Saddam Hussein’s Dance With Faith
The 1979 Iranian Revolution and the rise of Ruhollah Khomeini was one of the most noteworthy events for the direction Ba’thist Iraqi regime. Securing Iraq’s place as the leader of the Arab world was fundamental to Saddam’s rule and until the Iranian revolution, he had successfully been able to navigate most crises relatively unscathed. While initially Saddam feigned a diplomatic response with Iran, followers of Iraqi Ayatollah al-Sadar embolden by Khomeini’s revolution began to rally in the southern Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala, as they had done two years prior. They considered Saddam Hussein not dissimilar to Reza Pavlavi, and they too rallied around their Khomeini of al-Sadar. Saddam saw al-Sadr’s frequent calls, much like Khomeini’s for both Sunni and Shia revolutions across the Muslim world as a direct threat to the stability of Iraq. How to respond domestically as well as internationally would be a tricky proposition. Predominantly, the elites of the Ba’th party were Sunni, but they recognized dealing with the Shia revolutionaries too harshly would result in a divide the Ba’th along sectarian lines. Because of this, Saddam and the Iraqi Congress debated on how to act to the new Islamic Republic.
Saddam eventually decided to act in a way that had proved to be so successful against the Kurds in 1975 and Shia in 1977; force. The following war between Iraq and Iran would serve several purposes for Saddam Hussein, and a war that he was confident he would win. A defeat of the Iranian Revolutionaries would serve as a message to those who sought to replicate this brand of Shia Islamism within Iraq, as well as cement his place as a ‘defender of the Arabs’ . His response to the Shia in Iraq was equally as brutal, Saddam not only executed al-Sadar, but his sister as well. His message was clear, Islamism would not be tolerated as a force against him at home, and the anticipated swift victory against Iran would show it would not be tolerated abroad.
The war did not go to plan. By 1982 the slaughter had crippled Iraq, hundreds of thousands were dead, and the economy was in shambles. What was once seen as an easy victory for the Iraqi forces, turned into a stalemate on monumental scale. Iraq had been dealt tremendous blows in May 1982 with the loss of Khorramshahr and the withdrawal of all Iraqi armed forces from Iranian territories. Many within the Iraqi society and political worlds began to turn to religion as a response to such a blow to their psyche and pride.
This is where Saddam’s perception of Islam began to change, the rise of Islamism had become a force that Saddam could no longer ignore. In 1982, Saddam conveyed Iraqi Party Congress with the intent to restore their support and identify a direction forward for Iraq. Front and centre on the table for discussion was Iraq’s take on the “religious phenomenon”. The combination of both the weakening war effort and a country wide rise in religiosity in youth was one that Saddam knew would not end well for him and the regime. The Ba’thists proved stubborn and held firm to the ideals of Pan-Arabism as the driving force behind their ideology, and Islamism was antithetical to this. Change would not come just yet, but the seeds of concession had been planted. It would be another 4 years until the prospect of public Islamist support would be on the table.
1986 was a bad year for Iraq. The war against Iran was going poorly, with the loss of Faw Peninsula in March 1986 Iran now threatened the city of Basra. This was a blow that now called into question the life span of the Ba’thist regime. With the Gulf cut off, Arab neighbours looked with wary eyes at the possibility of a complete Iraqi collapse and subsequent Iranian total victory.
In 1986, Saddam convened a secret meeting with the PAL and proposed some of the most radical changes to Iraqi political ideology it had seen in decades. Saddam proposed an alliance of sort with the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Sudan, a move that symbolically implied a cessation of open hostilities with Islamists abroad. Saddam sought to create inroads to the wider Islamist community with the eventual goal of some form of integration of Islamist tolerance in his country to stabilize growing dissent. This suggestion of accepting forms of Islamism was met with hesitation from the other members of the PAL, and in the case of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz outright opposition. Despite this, Saddam pressed ahead and laid the foundations for a shift towards religiosity in Iraq.
The Iraqi people had much to grapple with following the humiliating defeat at the hands of the Iranians. Why had the ‘greatest Arab army’ fallen against religious zealots? It was hard not to argue with the results of the war when looking at the merits of the power of the ideology of Islamism, and concessions had to be made. Islamists of all kinds were an athenium to the secular Ba’thist regime that Aflaq had envisioned and a threat to Saddam’s rule, yet it’s power both domestically, and abroad was indisputable. Both Sunni and Shia Islamist groups across the Middle East were on the rise and Saddam knew of the challenge they posed. A new direction for Iraq was required, yet while Khomeini and Aflaq both lived, this would be a challenge for Saddam. Saddam would not concede to Khomeini in the ideological acceptance of the power of Islamism and could also not turn his back to the structures of Ba’thism that he had built his regime on, while Aflaq could contest this new interpretation of his own ideology. Almost by divine intervention, both Khomeini and Aflaq would both die in 1989, paving the way for a drastic public change for heart for Saddam Hussein: a return to faith.