The U.S. Encouragement of Fanatic Islamism in the Arab World

A beautiful essay posted on, entitled “A Marine in Syria: Silhouettes of Beauty and Coexistence before the Devastation” by Brad Hoff, draws our attention to what for the warmongers in Washington is a highly inconvenient truth: the secular dictatorships in the Middle East the U.S. has sought to destroy since 9/11 (including most recently that of Libya) have been far more tolerant towards religious and cultural diversity than the regimes that have replaced them.

In particular, the much-vilified Baath Party, which governed Iraq during the Saddam years and continues to govern Syria, was and is based upon the principle of secularism (non-religious, relatively religiously tolerant) rule.

Hoff, who “served” (as they say) as a Marine in Iraq between 2000 and 2004, first visited Syria in 2004 in order to study Arabic. He describes his surprise at how the experience challenged the “false assumptions” about the Arab world acquired during his “Texas Baptist childhood.” Describing Damascus in 2004 under Bashar Assad’s Baathist rule he writes:

“What I actually encountered were mostly unveiled women wearing European fashions and sporting bright makeup — many of them wearing blue jeans and tight fitting clothes that would be commonplace in American shopping malls on a summer day. I saw groups of teenage boys and girls mingling in trendy cafes late into the night, displaying expensive cell phones. There were plenty of mosques, but almost every neighborhood had a large church or two with crosses figured prominently in the Damascus skyline. As I walked near the walled “old city” section, I was surprised to find entire streets lined with large stone and marble churches. At night, all of the crosses atop these churches were lit up — outlined with blue fluorescent lighting, visible for miles; and in some parts of the Damascus skyline these blue crosses even outnumbered the green-lit minarets of mosques.

“Just as unexpected as the presence of prominent brightly lit churches, were the number of restaurant bars and alcohol kiosks clustered around the many city squares. One could get two varieties of Syrian-made beer, or a few international selections like Heineken or Amstel, with relative ease. The older central neighborhoods, as well as the more upscale modern suburbs had a common theme: endless numbers of restaurants filled with carefree Syrians, partying late into the night with poker cards, boisterous discussion, alcohol, hookah smoke, and elaborate oriental pastries and desserts. I got to know local Syrians while frequenting random restaurants during my first few weeks in Damascus. I came into contact with people representative of Syria’s ethnically and religiously diverse urban centers: Christians, Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians, and even a few self-declared Arab atheists. The characterization of Syrian city life that increasingly came to my mind during my first, and many subsequent visits and extended stays, was of Syria a consciously secular society when compared to other countries in the region.”

Much of this description might have applied to Baghdad as well, before the ruinous U.S. invasion of 2003 based on lies and the subsequent occupation. The latter forcibly disbanded the Baath Party of Iraq. It destroyed the regime that had appointed a Christian (Tariq Aziz) as Foreign Minister and Deputy Vice President; refurbished the Baghdad synagogue; authorized liquor shops and bars; endorsed female education through the graduate level; supported the Iraq National Symphony Orchestra and promoted rock ‘n roll radio stations. During the years of Baath rule in Iraq (1963-2003) mixed marriages between Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Christians and others became common; mixed neighborhoods were the norm; and the regime’s often brutal repressive actions were largely directed towards activists opposed to secularism and favoring some form of Islamic rule.

Nowadays of course, anyone paying attention knows that the worst sort of Shiite fanatics control one part of Iraq, ethnically cleansing neighborhoods, driving out Christians and intellectuals, imposing a dress code, shutting down liquor and video stores, discouraging women from attending college. Meanwhile the worst sort of Sunni fanatics control Anbar province and adjoining areas to the north, beheading and crucifying, enslaving and forcing conversions.

Is it not apparent what even many anti-Baathists are now saying matter-of-factly: Things were better under Saddam Hussein?

There is no doubt that the Shiite majority population under the old regime were oppressed in many ways. The Baathists sometimes banned the Shiites’ traditional annual Karbala pilgrimage march, thinking it might produce violent demonstrations against the regime. Saddam was (perhaps) responsible for the murder of Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadden al-Sadr, revered father of the currently powerful Muqtada al-Sadr, in 1999. (But for what it’s worth, Saddam condemned the murder and vowed to hunt down the perpetrators, while calling for Sunni-Shiite unity).

