In his recent response to an article we wrote in Foreign Affairs, Amatzia Baram contests our claim that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein did not promote Islamism in Iraq. Baram’s criticisms are based on his book, Saddam Husayn and Islam, and subsequent analyses of the topic, which posit that the policies of Saddam’s regime eventually gave us the Islamic State (ISIS). One of Baram’s key arguments is:

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.

[…]
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.

But the notoriously closed nature of Saddam’s regime meant that without access to the millions of pages of internal regime records available at the Hoover Institution archives, researchers outside Iraq had an incomplete picture of what the regime “presented as its beliefs” to its population. These archives provide detailed documentation not only on internal discussions and reasoning, but also on “Saddam’s actual policies and how they were conveyed to the public.” Furthermore, it is one thing to dismiss the importance of sources after consulting them. It is quite another matter to dismiss sources without consulting them, especially when there is general agreement that they contradict one’s argument. Baram has not visited the Hoover archives himself, and yet, he disregards the importance of the archival work upon which our piece was based, claiming that we “put too much weight on the archives” and that we “ignore” open source records on the regime. For one thing, that is simply not true. Our work is also informed by and cites previously available open sources and the generation of scholarship based on them, to which Baram has made numerous contributions. It is his lack of direct study of this archival material that has led him to make problematic claims about Saddam, the Baathist regime, and the emergence of ISIS.

Without examining one of the most important Baathist archives, which contains the overwhelming majority of available internal regime records, Baram then goes on to distort our arguments. Bizarrely, one of the key assertions he makes is that our “rigorous study” of the archives implied we “have carefully read all 11 million Arabic-language pages of the Baath archive at the Hoover Institute.” He then goes to some length to explain why this cannot be true, providing calculations to support his point. This is a straw man argument. We implied nothing of the sort. But we have made multiple trips to the archives over several years and spent months reading the records. Furthermore, as we showed in our original article, our findings are in line with those of other scholars who have collectively spent years researching these archives. Altogether, this effort has produced a body of literature on the regime’s religious policies that consistently highlights that Saddam did not become an Islamist.

Despite Baram’s assertions, we have also conducted considerable research with non-archival sources and with the files at the Conflict Records Research Center, which were formerly housed at the National Defense University. We do not find his assertions about the latter set of files, which he has consulted, compelling.  His selective use of these records appears to largely confirm his older arguments from the period of time before researchers had access to internal sources. Moreover, although the Conflict Records Research Center files contain valuable information and produced studies by scholars on subjects such as the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq’s conflicts with the United States, Saddam’s perceptions of the United States, and the regime’s support for terrorism, they have much less to say about domestic issues and contain almost nothing on Saddam’s policies on religion in Iraq. Sources, such as the Arabic press, history books, and textbooks, which we too have examined and cite in our research, are problematic when assessed in isolation and without regard to internal Baath documents. That is because Saddam’s regime was notoriously secretive, making it very difficult to decipher from looking only at public documents.

Saddam and a Baath party student cell.

Having worked extensively with the Baathist records held at the Hoover Institution, we found that they offered a much clearer picture of the regime’s stance on Islamism. They contain the minutes of secret, high level meetings in which regime’s policies were made. Even more importantly, they document how these policies were implemented. The materials that Baram has consulted simply do not contain such information, and relying on them can be misleading. For example, Baram states that during his Faith Campaign from 1993 to 2003, Saddam injected “a heavy dose of religion” into Iraqi culture, education, and politics. From open source documents one could argue that Saddam had indeed introduced Islam into these spheres, but teaching about Islam is not the same as promoting Islamism and the sources Baram has consulted are unclear about which the regime was doing. Thankfully, we no longer need to rely solely on the vague picture provided by the tightly controlled Iraqi press, one-off statements by regime officials, and other open source materials. The archival records provide straightforward information on this topic, which clearly contradicts Baram’s thesis that the Faith Campaign promoted Islamism. Instead, they show that the Baathists promoted an interpretation of Islam that was specifically designed to combat Islamism.

