In their January 2016 Foreign Affairs article, “Saddam’s ISIS?” Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill argued that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s Baathist policy was not responsible for the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the article, Helfont and Brill characterized a view that I had espoused, in a short telephone interview with Politico, as “dangerous.” They wrote:

Amatzia Baram, who wrote a book about Saddam and his relationship with Islam from 1968 to 2003, has since stated that Baghdadi “is Saddam’s creation.” These depictions are inaccurate and dangerously misleading, as documents in the Iraqi archives and at Hoover Institution’s Baath Party records make clear. Our rigorous study of those records has found no evidence that Saddam or his Baathist regime in Iraq displayed any sympathy for Islamism, Salafism, or Wahhabism.

The authors are referring to the findings in my new book, Saddam Husayn and Islam, in which Baghdadi and ISIS are not mentioned. But my book makes clear that Saddam’s Islamization and sectarian policies, although important, are only one part of the broader developments that created ISIS. Based on the facts of Saddam’s Islamic “Faith Campaign,” which lasted from 1993-2003, I believe that he was an “Islamist.” By this, I mean he injected a heavy dose of religion, in part radical religion, into politics, education, culture, and the Iraqi legal system. In that, the Faith Campaign was in essence an Islamization campaign, and it contributed to ISIS’ radical Islamism.

In coming to the conclusion that Saddam was something less than an Islamist, Helfont and Brill imply that they have carefully read all 11 million Arabic-language pages of the Baath archive at the Hoover Institution. An effort of this sort would have required that both scholars spend all their working days reading documents, from when the archive opened in April 2010 to some time in December 2015 just before they published their piece in Foreign Affairs. This would have required a “rigorous study” of no less than 800 pages per hour for ten hours a day. If they studied only some files, because no filing system is perfect, they know little about what was in the rest of the archives.

Moreover, Helfont and Brill put too much weight on the archives and ignored the Baath regime’s operational ideology, namely, its actual political practice and how it describes, explains, and glorifies it in its open media; for example, in its newspapers, school textbooks, history books, and on television. Therefore, even if Helfont and Brill accurately interpreted what was said within the party itself, they misunderstood the public face of the regime’s beliefs, or what it presented as its beliefs—critical evidence supporting Saddam’s Islamization efforts between 1993 and 2003. And, contrary to Helfont and Brill’s argument, Saddam’s regime did apply sharia law in important walks of life. The fact that such policies were a cynical manipulation designed to win mass support does not mean that they had no impact. 

Shiite paramilitary fighters hold an Islamist State flag which they pulled down in Tikrit, March 31, 2015.

That point is crucial. Whatever the Baath leadership may have said internally or even publicly against Islamism, what ultimately influenced the Iraqi Sunni population the most were Saddam’s actual policies and how they were conveyed to the public. The main target of the Islamization campaign was the 80 to 85 percent of the Arab (non-Kurdish) citizenry of Iraq who were not Baath Party members and who faced the de-facto Islamization policies daily: new draconian punishments, extensive Islamization of education, limits on entertainment and alcohol, the spending of astronomic sums of money on building extravagant Sunni mosques when people needed homes, the alleged posthumous conversion to Islam of the party’s Christian founder (Michel Aflaq), and even the Islamization of the national flag.

Equally troubling was the cognitive dissonance that the contradiction between internal party secularism and outward Islamism inflicted on many civilian and military Baath Party members. For a great many Baath Party members, the 1990s Faith Campaign apparently pushed their pre-existing cynicism of Baathism to outright nihilism, which left them emotionally vulnerable to recruitment, first by al Qaeda and later by ISIS.   

The Faith Campaign, in other words, put the Saddam regime under immense strain. By imposing religion on public life and politics, Saddam wanted to create an image for the general public that both the party and regime had become Islamists. The public, which had suffered under devastating wars and the international embargo had grown more religious. Hoping to gain popularity, Saddam jumped on the Islamic bandwagon. At the same time, however, many party members remained secular. To ensure the party members’ loyalty, internal party discourse was intended to lead them to believe that the party’s foundational and secular ideology remained intact. Although Saddam Islamized his regime, which until then was one of the most secular in the Arab world, he could not admit as much to his party base because it could be interpreted as a total surrender to Iran’s Islamism, the Saudis, and the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition to humiliation, admitting explicitly that he succumbed to their political Islam could open the way to disloyal Islamists in Iraq, even within the party. (In its 1982 Ninth Congress, the Baath Party openly warned that some of its members were going Islamic.) Saddam even avoided the term “Islamic” by calling his initiative the “Faith Campaign.” As a result, even as he imposed his version of Islamism, he denounced the Saudi (Wahhabi or Salafist) version of Islamism.

Helfont and Brill are correct that, even during his Faith Campaign, Saddam suppressed other Islamists whom he and his regime defined as “Wahhabis” and “Salafis.” What they miss, however, is that his suppression of other Islamists was not a rejection of de-facto Islamism as such, but yet another manifestation of his habitual determination to crush any element in Iraqi society outside of his control. Just as he crushed the communists in the 1970s for criticizing his interpretation of socialism and Islamists for accusing him of atheism, in the 1990s, Saddam suppressed all Islamists who were seen as a threat to his own version of Islamism. Saddam’s son, Uday, who was the only person that Saddam would (grudgingly) allow to take a publicly independent line, used his newspaper, Babil, to repeatedlycomplain that the regime was far too tolerant and even protective of Islamists ("Wahhabis”). He even complained that Baghdad was turning into Riyadh. As far as I now know, Uday was referring to Islamists loyal to the regime, some of whom were professors at Baghdad University, where ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliph, Baghdadi, was studying at the time. Similarly, Saddam’s half-brother, Barzan Tikriti, whose diary is available at the National Defense University’s Conflict Research Records Center archive, warned Saddam that Iraqi Islamists would eventually destroy the Baath Party, a warning which Saddam ignored. Helfont and Brill are silent about these records.


