Did Saddam Hussein Become A Religious Believer?

This is a cross-post by Kyle Orton

It should be stated up front that the question posed in the headline is, strictly speaking, unanswerable: only Saddam Hussein could ever answer that question, and even then any out-loud answer given by Saddam could be untrue in any number of directions, for any number of reasons. Still, from the available evidence it does seem Saddam had some kind of “born-again” experience.

Of crucial importance, however, is that while Saddam’s actual beliefs had a significant impact in providing some of the colour and shape to the Faith Campaign, even if one believes Saddam remained a secularist and Islamized his regime as a wholly cynical means of shoring-up support, this is completely irrelevant to the effect this Islamization had. Saddam put in place a governmental administration that created a religious movement, which brought men to a faith they otherwise would not have had, and in combination with the increased sectarianism fostered by Saddam’s regime, this prepared the ground for al-Qaeda and its offshoots like the Islamic State (ISIS) in the aftermath of the regime.

The Nature of the Faith Campaign

The two sources I have found that most directly explore what Saddam Hussein actually believed are Amatzia Baram’s 2014 book, “Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968-2003: Ba’thi Iraq from Secularism to Faith,” which argues that Saddam did become a born-again Muslim, and Joseph Sassoon’s 2012 book, “Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime,” which argues that Saddam remained hostile to Islamism to the very end.

There is no doubt that the Saddam regime visibly Islamized in the early 1990s under the Faith Campaign, which promoted a form of Salafism—intended partly to counter the Muslim Brotherhood, which as a secretive, multinational organization Saddam still saw as a threat.

Sassoon argues that the Faith Campaign was a cynical smokescreen by which the Saddam regime sought to win support from Muslim conservatives, while continuing to engage in “anti-religious activities”. Sassoon’s argument against Saddam being a believer is that “Saddam Hussein was always wary of any religious movement,” but this is not correct. What the Faith Campaign did was create a religious movement, Ba’athist-Salafism, of which Saddam was not wary at all. Even Sassoon acknowledges that Saddam “publicly supported all religious activities, and called for more conservatism and religiosity within society.”

That Saddam’s personal tastes, rather than a strict religious interpretation, shaped the Faith Campaign is hardly novel. Ruhollah Khomeini, after he seized power, ruled that the survival of his revolution took precedent over the strict interpretation of shari’a jurisprudence. In Sudan, the Islamist regime of Hassan al-Turabi and Omar al-Bashir did the same. As al-Turabi once put it to Saddam, “If the State itself is leading the religious guidance, for what [reason] then is [i.e. should there be] a religious party?”

Saddam did dislike Wahhabism, Khomeini’ism, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban. Saddam’s reasons for disliking these movements break down into broadly two: he saw them as a threat to his power or a personal distaste. Khomeini’ism was undoubtedly seen as a both a threat and was personally disliked—it was associated in Saddam’s mind with Iran and he was an anti-Persian bigot, among other things. But in the case of the Taliban, Saddam despised them for being so primitive, specifically blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas, but had formed “Islamic relations” with them nonetheless, and had indeed switched to a policy of alliance with Islamists abroad before he aligned with the Islamists at home.

Do read the rest of this post here