For example, as we mentioned in our previous article, open sources made clear that in the late 1990s, Saddam began to require Baathists to take courses on Islam. There is simply no evidence to support Baram’s argument that the regime told these Baathists one thing and then said something else to the general population. Just the opposite; these Baathists were one of the main interfaces between the regime and the general population. They were responsible for explaining and enforcing the regime’s ideas on Islam to Iraqis. Thus, as one might imagine, these courses give a good sense of both the regime’s ideology and “what it presented as its beliefs” during the Faith Campaign. However, the curriculum, which is only available at the Hoover archives, reveals that the regime held true to the standard Arab nationalist interpretation of Islam that was meant to oppose Islamist arguments. It describes the Baath Party as a “nationalist (qawmiyya) movement” which is markedly different from pan-Islamist movements. In contrast, the courses emphasize the “spirit of Islam” rather than Islamic law. They portray Islam as an Arab religion (revealed by an Arab prophet to the Arab people as part of a revolutionary national awakening in the seventh century) rather than a universal religion that demands, say, a caliphate. As in the past, the courses stated that the Iraqi Baathists wished to create “the new Arab man.” These are ideas that Baram portrays as “militantly secular” in his book. They were standard Baathist teachings since the founding of the party. Accordingly, the courses state that they rely on the Arab nationalist intellectual heritage of the party, and employ the writings of the “founding leader,” Michel Aflaq, who was a Christian and whose thinking Baram depicts as “atheistic.” Thus, of the top five works listed in the “Islamic” curriculum, four were by Aflaq and dated from the mid-twentieth century, long before the Faith Campaign or the regime’s supposed turn toward Islamism. The second work on the list was a speech Saddam gave in 1977 when Baram claimed he was a militant secularist. The curriculum also instructs Baathists to study the party’s report on the Ninth Regional Conference held in 1982, which was the foremost policy statement for the regime at the time and laid out the Baathist position on religion. In his Foreign Affairs piece Baram references this document, saying that in it, “the Baath Party openly warned that some of its members were going Islamic.” He argues that this document illustrates the regime’s secularism before it turned toward Islamism. In his book, Baram calls the report “the last stand of fortress secularism.” Had Baram consulted the Hoover archives, he would have seen that these ideas, which he himself depicts as secular and even atheistic, were the intellectual foundation of the regime’s policies during the Faith Campaign. This seriously challenges his notion that the Faith Campaign was a shift to Islamism.

The archives shed light on other aspects of the Faith Campaign as well. For example, records from the early 1990s reveal that many of the institutions at the heart of the Faith Campaign, such as Saddam University for Islamic Studies, were designed specifically to confront “the intellectual campaign and the creed of Islamists.” This undermines Baram’s claim that the regime continued selling secularism to party members, while using institutions like this to promote Islamism. As we showed in our previous piece, the archives demonstrate that the regime consistently attempted to neutralize anyone who held Islamist beliefs, such as those sympathetic to the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood or the Shiite Da’wa Party. The internal regime records during the Faith Campaign contain thousands of pages detailing how it repressed these parties specifically as well as Islamist ideas more generally, which the Baathist referred to as “political-religious phenomenon” and politics “under the cover of religion.” In the face of such evidence, Baram’s assertion that the regime was “Islamist” falls flat.

As Baram mentions, the regime also began to promote classes on the Koran for senior officials. These classes were offered to the general public as well. Baathist reports on these courses provide a decent sense of the regime’s priorities. Instead of focusing on the religious text, they reported on how the classes praised Saddam and Iraq, spread patriotism, and explained the challenges of facing colonialism and “American-Zionist imperialism.” These ideas were not Islamist and they were not new during the Faith Campaign.

Countless records in the Hoover Institution archives contradict Baram’s underlying thesis in his book that the Iraqi regime made “a high profile U-turn” between the early 1980s and the 1990s, moving from a militantly secular or “atheistic” outlook toward an Islamist one. In fact, the archives make clear that Saddam and his regime promoted a similar interpretation of Islam throughout his entire presidency from 1979 to 2003. Saddam was neither a militant secularist in his early days, as Baram portrays him, nor was he an Islamist later on. It is impossible to know what was in Saddam’s heart. Like many who have fallen upon hard times, he may very well have embraced his spiritual side between the 1991 and 2003 wars. But neither personal nor public displays by the Iraqi leader indicated a deeper transformation in the system or of his views on Islamism. For example, in 2001 he argued “By God, I do not like them. I do not like those who engage in politics under the guise of religion.”

In his critique of our work, Baram has at least recognized that the regime did not support Salafism, a claim he makes in his book, which has been interpreted by others as showing support for “Baathist Salafism.” Although Saddam “denounced the Saudi (Wahhabi or Salafist) version of Islamism,” Baram wrote in his recent article, he “imposed his version of Islamism.” But Baram’s use of the term “Islamism” is deeply flawed. The vast majority of Arab and Muslim rulers in the twentieth century, including the Arab nationalist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and the vehemently anti-Islamist Mohammad Reza Shah in Iran, referenced Islam in their ideologies. Many non-Islamist states also incorporate some parts of Islamic law or make Islamic law a (not the) source of legislation. The Baathists were no different, even in earlier periods when Baram describes the party as militantly secular. When the Baathists seized power in Iraq in 1968, the preamble of their new constitution mentions reliance on God and the very first article cited “the spirit of Islam” as a source of the Iraqi Republic’s legitimacy. And numerous references to religion, including “Islamic law,” can be found throughout. Saddam also referenced Islam and Islamic law throughout his presidency, even in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was supposedly most secular. These references to Islam differ from Islamism in that Islamists attempt to design a political ideology and a state around Islamic law. The Baathists never did that, even during the Faith Campaign. With this in mind, it is misguided for Baram to casually dismiss the assertion, made by us and others, that it is difficult to find instances of Islamic law being applied in the regime’s archives. If the regime really had become Islamist, one would expect to see in the records an attempt to implement an Islamic legal system or at least to have prominent references to Islamic law. But they are simply not there.  

