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.
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.
Under his "faith campaign," begun in 1994, government money goes to promote mandatory Qur'an studies in schools. The campaign built training centers for imams (Muslim teachers), including Saddam College (for Iraqis) and Saddam University of Islamic Studies (for foreigners). Radio stations were dedicated to airing Qur'anic lessons, and alcohol was banned in restaurants. Even Baath party officials began taking courses in the Qur'an, and in the ubiquitous murals of the Iraqi leader, Saddam himself was often shown in prayer.
Mosque attendance had begun to increase when the sanctions were first imposed; it continued to rise, and more women began wearing veils. Contests in Qur'an recitation were held, with cash prizes given to the best reciters.
The "faith campaign" also encouraged mosque-building; Hussein himself planned to construct three gigantic mosques, which do as much to commemorate his regime as they do to honor the Prophet. The first one built, the "Mother of All Battles" (see photo), opened in 2001. Its Scud-shaped minarets, 37 meters high (Hussein was born in 1937), surround a central structure where a 605-page Qur'an is encased in glass. According to Iraqi officials, Hussein donated 50 pints of blood over three years to mix with ink for the book.
Has the faith campaign worked? Some Muslim leaders, especially in Baghdad, think Hussein was indeed "born again," and that his campaign reflects genuine religious conviction. But most are skeptical that Iraqis--especially the Shiites Hussein has traditionally oppressed--will rally behind Hussein as the charismatic religious leader he's presented to the public.