Of course, Saddam’s Islamism was different from that of the Wahhabis and other Salafis. In my book I show that, in certain respects, he introduced a version of sharia law “lite,” which is more in keeping with Helfont and Brill’s claim that Saddam employed a “watered down” version of Islamism. In other areas, however, Saddam’s explicit sharia laws, as well as non-sharia-based ones (which were presented as an integral part of his Faith Campaign), were more extreme and brutal than are the practices of both the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda, but similar to those of ISIS.

Furthermore, Helfont and Brill are seriously mistaken when they argue that “[T]here is no evidence in the Baathist records that the regime applied sharia law in Iraq.” The Baathist press is a record too. For instance, from 1994 onward, Saddam enacted a series of new laws in which he grafted central elements of the sharia legal punishments (the hudud) onto the previously secular Iraqi penal code. According to decree 59 of June 4, 1994, for example, thieves (and later, un-authorized dealers of foreign currency, smugglers, and most economic offenders) were to be punished with the amputation of the right hand. Recidivists were to lose the left foot. Such cruelties were not an aberration, performed by unruly militias, as Helfont and Brill claim. The amputations, for instance, took place in general hospitals by certified doctors. The gory spectacles were often broadcast on television. Any doctor who refused an order to amputate was severely punished. That those laws were sharia-based was obvious to all, but just in case someone missed it, the Baathist press lavishly praised the regime for implementing sharia in this way. Another set of laws during this era prescribed the death penalty for prostitution. Although not necessarily sharia, it was still part of the Faith Campaign. The ban on public consumption of alcohol; the closure of most bars, pubs, and discos; the partial Islamization of the banking and taxation systems, were all presented as sharia. A compulsory two-year Koran course for the senior party officials; sharia law examinations for merchants and civil judges; and the deep Islamization, with a Sunni tilt, of the educational system, beginning in the first grade, all those too were part of the Faith Campaign.

A Shiite paramilitary fighter walks past former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's palaces, which were once occupied by Islamic State militants, Tikrit, March 31, 2015.

Then, there was Saddam’s efforts to gain popularity in the rest of the Islamic world. In July 1986, Saddam had a top-level meeting with his senior leadership. He opened the meeting by “suggesting” an open rapprochement with the formidable Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Sudan. This was a cynical ploy. In hindsight, this meeting looks like a harbinger of Saddam’s equally cynical domestic Islamization process from 1993 to 2003. Helfont and Brill claim that this rapprochement with the Brotherhood, as well as the 1990s Faith Campaign, represented no deviation from the Baathist party line. To prove it, they report correctly that in the meeting, Aflaq gave his consent to the rapprochement, but they ignore both his constraints (opposing Saddam’s “suggestions” was always risky), and Aflaq’s self-criticism over the excessive lip-service the party had paid to Islam in the early days. Aflaq was implying that there should be no further deviation beyond the rapprochement. Indeed, as a Christian he was threatened by any Islamization, and a strict tenet that he had coined in the 1940s was the “secularism of the state.” (Saddam, for his part, in his 1970s secular era, declared that sharia was not suitable for modern life.)  Moreover, Helfont and Brill ignore another Christian leader, Tariq Aziz, who came late to the meeting. He was livid over the suggested policy and did not realize that he was opposing the president’s “suggestion.” Aziz saw such a rapprochement as a deviation from the party’s secularism and a great danger to Baathism. (Saddam eventually forgave Aziz, excusing him because he was late, which implied that Aziz had not deliberately opposed the president.) Helfont and Brill leave Aziz out of their argument.

Other key pieces of evidence about Saddam’s responsibility for the creation of ISIS come from his dealings with the Kurds and the Shiites even before his Faith Campaign. Most obvious was his brutal suppression of their revolts in 1988 and 1991, which Helfont and Brill also ignore. The rivers of blood Saddam left behind prepared the ground for ISIS’ vicious hostility toward the Shiites and the Kurds. More generally speaking, his failure to bridge the Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish gap which resulted with unprecedented sectarian and ethnic crises in Iraq, set the stage for ISIS.

Of course, there may be little doubt that, at least until the late 1990s, Saddam’s Islamization project was a highly cynical political maneuver. In 1986, he admitted that to win popularity there was a need to jump on an already moving bandwagon of growing religiosity in Iraq. And yet, between the early 1990s and 2003 his public policy was that of a self-styled Islamist. By linking Islam with barbarity, by imposing extensive Islamic education (with a Sunni tilt), which was without precedent in Iraq, and by de-facto eliminating his party’s secular foundations, he set Sunni Iraqis up to be susceptible to al Qaeda after the 2003 U.S. invasion and, eventually, ISIS.

To be sure, Saddam is responsible for ISIS, but he does not bear sole responsibility: Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned a political conflict into a religious one. Inadvertently, mistakes made by the U.S. occupation and the way the United States eventually withdrew from Iraq were key causes too. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad supported al Qaeda in Iraq, the early version of ISIS, and Sunni and Shiite segments of Iraqi society turned a crisis into a tragic, devastating civil war. Yet Saddam’s “contribution” to ISIS was very real. A wider perspective on his regime and his efforts to shape Iraqi society would have clearly revealed this.

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  • AMATZIA BARAM is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Middle East History and Director of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa.
  • More By Amatzia Baram