Karnes on Helfont, 'Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq'

Samuel Helfont
Joshua Karnes

Samuel Helfont. Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 304 pp. $38.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-084331-1.

Reviewed by Joshua Karnes (Air University, Air War College) Published on H-War (February, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55980

Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq dominated international headlines for almost twenty-five years. His phoenix-like ability to emerge from the Iran-Iraq War and the first Gulf War with his country in ruins but his power still intact has fascinated historians and international policy experts alike. One of the most convincing arguments for Saddam’s staying power was his ability to harness and control his country’s religious forces. Samuel Helfont’s Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq is an in-depth dive into the historical sectarian religious forces at work in Iraq; it explores how Saddam used both the principles of Baathist Arab nationalism and the iron fist of state control to mold and massage the country’s religious institutions to support his dictatorship. Helfont currently serves as a faculty member at the Naval War College’s Postgraduate School in Monterey, California; the book is an extension of his PhD thesis, which he completed in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. 

The author organizes Compulsion in Religion into four parts. Part 1, entitled “The Penetration of Iraq’s Religious Landscape,” explores both the historical roots of Baathism and the characteristics of Iraqi religious society, including the sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Using official government records seized in the aftermath of the second Gulf War, the author chronicles Saddam's bloody rise and his rocky efforts to solidify power both over the country and its religious institutions during the brutal Iran-Iraq War. Part 2, “The Gulf War and Its Aftermath,” tells the story of the lead-up to the first Gulf War in 1991 and how Saddam used the religious elite to justify the invasion and ensure compliance with the war effort. Part 3, “The Faith Campaign,” examines the aftermath of the Gulf War, including the brutal repression of the sectarian uprisings that spread in its wake. Despite Saddam’s famous “Faith Campaign,” the author uses this section to refute other experts, like Amatzia Baram, who argue that Saddam experienced a religious awakening. He argues that instead of a newfound love for Islam, Saddam was reaping the fruits of his decade-long effort to control and coerce Iraq’s religious institutions to follow his personal brand of Baathist Islam. Part 4, “The Invasion of Iraq and the Emergence of Religious Insurgencies,” describes the impact of the Second Gulf War in 2003 and how it unleashed the sectarianism that Saddam had spent a lifetime suppressing. The author chronicles the rise of ISIS and the Sadrist movement up to 2017 and how the West’s misreading of Iraqi culture and its total reliance on Baathist control resulted in some of the most horrific sectarian violence in the last century.   

Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq with an iron fist for three decades. The author argues that Saddam was able to exert control over Iraq’s religious institutions through his unique brand of Baathist Islam, the active control and co-opting of religious institutions, and the use of his vast national security apparatus and its network of spies. Most readers may not know that the great and violent schism that split Islam into its two largest sects, Sunnism and Shi’ism, originally occurred in Iraq. These groups have vied for political and military supremacy ever since the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE. Twentieth-century philosophers, looking for a way to unite Islam’s many regional sects, developed the philosophy known as Baathism, meaning “renaissance” or “resurrection.” Like others before him, Helfont traces Iraq’s unique style of Baathism to Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian philosopher. Aflaq argued that the populations of the Middle East should first identify as Arab and that the “spirit of Islam was, of course, Arab nationalism” (p. 27). Unlike the prevailing philosophy of Marxism, which negated all religions, and Islamism, focused first on the broader Muslim identity, Aflaq believed that Islam-centered Baathism could unite all the sects, including Christianity, under a unique Arab identity. Saddam fully embraced this philosophy and worked to integrate it into all aspects of Iraqi life. 

