The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) might be led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and may have emerged out of al Qaeda in Iraq, but the question of who exactly is responsible for the group’s rise is still debated. One increasingly popular argument places the blame on the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. As blogger Kyle W. Orton wrote recently in The New York Times, “Those who assumed leadership roles in the Islamic State’s military council had been radicalized earlier, under Mr. Hussein’s regime.” Before Orton, Liz Sly of The Washington Post portrayed Saddam as an Islamist, based on the revitalization of Islamic practices during his 1993 Faith Campaign, and even argued that he promoted Salafism, the rigid brand of Islam practiced by ISIS. 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 Ba’ath 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. Proponents of the Islamization narrative have attempted to distinguish between the latter two terms, arguing that the regime supported Salafism but not Wahhabism. Yet the Baathist regime used these two terms synonymously and were equally antagonistic toward them. In one instance, Saddam referred to “the Wahhabi movement” in his comments on a report about a “study of the Salafi religious phenomenon.” Saddam also made clear his general aversion to any form of Islamization of his regime, particularly in a landmark speech in 1996, in which he attacked Islamists and the “two-faced” men of religion. He was particularly critical of religious arguments that denied the need for Arab unity and instead called for Islamic unity. Saddam rejected this outright, stating that “it is not permissible to be fooled by this ruse.” He noted that the regime saw itself as more ideologically aligned with the “new generation” of “Nasserists in Egypt and Yemen whose call is based on the sincere foundation . . . of nationalism and fighting for it.” Arab nationalism, not Islamism, continued to guide the regime’s policies, even on religious issues. The regime’s records show that Saddam’s speech was read aloud to every Baath Party member and was intended to be the basis of the regime’s policies toward religious actors.

Our findings fall in line with other major works that involve research in the Iraqi Baath Party archives. For example, the scholars Joseph Sassoon and Aaron Faust found that the regime had no sympathy for any type of Salafist or Islamist. Sassoon notes that in 2001, the minister of endowments and religious affairs “held a meeting attended by academics, religious leaders, and representatives from the different security organizations to discuss Wahhabism—how to fight it and how to show that its teachings had nothing to do with real Islam.” Similarly, Faust writes, "Throughout the 1990s, the Baath banned Sunni Islamists’ books; removed Sunni Islamists as preachers and imams when they discovered the imams’ Islamist leanings; did not allow Islamists to teach in religious schools; and disqualified them from entrance into the military, teaching, and other secular academies."

Although elements of the regime’s brutality resemble proto-ISIS behavior today, they are better understood as an evolution of the cruelty that characterized Baathist rule in Iraq. There was no Islamist motivation behind it.

One of the key arguments in support of the “Saddam gave us ISIS” line is that veterans of Saddam’s military and intelligence services are now members of ISIS. This should not be surprising. 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. Former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, after all, was a socialist before he was a fascist, and some Nazis later became communists in East Germany or democratic capitalists in West Germany. Even Sayyid Qutb, one of the most controversial Islamic theorists of the twentieth century, continued to be influenced by his previous background in Marxist socialism.

The argument that Saddam at some point merged his Baathist policies with either Islamist or Salafist ones is also incorrect. Proponents of this narrative point to a 1986 meeting between Saddam and the senior leadership of his regime in which Saddam announced a cease-fire and tactical alliance with some Islamists outside of Iraq, primarily the Sudanese and Egyptian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. They argue that this event marked Saddam’s clear departure from Baathism and his turn toward Islamism. It is true that in the meeting, Saddam stressed a tactical alliance with these Islamist groups, but as records held by the Conflict Records Research Center reveal, this was not a departure from his previous policies. The Iraqi Baathists had similar tactical alliances with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood since at least the early 1980s, if not earlier, and yet continued to suppress the Iraqi branch of the movement. Similarly, the regime allied with communist parties outside Iraq while suppressing the Iraqi Communist Party. Seen against this backdrop, the decision to support the Sudanese and Egyptian branches of the Brotherhood is not much of an ideological departure. Saddam also plainly stated that despite this tactical alliance, his Baathist ideology was incompatible with Islamism given that his vision advanced a “nationalistic and socialist state,” whereas the other called for an “Islamic state.” Moreover, the Baath Party’s Christian founder, Michel Aflaq, supported the tactical alliance with non-Iraqi Islamists. Although the Baathists claimed that Aflaq converted to Islam on his deathbed, he is most often portrayed as “a bulwark against Islamization” while he lived.

