Heroic feats are no mean feats. I wrote recently on how knighthoods are given out too easily by the government, making populist decisions on a short-term basis. Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins are idolised far too quickly. If they were touted for promoting healthy lifestyles through cycling showing determination and success, I’d be happier with the awards. Winning the Tour De France in such a tainted sport and with a whole team working for you or Olympic gold medals in a variety of non-events is not enough. However they, at least, strove to achieve.
Political heroes must stand up to much higher levels of criticism and evaluation. They must face the media over their present and pasts and later face revisionist historical analysis in which they have no say. Churchill was a great British hero but also made tactical judgement calls that would be severely criticised now. Clinton’s sexual affairs overrode his legacy. Mandela was, somewhat legitimately, called a terrorist by the South African government of the time. We dismissed this at the time but now the state is happy to use the terrorist label for any violent opponent.
When you ask a question at work (and across the ME) to name a hero, the same names come up and they will surprise. I’ll give you the top 3 I heard.
1. Saddam Hussain is considered a hero and great leader in much of the Middle East. He was known as the Sword, heralded for holding together a country and fighting Iran. The evidence cited of his greatness is the present situation in Iraq. He built infrastructure and even sent a rocket into space. I heard congratulates for invading and defeating the great State of Kuwait in a matter of hours! Nasser was the Arab previous hero.
What seems to be ignored is the war in Iran was a disaster. He also lost it. He also sent rockets other places including Iran, Kuwait, Israel and the Kurdish area of his own country replete with poison gas while enriching himself and allowing his sons to kidnap and rape women. What is also not mentioned is the support for Saddam is mostly based on his Sunni religion. If he was Shia, he would be vilified. Just ask Assad in Syria. This grand divide is the fundamental in the region.
2. ‘I like Hitler because he killed a lot of Jews’ said a Middle East diplomat to me. He said it directly and with a slight smile. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard his Hitler’s name mentioned. We were talking about political heroes and what makes a good leader as part of the diplomacy course. Others roll their eyes at these comments, but I am not sure if they disagree or are just aware of the consequences of such opinion. The only positive coming from that statement was the lack of Holocaust denial though David Irvine does get quoted sometimes.
The Israeli-Arab divide is another long running sore leading to suspicion, anger and Palestinian poverty, The Israel Government is doing everything to protect its state, constantly using the mantra of survival to maintain its destructive policies. The Arab states use the Palestinian disaster as a nationalist rallying call within their own state, a tactic to deflect attention away from the dsyfunctionality and illegitimacy of their own governments. Heroes are therefore defined by victimisaton rather than heroic actions.
3. The above leads onto the third category of heroes in the Middle East; national leaders. Idolatry is banished in Islam. Images of the prophets or God are absent from any mosque. The uproar over the Danish cartoons was as much about the image of the prophet as much as the satire. Yet through the Middle East, imagery of leaders and heroes is rife. Every building in Qatar has two pictures: of the former Emir Hamed and the present Emir, his son Tamin. They adorn office walls and whole buildings and are thanked on the news every night. Qatar doesn’t go as far as Kuwait and the UAE which run hourly adverts between programs highlighting the sincerity and benevolence of the leaders.
The cult of personality is not unique to the region. Thailand salutes the king before every movie with the national anthem. The Stans are run by various despots. The US salutes the flag regularly and salutes its heroes, including some eyebrow-raising ones. Even in the UK, a few decades ago it was common to see a picture of the Queen in a pub though more in affection rather than adulation.
This form of nationalism is of course mandatory in a lot of the world. The media in the ME is controlled, pulling inconvenient stories from foreign papers, blocking internet access and running sycophantic stories in the press. The Middle East doesn’t go as far as North Korea where people are forced to wear badges with the image of the leader, cry on command and prostrate themselves to his wishes. But nationalism and religious fervency are not so far apart. They lead to the same end; a desire to submit to a greater power and ironically Islam does mean submission.
While I am not arguing for greater openness in the Middle East, the lack of non-political heroes indicates either political strife hence a nationalistic form of education or a lack of development outside the traditions of war and religion. Many are new states. Stability and order prevail.