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President George W. Bush
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Exploiting Islam

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Saddam Hussein tries to harness feelings of solidarity among Muslims to his advantage. By portraying himself as a devout believer and invoking the name of Allah in his struggles with the international community, he seeks to frame his conflicts as an Islamic struggle and fashion himself as standard-bearer for Muslims. Images of Saddam in prayer or extolling Saddam’s dedication to Islam appear on billboards in Iraq and are circulated in pictures, publications, and videos.

One 1990 analysis concluded, "In recent years, the Baathists have not hesitated to exploit religion as a mobilizing agent; and from the first months of the war with Iran, prominent Baathists have made a public show of attending religious observances. Saddam Hussein is depicted in prayer on posters displayed across the country. Moreover, the Baath Party has provided large sums of money to refurbish important mosques."22 This is a departure from the secular origins of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Baathists view Islam as a product of Arab culture and a bridge to pan-Arabism, and until 1990, Iraq was the only officially secular state in the region. Over time, the personality of Saddam Hussein has supplanted Baath Party doctrine, but one factor has not changed: The key figures in Iraq’s regime and ruling party remain non-religious or even non-believers.

November 2002: Women in Baghdad wait for a cab in front of a mural of Saddam Hussein in prayer.
[AP/Wide World]

According to Daily Telegraph (London) editor Con Coughlin, author of King of Terror: A Biography of Saddam Hussein, in a November 8, 2002, interview with CNN American Morning:

"Saddam is an opportunist. He's not really a devout Muslim. But when it suits him, he portrays himself as a Muslim leader. And I think when your correspondents go to Baghdad, they see all these pictures of Saddam the nation builder, the general; Saddam the religious leader."

In reporting on the regime's lavish mosque-building program since the mid-1990s, while consumer goods and many necessities were in short supply or unavailable in Iraq, the Los Angeles Times quoted a European diplomat in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity:

"The people's well-being is not on the priority list of the regime. The regime is solely concerned with its own survival. A huge mosque-building scheme may help the formerly secular – almost atheist – and socialist regime to get more fully reincorporated into the family of the Arab nations, whereas the plight of a majority of the ordinary people can be used as its propaganda shield."23

The Hajj Shakedowns
Nowhere is the dichotomy between Saddam's religious rhetoric and practice more obvious than with the way he has treated faithful Iraqis seeking to make the Hajj. The Iraqi regime interferes with religious pilgrimages, both of Iraqi Muslims who wish to make the Hajj to Mecca and Medina and of Iraqi and non-Iraqi Muslim pilgrims who travel to holy sites within the country. Baghdad has refused all proposals for travel that did not involve direct payments to the government.

In 1998 the UN Sanctions Committee offered to disburse vouchers for travel and expenses to pilgrims making the Hajj, but the Government rejected this offer. Then again in 1999 the Sanctions Committee offered to disburse funds to cover Hajj-related expenses via a neutral third party; the Government again rejected the offer. Following the December 1999 passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1284, the Sanctions Committee proposed to issue $250 in cash and $1,750 in traveler’s checks to each individual pilgrim to be distributed at the UN office in Baghdad in the presence of both UN and Iraqi officials. The Government again declined and, consequently, no Iraqi pilgrims were able to take advantage of the available funds or of the permitted flights. The Government also has attempted to use pilgrimages to circumvent sanctions for its own financial benefit. In 2001 the Government continued to insist that UN-offered funds for Hajj pilgrims be deposited in the government-controlled central bank and placed under the control of government officials for disbursement rather than given to the pilgrims.24

The regime has imposed a variety of schemes to extract money from religious pilgrims by requiring them to pay fees directly to the Iraqi Central Bank. Estimates vary considerably, but it is clear that Saddam Hussein brings in millions of dollars annually in this way. According to the Coalition for International Justice:

"After refusing yet another UN plan to fund travel for the Hajj in 1999, Baghdad bused some 18,000 Iraqi pilgrims to the Saudi border, where they were encouraged to demonstrate and demand that the Saudis release frozen Iraqi funds to pay for their trip. Instead, King Fahd welcomed the Iraqi pilgrims and promised that Saudi Arabia would provide all arrangements free of charge. With no prospect of Saudi payments to the government from frozen funds or other sources, Saddam ordered the pilgrims back to Baghdad."

Images showing Saddam Hussein in acts of Muslim piety are widely disseminated in Iraq and other Muslim countries
Oppression of Shi'a Muslims
The hypocrisy of the supposed commitment of the Saddam Hussein regime to Islam is shown by its long oppression of the country's Shi'a Muslim majority. Restrictions on Shi'a Muslims include: placing conditions and outright bans on communal Friday prayer; prohibiting Shi'a mosque libraries to loan books; denying permission for Shi'a programs on government-controlled radio or television; banning Shi'a books, including prayer books and guides; banning many funeral processions and other funeral observances other than those organized by the government; and prohibiting certain processions and public meetings commemorating Shi'a holy days. Shi'a groups report capturing documents from the security services during the 1991 Shi'a uprising that listed thousands of forbidden Shi'a religious writings.

The Gulf War: Lies About Non-Muslim Militaries in the Middle East
During the Persian Gulf War, Saddam exploited the fact that non-Muslim troops were fighting Muslim Iraq, hoping to portray the war as a war against Islam. Iraq claimed that Islamic sites had been attacked, and appealing to Muslim suspicion of Western morality and Western attitudes toward Islam, Iraq asserted that coalition forces had desecrated holy sites and brought immorality to Saudi Arabia.

In assembling the international coalition, President George H.W. Bush cited the immorality and illegality of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and called for the liberation of the Kuwaiti people. The United Nations Security Council passed resolutions authorizing the use of force to liberate Kuwait. Iraq sought to undermine the idea that Americans and other Western members of the coalition were liberators of Kuwait and to exploit anxiety over the presence of armed outsiders on Arab soil. To achieve these ends, the Iraqi regime invented reports of crimes by Western military against ordinary Muslims or important national symbols. Some reports alleged that people had been killed or wounded while engaging in some act of anti-coalition protest, in an attempt to create the additional impression that opposition to the war was growing in the Arab or Muslim world. Some claims:

The Gulf War: Lies About Conflicts between Muslim and Western Allies
The coalition for Operation Desert Storm was a broad alliance of Western and non-Western countries, and the participation of many Muslim countries in the coalition deprived the Iraqi regime of the opportunity to frame the conflict as one between Islam and non-believers. In an effort to ignite opposition to the coalition in Arab and Muslim countries, the Iraqis invented tales of discord or outright conflict between Western and Muslim military personnel, using mostly covert action and state-run media. In these tales, Muslim-country militaries usually suffered some humiliation or loss of life at the hands of their Western allies before managing to kill a few of the alleged tormentors. None of these claims is true. Specific false claims included:

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