Although the Saddam regime’s support for foreign Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad is well documented, it was also strategically motivated. Saddam invited some Islamist foreign fighters to help him oppose invading coalition forces in 2003. However, although groups of Islamists, such as in Sudan, were vocal supporters of Saddam until 2003, Iraqi intelligence reports reveal that they often expressed irritation that despite their own strong support for Iraq, Baghdad continued to support secular Arab nationalism. Iraqi intelligence reports as late as 2000 noted the anger among Sudanese Islamists that Saddam continued to fund the “secular Arab nationalist” Sudanese Baath Party.

Domestically, Saddam also opposed Islamism and those promoting any other version of Islam than his own. Indeed, we found that the Iraqi Baath Party records contain thousands of pages from the 1990s and early 2000s on the regime’s policies toward religious leaders in Iraq. The Baathists were ruthlessly consistent in their attempts to track down and “neutralize” anyone with the slightest hint of Salafist or Islamist sympathies. In fact, throughout the 1990s, the regime kept spreadsheets containing the names of every Islamic leader in every mosque. The party secretariat asked the local branches, which created these spreadsheets, to take special note of adherents to “Salafism, Wahhabism, and the Muslim Brotherhood.” Throughout the 1990s, the regime also fine-tuned the organization of its security services, creating special sections to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabis, and various Shiite Islamists. Another argument is that Saddam was applying sharia law when he beheaded prostitutes, cut the hands off thieves, or threw homosexuals from the rooftops; but there is no evidence in the Baathist records that the regime applied sharia law in Iraq. Such atrocities were carried out by regime paramilitaries such as the Fedayeen Saddam, many of whom, the regime’s records indicate, were poor Shiites who are considered heretics by ISIS. Although elements of the regime’s brutality resemble proto-ISIS behavior today, they are better understood as an evolution of the cruelty that characterized Baathist rule in Iraq. There was no Islamist motivation behind it.

When the Baathists did promote Islam as part of a national Faith Campaign, they mostly referred to a watered-down version of Islam that had always been a part of Baathist ideology and was compatible with their pan-Arab agenda. For example, a 1997 Baath Party report titled “Plan for Party Cultural Indoctrination of Religious Practices” listed the books that were to be used in Baathist courses on Islam. Four of the first five were from the mid–twentieth century and were written by Michel Aflaq. The remaining book was authored by Saddam himself and published in 1977—long before his supposed turn toward Islamism in 1986. The report also states its goals as strengthening the nationalist movement, teaching that nationalism will alleviate divisiveness and sectarianism, and exposing the sham and falsehood of calls to use Islam as a cover for a revolution of mankind.

Far from representing a shift in ideology, the religious curriculum developed during the Faith Campaign simply reemphasized older Baathist policies on religion. Saddam had expressed the desire to instrumentalize these Baathist views on Islam as far back as the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s that his regime developed the institutional capacity to teach its Arab nationalist version of Islam and the security architecture to ensure that doing so did not unintentionally aid hostile religious movements. The maturation of these capabilities rather than ideological shifts was the basis of the Faith Campaign.

U.S. Marine Corp Assaultman Kirk Dalrymple watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad's Firdaus Square, April 9, 2003.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Depicting ISIS as a product of Saddam’s policies is not only incorrect, it also dangerously downplays the essential role that the 2003 war in Iraq had in the evolution of active militant groups within the country. The U.S.-led invasion and ensuing insurgency destroyed the Iraqi state as well as the Iraqi political system and ignited a civil war, eventually giving rise to the divisive sectarian rule and authoritarian aspirations of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. As the scholar Toby Dodge observed, “Maliki is deploying a coded sectarian message. He is seeking to widen the guilt for the abuses committed in the [Baath] party’s name to the whole of the Sunni section of society, using blame by association, for the myriad ills and abuses of past and present Iraq.” ISIS is a symptom of a broken state and the broken political system that emerged since 2003.

As the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama struggles to develop an effective strategy for combating ISIS, it is crucial to understand its real roots—from the evolution of its predecessors, Ansar al-Islam and Jamaat al-Tawhid (groups operating in Iraq prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion), to al Qaeda in Iraq (which rebranded itself the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006). Equally important is how the amalgamation of these insurgency groups, which eventually became ISIS, was made possible by political developments in Iraq from 2010 onward and the civil war in Syria that began in 2011. Narratives linking Baathism with Salafism are a distraction that prevents us from understanding ISIS and applying the hard lessons the United States learned in its fight against ISIS’ predecessors during the Iraq war.

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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.
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