Religious Toleration Under Saddam? Really?
Jude Wanniski
January 14, 2005


Memo To: Gail Collins, NYT Editpage Editor
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Another Iraqi Myth

Dear Gail: Your Tuesday lead editorial, “Facing Facts About Iraq's Election” is in many ways just fine, arguing that the elections scheduled for Jan. 30 should be postponed if there is any chance the delay could bring greater participation -- by those who are now boycotting them or actively threatening to disrupt them. I read with interest until I got to the fourth paragraph, which indicated your editorial writer has been misled about the relationships of the various religious groups during Ba’ath Party rule:

Worrying about whether the Sunnis will be included in the government does not mean sympathizing with their baser resentments. Under Saddam Hussein, the Sunni minority reaped almost all of the good things Iraq had to offer while trampling on the rights of the Shiites and Kurds. Those days are over, and the Sunnis simply have to accept the fact that they will never again enjoy their old enormous share of the pie. But if Iraq is to start moving beyond its long history of communal hostility, the Shiites need to demonstrate that they will not treat the Sunnis the way the Sunnis treated them.

If there is anything I learned about the Ba’ath Party’s rule during the last three decades is that it was almost fanatically secular. After all, it had come to power in 1968 when its leaders overthrew the military regime that had overthrown the Hashemite monarchy after the '67 war between Israel and Egypt. The Hashemites had controlled the levers of power by linking the interests of the Shi’ite and Sunni religious leaders with the merchant establishment and Kurdish Agas. They oversaw the baking of the national economic pie and divided it among themselves, with the underclass living on such scraps as they could contrive. The Ba’ath Party represented the underclass with socialist promises that they made good on, especially as the oil money flowed in during the 1970s and 1980s.

There was total religious tolerance under Saddam when he came to effective power in 1974, with the one exception that religious leaders could not play politics. On that rule, he was merciless, which meant if a Muslim cleric of any kind stepped out of political line he could expect imprisonment or worse. As I recall, Saddam prohibited the use of the traditional appended tribal surname so your name could not reveal whether you were Sunni, Shi’ite, Turkmen or Kurd. Roughly 7% of the population was Christian and enjoyed all the benefits of the Islamic population. The ousted deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, is a Catholic, and there have always been Kurds (who are Sunni but not Arab) in senior political and military positions.

Tom Friedman, your foreign affairs columnist, three years back reported that Saddam had driven the Jews out of Iraq and not a one remained. I had to point out to him that the roughly 200,000 Jews in Iraq, who had enjoyed more religious tolerance than in any other Arab country, left of their own volition after the 1967 war – albeit encouraged to do so by the regime the Ba’ath Party overthrew and by Israel, which initiated "Operation Flying Carpet" to bring Iraqi Jews to the homeland. There are still two synagogues in Iraq and the several dozen Jews who remained have given interviews, including to reporters for the Times, with nothing bad to say about Saddam even after he was gone from the scene.

The kind of religious freedom we enjoy of course has never prohibited American men of the cloth from playing politics, but your editorial saying Saddam “trampled on the rights of Shi’ites and Kurds” gives a much more malodorous impression. If your reporters did any digging at all, they would soon discover that Iraqi Kurds enjoyed far more rights than the other Kurds of the region, those in Turkey and Iran. Saddam treated them generously, for example permitting them to use their own language where they could not in the other two countries, permitting them to wear their traditional cultural garb, and accepting their leaders into the ruling class. When war did come with Iran in 1980 more than 85% of the Kurds fought in support of Baghdad.

The idea of socialist, secular regimes wishing to limit the political activities of religious organizations is not unusual. The USSR of course outlawed all organized religion, but the Chinese Communists permitted religious freedom in the early years after the 1949 revolution. They got tough in the mid-1950s when Chinese Catholics became active during religious meetings in questioning Beijing. Even then, if Catholic priests pledged to remain free of Vatican influence, they were permitted to conduct services. The Vatican, remember, has never recognized Beijing and is among the handful of political subdivisions that recognizes Taiwan. Behind-the-scenes negotiations have been going on in recent years between the Vatican and Beijing and I expect those difference will be ironed out in the next few years.

To say that Saddam and the Ba’ath Party were merciless in their crackdowns on Shi’ite political activities does not mean there were no carrots in Saddam’s quiver. Under his direction, government revenues were routinely directed at building Shi’ite mosques and handing out perks to Shi’ite imams. When the CIA promoted the Shi’ite uprising against Saddam in 1992, after the Gulf War, hoping to topple him, only a minority of Shi’ite leaders in south joined in the effort. I likened Saddam to a Democratic machine politician, like the legendary Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, who used government largesse to oil the squeaky wheels. I remember a report that favored Shi’ite leaders were driving around in Lincoln Continentals supplied by Baghdad. When Ayatollah Khomeini effectively declared war against the secular Saddam in 1979 following the revolution against the Shah, Saddam reportedly raced around Iraq in Shi'ite religious garb, to show he was not such a bad fellow.

If you stop and give it a moment’s thought, Gail, you would ask yourself how Saddam could possibly have remained in power for all these years without having some political skills. Had he trampled on the Shi’ites and the Kurds, as you say, they surely would not have rallied to his side in the eight-year war with Iran. And what are the “insurgents” doing now in fighting against the U.S. occupying power is to prevent elections that would put a Shi’ite theocracy in power with more allegiance to Iran than to the nationalist aspirations of the Iraqi people. The way things are going, Gail, I think you might have to face the fact that if there were genuine presidential elections now, and Saddam was free to throw his hat in the ring, he would swamp the likes of Allawi and Chalabi and the Iranian sympathizers who call themselves Iraqis -- Mssrs. Talibani and Barzani, Kurds who fought against Baghdad in the war.

There is a whole lot more to this story than I can share with you at the moment, Gail, but the news is out there for the gathering. You’ve been more or less on the right track and your heart is in the right place. But you still need to shed some preconceptions about what’s been going on in Iraq over the last several decades and where things are now.

Sincerely, Jude