Piety on Parade | Freedom House

Piety on Parade

The Wall Street Journal By Adrian B. Karatnycky
In a recent speech to the Iraqi people on the occasion of the Day of the Army, Saddam Hussein invoked the name of "Allah" 41 times and used the word "faith" 19. Does this mean that a man long notorious for his militantly secular views has suddenly found religion? It's not very likely. The pious tones suggest that Saddam desperately hopes to reinvent himself, in the public eye, as a devout Muslim.

The prospect of war seems to have hurried along this transformation. Of late Saddam has proclaimed his deep devotion to Islam, appearing in mosques and having posters displayed in Baghdad that show him dressed in traditional robes, absorbed in religious devotion and prayer. The Iraqi media regularly remind the public of the blood ties between Saddam and the prophet Muhammad, which were conveniently "discovered" only a few years ago.

This was not the way it used to be. From the moment he seized power in 1979, Saddam Hussein steered his country in the direction of secularism. His political ideology -- Baathism -- is indeed a secular amalgam of pan-Arabism and state socialism. Until recently, Islamic belief was relegated to the fringes of Iraqi society and the utterances of its clerics were closely monitored, with open dissent rewarded by death.

The Gulf War of 1991 was arguably the first inspiration for Saddam's religious awakening. He was then newly isolated and feeling the pressure of international sanctions, and the authoritarian Soviet bloc regimes -- his traditional sources of support -- had recently collapsed. He needed a way to bolster his legitimacy and co-opt potential opponents. Islamization was one answer.

In 1999, the process firmly took hold with a campaign called Ahlamlalamaniyah, or the Enhancement of Islamic Belief. Saddam imposed restrictions on gambling and public drinking and set up an all-Quran radio station. He gave Muslim clerics a growing share of air time on television and made Islam a compulsory subject in Iraq's high schools. Most visibly, Saddam decided to commit state resources to a major construction campaign -- building mosques. Last year, 30 mosques were completed in Baghdad alone. Ten more are under construction.

The most impressive of the mosques is the Mother of All Battles, which opened in 2001. It features a series of internal minarets fashioned (literally) out of missile shells and topped with spirals that resemble Scud missiles. These rise 37 meters in height -- about 40 yards -- and are meant to symbolize 1937, the year of Saddam's birth; there are four of them, representing the month of birth (April), and the 28 jets of water in a pool outside signify Saddam's birthdate. In an inner sanctum sits a 605-page Quran in which the calligraphy is said to have been executed in Saddam's blood. According to mosque officials, the Iraqi leader donated more than 50 pints for the effort.

Does this sound grand enough? Perhaps not. Saddam has set into motion an even bigger project: the Mosque of Saddam the Great. Due to be completed around 2015, it is intended to be the second largest house of prayer in the Muslim world, after a mosque in Mecca, and is supposed to hold 45,000 believers.

But even as Saddam pays lip service to Islam, and constructs mosques, he continues to suppress religious expression. A Sunni Muslim by birth, he has systematically punished Shiite clerics suspected of disloyalty, and a number of prominent Shiite leaders -- including a grand ayatollah -- have been executed in recent years.

Saddam clearly is aware that by giving space to Islam -- figuratively and otherwise -- he risks creating new centers of opposition to his tyranny. Thus his Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs exercises tight control over religion in Iraq, monitoring houses of worship, appointing clergy and approving the publication of all religious literature. Mosques remain closed except at prayer time and a brief period before and after, thus limiting the possibility of their becoming independent places of discussion and dissent.

Saddam, of course, is not the first tyrant to turn cynically to religion in a bid to bolster support. During World War II, as he faced the threat of defeat, the atheist Josef Stalin made the Orthodox Church, whose independent hierarchy he had exterminated, into a pliant tool. Saddam, whose Baath Party has emulated the Soviet Communist Party, is now building on Stalin's techniques.

Mr. Karatnycky is a senior scholar at Freedom House.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

Join us on Facebook and Twitter (freedomhouse). Stay up to date with Freedom House’s latest news and events by signing up for our newsletter.