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Baathism, then, the original idea from 1943, was an anti-colonial and pan-Arabist doctrine, not unwilling to ally with the Axis. It was a revolutionary doctrine. It claimed a pure blood lineage to the origins of Islam and, at the same time, invoked the mid–twentieth century ideals of socialism. Baathism was dedicated to the purification of Arabic political speech. And it was a psychological doctrine, dedicated to healing the wounded modern psyche by repulsing what Aflaq called “Western civilization’s invasion of the Arab mind.”
Aflaq was nominally a Christian from a Greek Orthodox background, but, to be honest, Christian influences in his doctrine are hard to see. It is true that, when he invokes Islam, he does so on nationalist grounds. But this is not unusual even among overtly Islamic thinkers, who conventionally invoke the ancient caliphate as proof of Islam’s divine origins. And Aflaq speaks repeatedly of the Arab nation’s “eternal mission” and “spirit,” which hints at more than worldly concerns.
The article is a masterful tour de force on the origins of the Ba’athist movement in the Middle East — almost more of a reaction to Westernized Ottomanism rather than a true rejection of the European West. So why is Ba’athism failing, while the Muslim Brotherhood has seemingly inherited the mantle of pan-Arabism under the guise of pan-Islamism? Much of this has to do with the way both are organized — Arab kinship and tribalism vs. Islamic values and Islamic scholars — and the pillars on which they are founded.
Here is another difference between the Baath and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has always been a mass organization, never a conspiracy, and its reliance on scripture and Islamic scholarship has meant that no one, not even a supreme guide of the Brotherhood, could alter the ideology at whim: “Oh, I think I’ll recognize the Zionist entity.” But Baathist ideology is what the coup leaders say it is. Or it is what Aflaq chose to say—which, after he was done with pure blood lineages and the “eternal mission” and Arab “spirit,” began to sound, in the mid-’50s and afterward, ever more left-wing, as if his philo-communist origins were stirring into renewed life. “The Baath is scientific socialism plus spirit,” said Aflaq in the ’60s, which suggested that Baathism, having already claimed to be an addendum to Islam, was also an addendum to Karl Marx.
At the end of the day, Karl Marx proved to be less of a prophet than Mohammed. “Unity, Freedom, Socialism” simply didn’t hold a candle to the Quran. Ba’athism was far more bloody and tyrannical than the comparatively light touch of shari’ah at the end of the day.
What’s more, given the choice between an eternal proletarian Ba’athist revolution and thy nostalgia of the Islamic caliphate… the Arab Street chose it’s inheritance — and went straight to its cultural DNA — rather than be led along towards a Ba’athist-dictated socialist future that promised a great deal while fulfilling nothing.