Pandora's Box of Suppressed Islamism, Part 4

Credit: Gavin John

Credit: Gavin John

Saddam Hussein’s Dance With Faith

In the short run the Faith Campaign proved to be an overwhelming success in appeasing both Sunni and Shia across the country. Sunni religious leadership found a new ally in an ever increasingly religious Saddam Hussein, and the Shia leadership enjoyed the appeasement tithe in greater religious autonomy. By 1995 Qur’anic studies became one of the most sought after educational paths, and even historically secular institutions of public universities ceded ground to the Islamist educational agenda. The high point of the Faith Campaign came in 2001 where Saddam opened the “Mother of All Battles Mosque” in Baghdad, where Saddam triumphantly declared that it represented “Baghdad’s pan-Arab and spiritual place”.

Yet behind all this perceived unity, the Faith Campaign remained a tool of control. Saddam himself warned in a cabinet meeting not to mistake this humanism for mercy.  Saddam never hesitated to put down deviating Sunni or Shia thinkers with brutality his regime was known for. Salafist’s and followers of Shia Cleric Mohammed Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr found themselves under increasing scrutiny and reprisals by the Iraqi secret police. There was never a point where Saddam gave any indication that he intended to cede any control of greater Iraq to opposing perspectives, even in sphere of Islamism, where the Ba’thists were the newcomers. 

While faith campaign was successful in the short run, under the watchful eye of the Ba’thists it became clear after 2003 the problem of revolutionary Islamism was merely delayed not eradicated as Saddam had hoped. During his interrogation by the CIA, Saddam mocked the Americans for inheriting a problem he himself could not fully control. Saddams legacy of creating an entire generation of Iraqi youth educated in state sponsored Islamism proved to be a lasting one with disastrous results and would bring states to their knees for years to come. Without the watchful eye of a Ba’thist regime which had just began to understand how to respond to Islamism, both Sunni and Shia state educated youth would run unchecked across Iraq.

The Faith Campaign of 1993 was a success when viewed as a tool of suppression against the growing force of Islamism opposed to the Saddam regime in Iraq. By promoting a broad version of Islamism, the Ba’thist regime could placate both Sunni and Shia for a time, until the Pandora’s box of supressed Islamism was opened by the American Invasion of 2003.

It will never be clear whether Saddam Hussein himself fully embraced Islamism, but his transformation to a man of faith parallels the transition of the country he ruled since 1968. Just as the strains of domestic suppression, failure of Pan-Arabism, two disastrous wars, and economic failure broke the spirits of Iraqis it also seemed to break Saddam, and both turned to faith. In 1995 Saddam confided privately in his Minister of Culture that the strains on him were hard to handle. He asked why God was punishing him so severely, yet he would never waver in his love for God. Saddam and Iraq’s journey to faith were intertwined and the Faith Campaign represented a last-ditch effort to halt the almost inevitable death of the secular dream of the Ba’thists. As for Saddam Hussein, there would be no final victory, his last moments were of mockery by the very religious zealots he sought to appease in the Faith Campaign of 1993.   The reign of a man who saw Iraq in 1968 as a symbol of secular Ba’thist ideals ended on December 6th, 2006, in a dimly lit execution chamber filled with the chants and jeers of the religious.

One of those voices was of Saddam himself.

“There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God. There is no god but God. Muham…

— the last words of former President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein


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. His passion for finding the best in people in the worst of places has drawn him to working in conflict and crisis zones.