The Faith Campaign and the Rise of the Islamic State

by Forrest Palamountain

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Contemporary explanations for the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq (IS) portray the country as a secular society prior to 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein. These arguments tend to attribute the Islamization of communities and the rise of radical Sunni jihadi groups like IS to  the actions of coalition members and post-Saddam politicos. Often ignored is the fact that Iraq had begun to exhibit the trappings of a highly conservative and Islamic society long before American boots touched Iraqi soil, and that Saddam laid the foundation for groups like IS to take root during the latter days of his regime. No single event better encapsulates this Islamizing trend than the 1993 inauguration of the Faith Campaign and the overt shift of the Iraqi regime towards a more religious politics. This paper will examine the role played by the Faith Campaign in the rise of radical Sunni jihadi groups in Iraq.

While a seminal moment in Iraqi history, the Faith Campaign must be understood in the larger context of Iraqi Islamization. Scholar Amatzia Baram argues that a 1986 Pan-Arab Leadership (PAL) meeting marks the the Saddam regime’s true shift to religiosity. In this meeting, Saddam suggested a truce with the long-antagonistic leaders of the Sudanese and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Saddam had earlier given safe haven to Syrian MB leaders after the 1982 Hama massacre, but Baram notes that the Syrians were at the nadir of their power when Saddam supported them, whereas his 1986 decision at the PAL meeting to make peace with the much stronger Sudanese and Egyptian Muslim Brothers implied a shift in Iraqi Baath ideology. This decision to align himself officially with the Islamists may have been influenced by the loss of the Fao peninsula to Iran earlier that year, and the accusations of atheism from Khomeini.[1,2, 3]

On June 1, 1993 the Faith Campaign, al-Hamla al-Imaniya, was announced. Almost immediately, security services became more tolerant of frequent mosque visits; nightclubs and bars were shuttered by government decree; public alcohol consumption was banned, although Saddam made no attempt to outlaw its production; and teachers of religion were given a pay raise, making them the best-paid educators in Iraq. Other reforms came later, such as the banning of gambling, the establishment of the Saddam Institute for the Study of the Holy Qur’an, and an increase in Qur’an production so great that by June of 1994 the Ministry of Religious Endowments had produced some 60,000 copies of the holy book.[5] In the same year, the Saddam regime also began issuing laws drawn from Salafi (a hyper-conservative Islamic ideology)  interpretations of the shari’a, such as amputation of the right hand for thieves or the death penalty for prostitution.[6] These brutal sentences were carried out in public and broadcast on state television, similar to the publishing of IS execution videos on the internet today.

Researcher Kyle Orton describes the Faith Campaign as an attempt to buttress the regime with a fusion of Baathi and Salafi ideology.[7] Perhaps the most salient link between the Faith Campaign and modern day radical Sunni groups like IS is the Fedayeen Saddam. Created in October 1994, Fedayeen Saddam became a fiercely loyal paramilitary group under the command of Saddam’s son ‘Uday.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Saddam had executed many top military commanders, and thus feared military reprisals against his regime. Therefore, Fedayeen Saddam served as a bulwark for the regime against insurrection or coups. The paramilitary group was mostly used for internal control, which they maintained through espionage and intimidation. In the latter days of the Saddam regime, Fedayeen Saddam became a kind of Iraqi mutawa’a, or religious police, enforcing correct doctrinal practice and carrying out public executions, often without due process, under the supervision of Baath party officials.[10] IS style propaganda films were also published by the group, showing the fighters carrying out executions, training and even tearing apart and devouring a live dog.[11] Members of Fedayeen Saddam would go on to form the midlevel command ranks of IS and other radical Sunni jihadi groups in Iraq.[12]

Many top commanders of IS also trace their roots back to the Faith Campaign. Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, the overall commander of IS in Iraq, is a former Iraqi intelligence officer. Abu Ali al-Anbari, chief of IS occupied territory in Syria, also got his start as a general in Saddam’s army.[13]  These and other former Iraqi Baath IS commanders were recruited by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi when he assumed control over the then-decimated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2010. It was “these Salafized former military intelligence officers,” Orton writes, who formed the core of IS leadership, made the organization what it is today and “planned the Islamic State’s dramatic expansion into Syria.”[14] Indeed, IS now uses networks, created by Fedayeen Saddam in the 1990’s to circumvent Western embargoes and sanctions, as a means to illicitly trade oil and support wilayat economies.[15]         

