(19) The Irony of Ironies

By Yahiya Emerick

     How little we fear the beast within all of us. What separates a good man from a bad one? What is the dividing line over which a “normal” human being becomes a tyrannical monster? I often ask myself this question when I see news reports on television about the “evil” Saddam Hussein or the “evil” rebels in country X, Y or Z. What makes one person do the unspeakable as easy as spreading butter on bread?

If you read the biographies of some of the world’s most infamous killers, you often find they had relatively normal lives, with perhaps a few tragedies, but by far nothing so outrageous as to make one a monster. Hitler didn’t have a bad childhood, Saddam Hussein’s upbringing was no different than that of thousands of other orphans in the Middle East and even Cortes, the butcher of the Aztec empire, had a relatively normal upbringing and life. What happened?

I remember soon after accepting Islam a small hadith book that I happened across. It had a saying of the Blessed Prophet which still remains with me today. Basically, the Prophet said that Allah keeps some people in poverty, not out of punishment, but as a mercy, because if they were wealthy, they would become arrogant and lead a shameful and rebellious way of life. This saying often consoles poor Muslims like myself, but how many of us look beyond the material import of this hadith?

Is there a wider connotation and application here? I believe so. Do you remember that age-old question you were asked when you were a kid? “What would you do if you were king of the world?” Such a thought filled our heads with wonder. “Everything I want for free!” We would shout. Visions of world order, (our version of it), and endless delights flooded our vision. Ah, the days of care-free dreamers!

But what if you were made king of the world? You know, you are the king. If not the whole world, because that might be a little unrealistic right now, how about being the absolute ruler of a country- any country? What would you do? How would you run things? Would you listen to people who disagreed with you? What would you do with people you felt were against you? You are the king, after all, so you could do whatever you want to whoever you want. Sounds awesome doesn’t it?

If you’re like me, you like to consider yourself as a pretty nice and fair person. You’re not mean, cruel or sadistic. You like to help people and you like civilized, friendly interaction with people. Are the current kings and dictators of the world created from a different species? No. So why do they do such horrible things when they’re in power? Perhaps having the childhood dream come true can actually become our worst nightmare.

From my reading of both ancient and current history, there has never been a kind and compassionate dictator. Although there were a few, a very few, nice kings, the vast majority of them have been bad also. Look at this: if a king seems nice, but then busies himself with squandering wealth in the mindless pursuit of pleasure palaces and “fun”, then even most nice kings would really come in as crooks as well.

Let me pose an interesting question: If for some reason, some fluke of fate, Saddam Hussein never became the dictator of Iraq, and instead happened to immigrate to suburban America in his mid-twenties, would he still be the same person with the same capacities for good or evil? Of course, because the mind-set of the person is fixed to a great degree, barring any life-shattering experiences.

Let’s go further in our question and say that Saddam Hussein opened a grocery store or gas station and entered the life of a businessman. He might frequent the local Arab Masjid for ethnic affiliation purposes and might even pray. (He’s always shown on Iraqi TV praying all the time now as it is.) He might be considered an upstanding member of the local immigrant community and his kids would be playing basketball in the driveway as opposed to directing hit-squads now.

For all practical purposes, everyone would see him as a nice guy who’s trying to get his slice of the American dream. Maybe, since his personality is on the aggressive side, he might beat his wife or be rough with people who owe him money, but those qualities are hardly looked down upon in the ethnic community he is a part of even as most Americans don’t consider it a pressing issue.

But Saddam Hussein’s fate didn’t go that way. Instead he clawed his way to the top of a military in a wealthy nation and became master of everyone and everything around him. Ever since then there has been nothing but wars, murders, wealth-squandering, fear and violence. I remember when I first saw images of the Kurds who were gassed to death many years ago by the Iraqi military. Then the invasion of Iran and the murder of countless prisoners of war. Then the brutal invasion of Kuwait and the crushing of the Shi’a Muslims in the south of Iraq. Stories of torture, murder and mayhem and then the final straw, his preferring to be in power over the welfare of his people being relieved from crushing sanctions- all these things paint a picture of a brutal, evil man.

But what would you do in his place? What if you grew up in a country and a time in which the opportunity for total power presented itself to you? What if you made it to the top and were always fearful of someone trying to assassinate you? You might be brutal too. After all, to get to the top, you always make people angry and jealous along the way. And the very crucible of power being related to Kibr (love of greatness) being related to Kufr (disbelief) means that if you sought power, you weren’t a Muslim anyway.

