Anyone examining Islam in Saddam’s Iraq (1979-2003) and the legacy of that period today is quickly confronted with a tangled web of problematic definitions and eclectic ideologies. Untangling this web is essential for identifying what really drives Iraqi politics, and doing so provides one with some hope that sectarian differences can still be overcome.  Paradoxically, it also does not augur well for the chances for stability in the country anytime soon. 

The first problem one must confront is the often-muddled definitions of Islam, Islamism, and secularism. Western scholarship on Arab politics often creates a dichotomy between religious Islamists and non-religious Arab nationalists. Leaders like Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Yasser Arafat, and Saddam Hussein have often been depicted as the secular, non-religious rivals of the Islamists, who by contrast were guided by their piety. Too often this dichotomy treats people like Saddam as anti-religious or even anti-Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, all these so-called secular nationalist leaders were – at least publicly – religious. They believed in Islam and incorporated it into their political ideologies. Saddam and his Ba‘thist followers consistently emphasized the fact that they were believers even if they were not Islamists.

Saddam adhered to an eccentric interpretation of Islam that Ba‘thist intellectuals had developed in the mid-twentieth century. For him and many other Ba‘thists, Islam was the religion of the Arabs. Muhammad was an Arab prophet who preached a divine message intended for his Arab followers. Of course, Saddam recognized that non-Arab Muslims existed, but he considered them to be lesser Muslims, who if they practiced their religion properly, would have to recognize the special role of the Arab people. By focusing on the Arabness of the religion, the Ba‘thists gave less weight to theological disputes and piety. Instead, they saw Islam in more generic terms as a national heritage that could unite all Arabs. Interestingly, while Christian Arabs clearly were not Muslims, the Ba‘thists considered them to be heirs of the great cultural legacy that Arab-Islamic civilization bestowed upon them. In fact, the Ba‘thist view of Islam was based mostly on the ideas of a Syrian Christian named Michel Aflaq, who argued “Muhammad was every Arab, and every Arab today is Muhammad.” Aflaq further clarified, “Islam … was an Arab movement, and its meaning was to renew Arabism and to complete it. The language in which it came down [to Muhammad] was Arabic, its view and understanding were of the Arab mind [etc.]” In that sense, “The Muslim of [the Prophet’s] time was nothing other than the Arab.” This is clearly an idiosyncratic, Arab nationalist interpretation of Islam, but that does not make it any less legitimate in the minds of its adherants, and it had important repercussions both internationally and domestically for Saddam’s regime.

In Iraq, the Ba‘thists’ understanding of Islam separated them ideologically from their two most important rivals – the Islamists and the communists. The former saw Islam as a universal – rather than Arab – religion and they emphasized piety as well as Islamic law; the latter were – at least in theory – atheists who saw no role for any religion in Arab politics. The Ba‘thists viewed the communist attempt to deny a role for Islam as completely unworkable in a highly religious society such as Iraq. From the 1950s through the 1970s, when the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) was one of the most important political factions in Iraq, the Ba‘thists used the ICP’s atheism to undermine it politically. As Saddam stated in what became a definitive statement on religion in 1977, “our Party does not take a neutral stance between faith and atheism; it is always on the side of faith.”

Yet, the Ba‘thists needed to be careful when promoting themselves as believers. They saw Islam as a unifying force, but they also understood that the population of Iraq was divided between Sunnis and Shi‘is. Iraq was also home to Islamists who rejected Ba‘thist rule and wished to replace the secular state with a state based upon their interpretation of Islamic law. If the regime promoted Islam and the importance of religion, it risked empowering sectarian and Islamist actors. This was especially dangerous in the early period of Ba‘thist rule during the 1960s and 1970s when the Ba‘thists had little control over many of the country’s religious institutions. The Ba‘thists had to learn this lesson the hard way. When they seized control of Iraq in 1968, the constitution they created was filled with references to Islam. The preamble discussed reliance on God, and the very first article cited “the spirit of Islam” as a source of the regime’s legitimacy. However, the regime clashed with religious leaders early in its rule and was forced to make a tactical retreat on religious issues. By 1970, when the regime released the next version of its constitution, almost all references to Islam and religion were removed. 

