The title of Samuel Helfont’s Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq derives from the Qur’anic phrase “there is no compulsion in religion” (Q. 2:256). While to many this statement reads like a declaration of universal religious freedom, early Muslim scholars tended to interpret it more restrictively. For some, including the leading judge in late Umayyad Syria, the verse was understood to have been abrogated by other verses enjoining warfare against unbelievers. For others, its meaning was that Christians and Jews who agreed to pay the poll-tax (jizya) should not be compelled to convert. Helfont’s book is not concerned with any of this. Its subject is rather Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq from 1979 to 2003, and his engagement with—and manipulation of—the Iraqi religious sphere during his years in power. As the title suggests, Saddam’s policies were entirely at odds with the plain sense of the Qur’anic verse. From the beginning of his tenure, Saddam set out to dominate the religious landscape and to enforce a certain version of Islam on Iraqi society, as Helfont relates in detail. The story of these efforts has not been told before.
Helfont’s book is one of several recent studies to make extensive use of the vast trove of Iraqi documents captured following the Iraq war in 2003. These documents include, most importantly for Helfont, the more than ten million pages of the Ba‘th Party Regional Command held at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. With access to this unique source material, scholars have been hard at work refining and challenging conventional narratives regarding Ba‘thist Iraq. It has been shown, for instance, that the state was far less sectarian in its inner workings than previously believed and that the regime’s system of control was as much about rewards as punishments. Compulsion in Religion forms a significant contribution to this more general effort. It flashes a revisionist spirit throughout, as indicated by the phrases “contrary to popular portrayals” and “the regime’s internal documents tell a different story.”
The narrative that Helfont’s book aims to contest is that Saddam’s approach to religion underwent dramatic change over the course of his rule. (A recent book by the Israeli scholar Amatzia Baram, published in 2014, fleshes out this narrative at length.) From the outset, on this telling, Saddam’s policies were secular and even anti-religious in orientation. In the 1990s, however, the leader reversed course, launching a sweeping campaign to promote Islam in the public sphere. This “Faith Campaign,” as it was dubbed, saw the construction of numerous mosques and the introduction of mandatory Islamic education for Ba‘thist officials, among many other initiatives. Saddam himself, it is even said by some, discovered a newfound piety during this period. According to Helfont, these notions break down rather quickly when one examines the Ba‘th Party archive. Properly considered, Saddam’s religious policies betray more continuity than change. There was no “ideological shift,” he argues, away from secular Arabnationalism and toward Islam—and certainly not toward Islamism, of which Saddam remained wary till the end. The Islam that he energetically promoted in the 1990s and after was the same Ba‘thist version that he had sponsored on a lesser scale in the years before. What appeared as a sudden change in the 1990s was in fact an escalation of preexisting policies, enabled by a growing capacity on the part of the regime to exert control in the religious sphere.