We are well aware of the litany of public references to Islamic law that Baram lists in his piece, but the regime’s internal records suggest that they were not applied in the manner that Baram describes. Baram writes, “contrary to Helfont and Brill’s argument, Saddam’s regime did apply sharia law in important walks of life.” He cites as evidence, “decree 59 of June 4, 1994,” which ordered “thieves (and later, un-authorized dealers of foreign currency, smugglers, and most economic offenders)…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.” We did not intend to suggest that “unruly militias” alone, or primarily, administered these punishments. Instead, we were critiquing Baram’s interpretation of the Fedayeen Saddam militia as some sort of ISIS prototype, which it clearly was not. But the larger issue here is that the role of Islamic law is not as clear-cut as Baram suggests. The regime’s policy of amputating hands was paired with amputating ears and branding, which do not have a precedent in Islamic law. Saddam’s decrees on these penalties do not mention Islam or give any religious justifications for their enactment. The regime’s internal records are also more ambiguous than Baram lets on. In private conversations, Saddam sometimes gave secular reasons for amputating hands; other times he offered religious justifications. Baram only discusses the latter and completely ignores the former.

Saddam with Michel Aflaq, founder of the Baath Party, in 1988.

Baram’s other references to Islamism are also difficult to substantiate. For example, he argues that Saddam and the regime turned toward Islamism in a top-level meeting with the Baath Party leadership on July 24, 1986. An audio recording and transcript of this meeting were made available by the Conflict Records Research Center. We dealt with Baram’s assertion in our original piece, but he has misrepresented our argument, portraying it as hinging on whether Aflaq agreed with the policy, along with the Christian Baathist Tariq Aziz’s initial vocal opposition. In the meeting, Saddam suggested a tactical alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and Sudan, but criticizes them for their Islamist policies. Saddam said during the meeting, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, “If you stop talking about the religious state, we will stop criticizing the religious state.” This was clearly not a turn toward Islamism.

In fact, a recurring theme in the meeting is that Saddam pledged to fight Islamists if they seized power. Although Saddam stressed it was in the Baath Party’s interest to avoid clashing with the Islamists, he also said that “on the other hand, we would launch a big attack on them if they are close to taking power.” Moreover, “if they [Islamists] are in power and open fire on us, we will open fire on them.” The first real test of this policy came after the June 30, 1989 coup in Sudan led by Omar al-Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi, which ushered in Islamist rule. And as the records reveal, the Iraqi regime supported the Sudanese Baath Party, whose leader was present at the 1986 meeting, when it launched an unsuccessful coup against the Bashir-Turabi regime on April 28, 1990. The Iraqis continued to support the Sudanese Baath until 2003, which complicated otherwise friendly bilateral relations with the Bashir-Turabi regime following the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

Although Iraqi records reveal support for non-Iraqi Islamists, especially during and after the Gulf War, realpolitik drove the development of this relationship, not an ideological shift by Saddam’s regime from secularism to Islamism. That is why the regime only allied with foreign Islamists. No such relationship existed with Islamists inside Iraq. These are facts documented in records at the Conflict Records Research Center, a collection Baram has drawn upon in his research.

In critiquing our piece, Baram dismisses the importance of the largest available archival collection of the former Baath regime—one that also contains the clearest and most useful information about the Iraqi Baath’s domestic and religious policies. In doing so, he misrepresents the regime’s policies. We have detailed some of these discrepancies here, but it should be noted that while his recent book contains a lot of valuable information based on years of research, many of its central claims are contradicted by records in the Hoover Institution’s archive. The resulting narrative creates confusion about the evolution of groups such as ISIS, which are informed by Islamism. The Baathists spent considerable time and effort suppressing these people and their ideas. The absence of the Baathist regime’s repression and the collapse of the Iraqi state as a result of the 2003 invasion—not Saddam’s non-existent promotion of Islamism prior to 2003—is what bred ISIS. Instead of finding a way to connect Saddam to Iraqi jihadists, academics and policymakers alike would be better served by contemplating the role of the U.S.-led invasion and botched occupation of 2003 in unleashing the chaos that continues to claim lives today.

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  • SAMUEL HELFONT holds a lectureship in the International Relations Program at the University of Pennsylvania and is a Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
  • MICHAEL BRILL is an M.A. candidate in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.
  • More By Samuel Helfont
  • More By Michael Brill