In the wake of the U.S. destruction of the Baath Party, the secular Iraqi national army, and the modern state itself, self-defined representatives of the Shiite majority assumed power with U.S. support while a broad section of the Sunni Arab minority (Kurdish Sunnis being a separate matter) found themselves suddenly unemployed, without income, denied any significant role in the new order. The Sunnis had held a privileged position in Iraqi society since the early 1920s when British colonialists had decided to impose a Sunni king (of the Saudi Hashemite line) on the arbitrary chunk of real estate they’d carved out of the defeated Ottoman Empire that they decided to call Iraq. (Meanwhile the French created Syria, for a time privileging the Alawite minority in their colony, which helps to explain the power structure in that country today.)

To get a sense of the brutality of the British conquest of Iraq, achieved through the suppression of the Iraqi Revolt (or Great Iraqi Revolution) of 1920, it is enough to note that between 6,000 and 10,000 Iraqis were killed and the British seriously considered using mustard gas to suppress resistance. Winston Churchill positively advocated it at the time.

From 1921 to 1958, the British-installed monarchy of foreign origin beholden to Anglo-American imperialism ruled over Iraq, meeting with consistent opposition from the Shiites and Kurds who represent well over 60% of the population. In 1958 a group of nationalist military officers led by Abd al-Karim Qasim seized power. Qasim’s regime angered Washington and London by withdrawing from the Baghdad Pact (an anti-communist military alliance of the U.K., Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan supported by the U.S.); embracing Egypt’s pan-Arabist president Nasser; establishing cordial ties with the USSR; legalizing the Communist Party of Iraq (which became the largest communist party in the Middle East) and demanding a 55% share in the profits of the Anglo-American owned Iraq Petroleum Company.

In 1959, the U.S. sought to engineer Qasim’s downfall, employing among others the young Saddam Hussein (then 22), who following a failed CIA-backed plot to assassinate Qasim fled to Cairo. There he remained in touch with his CIA patrons until the successful Baathist coup in 1963. Thereafter Saddam was in charge of the roundup and execution of Iraqi communists, gradually inching his way towards the presidency of the country in 1979.

The U.S. supported the Baathist Party at that time, as the only viable alternative to the Communists or the Islamists. Yes, it maintained the friendly relationship with the Soviet Union, and yes, it emphatically opposed the Israeli settler-state. But the relationship with the Baathists was useful to Washington—no more so than when, following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, Iraq invaded its neighbor in an effort to produce the regime change that the U.S. so deeply craved. Who having seen them can forget those photos of Donald Rumsfeld in Baghdad in 1983, smiling and shaking hands with Saddam as they discussed U.S. military aid including the provision of chemical weapons?

The U.S. had, at the behest of Israel, placed Iraq on its black list of “terror-sponsoring nations” but the Reagan administration removed it in 1982 to allow for greater trade and military support. When Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, the U.S. uncharacteristically joined the entire UN in condemning the aggression.

Of course, meanwhile, even as it allied itself with the Iraqi Baathists against the Shiite Islamists of Iran, the U.S. nurtured its closest Arab ties with Saudi Arabia, homeland of Sunni Islamism. If by “Islamism” we mean political Islam fired by an insistence on applying Sharia law, Saudi Arabia is of course the most striking example. While fearing the rise of Islamism elsewhere (for reasons which are now quite apparent to many people) Washington wedded itself to the Saudi regime.

This is an absolute monarchy dedicated to a Salafi version of Islam that makes no pretensions to any kind of democratic aspirations. There is no freedom of speech, press, assembly, conscience. The Shiite minority (maybe 20%) is grudgingly tolerated as a community of second-class citizens. Religious indoctrination is the crux of education. There are no open Christians in Saudi Arabia and to convert means death. (The many Filipinos and other Christians in the country as temporary workers may worship privately in their homes, but not hold services. Last September police from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice raided the home of an Indian Christian in Khafji, arresting 38 attending a prayer meeting and confiscating their bibles.)

