Studying Saddam’s ‘compulsion in religion’

The US occupiers made a major miscalculation. They thought Saddam was causing the problems, whereas in fact he was keeping a lid on them.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Cover of Samuel Helfont’s “Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq.”
An eye on history. Cover of Samuel Helfont’s “Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq.”

In 2011, Samuel Helfont interviewed Bashar Awwad Marouf, former secretary-general of Saddam Hussein’s Popular Islamic Conference and ex-head of the Saddam University for Islamic Studies. After four years with US naval intelligence, including a stint in the 2003 war, Helfont was undertaking research that would lead to his fascinating new book “Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq.”

Marouf had been living in Jordan since being stripped of his positions in 1992. “I asked him why he’d left,” Helfont recalled. “He said, ‘Saddam loved the Shias too much.’ I was shocked. It was the opposite of what everyone says about Saddam but, as I started reading, I could see why a sectarian Sunni would have that impression.”

Helfont’s reading focused on two sets of documents on which his book draws. One included Iraqi state records seized by the US military during the 2003 invasion. They were scanned, translated, trawled by US censors for personal information or sensitive intelligence and gradually released through the National Defence University in Washington.

More important are documents and videos collected with US approval from the Baghdad Secretariat of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party in 2003 by the Iraq Memory Foundation set up by writer Kanan Makiya. These were removed from Iraq after the foundation’s researchers were threatened by insurgents. Since 2008, they have been held by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Helfont found rich pickings. He said there were 10 million-11 million pages, “getting into the nitty-gritty of what Saddam and his associates at high level were thinking. You can follow how policies were implemented — or not — all the way down… They’re quite honest, open, although they have their own language.”

Helfont said he came to question a widely held view that Saddam and the Ba’ath were secular in origin and then turned increasingly to religion, even to Islamism, especially after the 1991 Gulf War.

Helfont argues that Saddam’s view of religion was consistent and derived from Ba’ath founder Michel Aflaq. “Aflaq was influential all the way to the end,” says Helfont. “A lot of the ideas [about Islam] were created by a Western-educated Christian. They were not what a Sunni would learn in his prayer circle.”

Aflaq, as Helfont shows in the book, found the “spirit” of Islam in Arab nationalism, marking a deep difference with Sunni or Shia Islamists. “The Ba’athist, Arab nationalist discourse is not against religion,” says Helfont. “The difference [with Islamists] is that they didn’t see Islam as a universal religion but as an Arab religion that others could join. And they didn’t see it as the basis of the state.”

While leading Ba’athists were disproportionately Arab Sunnis, a minority of Iraqis, this could not be reflected in official policies. “Saddam and his cohort knew that a sectarian project would leave them in trouble,” says Helfont. “In the Iran-Iraq war, you can’t have some view that delegitimises Shias when they’re most of your military… There were some high-ranking Shias in the regime, including commanders in charge of security in the south. There was a Shia prime minister in the ’90s [Mohammed Hamza al-Zubaidi].”

Tying in with their notion of Islam and Arab nationalism, the Ba’ath’s suspicion of Shiism lay in the relationship of many Shias to Iran. “Everywhere” in the documents, Helfont found the word “shu’ubiyya” — a word originally connoting non-Arab tribes and later applied to a mainly Persian medieval anti-Arab sect.

“The Ba’athists tried to make this into an ethno-nationalist conflict,” Helfont said. “They talk about two categories: good Shiism is fine, legitimate; Persian-inspired shu’ubiyya is bad.” Senior Ba’athists expressed concern over the influence of Saudi-inspired Wahhabism, seen as anti-Shia.

Hence Helfont argues that Saddam’s regime put a cap on sectarianism, especially when Shia uprisings in 1991 fanned Sunni-Shia tensions. In his book, Helfont relates this led to the downfall of Marouf, who had written anti-Shia polemics under a pseudonym.

“If anything,” writes Helfont, “the regime more actively clamped down on open expressions of sectarianism in the 1990s.” Saddam’s “Faith Campaign,” begun in 1993, utilised religious figures willing to promulgate Ba’athist Islam, which played down Sunni-Shia differences. The state forbade “prejudice” towards any Islamic ritual.

This led Helfont to conclude that “the militant views that have spurred on religious insurgencies in Iraq since 2003 did not have their origins in Saddam’s Iraq but rather in the aftermath of its downfall.”

The US occupiers made a major miscalculation, Helfont said. “They thought Saddam was causing the problems, whereas in fact he was keeping a lid on them. These ideas were festering under the surface… and post-2003 they saw the light of day. [Under Saddam] if you got up in a mosque or in the army and started badmouthing the Shias, you’d be arrested and harshly punished.”