Kyle Orton writes: About three weeks ago I wrote a piece for The New York Times explaining the evolution of Saddam Hussein’s regime away from the hard-secularism of its Ba’athist origins, and how this had prepared the ground for the Islamic State (IS). I received much positive feedback, but the social media reaction was inevitable: little thought and much anger, particularly from people who view Iraqi history through a political prism and felt I was trying to exculpate George W. Bush. With rare exceptions, the critique could hardly be called thoughtful. So it is nice to finally have such a critique to deal with, from Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill in today’s Foreign Affairs.
To dive right in: the authors contend that their “rigorous study” of the Saddam regime records “has found no evidence that Saddam or his Baathist regime in Iraq displayed any sympathy for Islamism, Salafism, or Wahhabism.” As the authors note, even those who see Saddam’s regime having Islamized note the anti-Wahhabi component to the Faith Campaign. But the authors are unconvinced by the distinction between Salafism and Wahhabism. Saddam was “equally antagonistic toward them,” Helfont and Brill write. Later in the piece, however, the authors note: “Domestically, Saddam also opposed Islamism and those promoting any other version of Islam than his own.” Exactly.
In what I wrote in The Times, I said: “In the Sunni areas … the [Faith] campaign was effective, creating a religious movement I call Baathi-Salafism, under Mr. Hussein’s leadership.” I have previously written of this aspect of the Faith Campaign, dealing with the claim that it was really anti-religious because it involved the infiltration and even assassination of leaders of the religious trend that (I think the evidence shows) Saddam had aligned with. This is about Saddam’s approach to power, not his ideology:
Of course Saddam’s regime infiltrated the Salafi Trend and tried to bring it under control … Saddam still believed that only his movement was the true one, even if others were complementary. In a regime where the intelligence agencies spied on one-another, Saddam’s approach to the Salafi Trend is hardly a surprise. The Salafi Trend largely made its peace with the Islamized Saddam regime but it remained independent of the regime, and therefore a possible threat.
Or, as Amatzia Baram put it, “For Saddam the defining question was whose religious activities were to be targeted. … He was not at all suspicious [of religious activities], provided those activities were his.”
The authors contend,
Saddam had expressed the desire to instrumentalize these Baathist views on Islam as far back as the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s that his regime developed the institutional capacity to teach its Arab nationalist version of Islam and the security architecture to ensure that doing so did not unintentionally aid hostile religious movements. The maturation of these capabilities rather than ideological shifts was the basis of the Faith Campaign.
This is exactly the wrong way around. When the Ba’ath regime was powerful enough in the early 1970s — after it was stabilized from the 1968 coup — that was when it showed its stern secularism and even what Baram calls “implied atheism”. The construction of a giant statue of the Abbasid poet Abu Nuwas, whose verse consists primarily of homoeroticism and wine, in 1972 cannot have been other than to provoke the traditionalists (see especially the bucket-sized wine glass in the statue’s hand). The Ba’ath was at this time also competing with the Communists for the urban intelligentsia and its high-brow produce, namely the magazine, “The Arab Intellectual,” produced in Baghdad between 1970 and 1975, laid the implied atheism on thickly, with its references to “science” and “progress” and a cosmological design that conspicuously didn’t mention god. It was during the war with Iran, when the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s propaganda calling Saddam an “infidel” was finding an audience inside Iraq, not least because Iran was winning on the battlefield, identifying Islam with power as well as right, that Saddam turned to Islam for legitimation. This intensified after the crushing defeat in Kuwait. The Islamization of Saddam’s regime was, among many other things, a profound admission of failure. [Continue reading…]