Ba’athism had been dead for a decade by the time Saddam fell

In an interview with Joel Wing over at Musings on Iraq, Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst, contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and who blogs at The Syrian Intifada, said: In June 1993, Saddam begins the Faith Campaign. In effect it was the creation of a religious movement with Saddam at the helm. Saddam chose to mix Salafism into the regime’s ideology because he feared the Muslim Brotherhood; it was his old enemy and was more covert and had branches abroad. Under the sanctions-plus-dictatorship regime, the changes of the 1970s intensified, and many more looked for solace in the faith. Clerics become community leaders in Sunni areas in a way they hadn’t been since at least the 1950s and in the Shi’a areas the mid-level clerics had their power expanded at the expense of senior clerics, and a shari’a system was instituted, including with penalties like amputation of the hand for theft and execution for adultery (carried out by beheading in a public square or on the doorstep of a woman’s father.)

The resulting “Ba’athi-Salafism” worked in the Sunni areas, changing the majority’s conception of their faith and drawing them closer to the regime — not least because it was accompanied by a massive patronage network, much of it distributed through the mosques to the tribes, to give the regime some pillars to resist a repeat of the 1991 Shi’a revolt. The regime’s new Islamism also lowered the tension with the “pure” Salafi Trend, which Saddam now saw as a complement to his project, whereas previously they’d been seen as subversives — witness the difference in Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, dismissed from the police in the late 1980s, and Kamel Sachet who remained a senior officer until Saddam had him killed in 1998.

The Campaign really deeply affected the security sector. The religious instruction was intense, and a great number of Saddam’s officers ended up slipping into the “pure” Salafism. One of the less-advertised aspects of the Faith Campaign was the infiltration of the mosques to keep the religious revival Saddam was fostering under control, but since Ba’athism was a spent force and many of the military guys saw Saddam as having led the country to disaster, they found they could take the Salafism without the Saddamism. Some of the “pure” Salafis went too far and launched attacks against the regime, and Saddam tried to manipulate the Salafi Trend and took out some of its leaders, but that says more about Saddam’s approach to power than his beliefs. (It’s incidental to the effects of the Faith Campaign but Saddam seems to have got religion before the end — to have come to believe what he likely started cynically.)

In the Shi’a areas, the Faith Campaign backfired almost entirely, worsening State-Shi’a relations and exacerbating sectarianism generally. The regime’s fear of the Shi’a after the 1991 revolt got the better of it. The savagery with which the revolt was put down left a lot of scars, but they were not insurmountable. The security measures, however, which visibly told the Shi’a that the regime perceived of the community in toto as potential subversives, and the clear lack of equity in the distribution of resources — from State employment to mosque patronage to repairs from the Iran-Iraq War — meant that the resentments from 1991 never abated. Moreover, Shi’a clerics who spoke up too much — or who just got too popular — would be assassinated; nothing like that happened in the Sunni areas. Salafi clerics who spoke against Saddam would be arrested for a few days and roughed-up, but soon released.

So by the time the U.S. and Britain invade in 2003, you have a society that’s deep into a religious revival, with sectarian tensions at a level with few historical precedents. The middle-class — the bastion of secular nationalism — has been destroyed, and the security sector has been Islamized on its own account and has connections to a powerful underground network of “pure” Salafists, which has been formed partly by regime encouragement and partly because as the regime crumbled it couldn’t contain it even if it wanted to. And the government — whatever its leaders really believed — has been enforcing a version of Islamic law, empowering clerics as community leaders, and producing more religious individuals through the schools, mosques, and the party. [Continue reading…]

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