Historical Comebacks

The reports are coming in that Saddam Hussein has been executed at a secured location in Baghdad. You see, it seems like we’re constantly being compelled to contemplate on global issues at the turn of the year. In 2004, it was a tsunami, and in 2006 it is the well-understood fear of the escalation of violence not just in Iraq, but anywhere in the world.

As the comments on the BBC’s Have Your Say plainly manifest, most people, even when they agree that Saddam should have been executed, still cast doubts on the fairness of his trial and about the future of relations between the West and the East. Most importantly, as some visitors remark, the West has shown a total indifference to the Eastern way of life:

Out of all the days, why did the U.S. pick the day of Hajj to hang Saddam?
This comes as almost a historical comeback. In 1099, having finally entered Jerusalem, the brave Western knights had begun to kill almost every living person in the city, including children and women. They killed ‘Sarazens’ (Muslims) in the mosque, and burnt Jews in the synagogue. One should obviously be careful with such parallels, but the indifference to ‘alien’ religion seems to be persistent, despite today’s devotion to political correctness.

Some other comments were very much in line with Le Goff’s observation about the Arab’s feeling about the Western anti-Islamism back in the Middle Ages. So, is this the longue durée, or not? One thing to look at may be the consolidation of the East against the West. The Ottoman Empire wasn’t as powerful or integrated at the beginning of the Crusades, but things changed dramatically by the time of the ‘counter-Crusades’ of the 14th c. However, today the East may become more consolidate against the West, especially because what used to be called the Crusades in the Middle Ages, may now be hailed by some as drang-nach-Osten.

Communication and information at that time appear almost prehistoric in comparison to our use of the wireless technology. And if we speak in terms of military challenge and response, it would take many months in the 12-13th cc. not only to furnish a campaign, but also to get your army to the enemy’s land. Needless to say, it takes less time now, and, thanks to the advance of the media, we can follow both challenge and response in real time.

If this is the longue durée, it certainly comes with massive technological, as well as ideological (in the broadest sense of the word), differences. But underneath those differences one can see the *good old* opposition between the West and the East, the almost inexplicable necessity to put two civilizations (again in the broadest sense of the word) on the two opposite ends of an ontological axis, to make them two poles, one good, another evil. If anything seriously bothers me, as both historian and individual, it is this determinism, the conviction that one can actually say with confidence that something is good and something is not. Some link this to Christian dichotomy of good and evil, light and darkness, but long before Christianity Herodotus had spoken about the barbarians, who by no means were as good as the Greeks.

It has become a commonplace in popular historical studies to tell about the European knights who, having lived in cold Europe, which scents were not at all wholesome, had come to the East, discovered the silks, the baths, the aromas, and so decided to stay. Those who didn’t want to stay began to trade with the East, and so gradually the West started amassing all sorts of Eastern delights, forgetting, by and by, where those had come from. The Great Geographical Discoveries and colonization, not to mention the progress in arts, added to the Western sense of uniqueness. But it is exactly this sense that drives empires and states to parochialism and subsequently – to their fall.

This is not to say that no justice can or should be served to those who deserve it. But I unanimously agree with those who believe that, if we’re speaking of crimes against humanity, then Saddam should’ve been tried by the Hague Tribunal. Humanity comprises the entire world, and not just the parties concerned. It remains to see, what resonance today’s event will have. One thing is certain: with the UN’s vote against Iran and the execution of Hussein during the Islamic religious holiday, the East has got every reason to feel under assault. The complete opposition of the West and the East may only exist in ether, after all. Yet in fact, the two poles are much closer today, than during the Crusades.

Links:
Said, Edward (2003) Orientalism. Penguin Books.