In June, Samuel Helfont published a paper for the Middle East Institute entitled, ‘Saddam and the Islamists: The Ba’thist Regime’s Instrumentalization of Religion in Foreign Affairs’. Relying on “newly released Iraqi state and Ba’th Party archives,” Helfont’s central argument is:
“Saddam maintained deep reservations about Islamism until the end. However, this did not prevent his regime from working extensively with Islamists and Islamic activists outside Iraq. Indeed, religion played a leading role in the country’s foreign policy throughout the 1990s.”
Helfont writes that Saddam’s co-operation with the Islamists was the “result of a calculated policy of instrumentalizing Islam to neutralize Islamist opposition, and convince some Islamists to support Saddam’s strategic objectives. Thus Islam did not guide Iraqi policy; rather, it was a tool to achieve policy goals.” This blows apart one of the prevailing myths about Iraq: that Saddam Hussein would never work with Islamic terrorists, and certainly not al-Qaeda.
A year after Saddam began al-hamla al-imaniya (the faith campaign) in 1993, Saddam’s son Uday made contact with Osama bin Laden through a Sudanese cut-out. Saddamist representatives made contact with bin Laden again in February 1995, agreeing to broadcast religious sermons against the Saudi monarchy into Saudi Arabia and “perform joint operations” against the foreign forces in Arabia. They agreed to “develop the relationship” and this continued once bin Laden moved to Afghanistan in 1996. Saddam had some reservations about bin Laden but he knew an anti-American ally when saw one.
For those tempted to see this as in some way connected to the sanctions and a regime in desperate material straits in search of legitimacy, it should be noted that Saddam’s outreach to the Islamists began in the 1980s. In July 1986, the Ba’ath regime reversed prior policy and initiated extensive outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood. Saddam did not have much luck with the Egyptian Ikhwans, who were sympathetic to Iran. Reuel Marc Gerecht has noted, “Egypt has perhaps the most Shiite-sympathetic religious identity in the Sunni Arab world,” and this applies to her Islamists, too. Saddam made much better inroads with Syrian Ikhwans, whose revolt against an Iranian-allied dictatorship Saddam had helped train, fund, and arm. Syria’s Brethren never forgave Iran for tacitly supporting Hafez al-Assad’s crushing their uprising at Hama. The most radical of the Brotherhood’s survivors in 1982 took refuge in Saddam’s Iraq.
In 1983, Saddam hosted a “Popular Islamic Conference” in Baghdad, assisted by the Saudis through Marouf al-Dawalibi, a former Prime Minister of Syria, who used Saudi networks to bring 280 religious scholars from fifty States to Iraq to condemn Iran, with whom Saddam was then at war, in Islamic terms as the aggressor. Saddam had invaded Iran but his offensive had stalled in months, after which Saddam repeatedly sought a ceasefire that the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini refused, determined to overrun the Ba’ath regime and institute a sister republic to his Islamic Revolution. This was the Islamists’ basis for identifying Iran as the aggressor. These conferences continued and in 1987 Saddam expanded their influence by establishing the Popular Islamic Conference Organization (PICO) with a permanent headquarters in Baghdad. In 1989, the Saddam University for Islamic Studies was set up, where half the students had to be foreign, which taught an uncompromising version of Islam and instructed on the Islamic legitimacy of the regime.
When Saddam turned PICO against the Saudis during the Kuwait War in 1990-91, alleging that the Saudis had “challenge[d] God when they put the Mecca of the Muslims … under the spears of the foreigner,” he outmanoeuvred the Khaleeji States. The leadership of many of the Islamist organisations were on the Gulfies’ payroll, but their rank-and-file supported Saddam, an avenger who was facing the Americans and had linked his conquest of Kuwait to the Palestinian cause. Few were the Arabs in that year who recognised, as Emile Habibi did, that “The only linkage that the Palestinians would come out with is the one that ties their cause to the fate of the Iraqi leadership”. Men of the stature of Hassan al-Turabi journeyed to Baghdad to vouch for Saddam’s Islamic credentials, and in his wake would follow others like Ayman az-Zawahiri.
Saddam also “co-opted, coerced, or created from scratch” Islamist organisations, Helfont notes. This is a familiar pattern. Algerian defectors have explained how, as part of their effort to defeat an Islamist insurgency, Algeria’s intelligence agency (the DRS) infiltrated and took control of the Islamist groups, while “[c]reating, from scratch, armed groups led by ’emirs’ who were actually officers of the DRS,” whose violence and fanaticism discredited the opposition and the Islamist cause. Something similar is happening now in Syria. Saddam also allowed foreign Shi’ites to resume their pilgrimages to Najaf and Karbala the better for the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) to recruit especially Iranian spies through these Islamic organisations.
