Special Report

It Was So Different

In praise of Anwar Sadat, martyred 25 years ago.

By 10.12.06

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Salim Mansur wrote a column Saturday, October 7 in the Toronto Sun in which he reflected that our present Islamist troubles began 25 years ago, when, on "Oct. 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, was gunned down while attending a military parade commemorating the Yom Kippur War (also known as the Ramadan War) of October 1973 between Arabs and Israelis."

As Mansur pointed out, "Sadat's murderers belonged to the extreme fanatical sect, Takfir wal-Hijra (translation: excommunication and flight) -- an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main fundamentalist party in Egypt."

In 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini's radical Shiite movement had ousted the Shah of Iran and taken over the Persian government, as well as capturing 52 American hostages from our embassy. Sadat's murder was of a piece with that movement.

The reason for Sadat's assassination? He had decided to make peace with Israel, and had reached out to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who responded to his overtures. Sadat traveled to Israel, and later signed the Camp David Accords of 1978. I remember Sadat and Begin paraded before the cameras by President Jimmy Carter, who forced the two into a three-way two-hand handshake of solidarity, which Carter would not let go. Sadat, a pipe smoker, had his pipe in his mouth, and was beginning to drool by the time the grinning Carter finally allowed the six-hand shake to be released.

HOW DIFFERENT IT WAS BACK THEN. We in the United States identified Israel's enemies simply as "Arabs," and saw no real distinction of motive. We had not begun to understand Islamic fundamentalism. There were simply episodes in the ongoing Israel-Arab conflict, which sometimes broke into outright war, in which the Israelis kicked the Arabs' butts. Interspersed were horrifying incidents of what we then called terrorism, which involved kidnappings, machine gun murders, and the like -- the 1972 kidnapping and slaughter of the Israeli Olympic team at Munich being an archetypical example.

I had been married once, and divorced, and had moved to California. Many of my former in-laws were Israelis. I had identified with the conflict.

On the day the newspapers headlined, "Sadat Says, 'No More War,'" I sat down on the curb next to the news box near the Santa Monica library and I cried.

SADAT'S ASSASSINATION ITSELF was theatrically horrible. He was sitting in a grandstand erected alongside a wide empty piece of tarmac at an airfield, reviewing a procession of tanks and troops. Suddenly, from those ranks of disciplined Egyptian soldiers, a band of assassins -- in uniform -- bearing machine guns ran toward the reviewing stand, stood in front and at the corners of the seats, and hosed the reviewing party with bullets.

It was said that, when Sadat realized his fate, he stood up to take the bullets in his chest.

Now, how different was it right here, in the United States? One of our most popular television programs was Saturday Night Live, which occupied a position of informal political influence and expression similar to The Daily Show now. The Saturday after Sadat's death, the SNL troupe put on a silent skit, all solemn, where a camera followed the wreckage in a grandstand, and a hand was seen picking up first one trademark of Sadat, then another: a pair of broken horn-rimmed glasses, a pipe.

Today, our mainstream media seems to have no sympathy, other than that programmed by political correctness. We made fun of President Carter regularly, but not meanly. Television could express genuine sorrow -- recall Jim McKay's grief-laden, "They're all gone" from Munich in 1972 -- and not just the smirk of the smart aleck.

"In his memoir, Search of Identity, Sadat explained his motive," Mansur wrote. "He awoke to the reality, as he described it, that peace in the region required scaling the walls that enclosed Arabs and Israelis in a relationship of mutual distrust, fear and hate. He had waged war boldly for Arab honour, he said, and would strive for peace for the children of Arabs and Jews with no less courage."

How different it was.

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.

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Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.