Pandora’s Box of Suppressed Islamism, Part 3

Photo Credit: Gavin John

Photo Credit: Gavin John

Saddam Hussein’s Dance With Faith

Iraq’s slide towards Islamism began slowly and almost inconspicuously. Saddam started with a revamping of the Iraqi education system, shifting the curricula the teaching of Islamic Studies. With the foundation of the Saddam University for Islamic Studies in 1989, the regime began to look forward to the long term in which it could hold control over the religious realm just as the Ba’thists held control over the political realm. This creation of a “religious elite” was not dissimilar to the political elite that Saddam based his government on and it served a very similar purpose. Having a state sponsored version of Islamic teaching was a valuable tool to combat a growing influence of Islamist trends in the region, and position itself to oppose an emboldened Shia presence following the Iran/Iraq war.

The lead up to the 1991 invasion of Kuwait had subtle differences in the lead up to the war against Iran. Saddam intentionally portrayed his regime as one with an Islamic foundation but with Arab culture.  In 1990, the Iraqi government began to toy with the ideas of a Western style democracy and drafted a new constitution in but with a uniquely Iraqi perspective.  While not Islamist yet it had undertones that were unheard of in Ba’thist circles previously. The President had to be a “believer”, parliament was required to perform oaths of faith, and the phrase “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) was added to the Iraqi flag. These were made with ambiguous interpretations so that a case could not be made he was favouring Sunni of Shia.  Even still, Saddam remained adamant that the state had no official policy towards religion as per their Ba’thist heritage.  An odd mix of religious undertones and pan-Arab ideals emerged in the period leading up to and during the occupation of Kuwait.  This also would be the first instances where his closest aids began to see a change in his private relationship with Islam, as would begin to turn to faith when he became depressed. The 1990s would provide Saddam more opportunities to turn to faith than he could have possibly imagined.

The Iraqi military disaster that was the Gulf War and the subsequent international sanctions finally proved to be the catalyst for drastic change for the Ba’thist regime. A crisis of identity emerged across Iraq just as it did with the loss to Iran, yet now it was louder, and now coming from the inside as well as outside. A second Shia uprising in Basra shook Saddam’s faith in a unified Iraq and he even began to question the future of Iraq.  In 1993, the international embargo devastated the middle class economically and left the typical Iraqi with nothing to turn to but religion.  Attendance at both Sunni and Shia mosques across the country skyrocketed. Saddam’s Islamist allies it had courted in 1986 advised him that the only course of action now was to convert to overt Islamism.  Refusal to act would have marked the end of his regime, and Saddam knew this. While rejecting his Islamist allies’ advice, Saddam did the next best thing.

On June 1th, 1993 Saddam Hussein announced the launching of the Faith Campaign. Under the supervision of Saddams closest aid Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam declared that Iraq would ‘return to faith’. It was the first time in the Ba’thist Party’s history where it would embrace a soft version of Islamism as a direction to the country.

By accepting an ambiguous interpretation of Islamism, it addressed the growing religious tensions brought on by it’s military failures in the previous decade as well as growing dissent against the Ba’thist regime.  Ensuring the state was in control of the ideological direction of this new regime was imperative and education reforms formed the bedrock of this shift.

The comparison between the Iraqi education system from 1978 to 1994 was almost indistinguishable. Through state favouritism, Quranic teaching went from a profession looked down on, to one of reverence. Saddam also undertook massive public works projects that gave both Sunni and Shia impressive mosques. The most overt of these projects would be the Swords of Victory monument in Baghdad, a towering reminder of the Iraqi ‘victory’ over Iran. In a symbolic gesture to the Shia, on the opening day of this monument Saddam rode under the arch on a white horse a nod towards Shia mythology that did not go unnoticed by the Shia clerics. 

On a social scale, the Faith campaign danced a fine line between the secular heritage and this new-found Islamism, public consumption of alcohol was banned and the sale of alcohol was restricted to very specific areas, all but five of Baghdad’s nightclubs were closed, and versions of Islamic law were integrated into the legal code. The last of these was particularly embraced by Saddam’s son Uday Hussein, who seemed to revel in the barbaric punishments to adulterers, thieves and deserters.  This served as a reminder that despite new freedoms, the state was still the supreme authority. 

About the Author

Gavin Bryan John is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer. He is currently pursuing a degree in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Calgary, and has a Journalism diploma with a major in Photojournalism.