Saddam Husayn and Islam: Ba’thi Iraq 1968-2003 from Secularism to Faith
Rather than beginning with the “Arab Spring,” the grassroots resurgence of political Islam began in Iraq in the early 1980s. It immediately exerted powerful influence over the policies of Saddam Husayn and his secular Ba’th regime. In a 1986 secret meeting of the Ba’th leadership, Saddam dragged his reluctant comrades screaming and kicking to accept an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, among the Ba’th most feared and despised enemies. In this he launched an incremental Islamization campaign that reached its peak just before the 2003 fall of Baghdad. The book attempts to explain why and how was it done and how it touched the inner souls of party and leader. It seems that ISIS represents a leap from Saddam’s Islamization campaign. Is ISIS, then, Saddam’s dead hand, thrusting out of his grave in Tikrit?
Amatzia Baram, professor emeritus for Middle East history and director of the Center for Iraq Studies at University of Haifa and former public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, discussed his new book Saddam Husayn and Islam: Ba’thi Iraq 1968-2003 from Secularism to Faith.
On November 4, 2014 the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center held a book launch “Saddam Husayn and Islam: Ba’thi Iraq 1968-2003 from Secularism to Faith” with Baram. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Baram began by explaining that the book, which took over a decade to complete, outlines the transformation of Saddam Husayn and the Ba’th Party in Iraq from secular—or even atheist, he argues—to religious. His initial remarks discussed the book’s cover: a mosaic originally produced in 1988 of Saddam Husayn with his hands open, which represented his belief in Islam—an image he increasingly tried to promote from the 1980s to 2003.
This book, Baram explained, combines two tightly connected yet inherently different themes. The first is Husayn’s and the Ba’th Party’s journey from atheism/secularism to faith until 2003. The second is the relationship between Husayn and the Ba’th Party and the Shi’ites in Iraq. He described the Ba’thist ideology held by Michel Aflaq, the principal founder of the Ba’th Party, to bring attention to the atheist attitude held by the Ba’th Party beginning in the late 1960s.
Baram then described the political and religious atmosphere in Iraq during the early years of the Ba’th Party, particularly in the years following the takeover of President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr in the late 1960s. According to Baram, Islam had little influence in culture, education, and publications in Iraq during that time, and the Ba’th Party believed that shari’a law did not apply to society at that time as it had in the early days of Islam.
Baram stated that 1986 was a turning point in religiosity for Saddam Husayn and within the Ba’th Party. He explains the increased importance of Islam in daily life was inspired by the development in Iran and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. Husayn acknowledged the importance of characterizing his leadership not as an atheist or secular entity, but as a religious entity. Baram described the efforts by Husayn to establish ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, though figures such as Aflaq were skeptical of this plan. Husayn also saw the importance of establishing a relationship with Islamic clerics because their words held great influence in society.
Baram ended his summary of the book by providing examples of Husayn’s and the Ba’th Party’s introduction of religious elements to the state and societal institutions. New penal codes were established between 1993 and 1995, which used traditional Islamic punishments for crimes such as theft. Additionally, Baram also listed Husayn’s building of mosques and the increased focus on Islam in education as examples of the greater emphasis placed on religion in societal institutions.
During the question and answer portion of the meeting, Baram discussed the connection between the Fedayeen Saddam forces and those fighting alongside ISIS today. He considers the ISIS fighters to be rooted in the period of Husayn and the Ba’thist rule.
By Gracie Cook, Middle East Program
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more