Saddam’s Koran moment

saddam and the koranWhat is the significance of Saddam Hussein holding a Koran as he headed to the gallows Saturday morning? It’s not the first time a brutal tyrant reached for religious symbols as the people he formerly ruled sent him to his Creator. And it won’t be the last. The job of the journalist is to tell us what it means and how the Iraqi people perceived the symbol.

First off, notice how a Reuters article placed the Koran in the lead and the Times of India website placed it in the headline:

Clutching a Koran and refusing a hood, Saddam Hussein was hanged at dawn on Saturday. It was a dramatic, violent end for a dictator who ruled Iraq for three decades before he was toppled by a US-led invasion in 2003.

Note the Koran’s treatment by the Associated Press in the sixth paragraph:

His jet black hair was carefully combed, his salt-and-pepper beard neatly clipped. He carried a Koran.

Is the Koran a mere detail to be added along with the (dyed) color of his hair? What message is Saddam trying to send? Is it wrong of me to suggest that perhaps the Butcher of Baghdad, despised by so many for his secularism, had something of a reconversion to Islam before he was executed?

The more likely story is that Saddam, recognizing like Charles I that people would scrutinize his final actions, wanted to send some sort of message. But what message did he want to send and what message did the Iraqi people and Arab Muslims at large receive?

These are just a few questions that I’m hoping are answered in the coming weeks as we watch the fallout of the execution of one of the world’s most brutal dictators.

I thought it was interesting that The Washington Post did not mention the Koran until about 30 paragraphs into its magnificently detailed account of the execution:

Hussein carried a dark green Koran in his clasped hands, witnesses said. At the steps to the gallows, he turned to [prosecutor Munqith al-Faroun] and asked him to give the book to the son of his co-defendant Awad Haman Bander. Bander, like Hussein, was sentenced to death for the killings of 148 Shiite men and boys from the northern town of Dujail.

“What if I don’t see him?” Faroun asked.

“Keep it until you meet with any of my family members,” Faroun recalled Hussein saying.

The significance of the Koran, or lack thereof, is a story in and of itself. But it’s only the surface story. The deeper story is Saddam’s spiritual state as he headed to the gallows. The clutched Koran is a good place to start.

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  • Judy Harrow

    The problem, with anybody we don’t know personally and very well, is how can we possibly know anything at all about their inner spiritual state? And, really, what difference does it make to us what kind of belief a public figure professes? Only their practical behavior might possibly affect us.

    Someone close to death will probably not have the time or ability to take any non-symbolic action. Their words, and their symbolic actions, may be simply intended to present some sort of image or make some sort of statement, which may or may not be real and sincere. From an outsider’s view, how could we possibly know? So the speculation is pointless. His spiritual state, especially now, is between him and Deity.

  • Jerry

    In cases like this I want to see how non-US media covers the story; especially the Islamic press.

    Al Jazeera told the story differently. The early story did not mention the Quran

    The later one that covered the video expressed it this way:
    “…Saddam began reciting the Shahada, a Muslim prayer that says there is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger, according to an unabridged copy of the video clip, which was posted on a website.

    Saddam made it to midway through his second recitation of the verse. His last word was Muhammad. Then the floor dropped out of the gallows.” reported that he clutched the Quran.

    I’m not sure what we can make of all of this as others have already pointed out. Whether or not he was playing to history and/or expressing his true beliefs is between him and God.

  • tmatt

    I would assume that the Koran is sending the same message as he tried to send in the trial — the effort to overthrow his government was an attack on Islam.

  • Philocrites

    See especially this New York Times story, which describes in great detail the conversation at the gallows:

    This exchange jumped out at me:

    The general prosecutor asked Mr. Hussein to whom he wanted to give his Koran. He said Bandar, the son of Awad al-Bandar, the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court who was also to be executed soon.

    The room was quiet as everyone began to pray, including Mr. Hussein. “Peace be upon Mohammed and his holy family.”

    Two guards added, “Supporting his son Moktada, Moktada, Moktada.”

    Mr. Hussein seemed a bit stunned, swinging his head in their direction.

    They were talking about Moktada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric whose militia is now committing some of the worst violence in the sectarian fighting; he is the son of a revered Shiite cleric, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, whom many believe Mr. Hussein ordered murdered.

    “Moktada?” he spat out, mixing sarcasm and disbelief.

    Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security adviser, asked Mr. Hussein if he had any remorse or fear.

    “No,” he said bluntly. “I am a militant and I have no fear for myself. I have spent my life in jihad and fighting aggression. Anyone who takes this route should not be afraid.”

    The story describes several instances of prayer as well as curses.

  • Deborah

    It’s interesting that Middle East media recounted Hussein’s last word as “Muhammad” spoken in the middle of a prayer, while the New York Times said he was in the midst of cursing his enemies.

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