Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Conspiracy Theories Still Hold Post-Saddam

Thirty years of state manipulation are proving hard for some Iraqis to throw off.
By Hussein Ali

Like dictators around the world, Saddam Hussein made good use of conspiracy theories to manipulate the Iraqi population and maintain allegiance to his regime over his thirty-year rule of Iraq.

The universally accepted theory goes that if people are continually on the alert for an attack from multiple and nefarious enemies outside the state, there will be less time for them to concentrate on the wrongs being perpetrated inside.

Hadi Hassan, professor of economy and administration at Baghdad’s Al-Mustansiriya University, says that the Baathist’s use of such mind games was highly successful.

“The former regime kept people convinced that there was really a threat and conspiracy against Iraq by pretty much the rest of the world,” he said. “All the media outlets would talk about it and say it stemmed from the fact Iraq was a progressive country heading to democracy and self-determination.”

Thamir Salih, a professor of medicine at Kufa University in the Iraqi capital, agrees. “For more that 40 years, the Baathists deluded the Iraqis that there was a foreign conspiracy against Iraq. After 1968, they mobilised the students and the media to oppose that threat. The regime depended on that idea to justify its behaviour towards neighboring states.”

For Basim Hamza, a management student, these ideas created a gulf between Iraq and the rest of the world and kept the country backwards. “Iraq was kept away from the outer world and from political, economical and technological developments,” he said.

As with many other dictatorships around the world, the regime used these conspiracy theories as a stick to beat the population with.

Baghdad University student Amer Ali said, “Conspiracy theories kept people busy with the threat from outside, so they paid less attention to the violations the governments practiced inside.”

But showing that old habits die hard, he added a cautionary note about the actions of the many NGOs that have sprung up to help in the post-war reconstruction process. “The organisations working in Iraq now say they are working for the benefit of Iraq. But they might be connected to foreign agencies. We cannot judge them unless we know the sources of their funding and their goals,” he said.

Ali is not alone. A significant number of Iraqis treat humanitarian agencies with increasing suspicion, believing that Americans and Israelis are sending in their agents and working through them to destroy Iraq.

Retired businessman Sameer Ali is still firmly rooted in the mindset of the old regime, “Our enemies are smart, and they are always plotting against Iraq. The organisations working here are just Israeli and American agents.”

While some Iraqis may cling to the remnants of old conspiracy theories, most recognise that their country began to decline under Saddam’s rule. His use of patronage and dependence on his tribal traditions to decide the future of the country were particularly destructive.

Sabah Hussein, a prominent leader of the Iraqi national congress, said, “The cultural and educational march of the Iraqi people stopped in the 1970s when the Baath party took control of the country. [Saddam] assassinated political figures and harassed intellectuals, most of whom left the country to live abroad. Saddam adopted the theory of one party, one thought. If you disagreed with the Baathists, you would be killed or imprisoned.”

While most Iraqis seem optimistic that their country will be able to move on from this and the population will begin to develop intellectually again, the issue is how long this process will take.

University of Technology professor Ahmad Hassan thinks it could take more than a decade for people’s mindsets to change completely. “It might need 15 years to rehabilitate the public’s thought processes and provide them with the globally aware education available in the West,” he said.

Hussein Ali and Ali Marzook are IWPR trainees in Baghdad.

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