Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Samuel Helfont (SH): When I was twenty-two years old and serving in the US Navy, I participated in the invasion of Iraq. That experience left me with a great deal of unanswered questions about the conflict—what we were doing there, and how had it gone so wrong? On a more positive note, my experience in that conflict also sparked what became a deep interest in and appreciation for Middle Eastern history, culture, and languages. Several years later, just as I was beginning a PhD in the Near Eastern studies Department at Princeton, several Iraqi archives became available for researchers. It seemed fitting to dive in. This book grew out of my PhD dissertation.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SH: The book addresses two broad topics and their associated literatures. First, it deals with the religious policies of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Thus, the book engages Islamic and Arab nationalist intellectual history as well as state-society relations. There are a number of misperceptions about Saddam’s views on Islam. Some have argued that he and his regime turned away from their Arab nationalist roots, and embraced either Islamism, or some type of Salafi inclination. There is no evidence for this in the regime’s internal archives. In fact, the opposite is true. Until the end, the Ba‘thists remained relentless in tracking down and “neutralizing” anyone in Iraq with an Islamist or Salafi outlook. While the regime did begin to employ religious symbols and rhetoric in the 1990s, especially during the Faith Campaign that Saddam launched in 1993, the Iraqi Ba‘thists promoted an idiosyncratic, Arab nationalist interpretation of the religion that was outlined by people such as Michel Aflaq in the mid-twentieth century. Some outside observers saw the regime speak more about Islam and assumed it was becoming Islamist, but in reality, the interpretation of Islam that the regime promoted was meant to challenge and undermine Islamist and Salafi movements in Iraq. Thus, instead of explaining Saddam’s instrumentalization of religion through a shift in ideology, this book focuses on the development of the authoritarian structures that made it possible for his regime to employ religion in public policies.

The second topic/literature that the book addresses covers the roots of the insurgencies and unrest in post-2003 Iraq. The view that Saddam’s regime had embraced Islamism or Salafism leads fairly naturally to the conclusion that Saddam’s policies promoted the extremist interpretations of Islam that bred sectarianism and violence in post-2003 Iraq. That narrative has a political argument subtly embedded in it because it takes the emphasis off of the 2003 invasion as a catalyst for what has occurred in Iraq over the past fifteen years.  In contrast, by showing that Saddam never made a turn toward Islamism, Salafism, or similar ideologies, this book keeps the emphasis on the 2003 invasion as the lynchpin of Iraqi history over the past few decades. The American invasion and the resulting breakdown of the former regime’s control over Iraq’s religious landscape led to the chaos and violence in post-2003 Iraq.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SH: This project brings together two different parts of my background. On one hand, I studied Middle Eastern and Islamic history in graduate school. On the other hand, I served in the region with the US Navy. This project combines those experiences. I would argue that Western scholars interested in Middle Eastern security often lack training in the social, cultural, and intellectual history of the region. At the same time, very few Middle Eastern studies scholars today really understand the role of security issues or militaries (both Western and local) in the Middle East. This situation has created an artificial divide between military and diplomatic history on one side, and social, cultural, and intellectual history on the other. In reality, all these subjects are deeply intertwined. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SH: I hope first and foremost that historians interested in the Middle East as well as America’s role in it will read the book. However, I tried to write it in a way that is accessible for non-expert audiences so that policymakers and the interested general public can also read it. I guess most historians who write on issues connected with the Iraq War want to learn the right lessons and prevent people from making similar mistakes in the future.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SH: I am working on a new project about the Iraqi Ba‘th Party outside of Iraq. Saddam’s regime opened party offices in sixty-nine different countries and appointed senior Iraqi Ba‘thists to run them. Often these Ba‘thist officials worked with members of the Iraqi diaspora in these countries in an attempt to shape local politics in a manner that was useful for Baghdad. As such, the project brings together issues surrounding migration, diasporas, and transnational politics. There is also a good deal of espionage, sabotage, and general international intrigue. I find the topic fascinating because no one has written anything about it, so it is completely uncharted territory. Yet, the archives make clear that it was a key feature of Iraqi foreign affairs during Saddam’s presidency.

J: Can you discuss the sources for this book?

SH: Saddam’s Iraq was one of the most secretive and closed states in the Middle East. Scholars who had studied it in the past were forced to takes small pieces of information and attempt to figure out what was happening—in other words, they had to read the tea leaves. Historians using the Iraqi archives are in the process of revolutionizing the study of recent Iraqi history, and it is exciting to be a small part of that process. Most of the Iraqi records that I used were housed at institutions in the United States. However, as I understand it, most of these documents have already been returned to Iraq or are in the process of being returned now. I hope the Iraqi government will allow Iraqi researchers to benefit from them soon. Of course, the Iraqi archives are not perfect sources, and my work draws heavily from books, conference proceedings, newspapers, and other published material from Iraq during the Ba‘thist period. Comparing and contrasting these public sources with the internal archival records allows historians to reconstruct Iraqi history in a way that is difficult to do for other Middle Eastern countries which do not have open archives. 


