It should be stated up front that the question posed in the headline is, strictly speaking, unanswerable: only Saddam Hussein could ever answer that question, and even then any out-loud answer given by Saddam could be untrue in any number of directions, for any number of reasons. Still, from the available evidence it does seem Saddam had some kind of “born-again” experience.
Of crucial importance, however, is that while Saddam’s actual beliefs had a significant impact in providing some of the colour and shape to the Faith Campaign, even if one believes Saddam remained a secularist and Islamized his regime as a wholly cynical means of shoring-up support, this is completely irrelevant to the effect this Islamization had. Saddam put in place a governmental administration that created a religious movement, which brought men to a faith they otherwise would not have had, and in combination with the increased sectarianism fostered by Saddam’s regime, this prepared the ground for al-Qaeda and its offshoots like the Islamic State (ISIS) in the aftermath of the regime.
The Nature of the Faith Campaign
The two sources I have found that most directly explore what Saddam Hussein actually believed are Amatzia Baram’s 2014 book, “Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968-2003: Ba’thi Iraq from Secularism to Faith,” which argues that Saddam did become a born-again Muslim, and Joseph Sassoon’s 2012 book, “Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime,” which argues that Saddam remained hostile to Islamism to the very end.
Baram was a historian of the Middle East and Islam, with a special interest in Saddam, who was made head of the Iraq desk at Israeli military-intelligence after Saddam invaded Iran in 1980. Baram’s book is based in no small part on the internal recordings and memoranda of the Saddam regime. Sassoon is a PhD in economic history, with a special focus on the Arab world. Sassoon’s book uses only the internal documents, not the recordings.
There is no doubt that the Saddam regime visibly Islamized in the early 1990s under the Faith Campaign, which promoted a form of Salafism—intended partly to counter the Muslim Brotherhood, which as a secretive, multinational organization Saddam still saw as a threat.
Sassoon argues that the Faith Campaign was a cynical smokescreen by which the Saddam regime sought to win support from Muslim conservatives, while continuing to engage in “anti-religious activities”. Sassoon’s argument against Saddam being a believer is that “Saddam Hussein was always wary of any religious movement,” but this is not correct. What the Faith Campaign did was create a religious movement, Ba’athi-Salafism, of which Saddam was not wary at all. Even Sassoon acknowledges that Saddam “publicly supported all religious activities, and called for more conservatism and religiosity within society.”
That Saddam’s personal tastes, rather than a strict religious interpretation, shaped the Faith Campaign is hardly novel. Ruhollah Khomeini, after he seized power, ruled that the survival of his revolution took precedent over the strict interpretation of shari’a jurisprudence. In Sudan, the Islamist regime of Hassan al-Turabi and Omar al-Bashir did the same. As al-Turabi once put it to Saddam, “If the State itself is leading the religious guidance, for what [reason] then is [i.e. should there be] a religious party?”
Saddam did dislike Wahhabism, Khomeini’ism, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban. Saddam’s reasons for disliking these movements break down into broadly two: he saw them as a threat to his power or a personal distaste. Khomeini’ism was undoubtedly seen as a both a threat and was personally disliked—it was associated in Saddam’s mind with Iran and he was an anti-Persian bigot, among other things. But in the case of the Taliban, Saddam despised them for being so primitive, specifically blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas, but had formed “Islamic relations” with them nonetheless, and had indeed switched to a policy of alliance with Islamists abroad before he aligned with the Islamists at home.
Sassoon takes Saddam’s distrust of independent Islamist groups and trends to mean Saddam opposed all Islamism, which as noted he did not: Saddam’s own Islamists were keenly supported. Moreover, alongside the Ba’athi-Salafists, the “pure” Salafi Trend, which had long opposed the regime, was strengthened, partly by commission and partly by omission.
When Sassoon writes that Saddam “wanted to infiltrate” the religious movements “to ensure [the regime’s] control,” what he is describing is Saddam’s approach to power, not Saddam’s ideology. Of course Saddam’s regime infiltrated the Salafi Trend and tried to bring it under control, and even assassinated some of its leaders. Saddam still believed that only his movement was the true one, even if others were complementary. In a regime where the intelligence agencies spied on one-another, Saddam’s approach to the Salafi Trend is hardly a surprise. The Salafi Trend largely made its peace with the Islamized Saddam regime but it remained independent of the regime, and therefore a possible threat.
That said, there is no evidence Saddam ever made any effort to seriously restrain, let alone destroy, the Salafi Trend, and in fact Saddam seems to have seen the “pure” Salafis as a complement to his Ba’athi-Salafists. Sassoon writes that “anyone showing an inclination toward Wahhabism was considered an enemy of the state.” But it just isn’t true, as the example of Kamel Sachet shows.
Kamel Sachet, one of the senior generals in both the Iran and Kuwait wars, showed more than an “inclination” toward Wahhabism/Salafism, and not of the Ba’athi-Salafist kind, either. Sachet was an independent extremist, a “pure” Salafi, even if not exactly connected to the Salafi Trend’s underground, who nonetheless saw it as his Islamic duty to remain loyal to the ruler. Saddam reciprocated the trust, appointing Sachet governor of Maysan between 1992 and 1994, a then-important province that was a centre of Iranian infiltration. Sachet’s religiosity did alarm some of the senior retainers around Saddam. Arshad Yassin, the dictator’s brother-in-law, visited Maysan at the time and chided Sachet by saying, “You’ve created a mini Islamic State here!” Yassin was right, Sachet had created an Islamist enclave, but Saddam backed Sachet over his critics—at least until he had him murdered in 1998.
And if Sassoon fails to appreciate the intentional ways Saddam boosted the Salafi Trend, he also misses how Saddam inadvertently helped the Salafi Trend—and did nothing to correct course when the mistakes became obvious.
The Faith Campaign opened a road for many military and intelligence officers that led to them sliding from Ba’athi-Salafism into “pure” Salafism. Ba’athism was a spent force by the 1990s and the religious promise of forgiveness was attractive to many of the regime’s agents; as part of their ideological transformation many left the Ba’ath component behind altogether. Further, the infiltration of the Salafi Trend had one major net effect: forming connections between the security services and the underground Salafi movement.
What this demonstrates, which Sassoon misses, is that the Faith Campaign had a life of its own, separate from the dictator’s beliefs. A system was put in place in the 1990s that executed people for violations of Islamic law, made mid-level clerics and the mosques into the centre of communities, made Qur’an studies a national focus, and in many others ways gave official sanction and direction to a religious revival that had begun in the 1970s. Whatever the leadership believed—and it is well-known, for example, that Saddam disliked the ulema—the production of Ba’athi-Salafists, who easily made the transition to the Salafi Trend before and after the regime fell, and the empowerment of the clergy went on, changing Iraq in profound ways that are still with us.
Put simply, the argument that since Saddam disliked and repressed some non-governmental Islamist trends and that one of the Faith Campaign’s less disclosed aims was to infiltrate and manipulate the mosques and Islamists inside Iraq, this therefore means Saddam was opposed to all religious movements and was not a true believer falls.
The evidence for what Saddam believed in his own mind is fragmentary and some of it is open to interpretation, but it largely paints a picture of a man sliding further and further into religiosity; whose private beliefs began to align more and more with his public Islamism.
Within the inner circle of the Saddam regime there was a great number of superstitions and conspiracy theories, and much flat-out ignorance, which make Salafism look positively reasonable. An example of each.
Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, Saddam’s deputy who oversaw the Faith Campaign, was also charged with training the Special Security Organization (SSO, Jihaz al-Amn al-Khass). SSO was “the most powerful security agency in Iraq from 1980,” Sassoon writes, comprising 5,500 men and eleven departments that reported direct to the president. SSO was essentially the private intelligence and security agency of Saddam—everything from testing Saddam’s food and spying on his staff (housekeepers etc.) to monitoring the loyalty of senior generals to providing bodyguards. Douri was known to be devout and encouraged SSO members to take a course in parapsychology as part of their training. Additionally, both Saddam and Douri “were believers in the power of magic and of dervishes,” Sassoon writes.
An official military analysis in the mid-1980s concluded that world Zionism and the American imperialists had replaced the Shah with Khomeini in order to destroy Iraq. This nefarious scheme, which meant that the hostage crisis was a façade, was to work by having a Khomeini’ist sister republic set up in Basra, which would then spawn other Khomeini’ist statelets across southern Iraq that would shatter the country.
Having ruled over a country that is more than sixty-percent Shi’a for more than ten years, only in the midst of a veritable uprising by the Shi’a in mid-1979 did the Ba’athist leadership realize there were pro- and anti-Khomeini’ist Shi’a, and that the quietest trend as represented by Grand Ayatollahs Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari (in Iran) and Abul Qasim al-Khoei (in Iraq) might provide a way to insulate the Iraqi Shi’a from Khomeini’s call to overthrow the Ba’ath government in Iraq.
Saddam’s public rhetoric took on a more Islamist tone as his long war with the Iranian revolution wore on, Baram notes, and the patronizing and proliferation of the clergy began in the same period. Among other things, Saddam began to present Khomeini as masih ad-dajjal (the false messiah), a figure akin to the antichrist. Atheism was loudly condemned in the State media and as early as 1982 Saddam spoke of the war with Iran as a jihad.
After Saddam annexed Kuwait in August 1990, intending to solve Iraq’s financial woes and catapult himself into regional and even global leadership status with increased oil reserves at his command, it became clear that the initial conquest would be difficult to sustain. In response, the Islamization of rhetoric was super-charged, and Saddam himself began a psychological alteration that shifted responsibility to god.
What is interesting is that Saddam’s reliance on god becomes evident first in private, telling his generals that god had willed the abolition of Kuwait, and only in late October/early November 1990 does Saddam begin to speak in Islamic terms in public to justify what he has done.
Still, it is correct to be cynical about Saddam’s initial turn to Islamist rhetoric, which seems to have been an exercise in blame-shifting, from Saddam to the Almighty. One notable feature of the Islamist rhetoric was Saddam claiming to have a direct line to god, and the cynicism around this claim was increased by the fact that the line “became progressively busier as the war against the Allies forces in Kuwait approached,” as Baram puts it.
Baram lays out the steps Saddam was taking toward Islam. The public statements of Saddam Hussein toward the end of 1990 laid claim to the conquest of Kuwait as a means of renewing Islam through jihad and purifying Islam by removing a corrupt government that operated in the religion’s name. Kuwait “has been returned to the Faith,” Saddam said. Foreshadowing the rhetoric of Osama bin Laden, Saddam condemned the Saudis for putting the holy places under the protection of unbelievers, and even had Iraqi State media disseminate stories that the Saudi and Kuwaiti monarchies were of Jewish origin. Saddam was now the redeemer of the entire Islamic religion.
Saddam reiterated miracle stories from the Qur’an in the run-up to his expulsion from Kuwait, and introduced a concept that would become more and more marked as the 1990s went on: at-tawakkul ala Allah (reliance on god). When Saddam promised that a retinue of angels was on-hand—seemingly to make up for the lack of close-air cover after Saddam sent his air force to Iran—some of his cynical lieutenants took this as a reference to weapons of mass destruction that could equalize the Americans’ technological edge, but the WMD never materialized. Instead, in private settings as well as in public, dreams and ruya (visions) came to preoccupy Saddam, who impressed upon his deputies how much meaning he attached to them.
“When [Saddam’s] public record is read together with his confidential conversations and documents it appears that eventually he began to believe all those inventions,” Baram writes.
The Shi’a rebellion that erupted after the Iraqi army had been expelled from Kuwait was a total shock to Saddam, and he reacted by isolating himself—physically and politically—relying on an inner-core of kinsmen and Sunni clans that he trusted.
When it finally came time for the end of the Gulf War, the internal advice Saddam gave to his military suggested that Saddam had again ceded responsibility to god. Five days into the invasion in March 2003, Saddam gave this speech to his troops:
Those who are believers will be victorious. … We have been promised by God in our struggle with the enemies of humanity that God will support his soldiers and [the enemy] will be defeated. … We are the soldiers of God. … The victory of God is very close. … God is great! God is great! Long live our country! Long live Palestine, free and Arab. Long live Iraq! Long live Iraq! Long live Iraq, the country of jihad and virtue! … God is great! God is great!
As strategic or even tactical advise it left the Iraqi leadership somewhat in the dark.
The final message Saddam sent to his troops, on March 29, eleven days before the collapse of the regime, was mostly Islamic incantation, but gave some instructions on preparing ambushes, which were duly carried out by the Fedayeen Saddam, before returning to religious themes, telling soldiers that they would be victorious if they relied on god because the enemy believed in “infidelity and atheism and crime.”
“The government of Iraq is instigating fundamentalism in the country,” Hussein Kamel, the nephew of Ali Hassan al-Majid (“Chemical Ali”) and Saddam’s son-in-law, one of the architects of the SSO, told his debriefers in Jordan after he defected in August 1995. This might be regarded as giving no insight on Saddam’s thinking since it is a public policy—though, as demonstrated above, the fact that the regime was instigating fundamentalism had a profound affect. But Kamel added: “They even stopped party meetings for prayers.” The public was known to be sympathetic to the Islamization program—those who read it cynically, after all, see it as being for the public’s benefit. The centre of opposition to the Islamization policy was among the senior Ba’athists, so Saddam had nothing to gain by forcing prayers on the leadership. The simplest explanation for why Saddam introduced prayers at leadership meetings was that he believed it was the right thing to do.
Also in 1995, there is a recorded conversation with Culture Minister Latif Nusayyif Jasim in which Jasim said Saddam was becoming very religious. Saddam had said that no matter how much god punished him—and Saddam felt that the heavenly treatment since 1990 had been on the harsh side—Saddam would never waver in his love for god.
One of the most convincing pieces of evidence that Saddam became a believer comes from the memoir of Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian foreign minister between 1996 and 1998, who spoke Arabic and met with Saddam more than any other foreign diplomat. Primakov concluded:
Russia did everything in its power to get Saddam to pull back from the brink … But … Saddam continued to believe in his lucky star … and ultimately Allah, who would save him from harm.
Saddam had nothing to gain by pretending to be pious around Primakov. To the contrary, as Saddam would well have known, a profession of religiosity and a belief that matters of State could be left in god’s hands would have convinced Primakov, a life-long atheist and apparatchik of the Soviet State, that Saddam was losing his mind.
Baram notes that not only Saddam’s “public speeches” but his “words in closed-door meetings and his top-secret military communiqués since 1999-2000 imply a similar change [towards religion].”
Another very powerful indicator that a change had come over Saddam is from the private diary of Barzan al-Ibrahim, a younger brother of the dictator’s and the head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, the infamous Mukhabarat. Al-Ibrahim, in the entry dated Oct. 21, 2000, states plainly that Saddam had undergone a mental metamorphosis and now thought “similar to the way of … a monk who is sitting in a sanctuary and worshiping [god.] … I told the president … of the danger of an alliance with the religious trend domestically and externally.” The Salafi Trend would not hold to its side of the alliance, al-Ibrahim said; when they are powerful enough the Salafis will topple the regime. But Saddam pressed on with the alliance with the Salafi Trend regardless—as he had over the objections of Tariq Aziz, a member of the “Quartet,” and his eldest son, Uday.
Perhaps the clinching evidence, uncovered by Baram, comes from a letter Saddam wrote to god, dated May 22, 2002. The letter, written in a clearly anxious hand and as far as can be told never supposed to be made public, was then to be cast in pure gold and affixed to a granite tablet, which would be placed in a steel box with an unbreakable glass front and a lead lining so it could withstand anything, including radiation. This letter was then to be placed in the Umm al-Ma’arik (Mother of All Battles) Mosque, the splendidly ornate monument Saddam had built himself in honour of his “victory” in 1991. Saddam then planned to place a smaller box, also with one glass wall, inside this larger box containing several moustache hairs.
In times gone by, moustache hairs had served in Iraq as a handshake would in the West, and the deal Saddam was trying to seal with god was laid out in his letter. Saddam beseeched god to protect Iraq, by which he also meant himself—like most dictators, Saddam imagined his own fate and interests were identical with the country he tyrannized—and asked that, in considering Saddam’s request, god “remember my history together with all the meanings that I placed with you”. This was a reference to the Islamization measures: the imposition of the Holy Law, the mosque-building, the empowerment of the clergy, and the personal sacrifices of many pints of blood to write a Qur’an. With these measures, Saddam hoped he had earned god’s grace.
Again, one can never be absolutely sure what is in the mind of another individual, and in matters of religion it is not always clear that individuals themselves know what they believe—and whether they believe the same things at all times. But the available evidence suggests that, whether it was the isolation and the psychological strain after the war with the Iranian revolution, the disaster in Kuwait, the post-war revolts, the Kamel defection and the siege, or a search for atonement, or a way of avoiding his own impending mortality, or simply the inability to keep two sets of books—conscious hypocrisy is difficult to pull off, after all, and Saddam had become pious in public—or perhaps some combination of all the above, Saddam became a believer before the end.