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The Kings Among Us

This article argues that judging rulers on the basis of their individual qualities or the circumstances of their lives is inconsistent with the norms of governance; what needs to be judged, in the first instance, is that whether they uphold the rule of law or not. Obviously, it is rule of law that is the greatest supporter of ordinary people and have-nots. Hence, one who plays with the rule of law, one who defies it, one who makes a travesty of it, never deserves any sympathy be he Saddam Hussein or someone else!

by Dr. Khalil Ahmad

Once upon a time, there was a king. He was born in a city called Tikrit. He was brought up in a fatherless family with poor means of livelihood. He rose from being a street fighter to become a powerful king of Iraq.

It may be objected that the story of Saddam Hussein cannot be narrated in such a manner. Because we are no longer living in medieval times. We are living in a modern or as is said in a post-modern age. But going through the details of Saddam Hussein’s life and career as a ruler makes one convinced that his tale may easily be narrated as the tales of Kings are described.

Here is an attempt to do just that:

Saddam Hussein was born in Tikrit, Iraq. He was a fatherless child. His family was poor. With time, he rose to glory. As a result of a coup in 1968, he seized power under the banner of Pan-Arabist Baath Party. In 1979, he became president. In 1980, he invaded Iran and fought an eight years long war. In 1990, he attacked and got hold of Kuwait. This act of Saddam Hussein proved to be a crucial turn in his career, and was the beginning of his end.

After an abortive war with the United States in 1991 and during the second war with the same country in April 2003, his rule of absolute power spanning three decades started crumbling. Finally, he was captured from an underground cell in December 2003. His first trial began in October 2005, and his second trial on the charges of war crimes and genocide of Iraqi Kurds, commenced in August 2006. The second trial never concluded as he was sentenced to be hanged in November 2006 on the charges of ordering the death of 148 Shias. He was hanged on December 30, 2006. There were many other crimes committed by him and his henchmen, and their trials were waiting to be heard in the Iraqi courts of law.

After his downfall, he still had supporters and followers and there were blasts, killings, etc allegedly committed by them to prevent or disrupt his trial. But nothing could save him.

It is told he lived a life of wealth and luxury like kings used to live. To give an example, his bathrooms were fitted with gold taps, and sure there would be many more stories of his life of abundance. And, certainly, like most kings, he came to live a humble life after his downfall when he spent three years in a military cell under the US custody.

This is the story of King Saddam Hussein.

Now after his death, there are fears that he is going to live as a martyr-cum-hero. And there are people who have come to develop sympathy for him, if not for his cause (if any!). This has created great confusion and needs to be dealt with rationally and consistently, the two most important adverbs relevant to post-Saddam situation.

What makes things unclear, first and foremost, is our language. Secondly, there is the category of time as was mentioned in the start.

Our language has us believe that a king is essentially different from a president or a prime minister. And, lo, we believe that. Since Saddam Hussein was designated as a president, he was not a king. Since in pre-modern times, there were no presidents or prime ministers, hence there were only kings. Thus, both language and time come to the rescue of not only Saddam Hussein but all the other Saddam Husseins and others like him, who in our times are designated variously but they are surely kings.

Hence, what we should bother about is what is it that makes a king a king, and a president a president. Sure, in pre-modern times there were kings who could not be termed kings in the classical sense of the word. There are in our times presidents (Ah, where are they?!) who are difficult to be designated as presidents per se. But we are concerned only with kings and presidents as the original meanings of these words suggest. Not the mixed breed. Knowing about the unmixed breed will immensely help us to separate chaff from wheat, rationally and consistently. This will help us to have a ‘who is who’ out of the present lot including Saddam Hussein.

The essential thing that makes a king a king is his own self as the source of law. As is told of many kings, or tyrants or despots, they were law unto themselves. Whatever they wished, said, or did, came to be known and written as law. This was the rule of one man, a monarch. In case of a monarch sharing his power with a clique of his associates, it was the rule of a few, an oligarchy. But substantially it was not different from Kingship since the source of law was those few who ruled.