Excerpt from the Book:

On March 12, 1979, Saddam convened and then chaired an Extraordinary Meeting of Iraq’s High National Security Council. The meeting was “extraordinary” in more ways than one. In addition to falling outside the regular schedule of the High National Security Council meetings, it also set a framework for dramatically transforming religion and politics in Iraq.

The meeting occurred at a crucial point in Saddam’s career. He faced a litany of crises. An Islamic revolution was brewing in neighboring Iran that threatened to engulf Iraq’s Shi‘i majority and inflame Sunni Islamists. Elsewhere, rumors of a plan to neuter Saddam’s growing grip on power were ubiquitous. Saddam was not yet the president of Iraq, and some factions within his ruling Ba‘th Party were hoping to prevent his seemingly inevitable accession by uniting Iraq with neighboring Syria. In doing so, they hoped Syria’s president, Hafez al- Assad, could check Saddam’s ambitions.

Saddam possessed a natural talent for sniffing out both real and imagined conspiracies. The resulting purges and executions have become well- known symbols of his regime. Saddam’s actions in 1979 were perhaps the pinnacle of this trend. He was aware that some of his counterparts in the Ba‘thist regime wished to undermine him. But after a decade of acting as Iraq’s behind- the- scenes strongman, he was finally going to take the reins of power and eliminate these rivals. He declared himself president three months later in July 1979.

Saddam’s bloody rise to power has been well documented. There were, however, critical aspects of it that eluded outside observers. To entrench himself firmly in the presidency, he needed not only to eliminate rivals within the regime but also to establish control over spheres of Iraqi society that could threaten his rule. The religious sphere was particularly dangerous in that regard. The Iraqi Ba‘thists opposed the rising tide of Islamism both in Iraq and regionally, and they feared it was gaining traction among Iraqi youth. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return to Iran a month earlier, in February 1979, threatened to inflame religious opposition in Iraq as well. A low-grade insurgency seemed to be developing among Iraqi Shi‘is that echoed recent Iranian experiences, and many Sunni Islamists were sympathetic to their cause. To head off this potential threat, Saddam needed to find a way to manage Islamic discourse in Iraq before it turned completely against his Ba‘thist regime. The most straightforward means of protecting Iraqi youth from this trend and thus containing the threat of insurgency was to control Iraq’s religious landscape. Channeling Mao Zedong, Iraqi counterinsurgency policy from the early years of Saddam’s presidency argued that insurgents “live among the masses like fish in water, and when the two are separated, great harm is done to the insurgents.” In other words, the Iraqi regime wished to defeat the threat of an Islamist revolution by denying potential insurgents a religious-political context in which they could operate. This meant that the regime needed to ensure that Iraq’s religious landscape, and through it, popular understandings of Islam, was hostile to Islamists. It was with this purpose in mind that Saddam called to order the Extraordinary High National Security Council in March 1979.

The goal of the meeting was clear-cut. Saddam hoped to implement an important, yet thus far unacknowledged plan to protect Iraqi youth by bringing Iraq’s religious life under his direct control. As will be discussed later religion had played an important role in Ba‘thist ideology since the Party’s founding. The Iraqi Ba‘thists had attempted to highlight this fact in earlier periods. When they briefly came to power in 1963, they repealed the Personal Status Law of 1959 because it was not in accordance with Islamic law. Then, when they seized power for good in the 1968, the constitution that they created included numerous references to Islam. The preamble mentioned reliance on God, and the very first article cited “the spirit of Islam” as a source of the Iraqi Republic’s legitimacy. Numerous references to religion— including a reference to “Islamic law”— can be found throughout the document. However, Iraq’s religious opposition used the Ba‘thist claim to religious legitimacy to undermine the new regime. Authoritative religious scholars, who proved to be outside the regime’s control, attacked Ba‘thism as un-Islamic. After clashing with these religious leaders, the Ba‘thists made a tactical retreat on matters of religion and attempted to remove Islam from discussions about political legitimacy. In the 1970 version of the Iraqi constitution, the only reference to the religion was the declaration that “Islam is the state religion.” There were no references to Islamic law and no attempts to tie the regime’s legitimacy to Islam.

