Ideology and Disorder: Saddam Hussein and Religious Nationalism in Iraq

April 23, 2007

Much has been made in recent times of the supposed secular nature of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Since the U.S-led war in Iraq was justified in part as a preemptive action to combat Islamic extremism, commentators criticized the intervention as a red herring. The perpetrators of 9/11, they say, carried out their attacks in conjunction with a Wahabbi-influenced militant organization, while Iraq’s explicit orientation with regards to religion in politics was one of official separation. This paper seeks to demonstrate that, as early as the infamous Anfal campaign, Hussein’s regime had undertaken measures that supplanted the secular nationalism of Ba’thism with a distinctly religious nationalism. This religious nationalism was Islamic in its character and militaristic in its motifs.

But this is not merely an attempt to show that Hussein had begun to intone the battle cries of radical Islam as a ploy to capitalize on the growing popularity of the movement. I submit that Ba’thism itself contained in its foundations the seeds of religious nationalism—in other words, that it’s secularism was always in question. By assessing the testimonies of Iraqis who were persecuted because of their religious associations, analyzing the rhetoric of the Anfal campaign, and by examining The Mother of All Battles Mosque and Hussein’s speech commemorating said battle, I hope to show that what Mark Juergensmeyer calls ideologies of order have built into them the capability to meld into one another with ease. Religious nationalist movements utilize religious rhetoric, symbols and rituals to mediate meaning, to motivate followers and to sanction their violent activities. Hussein’s Iraq was no exception.

Iraq in the 1980’s could be interpreted as militantly secular, especially if you were an adherent of the Shi’i sect of Islam. Emad Abdul Latif, a lecturer at Mustansiriya University, was arrested in 1980 for suspected involvement with the Shi’ite Islamic Dawa Party. In his video testimonial, made available by the Iraq Memory Foundation, Latif describes his arrest as “an Intelligence matter,” which came around the same time he had proposed marriage to a girl whose relative had been arrested “after hosting a dinner on the anniversary of the murder of Imam Hussein,” the first Imam of Shi’ism. The Dawa Party, which poised itself as the Islamic ummah fighting against secularism was connected to the Ayatollah Khomeni’s revolution in neighboring Iran. At this time, as Latif says, “anybody who had Islamic tendencies was feared even by their own mothers.” During this period of Shi’ite persecution, Latif asks just before launching into his gut-wrenching descriptions of the tortures that he and others endured, “if a person could be arrested for merely cooking dinner on the anniversary of the killing of Hussein, how do you think it was for one accused of being a member of Dawa?”

In this particular instance, it was advantageous for Hussein to emphasize the secular aspect of Ba’thism, as Shi’ites were mobilizing politically around their religious identities and, by extension, mobilizing in sympathy with a neighboring threat in Iran. Kanan Makyia says that, “commensurate with the growth of Shi’i self-awareness…the Iraqi government began expelling hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shi’ia into Iran on the grounds that they were ‘of Iranian origin’” (218). In this case, Saddam was able to graft the religious nationalism of Iranian Shi’ites on to Iraqis for his own purposes. No matter whether or not Iraqi Shi’ites overtly sympathized with the Iranian revolution (clearly, in order to escape torture and imprisonment, they had to be as covert as possible about it), Hussein could connect them to an enemy by merely catching them in the act of doing something Shi’ite. But only a few years later, Saddam would begin deploying plainly Islamic rhetoric in his persecution of the Kurds. What makes such a seemingly blatant contradiction possible? Makiya claims that, “Hussein invents and reinvents his enemies from the entire mass of human material that is at his disposal” (219). In order to make sense of the disjunction between the treatment of Shi’ites on secular grounds and the treatment of Kurds on Islamic ones, it is necessary first to explain the notion of an ideology of order.

