The foundations of ISIS: How secular tyranny fostered religious zealotry in the Middle East

In a review of Wendell Steavenson’s The Weight of a Mustard Seed, Kyle W. Orton writes: Kamel Sachet [one of Saddam Hussein’s favourite and most senior generals] came to religion in prison. In 1983, for no given reason, Sachet was thrown in Ar-Rashid Number One prison, where the only thing detainees were allowed to read was the Qur’an. While State radio was permitted, even State newspapers were banned. Sachet learned the Qur’an by rote, expressing regret he had not done so when he was young.

Sachet showed signs of a more Salafist view of Islam even at this early stage. Sachet told a prisoner he befriended that he wished his friend was not a Shi’a because the shrines were Islamically wrong. Sachet was deeply, personally offended by alcohol and the mixing of the sexes. Perhaps above all, Sachet was given to Islamic fatalism. “If I die … then it means that is the time for me to die,” Sachet said. This apolitical piety also counselled loyalty to the ruler.

In prison, under threat of death and daily torture, men began to take solace in the faith. This pattern of prisons as Islamist production facilities is repeated all throughout the region, notoriously in Syria.

In pondering why the monstrous apparatus of Saddam’s regime functioned — — why didn’t the population just rise as one and refuse any longer to be ruled in this way?  —  Steavenson mentions the Zimbardo prison experiment. It is a good analogy and it can be pushed further.

During the war with Iran, most Iraqi officers  —  with the straight choice of continuing to throw young men into an inferno or be tortured and murdered — resorted to a fatalism of their own: “What could I do?” (a phrase that recurs as Steavenson meets the old Ba’athists). At all levels, some Iraqis found solace in Dutch courage, some found solace in the promise of a life to follow this one.

Anyone can see why, during the horror of the Iran-Iraq War or one of Saddam’s prisons, Islam, with its calming rituals and promise of paradise, would have an appeal. But just look at Saddam’s Iraq. From 1980 through Kuwait 1990–91, then the “armed truce” and siege of the 1990s, Iraq was at war for very nearly twenty-five years. The conditions of political terror that went along with this in Saddam’s Iraq are notorious, and the breakdown of provisions and order in the 1990s was heaped on top. In short, Iraq under Saddam was one big prison with wartime conditions. Is it any wonder religion’s appeal increased in Iraq during Saddam’s rule? Or that the aftermath should resemble the disorder and brutality of a prison riot?

The “modern” ideologies — — pan-Arabism, Communism, Ba’athism  — failed; nobody could be convinced that the period of trauma was going to give way to a brighter tomorrow. People gave up on the promise of this life and instead sought to compensate the misery endured in the here-and-now with the promise of a blissful life to come. [Continue reading…]

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