Stanford political scientist explores how Iraqi citizens used rumors as resistance against Saddam Hussein’s regime

Using documents in the Hoover Institution archives, Stanford political scientist Lisa Blaydes examined life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, including how Iraqi citizens found creative ways to resist the Baath Party’s authoritarian regime.

To explore anti-government communication among Iraqi citizens under Saddam Hussein, a Stanford scholar turned to an unusual source – the people’s purposeful rumor mill.

Saddam Hussein's Palace in Hillah, Iraq seen on the hill from within the ancient Babylon.

Saddam Hussein’s palace in Hillah, Iraq. Stanford political scientist Lisa Blaydes examined how rumors circulated as a way for Iraqis to communicate their grievances against Hussein and his regime. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Combing through government documents seized when a U.S.-led coalition toppled the regime in 2003 and are now archived at the Hoover Institution, political scientist Lisa Blaydes examined more than 2,000 rumors Saddam’s Baath Party had gathered. The rumors, she said, provide an insight into the hopes and fears of Iraqi citizens not available through the country’s media, which was tightly controlled by the state and propagandist in nature.

In some cases, rumors circulated as a way for people to communicate their grievances against Hussein and his family, said Blaydes. For example, in the 1990s at the height of the sanctions administered by the United Nations Security Council following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, there was a rumor that Hussein’s son Uday was demanding meat from Baghdad restaurants to feed his pet tiger.

In other circumstances, rumors were circulated by anti-regime activists to offset government objectives and organize political action against the state, said Blaydes.

Officials were so concerned by the undermining effects of rumormongering that it was criminalized. Even small indiscretions could lead to imprisonment and in some cases execution. Sharing rumors then became a way to show trust in a person while at the same time reflecting very low levels of trust in the government and state institutions, said Blaydes.

Blaydes recent talked with Stanford News Service about her research, which is detailed in a new book, State of Repression: Iraq Under Saddam Hussein. Blaydes is an associate professor of political science in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

 

What are some of the examples of the rumors you found?

A number of rumors sought to mobilize people for participation in popular protest or other acts of political subversion. For example, sometimes protests or attacks on Baath Party offices were rumored to occur on the occasion of upcoming religious holidays, after a Friday prayer service or on the birthday of Saddam Hussein. One rumor even suggested that an anticipated solar eclipse would serve as the signal for coordinated riots to take place across a number of cities. Other rumors suggested that would-be protestors should look for the presence of bearded men in the streets as a signal that clashes with the police would take place.

Other rumors sought to make the regime look bad in the eyes of the citizenry. For example, rumors circulating in 1999 suggested that the Baath Party was responsible for releasing diseased rats in the difficult to manage and predominantly Shi`i Saddam City (now Sadr City) neighborhood of Baghdad. The rumors, which continued for more than a month, suggested that the regime wanted to spread cholera in the neighborhood to force people to move out of the politically rebellious area.

 

You argue that for Iraqi citizens rumors were political acts to resist repression. How so?

Rumors play a special role in autocratic regimes since dictatorships often seek to maintain monopoly control over information. Because rumors are fleeting, often leaving no physical trace, they might be safely shared with trusted interlocutors. Rumors reflected the existence of an alternative public sphere in authoritarian Iraq, one the regime was hard-pressed to silence.

The Baathist regime was so concerned with the destabilizing effects of rumormongering that regime officials collected rumors both as a way to receive early warning about dissent brewing within society and as an index of public morale.

 

What do rumors tell you about the politics of everyday life in Iraq under the Baath Party regime?

Rumors were critical sources of information for ordinary Iraqis living under the Baathist regime. Rumors, unlike gossip, relate to subjects of significance and often arise when information is highly valued but information quality within a society tends to be poor. Information in such contexts has the potential to be actionable. For example, some rumors provided information about anticipated price shocks during the sanctions regime. Individuals used that information to stockpile sugar or other basic commodities. Other rumors provided information about how to avoid being targeted in government raids on particular communities and ways to avoid danger during uncertain times.

 

What most surprised you?

The rumors were full of surprising details, including countless stories about assassination attempts against Saddam Hussein and his sons as well as worries about what an American invasion of Iraq might mean. One of the most persistently circulated rumors in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq was that the U.S. would deploy an aerial chemical spray that would put Iraqis to sleep. These “sleep bombs” would then provide the U.S. with an opportunity to attack Baghdad. Fear and uncertainty are persistent themes in the collection as well as the tremendous importance of information acquisition in an authoritarian context.

 

When did rumors arise?

Rumors are a manifestation of the “hidden transcript” of political resistance in autocratic regimes. In the most repressive of such regimes, citizens often cannot engage in public, outright forms of resistance and are instead forced to engage in more mundane transgressions in order to challenge the existing political order.

Rumors were especially common during periods of political uncertainty, especially those times when Iraqi relations with the international community were conflictual. During these periods, rumors often sought to coordinate anti-regime sabotage or subversive political behaviors at a time when the regime was distracted by foreign affairs and internationally isolated.

 

You describe how in autocratic contexts, rumors include more valuable information than those spread in free, democratic societies. How so?

While rumors can spread quickly and easily in free societies, rumors circulating in autocratic contexts tend to spread slowly, but often include more useful information. As information repression increases, rumors become more valuable, in part, because the costs associated with getting caught spreading rumors was so high.

 

What inspired you do this research?

I think that rumors provided a window into a society that we knew very little about, especially in terms of the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. I was interested in learning more about the lived experience of authoritarianism, not just the interactions of political elites. Taken together with other information from the archival collection, including records of Baath Party participation, we can get a fuller picture of how Iraqis handled the high-stakes politics of survival under one of the late 20th century’s most brutal dictatorships.

Media Contacts

Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-9281, mdewitte@stanford.edu