Mark Juergensmeyer, in his book “The New Cold War?,” manages to bypass the debate on a proper theoretical definition of religion by defining both religion and secular nationalism as “ideologies of order.” This focuses attention on “conceptual frameworks that legitimate authority” (30). More than that, though, this term avoids the broadness of Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion as a cultural system and defines an ideology of order as “an explanatory system that is specifically ‘nonscientific.’” (31). Though Juergensmeyer acknowledges Geertz as closely connected to this conceptual understanding, the essential difference is that, in Geertz’s sense of the word, a cultural system could be scientific.

If both religion and secular nationalism provide “an overarching framework of moral order that commands ultimate loyalty” and “gives moral sanction to martyrdom and violence,” then it seems worth pointing out that each are immensely immune to critique since they don’t make any efforts at grounding themselves in the specific, the factual or the scientific. In other words, nobody can factually disprove or delegitimize a system of thinking that disregards facts from the start. One might even go so far as to suggest that this quality is precisely what makes the descent into what E. Valentine Daniel calls a “surreality of violence” quite natural.

So Ba’thism, even in its secular-ness, was structurally and functionally an ideology of order and thus hardly any different from religious nationalism. But in fact, Ba’thism was somewhat schizophrenic with regards to secularism. As Kanan Makiya points out, “Michel ‘Aflaq, the founder of the Ba’ath party, theorized fifty years ago that the Arab revolution of the Ba’ath was at bottom a reenactment of the Islamic revolution of fourteen centuries ago. It was not for nothing, he argued, that the Qu’ran was written in Arabic and revealed to an Arab” (157). It is against this backdrop that the discussion of Saddam’s increasing Islamicization of Iraq begins to make sense not as a contradictory move, but as a completely logical one.

For the sake of clarity, it should be said that Kurds are not Arabs. The al-Anfal campaign began in the mid 1980’s and culminated in the genocide of, according to Human Rights Watch, a minimum of 50,000 rural Kurds. The word Anfal enters the Arabic vocabulary from the eighth Sura of the Qu’ran—it translates to “The Spoils.” This Sura outlines the correct distribution of the spoils of war against infidels. The battle to which it refers was the Battle of Badr, which was a significant victory for Muhammad and his underdog community of Muslims against a larger force of Meccan non-Muslims. This Sura not only recalls the particular history of Muslims, it delves even deeper into monotheistic history. The Qu’ran says in Sura 8, “we will destroy them for their sins even as we drowned Pharaoh’s people. They were wicked men all” (131). The Kurds, by extension were then cast in the broader history of the Islamic battle against all kinds of unbelievers, even as far back as the Jewish predecessors of the ummah.

The marriage of Islam and Arabness is only different from what Michael Sells referred to as Christoslavism in the Bosnian genocide because of the differing ends that each notion brought about. Christoslavism was the doctrine that held Slavs to be “Christian by nature” (Sells, 36). But while the function of Christoslavism was to equate conversion from Christianity with treason, the function of invoking the Battle of Badr was to make the very ethnic identity of the Kurds synonymous with evildoers. The Iraqis carrying out the slaughter were then associated, by way of Ba’athist ideology simultaneously with the original community of Muslims and with Arabness. As such, it follows that Saddam Hussein was also elevated to the symbolic status of Muhammad. This construction of ethnic, religious and political identity created a constellation of meaning where ethno-religious violence could be sacralized and the mass murder of Kurds justified as the spoils due the righteous.

Whether or not this rhetoric actually inculcated nationalism or religious nationalism in Iraqis is another question entirely. Nationalism is, by definition a theory or an idea. A nation is a group that is defined by that idea and a nation-state is a territory where said group resides. Thus far, my investigation has focused on the creation of a nationalism, which can have many or zero followers and can exist independently of the actual nation or nation-state. Chances are, some took to Saddam’s religious nationalism but a majority of others did not. It is actually easiest to demonstrate this in the negative by taking note of the manner in which one Kurd actively transformed the religious discourse of Anfal.

