Religious Toleration Under Saddam? Really?

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

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 the 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.

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.

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.


15, 2005

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