Could Saddam’s Faith Campaign Have Given Us ISIS?: An Iraqi Perspective

Photo Credit: The Guardian

By Yasir Kuoti, Guest Contributor

 ISIS and Saddam’s Faith Campaign: Is There A Link?

With the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq in March 2003, the troubles for Iraqis did not end as hoped for. Decisions that followed, principally the retiring of Iraqi security forces by the Bush administration and the resulting security vacuum that insurgent groups were prepared to fill, left behind a country in ruins. Consequently, one line of thinking understandably sees the Islamic State’s beginnings as no accident; the rise of ISIS is a product of insurgent groups, in particular al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), an al-Qaeda franchise led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, learning from past mistakes and maturing into this final catastrophe. Another line of analysis accepts that the heart of ISIS’s ideology actually goes beyond the AQI insurgency, maintaining that the terror group is the unavoidable product of Saddam’s religious policy in the 1990s known as the Faith Campaign.

I weigh in on the Faith Campaign by recounting my experience in Iraq.

Baathism and Islam  

Throughout its beginnings in the 1960s, and much of later decades, Baathism was strictly secular and revolutionary. With the axiom of umma Arabiya wahida that risala Khalida: wihda, huriya, ishtrakiya [one Arab nation with an eternal message: unity, freedom, and socialism], Baathism passionately despised the role of religion in public life. To weaken the societal influence of religion (approximately 97%of Iraqis are Muslims), Baathists sponsored expansive top-down programs of radical modernization. In the process, and in search of supreme authority and control over social order, they threw Islam to the sidelines by openly executing religious leaders and espousing secular forms of life.

But, by the early 1990s, Baathists seemingly switched their inimical views on religion, by institutionalizing Islam into the secular state via the Faith Campaign. Throughout the Campaign, which started in 1993, Saddam’s regime distributed millions of Qurans, and its Ministry of Education made it binding to learn about Islam in school. As students, we were made to study the subject of ‘Islamic Education’ mandatorily first thing in the morning, every morning. As time went on, the Campaign grew bigger and stranger. Not to mention that in authoritarian Iraq, the Campaign revolved around the iconography of Saddam himself. By 1998, he surprised everyone with the writing of the Quran with his own blood in place of ink, donating more than six gallons of blood. In sum, by the end of the 1990s, media outlets, the Mosque, and just about most of society, freely or otherwise, called on Saddam, of all people, as khaeed al-hamla al-eemaniya al-wataniya al-kubra fi al Iraq [Leader of the Blessed Grand, state-wide Religious Campaign in Iraq].

Did Saddam Really Find God?

And did Baathism compromise its secular attitudes in favor of religious models? Not really. There was not a substantial change in convictions. The adoption of conservative language was a pragmatic move, with a political application and agenda. While the Campaign was in full motion, in fact, the regime imprisoned and executed people left and right precisely for their piety. People were terrified to exhibit real faith or read religious literature outside of what was printed and approved by the regime. Convictions were not the only thing that did not change. On the ground, forms of ‘irreligious’ life, such as bars, brothels, music, parties, women’s attires, and so on, were readily available. So, while it is true that Saddam swallowed mentioning God in his speeches, and did not mind being called the Leader of the Faith Campaign, his regime remained acutely anti-religious. Baathism did not bargain against its ideology; it merely recycled its old scripts, while enriching them with insincere revelations.

But Iraqis did not buy into the scheme. Saddam’s background, ideological convictions, and style were not in line with what he was claiming. The actions of his regime were also inconsistent with its spiritual claims. People accepted, or ignored, the regime’s sudden piety, because they feared its ruthlessness, not because it managed or truly attempted to rally them around its invented religious flag. The efforts by the regime to proliferate Islam were not sincere, and thus had little real influence on building a ripe environment for extremism; the regime did not seek to lay emphasis on giving Iraq an Islamic identity.

Therefore, the question of whether the religious Campaign inspired religious extremism is somewhat irrelevant; the Campaign was political in content and nature and sought to indoctrinate people into the Baath ideology in a time when the regime was running out of mediums to facilitate mass mobilization against the West. There was little about the Campaign that could have catalyzed religious radicalization, particularly not of the Islamic State’s variety. As such, it is the case that ISIS’s fanaticism is inspired far more by loyalty to Baathism and Saddamism than to Islamic coreligiousism.

Why Play the Faith Card?

One reason behind the Campaign has to do with economics. Soon after falling subject to UN sanctions, the Iraqi economy proved unable to cope with the changes in market activities. By 1994, inflation reached over 24,000%. The Iraqi dinar lost it value when the regime started printing its own currency. The Middle class got hit the hardest. It was natural under the circumstances, then, for the regime to act radically in dealing with the radical changes taking place in society, in order to calm down the nervous population in the face of insecurities and discontent. Faith was the most viable option at the time, a time when the regime had no rewards to distribute or punishment to bring about, as its forces were still disoriented by the failed foreign adventures. And even if they were not, the political cost would have been too high for the regime to further repress the already-repressed population.

Another reason was pragmatic and strategic in nature. For one, the Campaign sought to apply religious texts to Saddam, such as by comparing the era of boycott against Muhammad and his followers by the tribe of Quraish to the economic sanctions. Additionally, it sought to seize the religious pulpit to propagate Saddam’s views on America and the West. And it succeeded. Suddenly, the traditional spiritual lectures in Mosques, especially on Friday’s Prayer, were transformed into political scenery that applauded Saddam and chastised his enemies. Third, by acting faithful, the regime sought to act preemptively and overrule the pronouncements of clerics who were thought to incite rebellions. Fourth, the regime sought to utilize the Mosques as centers for intelligence gathering. But this did not go well. The use of Mosques as hubs for the security apparatus by crowding them with informants who mingled and acted as real worshipers became fruitless when worshipers refrained from going to Mosques altogether after witnessing the vanishing of some fellow worshippers. With time, there were not many Mosque-goers to spy on and arrest.

A third reason was regulative in nature. Because sanctions caused the middle class to plunge deep into poverty, and the poor got poorer, some people saw engaging in illegal activities as irresistible. Social crimes, such as kidnapping, road jacking, and stealing skyrocketed. To deal with such challenges in light of the weak political and security institutions, the Campaign sought to provide order through what the regime thought were more acceptable Islamic punitive measures, such as cutting off thieves’ hands, rather than laying down laws of its own.


When discussing post-Saddam Iraq today, one of the sizzling theories is that Saddam’s 1993 Faith Campaigns Islamized Iraq, paving the path for the rise of religious extremism of the likes of the Islamic State. But, a careful look at the content of the Campaign may give us a better basis for understating what the Campaign was really about. It was a farce that was symbolic in nature, and could not have possibly fashioned fanatics, at least not those of ISIS caliber.


About the Author

Born and raised in Iraq, Yasir Kuoti holds a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Marquette University. He previously consulted on Iraqi affairs at National Defense University, Stanford University, and Council on Foreign Relations.




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