Taimour ‘Abdallah, a Kurdish resident of the village of Qulatcho near the Iranian border, spoke of his experience as a survivor of the al-Anfal campaign. He said that, more than being known for being a peshmerga fighter (the Kurdish resistance army) which is a great honor to most Kurds, he wants to be known for Anfal. When his interviewer asked him what he meant by being “known for Anfal,” he replied, “I want the world to know what happened to me” (qtd. in Makiya, 199). In this simple gesture, Taimour denies the word “Anfal” all of its religious ammunition and defines it merely as that horrible experience he endured. Anfal in Taimour’s usage has no Qu’ranic implication, no otherworldly claim to divine goodness or eternal evil—it signifies the very reality of the atrocities he witnessed. It becomes simply “what happened.” The peculiar difference between this and Hussein’s usage is that the meaning of Anfal becomes available to a person based on their moral evaluation of “what happened.” Arabness, Islamic-ness, and Kurdish-ness, cease to be parts of the system of signification and meaning. Subjective compassion as it exists in the real world between real people becomes the key to understanding the term Anfal.

Saddam’s deployment of religious language was indicative of what Vincanne Adams refers to as the configuration of speech “in ways that end up erasing the possibility of seeing and talking about alternative views” and alternative subject positions (537). Taimour could easily have said, “Saddam is the infidel, Arabs are infidels and what he/they did to me was evil.” Some Kurds have done just this. But Taimour locates meaning neither in the discourse of Islam, nor in the discourse of Western human rights or morality. Instead, he lets his experience speak. Certainly, this functions as resistance against becoming subsumed in the discourse of the always-oppressed Kurds. It also avoids the perpetual Othering discourses that refer to Kurds or Arabs as infidels.

Since Iraq was already a territorial entity, one of the most common aims of religious nationalism, namely to give religious justification to territory claims, has yet to be discussed. While Saddam Hussein used religious imagery and rhetoric to justify political acts of internal repression and ethnic cleansing, he also used it to justify the invasion of Kuwait. While preparing for the “Mother of All Battles” (the confrontation between Iraq and coalition forces) in 1991, Saddam spoke piously to his generals. He said, “May God be my witness that it was God who wanted that which has occurred [the occupation of Kuwait], and not us. I mean, our role has been zero.” He went on to invoke Sura 105 of the Qu’ran, which describes the defeat of the “Men of the Elephant” at the hands of Muslim armies. Hussein explicitly linked the symbol of the Republican Party to the enemies of Muhammad. But given George H.W. Bush’s decision to reconfirm Saddam in power after his withdrawal from Kuwait, the Iraqi leader was able to spin his regime’s continued existence as a victory. Of course, he didn’t stop at that—he built a mosque in honor of his “victory:” The Mother of All Battles Mosque.

It would be hard to think of a more quintessential monument to religious nationalism than The Mother of All Battles Mosque. Its spiraling minarets are designed to resemble both Kalishnikov machine guns and Scud missiles, the primary weapons used to fight the first Gulf War. As Philip Smucker reported in the Daily Telegraph:

The Scud-shaped minarets (complete with launch platforms) on the mosque’s perimeter are 37metres (120ft) high; there are four more minarets next to the mosque’s dome that resemble huge machinegun barrels, each 28 metres (93ft) high. Taken together, the numbers 37-4-28 give the date of birth of the megalomaniacal leader.

This mosque represents an iconic, cumulative embodiment of the forces I have been speaking about thus far. The Ba’athist ideology of order, which conflated the Arab ethnicity with the divine Islamic past had no problems switching emphasis from secularism to religious mandate. It is a monument to the Arab nation’s struggle for the territory that God intended to be theirs, as well as to the loyal and faithful Iraqi soldiers who fought on in the name of Allah on behalf of the Iraqi nation against the Men of the Elephant—the infidels.

