Saddam Did Not Create ISIS

In his recent response to an article we wrote in Foreign Affairs, Amatzia Baram contests our claim that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein did not promote Islamism in Iraq. Baram’s criticisms are based on his book, Saddam Husayn and Islam, andsubsequent analyses of the topic, which posit that the policies of Saddam’s regime eventually gave us the Islamic State (ISIS). One of Baram’s key arguments is:

Even if Helfont and Brill accurately interpreted what was said within the party itself, they misunderstood the public face of the regime’s beliefs, or what it presented as its beliefs—critical evidence supporting Saddam’s Islamization efforts between 1993 and 2003.

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That point is crucial. Whatever the Baath leadership may have said internally or even publicly against Islamism, what ultimately influenced the Iraqi Sunni population the most were Saddam’s actual policies and how they were conveyed to the public.

But the notoriously closed nature of Saddam’s regime meant that without access to the millions of pages of internal regime records available at the Hoover Institution archives, researchers outside Iraq had an incomplete picture of what the regime “presented as its beliefs” to its population. These archives provide detailed documentation not only on internal discussions and reasoning, but also on “Saddam’s actual policies and how they were conveyed to the public.” Furthermore, it is one thing to dismiss the importance of sources after consulting them. It is quite another matter to dismiss sources without consulting them, especially when there is general agreement that they contradict one’s argument. Baram has not visited the Hoover archives himself, and yet, he disregards the importance of the archival work upon which our piece was based, claiming that we “put too much weight on the archives” and that we “ignore” open source records on the regime. For one thing, that is simply not true. Our work is also informed by and cites previously available open sources and thegeneration of scholarship based on them, to which Baram has madenumerous contributions. It is his lack of direct study of this archival material that has led him to make problematic claims about Saddam, the Baathist regime, and the emergence of ISIS.

Without examining one of the most important Baathist archives, which contains the overwhelming majority of available internal regime records, Baram then goes on to distort our arguments. Bizarrely, one of the key assertions he makes is that our “rigorous study” of the archives implied we “have carefully read all 11 million Arabic-language pages of the Baath archive at the Hoover Institute.” He then goes to some length to explain why this cannot be true, providing calculations to support his point. This is a straw man argument. We implied nothing of the sort. But we have made multiple trips to the archives over several years and spent months reading the records. Furthermore, as we showed in our original article, our findings are in line with those of other scholarswho have collectively spent years researching these archives. Altogether, this effort has produced a body of literature on the regime’s religious policies that consistently highlights that Saddam did not become an Islamist.

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