Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq

Publication Year



Samuel Helfont, Ph.D. 2015.

  • One of the first books to examine Iraqi state and Ba'th Party Archives, and the first book on this subject to use Ba'th Party records
  • Provides a new explanation for Saddam Hussein's instrumentalizing of Islam in the 1990s and 2000s
  • Offers a new explanation for the rise of religious insurgencies in post-2003 Iraq

Samuel Helfont draws on extensive research with Ba'thist archives to investigate the roots of the religious insurgencies that erupted in Iraq following the American-led invasion in 2003. In looking at Saddam Hussein's policies in the 1990s, many have interpreted his support for state-sponsored religion as evidence of a dramatic shift away from Arab nationalism toward political Islam. While Islam did play a greater role in the regime's symbols and Saddam's statements in the 1990s than it had in earlier decades, the regime's internal documents challenge this theory.

The "Faith Campaign" Saddam launched during this period was the culmination of a plan to use religion for political ends, begun upon his assumption of the Iraqi presidency in 1979. At this time, Saddam began constructing the institutional capacity to control and monitor Iraqi religious institutions. The resulting authoritarian structures allowed him to employ Islamic symbols and rhetoric in public policy, but in a controlled manner. Saddam ultimately promoted a Ba'thist interpretation of religion that subordinated it to Arab nationalism, rather than depicting it as an independent or primary political identity.

The point of this examination of Iraqi history, other than to correct the current understanding of Saddam Hussein's political use of religion throughout his presidency, is to examine how Saddam's controlled use of religion was dismantled during the US-Iraq war, and consequently set free extremists that were suppressed under his regime. When the American-led invasion destroyed the regime's authoritarian structures, it unwittingly unhinged the forces that these structures were designed to contain, creating an atmosphere infused with religion, but lacking the checks provided by the former regime. Groups such as the Sadrists, al-Qaida, and eventually the Islamic State emerged out of this context to unleash the insurgencies that have plagued post-2003 Iraq.

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgements
Introduction: Religion and Authoritarianism in Saddam's Iraq
Part I: The Penetration of Iraq's Religious Landscape 1979-1989
Chapter 1: Saddam Takes Control
Chapter 2: Co-opting and Coercing Religion in Saddam's Iraq
Chapter 3: Co-opting and Coercing Shi'ism
Chapter 4: Suppressing the Islamist Opposition
Chapter 5: Addressing the Limits of Coercion and Co-optation
Part II: The Gulf War and its Aftermath 1990-1993
Chapter 6: Continuity and Change in the Gulf War
Chapter 7: Iraq's Religious Landscape in the Wake of the Gulf War
Part III: The Faith Campaign 1993-2003
Chapter 8: A Transformed Religious Landscape
Chapter 9: The Regime and the Shi'is in the 1990s
Chapter 10: Mechanisms of Control
Chapter 11: Putting the System to Work
Part IV: The Invasion of Iraq War and the Emergence of Religious Insurgencies
Chapter 12: American Misconceptions about Iraq and the 2003 Invasion
Chapter 13: Emergence of Religious Insurgencies in Iraq
Conclusion: Saddam the Counter-Insurgent and other Reflections on Ruling Iraq


"Samuel Helfont has provided us with groundbreaking insights into the way Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party used Islam to control the Iraqi population during his dictatorship-and how the abrupt removal of that control influenced the insurgencies that erupted in the wake of the American invasion in 2003. Most importantly, this book illuminates why those insurgencies were so virulent, and how the wake of Saddam Hussein's use of Islamic institutions to control the Iraqi population will continue to ignite conflict in the Middle East for generations to come." --John Nagl, Lieutenant Colonel, USA (Retired), and author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam The Iraqi Refugees: The New Crisis in the Middle East

Oxford University Press
New York