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  • Saddam Husayn and Islam, 1968–2003: Ba‘thi Iraq from Secularism to Faith by Amatzia Baram
  • Eric Davis (bio)
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.

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. [End Page 327]

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...