Saudi women have few rights other than those accorded by thousand-year-old laws; as is well known, they are forbidden to drive or venture out into society without the company of male relatives and most be covered head to toe on such occasions. People convicted of crimes are maimed, stoned to death or beheaded every year. In short, Saudi Arabia is almost everything the U.S. deplores in the Taliban or ISIL.

But the U.S. never undertakes to do what it might surely do at the drop of a hat: issue a devastating condemnation of the country as a human rights disaster far more egregious than anything seen in modern Iraq—or in Syria, which Obama seems determined to wreck just as his predecessor wrecked Baathist Iraq!

The reason for this is simple. Saudi Arabia with 16% of the world’s proved oil resources insures the supply of cheap oil to the west and Japan in return for U.S. military support. (Among the uses of U.S. supplied weaponry: the suppression of the “Arab Spring” demonstrations in Shiite-majority Bahrain against the absolute monarchy in 2013, to insure the Sunni king maintained control over the country that hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and the current Saudi attack on neighboring Yemen to crush the Shiite-led challenge to the U.S.-backed pro-Saudi, pro-U.S. dictatorship.)

It pays to spend some time studying the history of these places—something U.S. secretaries of state seem uniquely incapable of doing. (Why bother them with dead facts, after all, while they’re hell-bent on making history themselves?) But if we do make the effort we realize that the Baathist movement (which rose to power in Iraq and Syria and has been a presence in Jordan and Yemen) arose in the 1940s under the leadership of a Sorbonne-educated Syrian Christian named Michel Aflaq, who while deeply respectful of the historical role of Islam in the formation of Arab culture, opposed the union of the mosque and state and promoted religious pluralism. This is what Brad Hoff witnessed in Damascus.

Aflaq partnered with a Syrian Sunni activist, son of a grain merchant, named Salah al-Din al-Bitar, and with Alawi Shiites associated with the philosopher and historian Zaki al-Arsuzi. Their Arab Baath Movement, which became the Arab Baath Party in 1947, was a Pan-Arabist, secular, modernizing movement—the opposite of fundamentalist Islam. Its achievements in Iraq include the fact that before the U.S. invasion Iraq boasted the best national education system in the Arab world, the highest number of PhDs, and the highest rate of female education. But the U.S. has crushed Baathism in Iraq. Now it is aiming at the Syrian variant, and in the process repeating its toxic achievement in Iraq.

That is to say, the U.S. by attacking precisely those secular forces that have most opposed the horrors of religious fanaticism—realizing, as they are best placed to do, its horrific potential—are actually working in tandem with the fanatics to inflict incomprehensible suffering.

What if a series of U.S. administrations (influenced to say the least by Israel and its powerful Lobby) hadn’t come to view Baathism as a greater enemy than Islamic fanaticism? What if the U.S. occupiers of Iraq had allowed the party to compete in elections and represent its traditional constituents? What if, instead of declaring Assad’s regime “illegitimate” (as though Obama can be any judge of such things) Washington had stayed out of the Syrian conflict since 2011 altogether?

“What if” history is a tricky business. We can’t turn back the hand of time and experimentally do things over again. Still, I think it difficult to imagine ISIL in its lightning rise to power over much of the Middle East, frying people alive in cages, crucifying, beheading, burying alive and enslaving, hacking to bits 3000-year-old artworks and world heritage monuments, if George W. Bush and his team hadn’t responded to 9/11 with an all-out assault on the most modernizing, secular forces in the Arab world, in alliance with some of the most backward.

If the groups of teenage boys and girls Hoff once saw in Damascus “mingling in trendy cafes late into the night,” wind up crucified, beheaded, buried alive or merely blown to bits—or even just consigned to lives of unparalleled oppression—we should know who to thank. If the ISIL or al-Nusra thugs smash the treasures of the National Museum and Historical Museum in Damascus, or blow up the glorious ruins of Palmyra, we should know where to point the finger. Barbaric though such actions may be, they pale before the horrific crime of the U.S. invasion of this region twelve years ago. It opened Pandora’s Box, which has unleashed nothing but death and evil ever since.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: