Saturday, July 14, 2018

Reflections on the role of ideology in Saddam Husayn's Iraq تأملات حول دور الأيديولوجيا في عراق صدام حسين

This past May, The Middle East Journal published my review of Amatzia Baram's Saddam Husayn and Iraq, 1968-2003: Ba'this Iraq from Secularism to Faith.   While I found much to commend in Baram's study, he and I disagree on the role of ideology in Saddam Husayn's decision-making process and policies.  Below is the review, Baram's response to the review, and my reply to his response.

Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968–2003: Ba‘thi Iraq from Secularism to Faith, by Amatzia Baram. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 439 pages. $59.95. Reviewed by Eric Davis

The Middle East Journal, 72/2 (Spring 2018): 327-330.

There have been numerous studies of Saddam Husayn and Iraq’s Arab Socialist Ba‘th Party. None, however, has examined in detail Saddam and the party’s ideological evolution and transition from a rigid secular nationalist focus to one which placed religion at its core. This lacuna has been rectified with the publication of Amatzia Baram’s study, Saddam Husayn and Islam.

This book represents a major contribution to our understanding of modern Iraqi politics. It is the product of extensive research and uses a wide and impressive range of sources. In addition to accessing a large number of Arabic, English, and Hebrew documents, Baram also studied a number of archives, including those at the Conflict Research Records Center at the National Defense University in Washington, DC; the National Security Archives, in Washington, DC; and the Iraq Memory Foundation archive at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Baram details the modernizing mission of the Ba‘thist regime after it seized power in a bloodless coup d’état in 1968. He rightly argues that the regime saw the clerical classes as reactionary and worked to marginalize them, making concessions to religion only where they feared a popular backlash. The author’s assertion that “How and why the Ba‘th regime and state-mosque relations changed during the 1968–2003 period is often veiled” (p. 11) underscores the significance of his study.

While much of what Baram analyzes in the early chapters of his study has been covered previously, he still adds considerable new material to this section of his historical narrative. Chapter 6, “Saddam’s Faith Campaign, 1993–2003: Imaging Islam and Jumping on the Bandwagon,” and Chapter 7, “What Kind of Islam?” constitute the core contribution of the volume. Here the author offers many new insights into the dynamics of a regime weakened after the January 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent March intifada (uprising) as it tried to retain its grip on power.

Baram situates his study in a historical context that examines the evolution of the state’s attitude and policies to particularly sensitive issues from a religious perspective, e.g., alcohol consumption and prostitution (pp. 51–52). In light of women comprising 60–65% of Iraq’s population, the result of the violence that consumed the country from 1980 to the present, Baram’s discussion of the status of women in Ba‘thist ideology is particularly timely. He provides a detailed account of Saddam and the Ba‘th Party’s position on women at the famous Eighth Party Congress in 1974, which lamented the “backwardness” of the role of women in the Arab world. Whether Saddam was ever committed to this position is unclear. Certainly, his personal behavior toward women was either dismissive or to use them for his own personal satisfaction.

Nevertheless, the Ba‘th Party during the 1970s did offer a space for female intellectuals to challenge patriarchal Islamism. The author offers a fascinating example of Bushra Bustani who criticized contemporary Islamists who followed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and ideologue Sayyid Qutb. In her critique, she used the writings of the great late 19th/early 20th century Egyptian religious thinker and grand mufti Muhammad ‘Abduh. Still fearing the power of the clerical class, the conservative views of most Iraqi men, and seeking to develop a base of support for his 1979 putsch to seize control of the Ba‘th Party and the state, Saddam backtracked on the party’s support for women’s rights, blaming his new policies on attacks by “counter-revolutionaries” (p. 56).

In the tradition of Charles Tilly, Dina Khoury, and others, Baram’s study of ideological transformation under Saddam and the Ba‘th can be viewed as a contribution to the literature on war and state-building. His insightful analysis of the impact of the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War on producing further backtracking on women’s rights demonstrates the strong relationship between male identity, gender relations, and political power in post-1970s Iraq.

However, the author fails to fully develop the logic of his arguments, particularly the extent to which Iraq’s political economy structured ideological outcomes under Saddam. The Iraqi leader viewed Iran as militarily weak after the 1978/79 revolution, as different Iranian forces jockeyed for power and many of Shah Mohammad Reza’s generals fled or were executed. Instead of Iran’s swift defeat, the war dragged on for eight years. Much of Iraq’s oil industry was destroyed. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait’s refusal to forgive over $25 billion of debt they had extended to Iraq during the war and their increased oil production after 1988, which drove down global oil prices, stymied Saddam’s efforts to return Iraq to the status quo.  Infuriated by these policies, having promised Iraqis that Iraq would be as prosperous as it had been before the war began in 1980, and confident that the United States would not intervene (based on his infamous 1990 interview with US ambassador April Glaspie), Saddam invaded and plundered Kuwait in August 1990.

An even larger miscalculation than the 1980 invasion of Iran, the 1991 Gulf War destroyed much of Iraq’s industrial capacity and electrical infrastructure, and led to a massive uprising which almost caused the fall of the regime. I would argue that the political economy of two wars, an overreach facilitated by the massive increase in Iraq’s oil revenues between 1972 and 1980 (and then their precipitous decline during the 1980s), and the 1991–2003 United Nations sanctions regime were the key variables that led Saddam to shift from pan-Arabism — an ideology which he embraced not out of conviction but to use as leverage in his effort to make Iraq the Arab world’s dominant power — to a new ideological formulation based in religion.
Ba'th Party founders, Michel 'Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar with
Egyptian President, Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir
Of course, Saddam’s religious convictions were as meaningless as his commitment to Ba‘thism. Despite the so-called Faith Campaign, led by his consigliere, ‘Izzat al-Duri, corruption increased during the 1990s; Saddam’s sons engaged in deviant behavior, including killings and rape; and serious conflict developed within his immediate family and clan. While the Ba‘th Party elite continued to live the high life, the middle classes and professional classes were devastated by the UN sanctions regime imposed after the Gulf War as the national economy and education system collapsed.

An excellent characterization of Saddam’s regime after 1979 was the late Faleh Jabar’s conceptualization of the Ba‘thist regime as morphing into the “Family-Party State” (dawlat hizb al-usra). What Jabar suggests is that Saddam’s worldview was not structured by ideology but rather by what I would call “tribalist instrumentalism.”1 Saddam trusted very few people and then only those in his immediate circle with whom he had kinship relations, namely his immediate family members and members of his tribal clan, the Bayjat of the Albu Nasir. By instrumentalist, I mean that Saddam constantly applied a cost-benefit analysis to any decision he took, based on whether it would enhance or diminish his power.

In this sense, neither Saddam’s “Ba‘thism” nor Islamism really were key drivers in his decision-making process, if by drivers we mean decision-making caused by affective commitment. I would argue that Saddam switched ideologies to whatever suited him at a particular point in time. One of the best indicators of this view was Saddam adding Allahu akbar (“God is greater”) to the Iraqi flag just prior to the 1991 Gulf War, when he realized that the US-organized UN coalition was going to attack his forces in Kuwait.

This conceptual commentary is not meant to diminish in any way the importance of Amatzia Baram’s contribution. Rather, it suggests that analyses of the role of ideology in Arab politics need to question the salience of ideological commitments. An overview of the Arab world, and indeed of most less-developed countries, indicates the superficial veneer of ideology in the domestic politics of most political systems. Pan-Arabism, pan-Africanism, and pan-Islamism all have lost the primacy they once held. Saddam had long realized that pan-Arab nationalism was dead, the realization of which was forcefully brought home when he became isolated during the leadup to the Gulf War. Globalization and the transnational migration it has engendered, combined with increasing global income inequality, have challenged national identities and, as a result, undermined formerly powerful regional and transnational ideologies. It is not by chance that Saddam’s personal library was filled with books on Joseph Stalin, the political opportunist par excellence.

Finally, it would have been useful if Saddam Husayn and Islam had acknowledged the extent to which Saddam and the Ba‘th appropriated ideological symbols from the rule of ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958–63). Qasim’s focus on folklore, tribal poetry, and  ancient Mesopotamian civilizations, epitomized in the placing of the Star of ‘Ishtar at the center of the post-Hashemite Iraqi flag, was intended to foster national pride and overcome ethnic, religious, and sectarian divisions. In following many of the symbolic paths of the Qasim regime, Saddam and the Ba‘th’s pan-Arabism was always imbued with a distinctly Iraqi flavor, as was their Islamism, which foregrounded “Saddam’s Qadisiyya,” the purported enmity between Arabs and Persians extending back to the Battle of Qadisiyya in southeast Iraq when the Arab Islamic armies defeated the Persian Sassanid Empire in 636 CE.
1 Falih cAbd al-Jabbar, الدولة والمجتمع المدني والانتقال إلى الديمقراطية في العراق [The state, civil society, and the transition to democracy in Iraq]. Cairo: Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, 1995, pp. 80–104.

