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

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 of laws ordering amputation for theft and and execution for prostitution, to national television coverage of the amputations. In their reply, Helfont and Brill adopted my facts while claiming that "we did not intend to suggest that 'unruly militias' alone, or primarily, administered these punishments." I find it hard to square with their original language.

Helfont and Brill go on to claim that amputating hands and legs for theft was just run-of-the-mill regime brutality and had nothing to do with sharia. But I had pointed out that most Iraqis knew from school and home that this was sharia, following one of the Koran’s most famous legal verses, and that the Baathist media praised Saddam profusely for implementing sharia this way. Helfont and Brill’s response noted that they were "well aware of the litany of public references to Islamic law that Baram lists in his piece,” but they didn’t mention any of this in their original piece, which seems an odd way to treat potentially relevant evidence. Furthermore, they also changed their minds on what “the regime’s internal records” actually said about the amputations, shifting from saying, “There is no evidence in the Baathist records that the regime applied sharia law in Iraq” to acknowledging that occasionally, if inconsistently, Saddam himself explained the amputations in terms of sharia.

Meanwhile, Helfont and Brill ignored my point about the legacy of Saddam’s mass murder of Shiites and Kurds—that the intercommunal hate and fear he created continue to bedevil Iraq even now and helped ISIS win Sunni support. The gassing of Kurds in the city of Halabja and the mass executions of Shias in March 1991 do not appear in the Hoover archive of internal Baath Party records, but it does not mean that it never happened. And they ignore my point that powerful insiders such as Saddam’s son Uday and half-brother Barzan Tikriti—among the few people who could criticize Saddam without punishment—repeatedly criticized the regime’s policy of protecting Sunni Islamist extremists (Wahhabis), thus confirming that Saddam did, in fact, do so. In his private diary, Barzan wrote about his brother:

The way the president is thinking, unfortunately, is similar to the way of thinking of a monk who is sitting in a sanctuaryand worshiping [God] (tafkir rahib jalis fi mihrab wa yata’abbad). . . . I told the president . . . of the danger of an alliance with the religious trend domestically and externally.

In the Baath regime, where so much was carefully orchestrated, one rare authentic document coming from a real insider who chooses to depart so sharply from the party line is just as revealing as thousands of run-of-the-mill internal party-line documents, which Helfont and Brill focus on. Yet rather than see this as confirmation of the underlying phenomenon, Helfont and Brill simply Ignore Uday's remarks and dismiss Barazan's as an anomaly.

Ignoring the past leads Helfont and Brill to misinterpret the present. Their original article noted:

Since 2003, former Baathists have joined a variety of insurgent groups, not just ISIS. They have shifted their loyalties over time according to the political climate—basically to those they judged could successfully take power. Like others throughout history, Iraqis have repeatedly demonstrated a tremendous capacity for adapting to current circumstances and acquiescing to the dominant ideology.

According to this opportunistic theory, one would expect these former Baathists to switch sides, first to the new regime that followed when the Baathists were defeated, but they did not: they preferred to join the most extreme Islamists. Now, again, as ISIS loses ground, these former Baathists have not changed their positions either, at least on any observable level. This suggests that their connection with ISIS goes beyond pure opportunism and relates to how Saddam’s legacy conditioned them to see Salafis as legitimate and viable partners.

Iraq's deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, July 1, 2004.

Helfont and Brill argue that Saddam’s regime did not go through an Islamist metamorphosis in the 1990s, as I think it did, and to support this, they cite evidence that Saddam’s regime was already considerably Islamic back in the 1970s. But the truth is more complex than they appear to understand. There were indeed some Islamic elements to Baathism and official Iraqi government policy in the late 1960s and 1970s. What they miss is the extent, nature, and significance of the variation of such elements over time.

Thus, they report that the First Baathi Interim Constitution of September 1968, introduced one month after the party came to power, was full of references to Islam. What they did not report was that the July 1970 Second Interim Constitution, authored by Saddam and his circle of young Baathists, replaced the first one and eliminated “Islam” and “religion” altogether. The only exception to this is that Islam was still defined as “the state religion” in the document. This could not be removed for fear of mass protests. (In 1972, the Syrian Baath Party tried to remove Islam as a state religion and had to frantically reverse course.) This secular Second Interim Constitution persisted until 2003. In the 1990s, although Saddam ignored this document, he could not change it because it would have been seen by the Baath Party as a total surrender to the religious parties against whom he was preaching even though Saddam was enforcing much of their platform in Iraq. He could not afford the humiliation of betraying, constitutionally, the party’s main tenet of faith: secular pan Arabism.

The Islamic elements they point to in what I see as the secular 1970s, moreover, were really just nods to and invocations of a golden age for Islam in the Arab world. Namely, those were expressions of pride in the glory that was Arab Islam as history, not the implementation of Islamic law and religious practices of the regime that took place two decades later. As Saddam announced in 1977, he felt sharia was passé: “The current social problems . . . are quite different from those of the early Islamic times, when the [sharia] rules of jurisprudence were laid down. . . . [These rules] cannot be the rules of present life.” In the 1990s he performed a u-turn.

Helfont and Brill focus intensely on internal records. These can be useful, but unless they are supplemented by other kinds of evidence, they can also be problematic. Because most Iraqis were not party members, they were more influenced by what they saw and experienced daily in the open media and the public space than they were by classified internal party discourse. What matters most is how the crucial internal policy decisions were translated into public policies. In the 1990s, even though Baghdad did not become Riyadh (as Uday complained it might), Saddam’s policies—unprecedented Sunni Islamization of education, the creation of an Islamic state bank, the partial Islamization of taxation, the limitations on spirits and entertainment, and the encoding of sharia into the penal code—were not vaguely enforced as Helfont and Brill report. They were crystal-clear and unprecedented for the country, as well as for all other Sunni-majority Arab states, save Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Whatever the Baathi leadership may have told itself internally, what ultimately mattered is how the leadership attempted to manipulate the Iraqi people.  This manipulation had to be, and was, completely public or else it would have missed its target.

My own conclusions are based on some 30 years of studying the Iraqi Baath Party, mostly through open sources. Since 2011, I spent a few months at the National Defense University’s Conflict Records Research Center. Although much smaller than the Hoover archive, this is a precious collection of internal government and party documents, as well as a large number of Saddam’s recordings of his closed-doors meetings with his generals, the most senior party officials, tribal sheikhs, and foreign dignitaries. I did not see and listen to it all, but I found very important information there that I used in my book. To understand the Hoover Institution’s archive, which Helfont and Brill refer to, I have studied the work of scholars such as Abbas Kadhim, Joseph Sassoon, Dina Rizk Khoury, and Aaron M. Faust. The importance of the internal records cannot be overstated. Helfont and Brill did well to spend time there. And the recent closure of the Conflict Records Research Center is a great loss. But Helfont and Brill seem to regard the Hoover Baathi documents as the total and un-adulterated truth. No archive, certainly not a Baathi one, is such. If read un-critically, every document can become a trap. Thus, these internal records cannot be consulted in isolation. They must be considered together with the open Baathist sources. The contradictions between the two sources must be analyzed and explained and their relative weight assessed. Saddam attacked Islamism at the same time that he imposed it, and piecing together such a complex story requires using all kinds of evidence at one’s disposal, not simply one new set of archives, however large.

  • 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.
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