However, when pundits, journalists and other interested parties discuss the rise anz`d success of the Islamic State in Iraq, the Faith Campaign is rarely if ever mentioned as a possible cause. Instead, two other mechanisms are generally focused upon to explain IS’s rise. The first is the ramifications of de-Baathification and the dismemberment of the Iraqi army post-2003, both policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under the leadership of Paul Bremer. These policies blocked Baathists from government and left a large, unemployed body of ex-soldiers wandering through the streets of Baghdad. Many argue that Bremer’s decisions created an Iraqi government devoid of real political experience and formed a group of disillusioned fighters who would make up the backbone of the insurgency, later IS. The second is the marginalization of Iraq’s large minority Sunni population, most notoriously by the former Prime Minister of Iraq’s new confessional government, Nuri al-Maliki.[17] This marginalization was further exacerbated by the rise of Shi’i militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army or the Iranian backed Badr Brigade who often carried out secularly motivated attacks against Sunnis.[18]

While they have merit, these two common explanatory mechanisms are not enough to elucidate the meteoric rise and success of IS. De-Baathification alone cannot explain the ease with which ostensibly secular former Baath officials assimilated into the Salafi group. Regardless of their actual beliefs, these individuals would not be welcomed into a group like IS without at least some “Islamic” credentials. Indeed, Liz Sly writes in an article for the Washington Post that many former Baathists recall their colleagues abandoning alcohol and embracing Salafism as a direct result of the Faith Campaign.[20] This apparent conversion of Baath officials before the end of the regime cannot simply be ignored when discussing the rise of IS in Iraq. Furthermore, the marginalization of Sunnis post-2003 is not a fully satisfactory explanation for radical Sunni jihadi groups in the region. As Baram writes, Saddam’s relative tolerance of Salafis strengthened them throughout the 1990’s and when coalition forces “invaded Iraq they found a more religious and more sectarian society than had ever been the case since the 1950s.”[21]

It is clear that the Faith Campaign, and the activities associated with it, played an important role in laying the groundwork for a radical Sunni jihadist group like IS to take root in Iraq. Even before 1993, the Saddam regime was already building relationships with Islamists and reforming society in ways amenable to Salafi ulama. The increase in funding and resources for Islamic education, distribution of the Qur’an, and inclusion of the Islamic expression allah akbar on the Iraqi national flag are all indications of the presence of an Islamizing trend before 1993. After the proclamation of the campaign in 1993, this trend accelerated rapidly, with stringent restrictions on alcohol, brutal Salafi-derived corporal punishment, and the creation of Fedayeen Saddam. Whether or not Saddam was motivated solely by the success of Iranian accusations of atheism, Shi’i agitation, Islamist opposition or genuine belief does not change the fact that these reforms contributed to the rise of IS in Iraq.[22] IS’s use of Faith Campaign strategies like recruitment of spies through dawa offices or old Fedayeen Saddam smuggling networks is unambiguous evidence of the impact of the former regime’s strategic use of Islamization on current events in Iraq. De-Baathification and Sunni marginalization alone cannot explain the rise of radical Sunni jihadis in Iraq; the influence of Saddam and the Faith Campaign on the current situation must also be appreciated.

 

Bibliography

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Angrist, Michele Penner. Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East. Colorado:          Rienner, 2013.

Arango, Tim. “Iraqis Who Fled Mosul Say They Prefer Militants to Government.” The New York          Times. June 12, 2014. Accessed May 25, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/13/            world/middleeast/iraqis-fled-mosul-for-home-after-militant-group-swarmed-the-city.html.

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“Most of Islamic State’s Leaders Were Officers in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.” Washington Post.                  April 4, 2015. Accessed May 25, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/most-of-               islamic-states-leaders-were-officers-in-saddam-husseins-iraq/2015/04/04/f3d2da00-                     db24-11e4-b3f2-607bd612aeac_graphic.html.

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—-. “Saddam and the Islamists, Part 2.” The Syrian Intifada. 2015. Accessed May 25, 2016.               https://kyleorton1991.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/saddam-and-the-islamists-part-2/.

—-. “Saddam Hussein’s Regime Produced the Islamic State.” The Syrian Intifada (blog), April                21, 2015. Accessed May 25, 2016. https://kyleorton1991.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/              saddam-husseins-regime-produced-the-islamic-state/.

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Sly, Liz. “The Hidden Hand behind the Islamic State Militants? Saddam Hussein’s.” Washington    Post. April 4, 2015. Accessed May 25, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/                middle_east/the-hidden-hand-behind-the-islamic-state-militants-saddam-husseins/                     2015/04/04/aa97676c-cc32-11e4-8730-4f473416e759_story.html?                                                postshare=9961428197995258.