Eric Davis, Department of Political Science, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ,

To the Editor,

Eric Davis’s evaluation of my book Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968–2003 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) in The Middle East Journal, Volume 72, Number 2 (Spring 2018, pp. 327–30) is fair and to the point. For that I am indebted to him. There are a few points that need explanation, but, most importantly, Davis is bringing up the weighty question of the relation between ideology and practice in Saddam Husayn’s Iraq.
Davis argues that an overview of the Arab world and most less-developed countries often “indicates the superficial veneer of ideology in domestic politics . . .” Namely: ideology is mere froth on the waves of real politics. Davis’s view is that “Saddam’s religious convictions were as meaningless as his commitment to Ba’thism” and “Saddam constantly applied a cost-benefit analysis to any decision that he took . . . ” Likewise, “Saddam switched ideologies to whatever suited him” (p. 329) all to secure his power. Davis is correct, I think, and this is the conclusion in my book. However, this is only the bottom line. 
It seems to me that there is much “above” or before the bottom line, and by leaving it out we may be missing something important. Davis regards Saddam’s pan-Arabism as an ideology “which he embraced not out of conviction but to use as a leverage in his effort to make Iraq the Arab world’s dominant power” (p. 329). I agree with some but disagree with “not out of conviction.” While it served him well, Saddam also seemed to have believed in an Iraqi-hegemonic version of secular pan-Arabism as Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser did in Egyptian-centered Arabism. I think so having read and listened to his memoirs and speeches and to his closed-door talks with his closest underlings, even judging by the emotion in his voice. Saddam was deeply attached to the glory that were the Arabs from the days of the Prophet to the ‘Abbasid Caliphate’s golden age, namely: to Arab Islam as history. He was similarly attached to the splendor that were Sumer and Babylon. Yet, until the mid-1980s (or earlier, with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise to power) he saw shari‘a as a guide for modern life as an obstacle on the way to modernity and the clerics (‘ulama) as a dangerous competing elite. 

This may sound naive, but I think that in order to lead or coerce people, most political leaders need to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing: serving a larger cause than oneself. The first decade of Ba‘th rule in Iraq, dominated already by Vice President Saddam Husayn, was essentially secular. This was a genuine Saddam. To his own admission in a top-level meeting in 1986, changed circumstances required changed policies. The competition with Khomeini over legitimacy, the growing popularity of the Iraqi clerics and the difficult war conditions pushed Saddam toward Islamization. Iraq’s travails following the defeat in Kuwait did the rest. 

I share this view with Davis. Islamization was indeed a cynical new bottom line dictated by “cost-benefit calculations.” But it does not mean that Saddam had not believed in secular politics. His public policy was eventually definitely Islamized. Yet, while he was very comfortable with his Arab, Islamic cultural, local/Iraqi/Mesopotamian, and tribal identities (the latter two being problematic from party ideology viewpoint), his Islamization was different. It contradicted everything he and many of the party old-timers had truly believed in, and it seems that he was at least at first ambivalent and conflicted about it. This may explain his Islamization style. I discussed it in my book but maybe insufficiently.

Davis suggests that Saddam’s worldview was not “structured by ideology” but by “tribalist instrumentalism” (p. 329). I agree with the latter, but I am not certain about the former. 
An article I published 20 years ago discussed Saddam’s “neo-tribalism.”[1] I updated it elsewhere, but I should have done it in the book. Either way, it seems to me that a few identities can coexist. I also agree that I ought to have written more on Iraq’s travails from 1980 to 2003 that explain Saddam’s newly found religiosity. Finally, I agree that Saddam’s search for an Iraqi identity in the alluvial plains of ancient Mesopotamia is of great importance. I had written about it before[2] and updated it in this book (mainly pp. 42–47, 60–63). More was needed.

Amatzia Baram, Professor Emeritus, University of Haifa.

Ba'th Party leader Michael 'Aflaq with Saddam Husayn, 1988
In response to my review of Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968–2003: Ba‘thi Iraq from Secularism to Faith, Amatzia Baram raises the important issue of the role ideology played in Saddam Husayn’s decision-making process. Baram asserts that I dismiss ideology in understanding the Iraqi dictator’s behavior. Let me begin by correcting this misperception. By no means do I consider ideology as “froth above the waves.” Chapter 1 of my Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (University of California Press, 2005) extensively examines Ba‘thist ideology. In all my writings, from my earliest publications, such as “Ideology, Social Class and Islamic Radicalism in Modern Egypt,” a study of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, ideology has played a central role.[3]

In the study of ideology, Baram and I differ conceptually and empirically. Although Baram never defines what he means by ideology, he clearly adopts a linear, functionalist view. To wit, political leaders hold certain ideological views which then influence their decision-making processes. While such linear causality is often true, ideology constitutes a much more nuanced and complex concept. Further, Baram analyzes Saddam from the perspective of a “Great Man of History.” This approach creates two problems. First, Baram limits how we understand the role of ideology in Saddam’s Iraq by avoiding alternative conceptualizations. Second, he tells us little about the structural constraints which shaped the Iraqi leader’s decisions.