(The Blessed Prophet once said that whoever has a bit of the love of greatness in their heart will not enter Paradise. He also mentioned that Allah will grasp the earth and declare, “I am the King. Where are the kings of the earth?” Did you know that the love of being a show-off and admired by people is classified as minor shirk?)

But how can the claim be made that some of us “nice” people would also become bad if we had absolute power? Think about it. Some men only have power over their wives and children. Isn’t it true that many, many men beat and abuse their wives and children? Many of these men are publicly and socially considered to be “nice” members of the community. What if they had power over millions of people?

Isn’t it true that many people try to “get around” the law whenever possible? Maybe they cheat on their taxes, steal something small or just go over the speed limit. What if such a person was in charge of making the laws? Would they suddenly become conscious of the law? I doubt it. They would just get around the laws they made a little easier.

I have a lot of friends who come from Muslim countries. Every last one of them has described their country as a place of corruption and double-dealing. Even the traffic cop has to be bribed. If it’s that bad, then it must mean that most people in the society are morally corrupt on one level or another. That’s not to say America or Western Europe is the land of honesty now. It’s well known that most Americans are chronic liars and hypocrites. But because I want to focus on making Muslims think, I’m focusing on our community more.

Everyone cries about Suharto in Indonesia and his financial corruption. But would another Indonesian leader suddenly behave honestly? Because of the way the very government and society itself are structured, whoever makes it through the “system” will also have to be corrupt.

Not to get anybody mad at me, but do you know what the biggest complaint converted Muslims talk about when they gather is? The hypocrisy and dishonesty of immigrant Muslims. Somebody had to say it. No, don’t write a letter to me saying I’m immigrant-bashing or that you are the model Muslim and therefore all Muslims are models of piety and virtue as well. Because there are very few genuine believers among the Muslim population of the world and if you can’t recognize that then you need to open your eyes.

Again, I don’t want anyone to think I’m subtly saying America is better or even that Muslims from the West are better, because I’m not. Americans take religion as an utter joke; picking and choosing whatever they please. I just feel bad when I see many Muslims doing the same. Do you know how many praying and fasting Muslims are involved in Riba? Most are. Do you know how many gossip, back-bite, swindle and everything else? A lot do. Americans, Frenchmen and the English do all these things as well, perhaps to a greater degree, because they are all basically secular agnostics if you really think about it, but there is just no excuse for a Muslim to do these things.

The ability to abuse what you have power over is tremendous. The desire to feel powerful, to feel great is overwhelming. I remember reading a line from the autobiography of Imam Abu Hamid al Ghazali where he said that there came a point in his life when he noticed that he began to love hearing his voice while giving lectures. He began to love the attention from eager students and seekers of knowledge. That could have destroyed him.

But when he realized the dangerous situation he was in, he basically ran away from the public spotlight and became a wandering hermit for a while. How many of us realize the danger when we spin around town and feel “awesome” in our flashy sports cars and clothes. Yes, the hypocrisy of many immigrants, who otherwise pray and fast, is appalling. When Khalifa Umar ibn al Khattab found out Mu’awiyah and his friends were living the high life in Syria, he rode there forthwith and confronted them in their mansions. He hit them with his riding stick and confiscated all their ill-gotten wealth and put it back in the government treasury. A lot of affluent Muslims in the world today need to be hit with a stick!

I have met brothers who love to be praised. You see their faces glow as if in response to the flowery words being showered upon them by their adoring fans. I have met brothers who work in “Islamic” organizations who act like little dictators- ordering people around and bullying them. I have met brothers who work in national “Islamic” organizations who are so into nepotism and cronyism that I fail to see the difference between them and whatever Suharto of Indonesia has been accused of.

Even in little “Islamic” schools and Masjids, I have seen unqualified people being hired for no other reason than that they’re either friends or are related to one of the Board members or financial backers. Does all this kind of corruption go on in “Christian” America? Of course. But Muslims have the uncorrupted word of Allah while non-Muslims don’t. Muslims have no excuses.

What would happen if some of those “Muslims” were suddenly in charge of a country with no limits on their authority? I suspect there would be as much suppression and mayhem as there is now. What about those of us who consider ourselves to be “nice” and true believers? Well, maybe Allah is being merciful to us because if we had power, we might become immoral and corrupt as well.

If you ever knew something was wrong, but did it anyway, then beware the beast within and praise Allah if you are poor and powerless as it may be the best thing that has ever happened to you.

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