The Mosque is material (and almost poetic) proof of Juergensmeyer’s claim that, “the line between secular nationalism and religion has always been quite thin” (16). If there is any doubt as to whether or not this particular line of logic was coherently or explicitly maintained by the regime, consider these snippets from Hussein’s address on the 12th anniversary of the Mother of All Battles:

In the Name of God, The Compassionate, the Merciful…Great people in Iraq, the land of faith, Jihad, bravery and glory…Brave members of the gallant armed forces…Sons of our glorious Arab nation… a new Iraq, was born…its faith has been increased and deepened after the Grand Confrontation…Baghdad in its known history had played the role of the Arabs’ and Muslims’ pure eye. It was God’s spear on the earth, the Arabs’ skull…Long live our glorious nation…Long live Iraq with its brave jihadist army…Long live Palestine, free and Arab…Allah is the greatest.

The repeated invocation and quotation of The Qu’ran in the above instance (as well as those mentioned prior) has a particular significance within the context of an Arabic-Islamic national identity. It is an example of what Peter van der Veer has referred to as “the politics of language in theatrical and textual performance” (165).

Van der Veer demonstrates that, in India, “the epic of Ramanaya in its many forms [is] constantly invoked as a repository of images of the Hindu nation” (190). While it has become commonplace to think of the Qu’ran as a repository of images of the Islamic nation (in relation to both nation-states and transnational Islamist movements), Saddam Hussein’s references to the Qu’ran are one such example, and no less potent an example. The transition from “secular” Ba’athism can also help us see precisely what van der Veer means when he refers to the “production of a national text” (172). While Ba’thist ideology always served to channel Islamic-ness into Arabness, the language of Iraqi nationalism progressively becoming more Islamic shows a reverse process where being Arab equals being Islamic. But the fact that gradations are observable as time passes allow one to observe the how this kind of national language is constructed. During the times when Latif was being tortured for his suspected ties to Shi’ite political parties, Saddam’s speeches featured only minimal, ceremonial references to the Qu’ran—references that, if removed, would have no impact on what was being said. By 2003, however, these references were vital.

Some might argue that what I am referring to is not religious nationalism as much as opportunism—that Saddam Hussein was merely manipulating religion to suit his own ends. But this accusation relies on problematic premises—the first being that religion is a bounded, transhistorical, transcultural thing that exists in some pure form, and the second, that one may deviate from this true religion by lack of true belief. Talal Asad problematizes the first premise by forcing us to ask the question, “How does power create religion?” (45). Asad points out that “authorizing processes represent practices, utterances and representations so that they can be discursively related to general (cosmic) ideas of order” (37). Such practices and discursive formations are themselves the result of power relations that exist in historical and cultural contexts. In the case of Islam, Asad is echoing many scholars of Islam who have objected to the notion of a single “correct” Islam that is static, pure, and separate from the influences of the authorizing discourses of a particular time and place.

E. Valentine Daniel illustrates the problem with the second premise when he shows that sets of practices and beliefs that have traditionally been more fluid are transformed into religions of a prototypical nature by outside observers. Daniel’s prototypical religion is Christianity. Daniel traverses the history of Christianity to show that the characteristics of this prototype are “(1) belief in a God (2) a creed (3) a ‘church’ in the sense that a group partakes in collective worship in a given place, and (4) Holy Scriptures” (36). This is the point at which religion transcends “the place and time of traditio” and adopts believing and “the ocular metaphor of seeing as its injunction” (Daniel, 37).

The point here is that, when those who have internalized this tendency to think of all religions in the prototypical Christian form suggest that somebody doesn’t really believe what they are saying, they are effectively grafting a specific conception of religion on to a set of practices that don’t naturally conform to that prototype. Really believing in one’s heart of hearts, so-to-speak, is historically an outcome of the individualizing of religious practice that came about due to the Protestant Reformation. The question of whether or not Islam has had a reformation (or whether it needs one) is a question that still stimulates great debate. Therefore, the accusation that Saddam Hussein or any Iraqis who might have bought into his brand of religious nationalism didn’t ‘really believe’ what they said is debatable at best and conceptually incoherent at worst.

