson Hussein had his last stand. It's the ultimate example of martyrdom in the Islamic tradition. Hussein and his 72 male followers gave their lives rather than submit.

Do you expect those shrines be considered liberated from Saddam?
Very possibly. After the Gulf War was over-the American part of it, anyway--Saddam rolled his tanks into Karbala and leveled the shrine to Hussein. All kinds of stories are told about the arrogance of the Iraqi troops. Saddam's son-in-law is supposed to have gone on top of his tank and hurled an insult to the Prophet's grandson Hussein, before opening fire on the shrine. So obviously all of this is strongly remembered.

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