Ahmad Masood / Reuters A Muslim protester holds a picture of slain former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, January 12, 2007.

Saddam and the Rise of ISIS

The Faith Campaign's Long Aftermath

In January, Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill argued in Foreign Affairs that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had played no part in the eventual rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) because he was not an Islamist. In the course of their argument, they referenced my 2014 book, Saddam Husayn and Islam, and called the views I espoused there, and elsewhere, “dangerously misleading.” In my book I had not mentioned ISIS, but had discussed Saddam’s Baathist policies (including his self-styled Islamism in the 1990s). After the book came out I concluded that, inadvertently, Saddam’s Islamic Faith Campaign in the 1990s prepared the ground for ISIS. In Foreign Affairs in April I restated this case, adding that Saddam’s Islamist policy was only one factor, although a major one, behind the emergence of ISIS.

Helfont and Brill then wrote a second piece defending their position, arguing yet again that Saddam was no Islamist and therefore was innocent of contributing to the eventual rise of ISIS. At this point, however, our dispute is about methodology as well as substance—what I consider their inconsistent use of facts, issuance of contradictory statements, and tunnel-like focus on internal Baathist records, which cause them to overlook other key sources. Readers might find such matters arcane, but they are important to hash out, because only proper methodology provides the foundation for accurate substantive conclusions.

Helfont and Brill have challenged the notion that, as my book notes, the Iraqi state was deeply involved in imposing sharia law—such as punishing theft with amputation, codifying it into the penal system, and explicitly legitimizing it with sharia. They originally wrote that "there is no evidence in the Baathist records that the regime applied sharia law in Iraq. Such atrocities [amputations, beheadings, and so on] were carried out by regime paramilitaries such as the Fedayeen Saddam . . ." Drawing on my book, I responded by pointing out the many ways the state had actually been deeply involved—from the promulgation

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