Here's a starter question that's crucial in both American strategy and international response: As the United States deals with Saddam Hussein, are we fighting a secular dictatorship or are we fighting Islam?
Saddam, reeling after his defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, began wrapping himself in a green-and-white Muslim flag. He spent $7.5 million building Baghdad's Umm al-Ma'arik ("Mother of All Battles") mosque, which is surrounded by minarets shaped like Scud missiles. He has plans to build many more mosques, including the largest in the world outside of Mecca. The construction program is part of a "faith campaign" that he began in 1996 and has recently accelerated.
Saddam, who rose to power as a secular semi-socialist, is now committed to Islam, his publicists say. He purportedly donated 12 quarts of his own blood over three years for the dark red calligraphy that went on 605 gold-framed pages of a copy of the Quran exhibited in the rotunda of the Umm al-Ma'arik mosque. State-run Iraqi television now broadcasts lengthy readings of the Quran, talent contests feature chanting of the sacred text, and posters show Saddam praying.
How deeply this change from the top has affected Iraq generally is hard to say. Mosque attendance is apparently up, as is the number of women wearing traditional Islamic garb and the number of applicants to the Saddam University for Islamic Studies. The New York Times has noted only in passing that Saddam is "showing up more regularly at mosques and suffusing his speeches with Quranic references." The Times spent most of a recent article noting merely that the "faith campaign" has led to bar closings: "Now, Iraqis drink at home, or in restaurants and nightclubs furtive enough to serve alcohol in frosted glasses."
The Washington Post, perhaps reporting accurately and perhaps trying to dissuade the Bush administration from a vigorous military response, was one of the few newspapers that emphasized "Hussein's efforts to quash dissent by promoting religion." The Post observed, "Getting people to the mosque has clear political benefits for Hussein. Sermons are often imbued with fiery anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric.... 'Our belief in Islam will make us stronger for our fight against America,'" one mosque leader said, and a diplomat predicted that, "If there's a war, Saddam is not going to say 'Fight for me' this time. He's going to say 'You must fight for Allah.'"
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the only other major U.S. newspaper through the end of January to explore seriously the possible effect of Saddam's new Islamic emphasis. Some left-leaning publications abroad discussed that question at length-again, it's hard to say how serious that concern is and how much it represented an attempt to scare hawks. The Guardian (London) ran a headline on Christmas Eve, "Threat of war: 'If God wants to take us, he will take us': Baghdad's mosques are filling up as Saddam calls on religion to bolster his regime." The newspaper's Baghdad correspondent quoted one resident, Mohammad Ahmed, saying, "For us there is no separation between politics and religion. That means we don't fear anything. If God wants to take us he will take us."
The Iraqi press has certainly been pushing Islam hard and stating that any who die fighting Israel or the United States are martyrs. The daily Al-Jumhuriya published on Dec. 1 an article stating that such martyrs have "a great status in the eyes of Allah.... With the first drop of blood [the martyr] is given absolution and he can see his seat in paradise. He is spared the torture of the grave. He is secure from the Great Horror [of Judgment Day]. He is crowned with the crown of glory. He marries black-eyed [virgins]. He can vouch for seventy of his relatives [to enter paradise]."
How deeply do Iraqis believe this? If they are only fighting to preserve Saddam, many will stop at the first opportunity. If death in battle will yield a guaranteed trip to Islam's heaven, they will fight hard. Which is it for many or most Iraqis? That's the crucial question, but U.S. press avoidance of many religious questions leaves us without crucial intelligence.