Saddam and the Islamists: The Ba'thist Regime's Instrumentalization of Religion in Foreign Affairs

By Helfont, Samuel | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Saddam and the Islamists: The Ba'thist Regime's Instrumentalization of Religion in Foreign Affairs


Helfont, Samuel, The Middle East Journal


Based on extensive archival research with newly available Iraqi state and Ba'th Party documents, this article attempts to shed light on the Saddam Husayn regime's relationship with Islamists and Islamism, arguing that it instrumentalized Islam in its foreign policy to an unprecedented extent, but not out of ideological conviction. This article, therefore, clarifies an important issue in the historiography of Saddam's Iraq and suggests that religion can play a concrete role in international relations.

In 1990, with war between Iraq and a Western-led coalition looming, Iraqi president Saddam Husayn wrote "God is greater" on the Iraqi flag and called for jihad against his enemies. After the war, and throughout the last decade of his rule, the Ba'thist regime declared a "faith campaign" (hamla imaniyya) in which it built mosques, required in- creased religious education in Iraq, and consistently allied with Islamists abroad. As a result, some observers of Iraq have questioned whether Saddam took a strategic shift toward Islamism.1 After September 11, 2001, and especially during the run-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, this debate moved beyond the confines of academia. Pol- icy makers, public intellectuals, and various government agencies argued about Sad- dam's support of Islamist terrorism. These debates attempted often to either associate or disassociate Saddam with Islamism as a means of "proving" whether or not Saddam supported Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qa'ida.2

This article attempts to move beyond that debate. It relies on newly released Iraqi state and Ba'th Party archives from the period of Saddam's rule (1979-2003),3 and argues that viewing Saddam's relationship with Islamists abroad through the prism of a shift toward Islamism in Iraq is a misunderstanding of how the regime formed alliances and carried out foreign policy. Thus, while Iraqi Ba'thists did indeed begin to cooperate with Islamist organizations abroad, this was largely unrelated to the regime's domestic policies or ideological convictions. Another explanation is warranted. This article will demonstrate that the regime was able to cooperate with Islamists as a result of a calcu- lated policy of instrumentalizing Islam to neutralize Islamist opposition, and convince some Islamists to support Saddam's strategic objectives. Thus Islam did not guide Iraqi policy; rather, it was a tool to achieve policy goals. Yet, the regime's use of religion was also more than a mere rhetorical shift. It was a long, detailed process of building insti- tutions and networks to carry out policy and realize Iraq's strategic aims. In doing so, Iraq worked toward shaping the regional religio-political landscape to meet its needs.

Moving beyond the question of Saddam's supposed turn to Islamism is also helpful in that the question has obscured a far more interesting debate about the man- ner in which religion can be employed in international affairs. In that sense, this ar- ticle should interest not only those concerned with how an authoritarian Arab regime co-opted religion, but also scholars of international relations and diplomatic history more broadly. Scholars in the latter fields often view senior statesmen, traditional dip- lomats, and the military as the primary practitioners of foreign policy. When they do discuss religion, they classify it as an aspect of ideology or identity. Yet, as this article will demonstrate, Islamic scholars and religious institutions can sometimes be just as important as traditional diplomats or the military in the practice of foreign policy. Therefore, this article suggests that more than a mere aspect of ideology or identity, religion can play an active and concrete role in international relations.4 In doing so, it will detail the considerable extent to which Saddam's regime was able to instrumen- talize religion in its foreign affairs, as well as how and why it did so.

THE QUESTION OF SADDAM'S SECULARISM

As mentioned above, there has been some debate recently over whether Saddam abandoned his previously secular ideology and embraced Islamism in the last decade of his rule. …

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