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JMD on NBN: Samuel Helfont's Compulsion in Religion...


Compulsion in Religion

Saddam Hussein, Islam and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq


October 1, 2018 James M. Dorsey

Samuel Helfont‘s Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) makes an invaluable contribution to an understanding of Iraqi strongman’s Saddam Hussein harnessing of Islam in support of his Baathist regime and ideology and to ensure that Islam as a social institution is incapable of turning against him. In doing so, Helfont also contributes to the understanding of the dynamics of religious legitimization of autocratic and illiberal regimes that is at the core of struggles in countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Helfont’s well-written, easily accessible book benefits from access to documents of Saddam Hussein’s government and Baath Party that were captured by US and opposition forces in the wake of the 2003 US invasion and have been unavailable until recently. Helfont also positions religion as a social force that represents both an opportunity and an asset to autocratic leaders who on the one hand garner legitimacy by identification with the faith but also need to ensure that it does not emerge as the motor of opposition or resistance. Helfont further demonstrates that in contrast to the immense infrastructure that Saddam rolled out to bend Islam to his will and interpretation, US forces underestimated the degree of social control that he exerted and lacked the institutional and intelligence capacity to manage religious sentiment in the wake of his overthrow. The breakdown in social control explains, at least in part, the religious insurgencies the US confronted in Iraq since 2003. With his analysis of the management of religion by Saddam and the breakdown after his fall, Helfont has made an important contribution to the study of Iraq.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

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