Helfont’s conclusion is therefore unassailable: Saddam engaged in a “long, detailed process of building [Islamist] institutions and networks to carry out policy and realize Iraq’s strategic aims. In doing so, Iraq worked toward shaping the regional religio-political landscape to meet its needs.” In short, the Saddam Hussein regime was deeply entangled with international Islamic terrorism and in shaping the whole culture and institutional basis of Salafi-jihadism. There is no argument that Saddam’s statecraft from at least the late 1980s was thoroughly Islamised.
There is a separate question about the internal character of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Helfont says that his paper “will not go into detail about Iraq’s domestic policies concerning Islam,” but he adds that co-operation with Islamists “was largely unrelated to the regime’s domestic policies or ideological convictions,” and makes clear that he thinks Saddam regime used Islamists rather that was Islamist.
For example, Helfont makes a lot of a March 1996 speech Saddam gave to Iraq’s “parliament”. In it Saddam rejects those who call for Islamic unity as expressing a “tendentious call” and says his regime is ideologically closest to the “Nasserists … whose call is based on … nationalism”. This speech was distributed and “read aloud to every Ba’th party member,” thus it “can be deemed a reliable indicator of the regime’s actual policy, rather than simply public posturing,” Helfont says. He also quotes from Joseph Sassoon’s book on Saddam running a vigorous campaign to repress the Islamists at the height of the “faith campaign”.
But I wonder if Helfont doesn’t set up a distinction without a difference. As Helfont himself notes, “the regime’s use of religion was … more than a mere rhetorical shift”; it altered policy. The steps Saddam took to Islamize Iraq are well-documented. Among other things: alcohol was banned, nightclubs were closed, prostitutes were beheaded in the street, a personal militia (the Fedayeen Saddam) patrolled the streets as a kind of mutaween (religious police), compulsory religious instruction was introduced for Ba’ath Party members, and the death penalty was introduced for homosexuality. What is the difference between a regime that institutes the shari’a and a regime that institutes the shari’a where the ruler doesn’t believe in it?
Further, looking at the same evidence as Helfont, other scholars like Amatzia Baram have concluded that Saddam’s regime was an Islamist one before the end. There is also the testimony of Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s son-in-law, who defected in 1995, exposing Saddam’s long-suspected biological weapons of mass destruction (BWMD) program. Kamel told Rolf Ekeus, the U.N.’s lead inspector,
“The government … is instigating fundamentalism … Ba’ath Party members have to pass a religious exam. … They even stopped party meetings for prayers.”
Moreover, the record of Saddam’s use of Islam comes before he was weakened by the wars he started with Iran and the American-led coalition over Kuwait. Kanan Makiya’s ‘Republic of Fear,’ one of the most detailed analyses of the pre-1990 Saddam regime, gives the example of Saddam producing a family tree linking himself to Imam Ali, the patron saint of Shi’ism.
“The gesture was not made in weakness, or as an attempt by Saddam to ingratiate himself with Shi’is … On the contrary it signified total contempt for the populace.”
Saddam didn’t have to appeal to Islam; he chose to, and always had. The Ba’ath was interwoven with Islam from the start. Helfont himself notes “the Ba’th Party’s time-honored reverence for Islam”. The Ba’ath’s founder, Michel Aflaq, himself a Christian (who seems to have converted to Islam before he died), said that when Arab Christians’ “nationalism is fully awakened” they will see their way to Islam. And Makiya expands on this by pointing out that Ba’athism was “bound up” with Islam in a historical, political, and societal manner that “renders the term secularism useless with respect to understanding Ba’thi politics.”
That said, Saddam’s regime—almost exactly like Assad’s—was at heart a clan-based and sectarian one, and over time this dynamic became more pronounced. While the (Sunni-dominated) Iraqi Ba’ath regime had reached an accommodation with the Shi’ite merchant class on coming to power, in the 1980s Saddam deported 100,000 or more Shi’ites as Iranian “fifth columnists,” including most of the merchants. After the Shi’a uprising in 1991, Saddam’s regime felt itself vindicated in its suspicion of the Shi’a and was increasingly marked by Sunni supremacism. Ba’athist ideology certainly had a role in Saddam’s Iraq, but as the regime began to feel the pain of the disasters it brought on itself and the Iraqis it fell back on the identity its leaders held most deeply: Islam. This was the assessment given by the late Fouad Ajami, who once wrote that while Saddam’s regime had been regarded by many Westerners as secular, “those who know [Iraq] well tell a different story. In the final years … the Baathist tyranny reinvented itself as a conservative Islamic state. The regime was digging in”.
