August 06, 2003

History of the Ba'ath Party

Hovig John Heghinian in the Comments section pointed to this article about Michel Aflaq, founder of the Ba'ath Party. It's not a new article, but it is worth reading anyway since it explains the ideological foundations of Syria, the old Iraq, and the Iraqi "resistance."

MICHEL AFLAQ was born in Damascus in 1910, a Greek Orthodox Christian. He won a scholarship to study philosophy at the Sorbonne sometime between 1928 and 1930 (biographies differ), and there he studied Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin, Mazzini, and a range of German nationalists and proto-Nazis. Aflaq became active in Arab student politics with his countryman Salah Bitar, a Sunni Muslim. Together, they were thrilled by the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, but they also came to admire the organizational structure Lenin had created within the Russian Communist party.

Paul Berman describes the Terror War as a continuation of the awful thing that got started in Europe more than 80 years ago and has never come to an end. This is one of the reasons why.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 6, 2003 08:52 AM

I'm confused, Michael. I thought Bush, Cheney et al were the new Hitlers.

Posted by: ken at August 6, 2003 09:38 AM

Whenevr I hear that guy's name, I think of that stupid goose in the commercial for aflac insurance!

Posted by: Mike Silverman at August 6, 2003 09:39 AM

There is a French connection.

Another strong resource for the Nazi-fication of the Middle East secularists is Bernard Lewis of Princeton University. He summarizes it well in "The Crisis of Islam" but gets detailed in "The Middle East". Importantly, he points out that the post-crusade European influence of the region started through trade privileges granted by the Ottomans, and expanded by establishing protectorates in the region for the christian minorites. The UK and Germany had little influence prior to WWI since protestants weren't present in the christian minorites - Catholics and Orthodox were, so France and Russia held the most sway.

The Vichy government basically handed over Syria to the Nazi's, who were intent on causing trouble for the British, who occupied the rest of the fertile crescent inherited from the Ottomans at the end of WWI. The Nazi's indocrinated the Baathists to provide such an insurgency. When de Gaulle got Syria back, he was happy to leave the Baathists in place. The French have never really come to terms with their tolerance of Nazi's.

Posted by: Adam Sullivan at August 6, 2003 09:47 AM

I really need to read some Lewis. Are those the musts?

Also, Michael mentioned Berman. His book "Terror and Liberalism" is fantastic.

Posted by: growler at August 6, 2003 11:11 AM


I hear ya about the goose thing. Aflaq! Aflaq! It's a weird mental association for such a sinister person.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 6, 2003 11:23 AM

Berman convincingly argues that when Bin Laden referred to events of 80 years ago, he meant Ataturk's move to modernize (read: secularize) Turkey, i.e., limit the reach of Islam/ Islamic law.

I'm dismayed to discover how many otherwise observant people don't know or de-emphasize this source of discontent. I'm also not sure if they'll subsequently acknowledge know that this fight is about freedom of (and from) religion, in which case the principle "Garbage in, garbage out" applies- their resolutions will inevitably address some other, lesser, problem.

Posted by: Rob La Raus at August 6, 2003 11:57 AM


Yes, that's exactly what bin Laden is referring to when he says "80 years ago."

And when Berman says "80 years ago" he is referring more generally to the crisis of modernity in the aftermath of World War One which pitted liberalism against the various strains of totalitarianism, two of which are theocratic Islamism and secular Islamic fascism.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 6, 2003 12:07 PM

Mr Sullivan

You should look more at history books and rely less on hearsay by people who are mad at present French (not that I can blame them) and distort events of the past. The fathers don't deserve to be blamed for the sins Jacques Peabrain Chirak. In "History of World War Two" by none else than Winston Churchill you will learn that when the Free French tried to crack on the Arab "nationalists" (that with hindsight we know were proto-Baas and linked to Nazis the same way Rachid Ali was) the British (acting upon US pressure) threatened the French with cutting all funding/support and later with military intervention.

And while we are at it I suppose you can explain Roosevelt's love, first for Vichy's regime, then for Admiral Darlan a notorious collaborationist and that during all the period where power in Algeria was held by America's minions (ie Darlan and later Giraud) Vichy's antisemitic legislation continued to be enforced. And that it was abolished by the man Roosevelt has done his utmost to unseat: General de Gaulle.

Also contrarily to you I don't blame the people (Americans were shocked by the support to Darlan) for the sins of the ruler.

Posted by: JFM at August 6, 2003 01:04 PM


How odd.