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, the Ba‘thists constantly clashed with religious leaders in Iraq. The resulting atrocities outraged Islamic activists throughout the Muslim world. For example, after learning that the Iraqi regime had tortured Ayatollah Muhsin al- Hakim and killed the renowned Sunni scholar ‘Abd al- Aziz al- Badri in 1969, the famous Pakistani Islamist Abul Ala Mawdudi decried, “Muslims of Pakistan are shocked to learn the fate of the ulama in Iraq.” The regime’s repressive policies continued throughout the 1970s. It arrested, deported, and killed thousands of Shi‘i religious activists. Sunni Islamists fared almost as badly. In 1971, most of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership was arrested or was forced into exile. Because of these continuing clashes in the 1970s, the Iraqi Ba‘thists remained wary about promoting Islam in the public sphere. They feared that doing so would lead Iraqis to seek counsel from, and thus empower, religious leaders, including Islamists, who were outside of the regime’s control. This tendency to suppress religion was enhanced even further because a period of rapprochement between the Iraqi Ba‘thists and the Soviets in the 1970s. In exchange for Soviet support in the international arena, Moscow pressured the Ba‘thists to grant more political space to Iraqi communists, who opposed any role for religion in public discourse.

By the late 1970s, the issue of religion and politics became a constant nuisance for the Ba‘thists, and Saddam wanted to resolve it— or at least establish a strategy for doing so— before he became president. Although the March 1979 meeting was originally designed to protect Iraqi youth from the influence of reactionary religious movements, in practice, Saddam used the occasion to take direct control of the regime’s religious policies. He decreed that he would personally manage the regime’s interactions with Iraqi religious leaders. He would henceforth “give oral instructions directly to those [regime elements] concerned with coercing (zajj) men of religion.” Yet, Saddam also expressed a desire to move away from a strategy that relied solely on violence and limited the Ba‘thists’ ability to instrumentalize their views on religion. He was convinced that religion, if interpreted in accordance with his desires, was not inherently threatening to the Ba‘thist regime. If religion could be controlled, it had the potential to be extremely useful. Thus, Saddam’s desire to begin co-opting religious leaders systematically derived not only from a fear of anti-regime religious discourse and violence but also from what he considered to be a significant opportunity to instill support for Ba‘thism in Iraqi society. As such, he hoped to “direct [regime officials in their] attempts to persuade [men of religion]” to adopt an interpretation of Islam that was in line with Ba‘thist thought. Saddam was certain that such an interpretation would bolster rather than undermine his rule.

The March 1979 meeting also began a systematic infiltration of Iraqi mosques by specially designated Ba‘thists. The first recommendation of the meeting pointed to “the necessity for good Party elements to be present in the mosques and husayniyyat.” The husayniyyat are prayer halls used by Shi‘is, especially during religious commemorations of Shi‘i Imams. Therefore, the regime treated them similar to mosques. Saddam instructed his Ba‘thist supporters “to get to know the men of religion and worshipers and to build contacts with them for the sake of benefiting the Party and the revolution.” Moreover— and this is very important— when meeting with religious leaders, Party members were to emphasize the official ideology of the Ba‘th Party on religious matters, especially with respect to “the importance it puts on religion, men of religion, and holy places.” In other words, Saddam was confident that Ba‘thism included a sound approach to religion. The difficulty the Ba‘thists faced— at least in Saddam’s mind— was that their Party’s view of religion was widely misunderstood. According to this logic, the Ba‘thists did not need to change their ideology or their view of religion; rather, they needed to educate and indoctrinate others about what they believed. This may sound strange for a regime that was known for its oppression of religious leaders. However, when Saddam convened the High National Security Council in March 1979, he could draw on a rich Ba‘thist heritage that emphasized the importance of belief in God and maintained a reverence for Islam. Two years earlier, in 1977, Saddam had clarified his view on the importance of religion in a speech titled “A View on Religion and Heritage.” In what would become a definitive statement on religion in Saddam’s Iraq, he made clear that “our Party does not take a neutral stance between faith and atheism; it is always on the side of faith.”

Such a statement was clearly rooted in Ba‘thist thought. Contrary to popular portrayals of it as a militantly secular or even anti-religious ideology, Ba‘thism had always included a non-traditional, yet extremely positive interpretation of Islam as an Arab religion. In that regard, the Iraqi Ba‘thists were inspired by, and continued to support, a version of Ba‘thist Islam that had been articulated— ironically— by a secular Christian intellectual, Michel Aflaq (1910– 1989). Understanding Aflaq’s views on Islam is critical for understanding the political history of Ba‘thist Iraq. They provide the lens through which Saddam and his regime saw rival political movements, especially Islamists and communists. Aflaq’s ideas about Islam also provide the foundation from which the Iraqi Ba‘th Party’s religious policies would grow and evolve.

Samuel Helfont, Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq, (Oxford University Press, 2018).