Instead of abandoning their ideological commitment to an Arab Islam, Iraqi Ba‘thists attempted to transform Iraq’s religious landscape using a process of carrots and sticks to promote compliant religious leaders and eliminate ideological opponents of the regime. Saddam did not want to destroy Iraq’s religious institutions, but rather to hollow them out and then repurpose them as instruments of the regime’s power. In imposing a Ba‘thist interpretation of Islam onto Iraqi society, the regime depicted sectarian and Islamist actors in the country as foreign agents intent on infiltrating Arab society. The regime accused Islamists of intentionally introducing foreign – mostly Persian – heresies into Iraq to undermine pure Arab Islam. 

The regime’s attempt to impose these ideas on the Iraqi population – a process it referred to as tabi‘th, or “Ba‘thification” – had uneven results. In Sunni Arab sections of Iraq, where the regime enjoyed the greatest support, the Ba‘thists were relatively successful. They encountered more resistance in Shi‘i areas of southern Iraq. The Shi‘is had strong, traditionally independent religious institutions. They also had strong ties to Iran. Following the Iranian revolution, these ties became more and more problematic. Traditionally, Shi‘ism included strong inclinations toward political quietism. They believed that political authority was vested in an Imam who had gone into a state of occultation, or hiding, centuries ago. According to mainstream Shi‘ism, this Hidden Imam will return as a messianic figure. Until that happens, most Shi‘is have traditionally believed that they needed to wait for him, rather than develop an alternative political system. Such quietism remains as prevalent in Iraq even today. In fact most of Iraq’s leading religious authorities among the Shi‘is, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, continue to adhere to political quietism as a core tenet of their faith. However, in the 1970s, Ayatollah Khomeini challenged this aspect of traditional Shi‘ism by developing a Shi‘i political system in the absence of the Hidden Imam. As such, he created a type of Shi‘i Islamism, which in the minds of his followers, invalidated secular regime’s like Saddam’s in Iraq.   

These developments created a theological struggle among Shi‘is in Iraq. On one side were adherents of traditional, political quietism. On the other side, were Islamists who increasingly looked to Iran for guidance. Iraqi Ba‘thists depicted Khomeini’s Islamism as just one more Persian heresy in a long line of Persian heresies that were developed to infiltrate and undermine the Arab spirit of true Islam. Thus, Iraqi propaganda strategies highlighted the need “to demonstrate that elements vindictive toward the Arab Nation, especially the fire-worshiping Persians, are attempting to distort the values of Islam and Arabism, and especially its Arab character.” As such, Iraqi Ba‘thists presented Shi‘i opposition to their rule in ethno-nationalist terms (Arab vs. Persian) rather than in sectarian terms (Sunni vs. Shi‘i). In fact, despite popular narratives about Saddam’s Iraq in the 1990s and early 2000s, the regime enforced a taboo on promoting Sunni-Shi‘i sectarianism and punished violators harshly.

The Ba‘thist framing of Sunni-Shi‘i tensions in ethno-national terms had an important and lasting impact on sectarianism in Iraq. After being bombarded with decades of Ba‘thist indoctrination, the Iraqi population absorbed many of the regime’s narratives. Today, in Iraq, many Arab Sunnis continue to see Iraqi Shi‘is – at least theoretically – as legitimate political actors. However, many of those same Arab Sunnis think some Iraqi Shi‘is are controlled by and are working for Iran. Even clearly sectarian groups such as the Islamic State often refer to their Shi‘i enemies as “Safavids” or “Zoroastrians,” which are terms linked to Persian history; the insinuation is that the problem is Iran and Iranian influence in Iraq.

This framing of the Sunni-Shi‘i conflict in Iraq has at least two important implications. First, there is some reason for hope in Iraq. At least in theory, the sectarian divide is not as deep as it is often portrayed. In fact, most Arab Sunnis and Shi‘is see each other as legitimate stakeholders in Iraq. Second, and more pessimistically, Sunni antipathy toward Shi‘is is directly linked to Iranian involvement in Shi‘i politics. The Iranians use important Shi‘i political parties in Iraq – such as the Badr Organization – as proxies to influence and sometimes even control politics in Baghdad. Most Sunni Arabs are unwilling to accept that situation and have repeatedly turned to groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State as alternatives to what they see as Iranian puppets. As long as Iran continues to play a prominent role in Iraq, the Sunni Arabs will continue to be restive. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see how Iran’s role in Baghdad will diminish any time soon.


Samuel Helfont is the author of Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy in the Naval War College’s program at the Naval Postgraduate School.  

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