Saddam Plays the Faith Card

Many see the Iraqi leader's decade-long religious campaign as just another political ploy.

March 2003--He's peppered his speeches with references to Muslim scripture, built some of Baghdad's most opulent--and militant--mosques, and reportedly had a

Qur'an written in his blood

. Yet most commentators say Saddam Hussein is not religious. Rather, the once avowedly secular Iraqi leader has used Islam to increase support for his regime.

When he came to power 30 years ago, Hussein's Baath Party was identified with a strongly secular Arab nationalism. Despite some concessions to the Muslim faithful made during the Khomeini era--including Hussein's inventing a lineage that connected him to a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad--the regime downplayed religion in the public square. In Baghdad, for example, women were less likely to wear headscarves than in neighboring Middle Eastern countries.

Hussein's secularism also extended to Iraq's tiny Christian community. His regime was tolerant of church activity and has cracked down on anti-Christian flareups as recently as the fall of 2002.

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Himself a Sunni Muslim, Saddam has oppressed Shiite Muslims throughout his tenure as president. (Politically, the two sects are not unlike Catholics and Protestants in the West.) But he has made clear that his cause is not a sectarian one. In a 1978 speech following a Shiite uprising, Saddam argued that the party must "oppose the institutionalization of religion in the state and society...Let us return to the roots of our religion, glorifying them--but not introduce it into politics."

After the first Gulf War, pressure from several sides apparently forced him to rethink his policy. An embargo-weary populace was vulnerable to ultraconservative Muslim preachers from Iran and Saudi Arabia. To counter this influence, Hussein began manipulating religion for political ends. As anti-Western sentiment grew throughout the Middle East, he also saw in Islam a propaganda tool in his ongoing fight with the United States and the United Nations over his weapons programs.

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