Only a month ago I was attacked for defending France in a post I wrote called "Essayons."

Please do not strawman me. I will stick with and defend everything I wrote. I will not abide by your characterization.

Regarding books - Please turn to page 348 of "The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 years" by Dr Bernard Lewis, Touchstone Books, First Edition 1997. It speaks quite clearly of how the Nazi's used enthusiastic Vichy France to establish influence in the region. Vichy controlled Syria helped eagerly, and assisted an Iraqi politician named Rashid Ali al Gaylani in establishing a pro-Nazi regime in Baghdad. This axis served as the pre-cursor to the Ba'ath party.

Not heresay. Documented history.

That de Gaulle left the secular powers in place after the war and ignored Ba'athism may have seemed a pragmatic choice. Western powers (including the United States) have contented themselves to value stability over liberty for the region.

My issue with France is one of policy. Sorry, but France has preached to the United States that "war is failure" in a bid to maintain an unjust regional stability, all while Ba'athists filled mass graves. Also documented facts.

Ignoring tyranny in a region so as to have a stable oil supply is no longer justifiable. The US and UK have gone about changing that - French policy has been intent on thwarting that. Such an effort may be explained by a desire to restrain the US, but that does not justify keeping the tyrannies in the region.

With a tradition of "Liberte, Fraternite et Egalite", France is on the wrong side of this one. We would like you back on the side of liberty.

Posted by: Adam Sullivan at August 6, 2003 06:38 PM

growler -

The must have is "The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years." It was written pre-9/11, so it is not colored by events afterward. Lewis covers a great deal in about 400 pages. It is also well indexed for use as a reference after reading it. The section "The Challenge of Modernity" is extremely useful in understanding where we are today.

"The Crisis of Islam" focuses on laying out why terror is unholy in terms of the Quran and Muslim tradition. It too is detailed and has many references. It is relatively small (about 150 pages) so it is a good airport read.

I have "What went wrong" regarding 9/11 which sold well but I have yet to read it.

I was warned by an academic in the field that Lewis can be a bit of a cultural determinist, so have your filters up, but his grasp of the history is extraordinary and he provides great references for further reasearch. He also writes very fluidly.

Posted by: Adam Sullivab at August 6, 2003 06:47 PM

De Gaulle lasted only until January 1946 before resigning.

About French policy in the area: 1) In 1946 nobody knew that Baas party would produce Saddam Hussein. Of course we now know that the western powers should have "read the book" of its ideology nd understand it would cause trouble once in power. The same way that Roosevelt and those British who helped them should have read the book of Wahabism and thought twice before letting them rule over Mecca and have lots of oil money to spread their hatred. But nobody reads books of foreign weird politicians: Chamberlain had not read Mein Kampf.

2) It is possible that the French ignored Baathists and similar targetting Irak. I strongly doubt they ignored those targetting Syria and Lebanon (under French control). Don't forget that the British were doing exactly the same thing but you invert the terms: ie ignore activity against Syria and crack on activity against Irak.

About your other post:

"Islam comdemning terror". Sorry but this is a mix of wishful thinking and political correctness. The fact is that there are two groups of surates: those told at Mecca and those told at Medina. Those of Mecca speak of peace ad tolerance, those of Medina speak of war and plunder, they explicitly call for ethnic cleansing of Jews and Christians living in the Arabic peninsula. The Medina ones are more recent than those of Mecca and thus most imams agree that they are to be preferred. Medina surates don't rule out any means to reach victory and tyhe life of Muhammad shows many occasions of perfidy and broken treaties covered by opportune god-sent dreams justifying Muslim atrocities.

Posted by: JFM at August 7, 2003 12:14 AM

The Aflack bird is a duck, not a goose. That's why Aflack rhymes with quack. Geese honk. Plus they look different than ducks.

Posted by: Julia at August 7, 2003 08:07 AM


"I'm flattered such an excellent writer links to my stuff"
Johann Hari
Author of God Save the Queen?

Andrew Sullivan
Author of Virtually Normal

"Brisk, bracing, sharp and thoughtful"
James Lileks
Author of The Gallery of Regrettable Food

"A hard-headed liberal who thinks and writes superbly"
Roger L. Simon
Author of Director's Cut

"Lively, vivid, and smart"
James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Geography of Nowhere

Contact Me

Send email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com

News Feeds


Link to Michael J. Totten with the logo button


Tip Jar


Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

In the Eigth Circle of Thieves
E.L. Doctorow, The Nation

Against Rationalization
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn