Samuel Helfont, PhD


Samuel Helfont is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy in the Naval War College program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. His research focuses on international history and politics in the Middle East, especially Iraq and the Iraq Wars. He is also interested in Israeli, maritime, and naval history. He is the author of Iraq against the World: Saddam, America, and the Post-Cold War Order (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, 2023), and Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018). His work has been published by Foreign Affairs, The International History Review, The Middle East Journal, Texas National Security Review, Orbis, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The American Interest, and War on the Rocks, among other outlets.

Helfont holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University. Prior to moving to Monterey, he completed a three-year post-doctoral lectureship at the University of Pennsylvania. He maintains affiliations with the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University and the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He has served as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College and was the recipient of the US Scholar Research Support Fellowship from the Hoover Library and Archives at Stanford University.

In addition to this academic background, Helfont served as an intelligence officer in the US Navy and Navy Reserve. An Iraq War veteran, he completed deployments both afloat and ashore in the Middle East. He also served on Middle Eastern and counterterrorism missions at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Office of Naval Intelligence, among other commands.

Recent Book:

Oxford University Press, 2018

Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq

This book draws on extensive research with Ba'thist archives to investigate the roots of the religious insurgencies that erupted in Iraq following the American-led invasion in 2003. In looking at Saddam Hussein's policies in the 1990s, many have interpreted his support for state-sponsored religion as evidence of a dramatic shift away from Arab nationalism toward political Islam. While Islam did play a greater role in the regime's symbols and Saddam's statements in the 1990s than it had in earlier decades, the regime's internal documents challenge this theory.

The "Faith Campaign" Saddam launched during this period was the culmination of a plan to use religion for political ends, begun upon his assumption of the Iraqi presidency in 1979. At this time, Saddam began constructing the institutional capacity to control and monitor Iraqi religious institutions. The resulting authoritarian structures allowed him to employ Islamic symbols and rhetoric in public policy, but in a controlled manner. Saddam ultimately promoted a Ba'thist interpretation of religion that subordinated it to Arab nationalism, rather than depicting it as an independent or primary political identity.

The point of this examination of Iraqi history, other than to correct the current understanding of Saddam Hussein's political use of religion throughout his presidency, is to examine how Saddam's controlled use of religion was dismantled during the US-Iraq war, and consequently set free extremists that were suppressed under his regime. When the American-led invasion destroyed the regime's authoritarian structures, it unwittingly unhinged the forces that these structures were designed to contain, creating an atmosphere infused with religion, but lacking the checks provided by the former regime. Groups such as the Sadrists, al-Qaida, and eventually the Islamic State emerged out of this context to unleash the insurgencies that have plagued post-2003 Iraq.


"Samuel Helfont has provided us with groundbreaking insights into the way Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party used Islam to control the Iraqi population during his dictatorship-and how the abrupt removal of that control influenced the insurgencies that erupted in the wake of the American invasion in 2003. Most importantly, this book illuminates why those insurgencies were so virulent, and how the wake of Saddam Hussein's use of Islamic institutions to control the Iraqi population will continue to ignite conflict in the Middle East for generations to come."

–John Nagl, Lieutenant Colonel, USA (Retired), and author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam

"Samuel Helfont tackles an important subject that is significant not only for its historical aspects but also for its relevance to current affairs given the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and ISIL. He has tapped the Iraqi archives, providing a real contribution to the literature on Iraq's history and issues related to current politics."

–Joseph Sassoon, Associate Professor and al-Sabah Chair in Politics and Political Economy of the Arab World at Georgetown University.

"[S]cholars have been hard at work refining and challenging conventional narratives regarding Ba'thist Iraq. ... Compulsion in Religion forms a significant contribution to this more general effort. â [It] will be of great interest to students of Iraqi history and modern Iraqi politics alike."

–Cole Bunzel, Yale Law School, Orbis

"Worth reading for anyone interested in gaining a better sense of how authoritarian regimes operate, their organizational structure, decisionmaking processes, and responses to new challenges [...] a fresh look at the recent history of Iraq and the roots of several challenges that the country is still facing."

–Harith Hasan, Carnegie Middle East Center, Recommended summer reading 2019.

"[A] fascinating new book."

–Gareth Smyth, The Arab Weekly

"Helfont provides a totally original look at how Saddam observed, co-opted, repressed, and then operationalized religion to secure his rule and use it as another means to control society. He counters much of the previous research that largely dismissed religion in Iraq under the Baath. The book could also lead to a whole new range of research into how the insurgency and militias emerged in post-2003 Iraq. It’s therefore essential reading for Iraq researchers."

–Joel Wing, Musing on Iraq

“In sum, this work is indispensable for scholars of religion and authoritarianism as a hypothesis-generating case study and is a welcome contribution to the field of religion and politics in particular.”

–Ann Wainscott, Miami University/US Institute of Peace, Perspectives of Politics

“Compulsion in Religion is the definitive account of the religious policies of Saddam's regime and mosque-state relations in Ba'thist Iraq. It will be of interest to scholars of Iraq, religion, comparative politics, and general readers searching for an antidote to inaccurate information on the subject.”

–Michael Brill, Princeton University, The Middle East Journal

“Helfont gives us a compelling picture of religious life under Saddam. This book can serve as an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to understand Iraq and its sectarian conflicts better. The Western media and politicians love to paint Iraq in single colors, focusing on corruption or the constant violence. Helfont gives us a nuanced and rich view of the Iraqi religious landscape.”

–Joshua Karnes, H-Net