Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Is Ba`thism Secular?

The whole notion of a “secular” Ba`th needs correcting. Ba`thism is often referred to as a secular movement and non-religious version of Arab nationalism, but this just isn’t true. When I recently suggested to fellow board members of the Syrian Studies Association that we shouldn’t refer to Syria as a “secular state” in an SSA statement, my friends argued against me. They won the day by declaring that Syria is secular in comparison to other states in the region, so why confuse the matter. I argued that to call Syria secular was misleading because Ba`thi values are absolutist and backed up by revealed truth - even if they aren't exactly the same revealed truth as the Quran. (see Badran on this issue in a recent critique of an article by Shibley Talhami.)

Secularism as it has evolved in the historically Christian countries of the West is based on the idea that politics should be carried out in a different sphere than private morality or faith. The one is based on a notion of “truth” with a small “t” that is at its heart relative and subject to compromise, the other is based on Truth with a capital “T” which has its foundation in transcendent morality and is resistant to compromise and skepticism. Private faith is another matter and may be absolutist. That is why secularism insists on such a clear divide between public belief (politics) and private belief (church).

Ba`thism is based on the big “T” Truth and is a transcendent faith. Both the founders of Ba`thist thought, Michel `Aflaq (Greek Orthodox)and Zaki al-Arsuzi (Alawite Muslim), discovered early in their careers that their party would never appeal to the broad masses of the Sunni heartland without making it perfectly clear that Ba`thism was not secular or based on earthly truths. They both insisted that Ba`thism was part and parcel of the Islamic worldview embraced by most Syrians. `Aflaq was so adamant about placating Muslim and religious sensibilities that he became known among his friends as Muhammad `Aflaq (and indeed he converted to Islam before his death). His genius lay in his ability to align Ba`thism with Islam.

In Ba`thism political and private life have the same source of truth. The beauty of Aflaq and Arsuzi is that they just tweaked GOD a little to make him a source of nationalism and Ba`thi "al-risala al-khalida," or the “eternal message.” Like good Neoplatonists or ghulat they argue the Semitic truth is one, whether it is packaged by Jesus or by Muhammad for his age in the 6th c. or by Aflaq and the Ba`th in the modern age of nations. Of course they hold with the Islamic narrative in that they claim Muhammad's message was an improvement over Jesus', but they go one step further in suggesting that the Ba`thi message is an improvement over Muhammad's.

Actually that is a sticking point and they tried to dispel it. Many Muslims figured out that Ba'this were making themselves prophets of the modern age and accused them of bida' (introducing new ideas) and mulhidism (atheism). That is why Aflaq wrote his famous article on Muhammad in1943. He needed to dispel the notion that Ba`thism and Islam were in conflict. He repeated over and over again that the values of Ba`thism and Islam are identical. Both are divine, both come from the same Semitic genius and from Nature-God speaking through the chosen people.

“There is no fear that nationalism will clash with religion,” he wrote, “for, like religion, it flows from the heart and issues from the will of God; they walk arm in arm.” Aflaq explained that Muhammad should be a constant source of inspiration to all Arabs. He directed non-Muslim Arabs to “attach themselves to Islam and to the most precious element of their Arabness, the Prophet Muhammad,” for he was the greatest Arab nationalist. The eternal message of Arabism, he insisted, is identical to that of Islam. Both issue from the same divine source and creator and point in the same direction. Islam went into decline, Zaki Arsuzi argued, when non-Arabs were brought into the umma or nation and corrupted its true meaning. Thus, like the Salafis, the early Ba`thists argued that to revive the eternal spirit of the Arab world, Arabs had to return to their roots, which Aflaq insisted was an Arab Islamic message.

All the victories and cultural advances that Islam has achieved were in germination during the first twenty years of the message…. Therefore the meaning which Islam reveals … is that all our efforts should be directed to strengthening the Arabs and awakening them and that these efforts should be within the framework of Arab nationalism.
Michel `Aflaq did not try to take Islam out of Arabism; he sought to make Arabism the central tenet of Islam. Both `Aflaq and Arsuzi stressed that the umma arabiyya, or Arab community and nation, was the proper unit of analysis, both called for struggle against outsiders and alien influences, and both stressed that their message was the eternal message of the Arab nation, no different in its values and divine inspiration from that of Islam. Ba`thism is destined to reveal and strengthen the Islamic message and genius which would bring "rahmaniyya," "`adala" and the highest form of "insaniyya" to the world community.

Ba`thism and Islam both construct their political identity and demand political allegiance by reference to an unknowable absolute moral imperative. Unlike Western secularism, Ba`thism does not include the idea of politics as an arena that no longer exists by virtue of a transcendent and divinely ordained morality.

One can argue that the original Ba`this were only faking it in order to make their movement palatable to a society that still defined itself through religion. But if that is true, they faked out their own followers who believed they were on a divine and sacred mission. Perhaps “ta’ayyush” would be a better term to describe the Syrian ba`thist take on religion. It means “convivienda” or live and let live. Syria does enforce a degree of tolerance and respect for its different religious communities that is unusual in the Middle East. All the same, it permits Muslims clerics to uphold the dominance of Islam, which is all-pervasive in the culture.

I would also like to take issue with Tony Badran on his Across the Bay blog. He has suggested in several posts that I place economics over culture and education in recommendations for reform in Syria and the Middle East. He is right that I argue economics are fundamental, but helping people get richer goes hand in hand with improving education and increasing literacy rates. Education is at the heart of the reform process. Furthering the enlightenment project and strengthening notions of skepticism and "secular" truth is essential. It means getting away from memorization and the worship of authority, whether it be of the president, or "texts," or revealed truth. Free debate is at the heart of this project. Only by reinforcing the notion that there are many sides to an argument and many ways to view truth will citizens begin to relinquish notions of a transcendent morality and value compromise over conflict, cooperation over confessionalism, and tolerance over tribalism.


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