Contrary to this, a president, or prime minister or in whatever way he is designated, is not a source of law. He is not law unto himself. Rather, and importantly, he is bound by law. Whatever he wishes, says, or does, is not law in any manner. This clearly implies that his words and actions are strictly in accordance with the law of the land. He cannot step over his powers assigned to him by law. Whatever the system of government, he is to act under and according to the law. He is never free like a king, and sure he is never powerful like a king. Only his duties and powers assigned by law differentiate him from ordinary citizens and, at the same time, in the eyes of law he is not above and more privileged than other citizens.

However, there are cases and examples that defy these criteria. Why Nausherwan or Anusherwan of pre-Islamic Iran is known as Anusherwan the Just? Wasn’t he like a president? Apart from the delicacies of differences amongst historians regarding the quality of rule of Anusherwan, we can safely assume that his fame of a just ruler depends upon this: he must have followed certain rules and laws consistently which amounted to justice in those times. That quality of Anusherwan doesn’t absolve him from the verdict of a rule of law. Obviously, he himself was a source of law, just or unjust. Thus, a benevolent dictator can never replace a ruler bound by law. Since, one of the greatest achievements of human civilisation is a government where law rules. Here no ruler rules.

What about the recent case of Saddam Hussein? Wasn’t he a president? Wasn’t he bound by Iraqi constitution and law? Wasn’t he not a source of law? Wasn’t his word or action not law? Didn’t he belong to post-modern times? Doesn’t all this make him not a king?

Differences aside, he ruled Iraqi people like a king. He manipulated Iraqi law and constitution to suit his desires and interests. He usurped the rule of law and turned it into a rule of/by him and his associates. Whereas, even the act of softening law to make room for one’s self-rule negates the very essence of rule of law. Many a president and prime minister (or whatever their designations are) of our times are essentially kings, if not totally, to a greater extent certainly. But that’s just a euphemism. In principle, any bungling with the rule of law, willful or otherwise, must be taken as an attack on the rule of law, and should never be tolerated. Because if it is tolerated, it will give birth ultimately to a Saddam Hussein.

Once again consider the case of those who have developed sympathies for Saddam Hussein on his ‘tragic’ death. Of the many reasons for their sympathy cited by them, the most important are: i) that he was not given a fair trial; ii) that he was hanged on the day of Eid-ul-Azha. In this case, the role of the internal politics of Iraq and regional/international politics cannot be under-estimated. And, sure if there were mistakes or say unlawful actions, they must be condemned and dealt with accordingly. But it is not clear what allows us to sympathise with one who in the capacity of a president acted as a king. Or, how could we be kind to one who in any constitutional capacity acts like a king.

This is the problem of consistency. Since we believe that a government is run by individuals, be they presidents or kings, we can’t differentiate between good and bad governments. For us, there are only good rulers or bad rulers; or there are only just rulers or unjust rulers like Anusherwan or other cruel tyrants. That is why we think, believe, speak, and act in an unprincipled manner, utterly inconsistently. It is this logic that permits us to side with good or bad rulers whether they are alive or dead.

The other problem that doesn’t let us think, believe, speak, and act consistently is the problem of rationality. We believe irrationally that certain persons are born to be kings or presidents. We believe irrationally that certain persons are above law. We irrationally believe that certain persons are privileged in the eyes of law. We believe irrationally that certain persons are capable of delivering everything such as food, clothing, shelter, etc to others. We believe irrationally that certain laws are not for rulers; they are for those who are ruled. We believe irrationally that certain persons are there to rule others.

Whereas rationality requires us to believe that everyone is born with certain inalienable rights including the rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. That everyone is free to be whatever he wishes to be. That everyone is equal before law. That everyone is capable of living his life on his own and as he wishes. That rules and laws are equally applicable to everyone be he a ruler or be he one of the ruled. That all the persons are born to rule themselves only and not others.

Thus, acting in a rational and consistent manner means to have and show regard for the inalienable rights and freedoms of others. Whoever violates these freedoms of others loses his right to these freedoms. The rule of law is the only means to protect these inalienable rights and freedoms of every person without any discrimination. It is rule of law that is the greatest supporter of ordinary people and have-nots. Hence, one who plays with it, one who defies it, one who makes a travesty of it, never deserves any sympathy be he Saddam Hussein or someone else!


Dr. Khalil Ahmad is the founder and Executive Director of the Alternate Solutions Institute, Pakistan’s first free market think-tank

This article appeared in The News on January 21, 2007.