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“فدائي صدام يأكلون ذئب (Fedayeen Saddam Eating a Wolf).” YouTube. 2009. Accessed May 25,                   2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VuN7bns9Nk.

       

 

[1] Amatzia Baram, From Militant Secularism to Islamism: The Iraqi Ba’th Regime 1968-2003 (History and Public Policy Program, October 2011), 6.

[2] Samuel Helfont, Saddam and the Islamists: The Ba’thist Regime’s Instrumentalization of Religion in Foreign Affairs (The Middle East Journal Middle East J 68, no. 3, 2014), 357.

[3] Amatzia Baram, From Militant Secularism to Islamism: The Iraqi Ba’th Regime 1968-2003 (History and Public Policy Program, October 2011), 2.

[4] Ibid., 9.

[5] Kyle Orton, “Saddam and the Islamists, Part 2,” The Syrian Intifada, 2015, Accessed May 25, 2016, https://kyleorton1991.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/saddam-and-the-islamists-part-2/.

[6] Salafi literally refers to “pious ancestors” and is essentially a very conservative form of Islam, commonly practiced by Sunni jihadi groups in Iraq today.

[7] Orton, “Saddam and the Islamists, Part 2.”

[8] Patrick Cockburn, “Life under Isis: The Everyday Reality of Living in the Islamic ‘Caliphate’ with Its 7th Century Laws, Very Modern Methods and Merciless Violence,” The Independent, Accessed May 25, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/life-under-isis-the-everyday-reality-of-living-in-the-islamic-caliphate-with-its-7th-century-laws-10109655.html.

[9] Stephen F. Hayes, “Saddam’s Terror Training Camps,” Weekly Standard, January 16, 2006, Accessed May 25, 2016, http://www.weeklystandard.com/article/7738.

[10] “Amnesty International, 2001 Annual Report on Iraq,” Amnesty International, July 10, 2001. Accessed May 25, 2016, http://www.atour.com/news/international/20010710l.html.

[11] “فدائي صدام يأكلون ذئب (Fedayeen Saddam Eating a Wolf),” YouTube, 2009, Accessed May 25, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VuN7bns9Nk.

[12] Aaron Zelin and Karl Moran, “Saddam’s Regime: From Baathism to Salafism.” Jihadology (audio blog), September 17, 2015, Accessed May 25, 2016, http://jihadology.net/2015/09/17/jihadology-podcast-saddams-regime-from-baathism-to-salafism/.

[13] “Most of Islamic State’s Leaders Were Officers in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.” Washington Post, April 4, 2015, Accessed May 25, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/most-of-islamic-states-leaders-were-officers-in-saddam-husseins-iraq/2015/04/04/f3d2da00-db24-11e4-b3f2-607bd612aeac_graphic.html.

[14] Kyle Orton, “How Saddam Hussein Gave Us ISIS.” The New York Times, December 22, 2015, Accessed May 25, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/23/opinion/how-saddam-hussein-gave-us-isis.html.

[15] Kyle Orton, “Saddam Hussein’s Regime Produced the Islamic State.” The Syrian Intifada (blog), April 21, 2015, Accessed May 25, 2016, https://kyleorton1991.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/saddam-husseins-regime-produced-the-islamic-state/.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Wendy Pearlman, “Beyond the Uprisings.” Lecture, Politics of the Middle East, Northwestern University, Evanston, May 09, 2016.

[18] Michele Penner Angrist, Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East, (Colorado: Rienner, 2013), 288.

[19] Tim Arango, “Iraqis Who Fled Mosul Say They Prefer Militants to Government,” The New York Times, June 12, 2014, Accessed May 25, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/13/world/middleeast/iraqis-fled-mosul-for-home-after-militant-group-swarmed-the-city.html.

[20] Liz Sly, “The Hidden Hand behind the Islamic State Militants? Saddam Hussein’s,” Washington Post, April 4, 2015, Accessed May 25, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/the-hidden-hand-behind-the-islamic-state-militants-saddam-husseins/2015/04/04/aa97676c-cc32-11e4-8730-4f473416e759_story.html?postshare=9961428197995258.

[21] Baram, From Militant Secularism to Islamism: The Iraqi Ba’th Regime 1968-2003, 25.

[22] Scholars differ as to whether Saddam ever became a true believer in what he enforced. Baram makes the argument that near the end of his life he began to resemble a believer based on his speeches in closed-door meetings and the writings of those close to him. Helfont maintains that Saddam’s use of Islam was purely pragmatic and that he always remained cynical about religion.

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