Still, it won’t do to simply reconfirm that the ideologies of order, religion and secular nationalism, are unscientific structures of legitimacy that mediate meaning, motivate people, and allow groups to imagine their cohesion and their group’s right to territory. Secular nationalism of the Ba’athi variety was clearly unscientific. But as evidenced in the case of Taimour, identity needn’t be articulated on the basis of unscientific, unreal narratives of history. It is possible, as some Kurds have done, to construct a non-religious national identity around the shared experience of real suffering. It is possible to do so without mythologizing one’s experience. But it is possible to pay heed to Talal Asad’s criticism of the secularization thesis without resignation to the religiosity of nationalism. Asad points out that “the concept of the secular cannot do without the idea of religion” and that “no movement that aspires to more than mere belief or inconsequential talk in public can remain indifferent to state power in a secular world” (100). These insights are no doubt salient, but they do not mean that an ever-greater emphasis can’t be placed in cultural systems that, unlike ideologies of order, establish respect for science and reality. Even the Qu’ran, so often believed today to be inimical to these notions, hoists truth and science on to a divine pedestal.

One of the founders of Ba’thism, Sati’ Husri, was a keen student of German Romantic thinkers like Fichte and Herder “who countered the French Enlightenment by promoting the notion of an organic volkisch nation, rooted in blood and soil” (Buruma, 146). Ba’thist ideologues were enamored of Fichte, a philosopher famous in part for his critique of Kant that claimed that there are no facts that exist in the world. Fichte believed that is-ness should be no concern to humankind. Fichte believed that humans alone create truth. Quite clearly this endeavor, when unchecked by reference to some notion of a real world, tends to lend itself to legitimizing a great deal of human suffering. But one can hardly think of the Arab asabiyya—the Ba’ath notion of blood solidarity—and the German volkisch without thinking of the Anfal and the Shoah. Bertrand Russell once wrote:

The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check on pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness—the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte, and to which modern men, whether philosophers or not are prone. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it, is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.

Postmodern and science studies commonly indict science for the mass murders of WWII. According to this way of thinking, a plea for realism and science are but pleas to a culturally and historically specific (not to mention imperialistic) form of truth production. But it mustn’t be overlooked that we refer to the evidence, both rational and scientific when we argue that ethnic cleansing is morally wrong. We point to genetics to dispel the notion of race entirely. As Eric Hobsbawm has said, we need reference to objective facts if we are to understand nationalisms that mythologize their histories, thus creating the need for purifications that confirm that history (Sokal, 271). Who would be satisfied with the epistemic relativism that would make a Holocaust revisionist’s mode of truth production no less valid than another? We understand eugenics as bad science. We understand reactionary nationalist myths as in conflict with the rigors of historiography. However, as Hussein’s “secular” and religious ideologies of order repeatedly produced brutality and mass graves, the answer cannot, as Asad makes evident, be a plea for more secularism. It can only be a plea for a return to reality in the midst of deception and illusion run amok.


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Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity
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Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford
University Press: 2003.

Buruma, Ian and Avishai Margalit. Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies.
Penguin, 2004.

Daniel, E. Valentine. “The Arrogation of Being by the Blind-Spot of Religion” in
Discrimination and Toleration: New Perspectives. ed. Hastrup, Kristen and George Ulrich. Kluwer Law International: 2002.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Harper Collins: 1973.

Hussein, Saddam.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. The New Cold War. University of California Press: 1993.

The Koran. Trans. Dawood, N.J. Penguin: 1999.

Latif, Emad Abdul.

Makiya, Kanan. Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, and Uprising and the Arab World.
Norton: 1993

Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy 2nd Ed. Routledge: 1991.

Sells, Michael A. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. University of
California Press: 1996.

Smucker, Philip. “Iraq Builds ‘Mother of all Battles’ Mosque In Praise of Saddam.”

Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse
of Science. Picador: 1998.

Van der Veer, Peter. Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India. University of
California Press: 1994


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