Saddam Hussein’s Dance With Faith
“No man’s political doctrine can remain unaffected by his previous history, or by his birth, or by the circumstances of his life.
— Saddam Hussein
In January 1995, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced to a private meeting with the Iraqi Ba’th think tank; the Pan-Arab Leadership (PAL), that after nearly thirty years, the Ba’th principles that had led his country for decades, were no longer opposed to Islamism. Though he stressed that the priority of the Ba’th regime would still be the ideology of the Pan-Arabism. This concession marked the end of decades of a dogmatic adherence to the secular Ba’thist ideology in practice in Iraq. While Ba’thist by name, Iraq would precariously balance faith and nationalism.
When Saddam made his declaration to the PAL, Iraq was almost a year and a half into the “Return to Faith” Campaign, launched in mid-June 1993 as an integration of Islamism into Iraqi political and social life. By then Saddam and Iraq both struggled with the balance of Islamism and domestic stability from the late 1970’s to the 90s. Saddam’s response to Islamism would evolve from a harsh repression in the 1970s, to a bitter acknowledgment and acceptance of it’s power in the 1980s, to finally embracing a state sponsored doctrine of Islamism in the 90s.
Saddam Hussein’s interactions with Islamism mirrors those of the wider Middle East. Both domestically and regionally, Islamism was on the rise through the later half of the 20th century, its power was visible and dramatic, and from Saddam’s perspective; impossible to ignore. The Return to Faith campaign was both one of pragmatic realism to it’s rising power, and a solution to the latent problem of Islamists who challenged Saddam’s rule. By accepting a state-sponsored form of Islamism, Saddam effectively silenced and co-opted the various Islamist movements acting within the country, through educational structural changes, superficial political reform, and violence.
The 1993 Return to Faith campaign was a tool used by the Iraqi Ba’thist leadership to placate and appease the growing power of Islamist parties that threatened the rule of Saddam Hussein.
To understand the regimes motivation for it’s gradual concessions to Islamism, one must look at the ever-changing vision Saddam Hussein had for Iraq from 1968 to 2003. Ba’thism would be the foundation that Saddam would build Iraq on for his entire reign. Ba’thist ideology was born in 1942 and brought to legitimacy in 1953 under Syrian intellectual Michel ‘Aflaq. In the 1950s the Ba’thist principles of unity, freedom, and socialism were not to different from the other Nationalist movements at the time. Ba’thism was prominently secular and saw the unity of the Arab language a rallying call for states at the time. According to Aflaq’s ideology, nations could only ‘progress’ or ‘decline’ and saw the only way forward for the Middle East was united as ‘One nation with an eternal message’. Importantly, Ba’thism in it’s pure form warns of the dangers of ‘religious sectarianism’ and ‘religious schools’ fanaticism’ Ba’thism played a prominent role in the creation of the short lived United Arab Republic, yet even with it’s failure in 1961, Ba’thism found its revival in Saddam’s Iraq.
Saddam’s legacy began with his burgeoning relationship with Ba’th founder Michael Aflaq, while the two met in Damascus in 1960. Saddam, at just twenty-two, had fled Iraq following his role in the assassination attempt of then Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassim. Saddam, an ardent Pan-Arabist, became enthralled with Aflaq’s ideology of Ba’thism, and became one of it’s great proponents. Following the ousting of Prime Minster Qassim in 1963, Saddam returned to Iraq armed with the ideology that would set the foundations for his rule.
When Saddam finally took the reigns of the country in 1968, a uniquely Iraqi version of Ba’thism had emerged. Saddam’s fascination and reverence of ancient Iraqi history led him to not only connect Iraqi nationalism with his country’s history, but also connecting Ba’thism in a way that shifted focus away from religion beyond the basic Ba’thist tenants. Another indicator of Saddam’s early Ba’thist rule was it’s take on the education system. School curricula in the 1960s and 70s heavily directed promoted Iraqi unity through Ba’thist nationalist ideals. The social status of religious studies during this period was low, and there was little to no prestige in teaching it. While it was never openly admitted, the regime between 1968 and 1979 was one step away from an openly atheist agenda. An agenda that was already antagonizing powers within his own country that would dictate the future of his country in less than a decade.
Early Iraqi Ba’thism between 1968 and 1980 was unashamed of it’s staunchly anti Islamism agenda, and the divide between it and the faithful, both Sunni and Shia, would start to show in the early 1970s. With political Islamism on the rise outside of Iraq, notably in Egypt, Syria, and Sudan with the Muslim Brotherhood, a similar response to Iraqi secularism saw starting to form. For Sunni Muslims in Iraq, their response was less overt; the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood was banned by the Ba’thists before Saddam Hussein and there was a concern that the burgeoning Wahhabist movement across the Middle East would sow instability in Iraq. Concerns from the Shia religious community ranged from opposition to government control, to the regimes apparent atheistic leanings, to competing geostrategic ideologies. Their concerns would culminate in February 1977 into outright rebellion.
The tipping point for the Shi’a would be the regimes ban on the annual Ziyara pilgrimage between the predominantly Shi’a city of Najaf to Karbala to supress the growing political force of Shia Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. The subsequent protests entered Karbala with strong anti-regime messages in which the regime responded by arresting thousands and executing seven. By the time the rebellion was brutally put down in in mid-1977, a new foe to Saddam’s rule had emerged. Islamism had proved to be a potent rallying call for the Shi’a, but also Sunni groups had showed sympathy towards what appeared to be the regimes war against the faithful. 1977 would mark a high point for the power of the Saddam regime, and he responded in a typical dictatorial fashion. While paying lip service to both Shi’a and Sunni leaders following the rebellion, he refused to give in to Islamist pressures. He denounced Islamic law, forms of political Islam, and doubling down on the regimes commitment to Ba’thism. This defiance to Islamism would change with one of the most crucial events in modern Middle Eastern history; The Iranian Revolution of 1979.