Ba‘athism began as a conscious attempt to supercede the sectarian and regional divisions which plague the Arab world. That’s why many of its early ideologues were Christians or members of other minority groups. The Ba‘athist slogan umma arabiya wahida zat risala khalida – One Arab Nation Bearing an Eternal Message – employing the word for ‘nation’ which previously designated the international Muslim community, and the word for ‘message’ previously associated with the Prophet Muhammad’s divine message – suggests that this variety of Arabism actually intended to supercede religion itself, or to become a new religion.
In Iraq it all went wrong very quickly. Saddamist Ba‘athism in effect designated ethnic Arabs of the Sunni sect as true Arabs, the Shia majority as quasi-Persian infiltrators, and the Kurds as an enemy nation. Saddam even wrote a characteristic pamphlet called ‘Three Things God Should Not Have Invented – Persians, Jews and Flies’, and so demonstrated the slip from nationalism to fascism.
Syria was somewhat different, somewhat more sophisticated. Despite the fact that the president and his top spies and generals were Alawis from the Lattakkia region, only Sunni Islam and Christianity were taught in the state’s religious education system (to the chagrin of traditional Alawi shaikhs). When the president prayed in public he prayed in the manner of the majority, Sunni-style. In the last couple of decades the regime sought to broaden its base by coopting Sunni businessmen as well as soldiers from the minority groups. And the majority’s rituals and religious festivals were never banned as they were in Iraq.
For days Syrian security forces stayed out of Hama; not even traffic police were seen in the city. During these days, no armed gangs emerged from the shadows to terrorise and loot. Christians and Alawis were not rounded up and shot. Nobody was whipped for wearing an unIslamic haircut. All that happened was day and night demonstrations against the regime swelled into crowds of hundreds of thousands – men and women, adults and children.
Perhaps the security forces stayed out of the city on the request of Hama’s governor, and perhaps that’s why he was sacked. Now security forces have entered the city and brought plenty of insecurity in their wake. At least sixteen Hamwis were killed yesterday.
Slaughter in this city – over sixty protestors were murdered there a few weeks ago – reminds Syrians of the greatest wound in their contemporary history: the Hama massacre in 1982, when 10,000 were killed at the lowest estimate, by aerial and artillery bombardment and in house to house murder sprees. There are reports that poison gas was used, and of dismemberments and rapes, but no-one really knows. No journalists slipped inside the city. There was no satellite TV, no internet, no mobile phones. Still, a thousand stories escaped the net, and every Syrian has heard some; stories whispered, not told. Hama, ‘the events’, is the great taboo.
We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.
Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.
Many Muslims go beyond adherence to those concepts and taboos that are necessary for religious belief and idolise or demonise historical figures who have nothing to do with the divine revelation. For many Sunnis, the first caliphs were ‘rightly guided’ saints who could do no wrong. During their reign there was no crime, poverty or injustice in the realm of Islam. For many Shia, the same men (apart from Ali) were decadent criminals. These secular figures were not deities or prophets but human beings working in specific contexts, with all the good and bad and moral ambiguity that implies, but Muslims frequently hold religious positions on their worth. The same applies even to later worldly figures like Haroon ar-Rasheed (saint or criminal) and Salahuddeen al-Ayubbi (likewise; as well as Kurdish traitor and hero of Arabism).
Again inspired by Hanna Batatu’s excellent book, here are some notes on the first two of the three stages of the Ba’ath Party in Syria. I haven’t mentioned the party’s development in Iraq.
The first Ba’ath was the old Ba’ath, and it was led by ideals. The party’s founders, Michel Aflaq (a Christian) and the two Bitars (Sunnis) were the sons of grain merchants from the Damascus suburb of Maydan, and were genuinely motivated by the desire for a unified Arab state. They were of the commercial class that felt most immediately the loss of the natural Arab marketplace entailed by the Sykes-Picot partition and the actions of the French Mandate. The French had ceded Arab-majority areas north of Aleppo to Turkey, and in 1939 handed over the entire Iskenderoon governorate (which had an Arab and Alawi majority) in return for Turkish neutrality in the approaching European war. From 1925 to 26 the Druze had risen against the French under the anti-sectarian slogan ‘Religion is for God and the Homeland For All.’ The Ghuta peasant-gardeners, aflame with the nationalism of nearby Damascus, also struck, and the French bombarded the Ghuta with artillery and planes. The 1948 fall of Palestine added impetus to the pan-nationalist agenda. Sunnis from Deir ez-Zor, now cut off from their kinsmen and marketplaces in Iraq, were also attracted to Arabism.