Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti
Born: April 28, 1937, in al-Awja, Tikrit, Iraq
Executed: December 30, 2006
Joined the Baath Party: 1956
Married his cousin, Sajida: 1958
Attempted Assassination of Iraqi Prime Minister: 1959
Aided in Baath Party Coup of Iraq: 1968
Seized Power in Iraq: 1979
Invaded Iran: 1980
Married Second Wife, his daughter's teacher Samira Shahbandar: 1984
Invaded Kuwait: 1990
Captured by U.S. forces: December 13, 2003
Born in a mud-brick house to a family of sheep-herders, Saddam Hussein rose to become one of the world's most brutal dictators of the latter-half of the 20th century. Key to this was his participation in the secular and nationalist Iraqi Baath party. Originally this party was united with a Syrian Baath party, but the two eventually split due to doctrinal differences. The Arabic word ba'th means "resurrection" or "renaissance" and is used here as a reference to the ideal of a renaissance of Arab power in the world a curious stance, given that the power they were striving for was secular while the historical power was constituted at least largely on the basis of religion. This secular/religious contradiction in Baathist ideology would play a role in Saddam Hussein's own rule.
Socialist and secular in nature, the Iraqi Baath party has a great deal in common with European fascist movements, both religious and secular, with its reliance on developing extremist national consciousness as a means of uniting the people against enemies, both internal and external. Islamist movements in the Arab world have much the same goal, though they base their political philosophy on Islamic religious ideology rather than secular socialism. The fact that both secular and religious ideologies can achieve popularity with the same goals despite being opposed to each other indicates that they are both are tapping into something important.
Saddam Hussein received law degrees from the University of Cairo and the University of Baghdad, with the latter occurring after a non-violent Baathist coup in Iraq. At this time Hussein served in various positions within the party and the government, but in 1979 when President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr announced his retirement, Hussein managed to assume the positions of Chairman and President, consolidating a great deal of power in his hands alone.
Saddam Hussein: Secular or Religious Ruler?
Saddam Hussein's popularity in the Muslim and Arab world varied greatly, depending upon whom one asked and what the political situation at the time was. Because of his repression of the religious Shi'ite minority in Iraq and his long war with Shi'ite Iran, it was difficult for Shi'ite Muslims to find anything good to say about Hussein. In addition, because of his staunch secularism and his secularization of Iraq, it was been difficult for devout and conservative Muslims of any type to think well of him.
On the other hand, Hussein was also one of the few Arab leaders to have been able to stand up to the West on a regular basis, asserting Iraqi and Arab independence from Western interests and power. This, rather than the brutal repression of his own people, was the point upon which many Arabs and Muslims focused the most. In a region which has had few powerful leaders to whom people could point with pride, Saddam Hussein became something of a folk hero.
As poor of a hero as he was, the lack of any better candidates assures him a position of respect and honor for Arabs and Muslims for generations to come. Usually Muslims are regarded by Westerners as putting religion above everything else, but here we have a clear example of many Muslims doing just the opposite: even though Saddam Hussein was staunchly secular, he can still be a hero among devout Muslims because of his political accomplishments. Is this merely a contradiction in some Muslims' worldview, or a sign that their politics is more complicated than Western critics normally give them credit for?
Saddam Hussein's conflicted relationship with religion has also created a conundrum for conservative critics in the West: should they condemn him as an example of what happens with Islam is allowed to control society, or should they condemn him as an example of what happens when a fully secular government is allowed to control society? Religious conservatives would like to attack both, but they can't attack both in the person of Saddam Hussein at the same time.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein was very secular and, as a consequence, there was far more freedom for women and non-Muslims than in most other Arab Muslim nations. In contrast to the religiously authoritarian direction which Iraq has taken under the American occupation, though, such secularism is a difficult target for criticism for religious conservatives who otherwise treat secular governments as inspired by the Antichrist. Indeed, it's not unusual to see religious conservatives complaining about events in Iraqi politics that they might otherwise praise in American politics.
On the other hand, Saddam Hussein only turned to religion near the end of his reign when he desperately needed anything that would bolster support. Conservative critics in the West have tended to focus on this, ignoring the fact that he was only using religion for political purposes - something we see in the West as well. Lumping Saddam Hussein with other Islamist leaders and movements is also likely to be inaccurate because Hussein himself was a frequent target of Islamist criticism for being too secular and not enforcing Islamic religious laws.
If anything Saddam Hussein and his rule can serve as a bad example both to secular atheists and to religious theists. First, he is a good example that a secular government cannot necessarily be trusted to be completely just or good and that removing religion from government will not necessarily lead to great improvements. Secularization means little without democratization and liberalization. Second, Saddam Hussein is also an example of how donning a cloak of religious piety will not automatically provide political legitimacy to a troubled, unpopular leader. Religious theists shouldn't trust a politician merely because they use the right religious language and proclaim their desire to serve religious tradition.
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