Even before seizing control of the country, Saddam realized that he would need the support of both Shi’a and Sunni religious authorities to legitimize both his rule and pan-Arab interpretation of Islam. Helfont goes into great detail describing how each religious sect was organized in the country. Whereas Sunni institutions historically relied on state funding for mosques and schools, the Shi’a had a sustainable system of community financing of religious institutions. These resources allowed the clerics to be more financially independent than their Sunni counterparts. Helfont chronicles how, in the 1980s, Saddam worked to change the financing methods and centralize religious education under the state. The government focused on identifying loyal Baathists who were also willing to serve as religious leaders and installed them in mosques throughout the country. He also was very concerned about the outside Islamic influence, both from Shi’a Iran and Wahabi, Salafist Saudi Arabia. Despite its initially rocky start in the 1980s, this system of patronage slowly bore fruit. While the author indicates that Saddam overwhelmingly preferred carrots, he also had no problem using sticks to ensure that imams and mullahs preached a Baathist-compliant version of Islam across the country. 

The book details how the regime established committees for religious awareness at the community level that would actively provide pre-approved sermon topics for Friday prayers. If imams resisted, they would be warned; if an imam persisted, he was often removed from his position, replaced by a regime-friendly preacher. Many imams who continued to defy the government experienced much worse. The author documents the extensive torture, execution, and assassinations of clerics whom the regime perceived as disloyal. For example, Helfont’s description of the Al-Sadr family’s violent history with the regime helps the reader to understand how Muqtada al-Sadr’s leadership in post-2003 Iraq became such a flashpoint, both among the US coalition and the Sunni minority population. Baathists overwhelmingly came from the middle and upper classes, while many of the most devout religious leaders emerged from society's poorer segments. The author writes, almost humorously, about the lengths that Baathists would go to infiltrate religious schools and mosques and how those institutions' leaders could quickly sniff them out. For example, he writes of the Shi’a cleric who would ask students to unwrap and rewrap their turbans. Only “the committed” knew how to; the Baathists did not (p. 149). On the other hand, Salafists were known for their iconic beards and short robes called a dishdashah; Baathist infiltrators would wear the dishdashah but would only grow a mustache (p. 173). These kinds of anecdotes, peppered throughout the book, effectively move Helfont’s narrative forward, reminding us about the very real people behind the various Iraqi religious sects. 

While not sugar-coating the decades of atrocities Saddam visited upon Iraq’s religious elite, the author sometimes comes across as a Saddam apologist, stressing that despite his horrific actions, Saddam’s Baathist policies suppressed or eliminated sectarian bloodshed during his reign. He is also very critical of the Bush administration and the Western media for not better understanding the pressure cooker of Iraqi sectarianism that exploded with Saddam’s ousting. While Saddam’s repression did keep sectarianism at bay during his rule, the violence that erupted after his downfall is clear proof that Saddam never effectively addressed the underlying issues that have created such animosity between Sunni and Shi’a over the last 1,400 years. While I understand why the author focuses the bulk of his book on the Sunni and Shi’a sects, I would have appreciated more on Saddam’s control of Iraqi Christians, including the vital role that Tariq Aziz, the highest Christian in the Iraqi administration, played. There is also no mention of Iraqi Jews or the Yazidi who received so much attention during the darkest days of ISIS rule. Needless to say, unpacking Iraq’s religious sects and the families that run them, and making the information accessible to a Western audience, is a huge undertaking. Tables outlining the various sectarian and familial connections could have helped keep the myriad of actors straight in the reader’s mind. Additionally, even though this book is essentially about how Saddam used his own interpretation of Baathism to control Iraq’s religious community, beyond stressing the hierarchy of pan-Arabism over Islamism, I never found a clear and concise definition of Saddam’s Iraqi version of Islamic Baathism. Still, after reading Helfont’s 238 pages, I have a decent idea.   

Despite these minor critiques, Helfont gives us a compelling picture of religious life under Saddam. This book can serve as an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to understand Iraq and its sectarian conflicts better. The Western media and politicians love to paint Iraq in single colors, focusing on corruption or the constant violence. Helfont gives us a nuanced and rich view of the Iraqi religious landscape. Writing in 2017, he ends the book with an unsettling question. What will it take for Iraq to return to a unified country where each person’s religious heritage can be a source of pride and not violence? Unfortunately, in 2020, as sectarian violence continues to extract an unimaginable toll on the Iraqi people, the jury is still out. 

Citation: Joshua Karnes. Review of Helfont, Samuel, Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55980

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