The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reopened debates about the origins of the Islamic State as well as the more politically contentious question of who is to blame for it. Some analysts argue that Saddam Hussein turned to militant Islamism in the 1990s and used institutions such as the Saddam University for Islamic Studies to radicalize people like al-Baghdadi.

However, recent scholarship generally suggests that the chaos of post-2003 Iraq played a much more important role than Hussein’s Baathist regime in shaping the violent tendencies of people like al-Baghdadi.

Was al-Baghdadi radicalized by Saddam Hussein?

While Hussein and the Baathists did promote religion in the 1990s, most famously as part of a national “Faith Campaign” in which he built mosques and expanded religious education, my own research with Iraqi archives, including a recent book, shows that the regime adhered to Arab nationalist interpretations of Islam, which were ardently anti-Islamist.

Hussein was a brutal dictator, but he was not an Islamist. The regime did support some Islamists abroad when it was politically convenient, but it did so while suppressing Islamism at home. My work demonstrates that the regime’s promotion of religion in the 1990s stemmed from its growing control over Iraq’s religious landscape and its increasing ability to shape religious narratives in the country.

The “Faith Campaign” was not a shift toward Islamism and religious extremism as many outsiders assumed before the opening of the regime’s archives. Rather, it was launched to fight those phenomena.

Institutions restrained radicalism

My research cites the regime’s records showing that the purpose of Saddam University for Islamic Studies in the 1990s was to fight “the intellectual campaign and the creed of the Islamists.” Al-Baghdadi was no moderate in the 1990s, but as the political science literature shows, the opportunity to organize is a key factor in turning ideas into action. Institutions like the Saddam University for Islamic Studies restrained people like him. He turned to militancy and violence during the mayhem of post-2003 Iraq and in the extremist breeding grounds of American-run detention centers like Camp Bucca.

My work is part of a “new generation” of archival-based studies on Iraq, which has consistently shown that the Baathist state was anti-Islamist, did not adhere to the austere interpretation of Islam known as Salafism, and was less sectarian than popular narratives suggested.

One recent book uses statistical analysis to show that sectarian divisions cannot explain who benefited from Hussein’s policies. In contrast to popular narratives depicting Hussein ruling on behalf of a sectarian Sunni regime at the expense of Iraq’s Shiite majority, the book found that some Shiite communities actually fared better than some Sunni communities.

These quantitative findings largely confirm the observations of other scholars who have examined the former regime’s records. These works demonstrate a clear distinction between Hussein’s policies and the militant sectarianism of al-Baghdadi’s Salafi-Islamism.

New research on Iraq provides lessons on the past, present and future

Over the past decade, while other Middle Eastern states have become less accessible for scholars, extensive fieldwork was conducted in Iraq, especially by young Iraqi scholars. Additionally, the opening of captured Baathist archives made an enormous trove of detailed regime records available to scholars.

Such documentation is unprecedented for modern Arab states. This new reality produced truly revolutionary scholarship and transformed what we know about Iraq. A recent edited volume revisits subjects such as de-Baathification, militant militias, sexual violence and the relationship between religion and state that have haunted Iraq over the past decades. These are all critical topics for understanding the emergence of groups such as the Islamic State.

Just as importantly, this new research on Iraq’s past and present also shows how sectarian narratives are being overcome, how women can use existing institutions to fight for equality, and how religious leaders can help stabilize the country. This type of work is critical if Iraq is going to find peace after decades of conflict.

As debates about al-Baghdadi show, the new wave of scholarship on Iraq is not only exciting from a scholarly perspective, it also has an important role to play politically in the United States. Popular narratives that exonerate the United States from responsibility for the chaos of post-2003 Iraq and the emergence of groups like ISIS prevent a true reckoning with the lasting damage of the Iraq War. In doing so, they make future wars more likely.

Samuel Helfont is an assistant professor in the Naval War College’s program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He is the author of “Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018).

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government.