In his well-known essay “Ideology as a Cultural System,” Clifford Geertz conceptualized ideology as part of the “symbolic webs” human beings spin to create meaning and predictability in their lives.[4] In Memories of State, I argued that Ba‘thist ideology became a signifier for party members and candidate members — a “web of meaning” — through which they sought to prove their loyalty to Saddam, even if Ba‘thist ideology was largely comprised of slogans and lacked substantive content.

In yet another approach, Antonio Gramsci viewed ideology as just one component in the attempt by political classes to create what he termed egemonia (hegemony). Ideology is part of the political class’s efforts to equate its rule with the natural order of things or, to use an anthological formulation, to have it become part of “the taken-for-grantedness” of life. The effort to establish hegemonic rule in the Gramscian sense parallels Michel Foucault’s notion of discipline. When the ruled come to see what is as synonymous with what should be, the political class has developed an efficient method of rule because its prerogatives and dictates are seen as “natural” and thus not subject to challenge.

Unfortunately, much analysis of modern Iraqi politics has adopted a “Great Man of History” model. While leadership — whether exercised by under Faisal I, Nuri al-Sa‘id, ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim, or Saddam — is critical to understanding Iraq’s modern politics, political leaders never operate in a structural vacuum. Theorists from Karl Marx (“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please”[5]) to Douglass North and modern institutionalists, who have argued that institutional rules constrain actor preferences, have demonstrated the shortcomings of divorcing agency and structure.[6] Saddam’s agency was without a doubt a critical variable in shaping Iraqi politics under Ba‘th Party rule. However, his decisions were shaped by the socioeconomic and political structure in which he operated. In more concrete terms, does anyone believe Saddam would have emphasized “faith” in the 1980s and 1990s had there been no Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran?
Shibli al-'Aysami with Saddam and Iraqi leaders at Michel 'Aflaq's funeral, 1989
Even if we accept Baram’s analysis of ideology on its own terms, why should his study not have been entitled, Saddam Husayn and Iraq, 1968–2003: From Mesopotamianism to Faith? Saddam consistently argued that Iraq benefitted from greater “historical depth” than all other Arab nations and therefore should be considered primus inter pares — first among equals. The Ba‘thist ideologues who fled Syria for Iraq after the 1966 coup — Michel ‘Aflaq, Elias Farah, Shibli al-‘Aysami, and others — never exercised political power in Iraq. Indeed, I found their books gathering dust in Baghdad’s bookstores. No Iraqi official raised the topic of Ba‘thist ideology during my visits to Iraq. Nor were intellectuals or university students interested in discussing it. On the other hand, Iraqi bookstores were filled with books on themes ranging from marriage to cuisine to sports in ancient Mesopotamia in Saddam’s effort to create a common political culture that could be used to transcend ethnosectarian cleavages.

Finally, Baram is unclear on the criteria he uses to ascertain ideology’s causal impact in Saddam’s regime. He notes in his letter that, “Saddam also seemed to have believed in an Iraqi-hegemonic version of secular pan-Arabism” (emphasis added) and adds, “The first decade of Ba‘th rule in Iraq . . . was essentially secular. This was a genuine Saddam.” Baram then argues, as I do, that “faith” was cynically used to combat the attraction of the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the Islamic Revolution and to reinforce the legitimacy of Bacthist rule. Where then are we at the end of the analytic day? What role exactly did ideology play in Iraqi politics under Saddam?

Despite our differences, Baram is to be commended for raising the important issue of the role of ideology in political rule. Obviously, this is a topic that requires much more conceptualization, theorizing, and empirical research.

[1] Amatzia Baram, “Neo-Tribalism in Iraq: Saddam Hussein's Tribal Policies 1991–96,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 29, no. 1, (Feb. 1997): 1–31. doi:10.1017/S0020743800064138.
[2] See, for example, Amatzia Baram, Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 1968–89 (London: Macmillan, 1991).
[3] In From Nationalism to Revolutionary Islam, ed. Said Amir Arjomand (London: Macmillan, 1984), 134–57.
[4] In The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books), 195.
[5] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” [1852] in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, second edition, ed. David McLellan (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 329.
[6] Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 23.