To paraphrase the old adage, there are no atheists in NATO-besieged pleasure palaces. FP looks at the dictators and warlords who've embraced a higher power once they ran low on the earthly kind.
- By Edmund DownieEdmund Downie is a Yale University Gordon Grand Fellow currently interning at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He works on the regional political economy of Asia. Follow him at @ned_downie.
SAIF AL-ISLAM AL-QADDAFI
It wasn’t so long ago that Muammar al-Qaddafi’s favorite son, Saif al-Islam, hobnobbed with British barons, raised pet tigers at his villa in Tripoli, and even paid Mariah Carey a cool $1 million for a four-song cameo at a party he threw on the Caribbean island of St. Barts.
Then came the Arab Spring. With his father’s grip on power less and less secure, Saif — the London School of Economics-educated scion long regarded as his benighted country’s best hope for a liberal future — announced on Aug. 3 that he is angling to team up with radical Islamists among the rebel fighters to drive out their liberal compadres. He showed up to a bizarre interview with the New York Times toting a string of Islamic prayer beads. “Libya will look like Saudi Arabia, like Iran,” he says. “So what?”
This is something of an about-face, considering that Saif and his father have spent six months smearing the rebellion as … an Islamist conspiracy. Making matters weirder, the Islamist rebel with whom Saif claims to have spoken has reiterated his call for democracy, minus the Qaddafis. Most likely, Saif is clumsily trying to sow division and discord in the rebel camp by pitting Islamists and liberals against one other — but the speed of his “conversion” is jarring.
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GENERAL BUTT NAKED
For the first 25 years of Joshua Milton Blahyi’s life, Jesus wasn’t really on the mind of the man better known as General Butt Naked. As one of the most powerful warlords in Liberia, General Butt Naked claims to have been responsible for the deaths of 20,000 Liberians during the intertribal wars of the 1990s. He earned his moniker for his habit of storming into battle wearing only a pair of boots; he and his army believed that full nudity would protect them from bullets. He also sacrificed children and practiced cannibalism before battles in an attempt to strengthen his soldiers’ fighting resolve.
Then, in July 1996, after sacrificing a 3-year-old girl, General Butt Naked had what he called an “epiphany.” He left his army immediately, was baptized within two months, and never returned to the fighting. Blahyi has since founded his own church, the End Time Train Evangelistic Ministries, and has publicly sought forgiveness for the atrocities he committed. “Yes, I would say I am guilty,” he told the Daily Mail in 2010, “and if the law says I should be jailed for war crimes, then jail me. If the law says I should be hanged, then hang me.”
The Redemption of General Butt Naked
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin grew up in a divided household: his father a strident atheist, his mother a committed Russian Orthodox Christian. But Putin’s own religious faith remained dormant until 1993, when a car crash almost took his wife’s life. Shortly thereafter, a fire that burned down the family’s country house sealed his return to Russian Orthodoxy. That all of this happened shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, when religiosity went from being an official no-no to a source of political advantage, was just a coincidence, right?
Putin’s rediscovered faith has worked out pretty well for everyone involved. The church’s post-Soviet revival has benefited from the prime minister’s penchant for public displays of devotion, and Putin hasn’t exactly been shy about taking advantage of the church’s enormous sway in Russian society. Priests appear on television to bless jet bombers and nuclear missiles, and rumors swirl about close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the intelligence agency formerly known as the KGB (until 2008, the church’s highest position was held by a former agent).
Putin’s religious ties have inspired some unusual declarations from laypeople and Kremlin officials alike. One Orthodox sect considers him the reincarnation of the church’s founder. Putin’s spokespeople demurred, but at least one Kremlin insider has professed a belief in his boss’s heaven-sent credentials. “To be honest,” top political advisor Vladislav Surkov said, “I think of Putin as a person who was sent to Russia by fate and the Almighty at a difficult hour.”
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Late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s education in politics came by way of Iraq’s Baath Party of the 1970s, whose aims were rooted in a vision of secular nationalism that dominated Middle Eastern governments of the era. Although himself a Sunni Muslim, Saddam held to this course during his first decade in power — most prominently in 1980, when he led Iraq into an eight-year war against Iran in what he portrayed as an effort to counter the growing influence of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. At home, he oversaw a society where women eschewed the veil for careers in government and business, and alcohol was a staple of daily life.
But when Saddam faced a new crop of Western enemies in the 1990s, he saw the rising tide of political Islam in the region as his potential savior. During the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam added “Allahu Akbar” to the Iraqi flag — in his own handwriting, no less — and raged against the presence of Western “infidels” on Arab soil, declaring resistance to them to be a form of jihad. Later, he tapped U.N. oil-for-food money to reward families of Palestinian suicide bombers with payments of $10,000 to $25,000.
Saddam’s faith reached new levels after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Mourning his sons’ deaths in a firefight with U.S. forces that July, he proclaimed, “If Saddam Hussein had 100 sons, he would have offered them on the same path, which is the path of jihad.… Glory to the martyrs of our nation.” He also worked to cultivate links with Islamist groups through Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a devout Muslim who remained closely involved with Iraqi insurgents fighting U.S.-led coalition forces after Saddam’s fall.
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As military dictator of Panama from 1983 to 1989, Gen. Manuel Noriega turned his country into a pricey rest stop for drug traffickers en route from Colombia, exacting multimillion-dollar payoffs for himself in the process. This predictably earned Noriega the ire of U.S. authorities, who indicted him on drug charges in 1988 — a bit of a policy shift, considering that the CIA had supported him as a useful bulwark against leftists for several decades.
A year later, as Noriega’s grip on Panama tightened, a U.S. citizen was killed at a Panamanian military checkpoint. The United States responded with Operation Just Cause, an invasion intended to end Noriega’s reign. It worked, and fast: Within a month, the general was headed off to federal prison. U.S. President George H.W. Bush trumpeted the arrest as a “clear signal” to drug traffickers that they “cannot escape the scrutiny of justice.”
Upon arriving in jail, Noriega was greeted with a surprising gift: a Bible, courtesy of Clift Brannon, a 77-year-old Baptist preacher from East Texas who had heard on the news that the dictator was carrying the good book at the time of his arrest. While in office, Noriega had been something of a religious tourist, shuttling between Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, and voodoo. Nevertheless, he took the preacher’s gift to heart and called Brannon immediately. Brannon told the Dallas Morning News in 1992 his first words to the dictator during the call: “General, did you know Jesus loves you?” Five months later, Noriega was a born-again Christian.
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