If this is so, however, why is the common perception so at variance with the truth? Ali Allawi, who held several Ministries in Iraq after Saddam was overthrown, offers an explanation. Allawi notes that even Iraqis who left Iraq in the early 1990s did not recognise their country when they returned after 2003, so those who had been out of the country longer—who were more influential in shaping Western perceptions about Iraq, having had more time to establish links with the media and academia—were even farther removed from the truth. These were the Iraqis who played down Iraq’s sectarianism—giving the example of interconfessional marriages, for example, which might have been relatively common in their social strata and time but where nationally infinitesimal—and helped disseminate a “false impression … about the strength of the middle classes who purportedly shared a common, secular outlook that defined the ‘real’ Iraq.” To be clear, these people had not lied, they just lived in Iraq at an exceptional time. The 1970s oil boom had expanded Iraqis’ personal income and the middle class, who “considered the 1970s to be a ‘golden period,’ in spite of the regime’s increasing brutality.” But the basis of this prosperity was fragile. By massive borrowing, Saddam was able to mitigate the impact on the middle class of the Iran-Iraq War, during which the aforementioned deportation of the Shi’ite merchants robbed Iraq of its main wealth-producers, but by the early 1990s the whole stage of illusions came crashing down—and then the sanctions were added on top. By the time the regime fell, the middle class had been destroyed, either driven into exile or penury, and “Iraqi Arabs … were no different from the other increasingly religious denizens of the region,” as Gerecht put it. Even if Helfont is right and Saddam disliked religion in politics, his regime was appealing to somebody with it Islamist overtures, and, again, if the citizens of Iraq were functionally living under theocracy, what difference does it make that the ruler didn’t think this was the best outcome?
One can add that in the 1970s, Saddam’s regime had propagandised about its secular progress, especially on women’s rights. But this too was an illusion. Makiya said of this that in fact “ideologically Islamic values were still intact,” and to the extent male domination of females had been shifted out of the hands of fathers, uncles, and brothers, it had been given to the all-male party, army, and “the ever-so-male person of Saddam Husain who is surely more awesome than most fathers.” Saddam thus reduced some traditional family/clan patriarchal power the better to exert direct State control over Iraq’s female citizens. This is not quite how modernisation was sold by Saddam’s Western apologists.
The implication here is clear: Iraq’s problems are overwhelmingly of Iraqi creation. The sanctions cannot be blamed: the Kurds, under the same sanctions, created a society with the lowest infant mortality in the region. Nor did the 2003 invasion incite the sectarian furies that plague present-day Iraq. Coalition forces found a society drained of its most talented members, shorn of its mercy and its dignity, brutalised, terrified, and yearning to settle accounts and restore some of its pride, first and foremost with revenge. It was the Shi’a political class that “failed to rise to this historic occasion and to the responsibilities which its own numbers impose on it.” External actors like al-Qaeda and its mutant the Islamic State (I.S.) and Iran made this worse, but it was the regime, having shattered the society and incited these hatreds in its divide-and-rule strategy, that gave them the space to operate.
Iraq’s miseries occur in the shadow of the Saddam’s regime and the “faith campaign” lives on. The graduates of this Saddamist-Salafist program are now—with the Chechen Salafi-jihadists—the backbone of the I.S.’s military campaign, another demonstration that whether he believed it or not Saddam’s Islamization of Iraq had deep and lasting effects. Just as in Egypt and other post-dictatorial societies, the antagonisms among the population, the chaos, and the fanaticism are the “dictatorships’ harvest,” not the consequence of removing the tyrannies—indeed if anything they make a strong case for having removed the regimes earlier, before they could do so much damage.
Helfont concludes by noting that this study of Saddam’s Iraq shows that religion can be “more than a mere aspect of ideology or identity, religion can play an active and concrete role in international relations.” He gives the example of PICO, which formed a “shadow diplomatic corps” in the 1990s. While Saddam’s official diplomatic relations were severed, he was able to make contact with States like Saudi Arabia through these Islamic organisations. This aspect does certainly warrant more study.
See also two subsequent posts on this subject: Saddam and the Islamists, Part 2 and Saddam Hussein’s Regime Produced The Islamic State.