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Michel Aflaq
Full name Michel Aflaq
Born 1910
Damascus, Ottoman Syria
Died June 23, 1989
Paris, France
Era 20th century philosophy
Region Middle Eastern
School Socialism, Arab nationalism
Main interests Politics, economics, sociology
Notable ideas Co-founder of Baath Party (with al-Bitar)

Michel Aflaq (Arabic: ميشيل عفلق Mīšīl ʿAflaq, born Damascus 1910, died Paris June 23, 1989) was the ideological founder of Ba’athism, a form of Arab nationalism which was combined with Arab socialism.



Born in Damascus to a middle class Greek Antiochian Orthodox Christian family, Aflaq was first educated in the westernized schools of French Mandate of Syria, where he was considered a "brilliant student."[citation needed] He then went to university at the Sorbonne in Paris, with Salah al-Din al-Bitar. During their student days in Paris in the early 1930s, the two worked together to formulate a doctrine that combined aspects of nationalism and socialism. They developed their Arab nationalist ideals, eventually attempting to combine socialism with the vision of a Pan-Arab nation. In his political pursuits, Aflaq became committed to Arab unity and the freeing of the Arab world from Western colonialism.

Upon returning to Syria, Aflaq and Bitar became school teachers and were active in political circles. Aflaq and Bitar are the founders of the Arab Ba'ath Party in the early 1940s.

Political activity


Early political activity

In the course of the next two years, Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar along with some other associates edited for a period a review entitled al-Tali`a (the vanguard). According to historian Hanna Batatu, this displayed more concern with social issues than with the national question, and the political orientation of the two young activists was closer to the Syrian Communist Party than to any of the other groups on the political scene in Damascus. They would become disillusioned with the Communists in 1936, after the Popular Front government came to power in France; although the French Communist Party was now part of the government, the colonial power's approach to its subject nations was not appreciably different. The Syrian party's stance in these circumstances did not impress the young nationalist activists.

In 1939, Aflaq and al-Bitar began to attract a small following of students, and in 1941, the pair issued leaflets agitating against French rule, using the title al-ihyaa' al-'arabi - "the Arab Resurrection". Their first use of the name al-ba'th al-'arabi, which has the same meaning, came some time later; it had already been adopted by Zaki al-Arsuzi, a nationalist activist from Iskandarun province in north-western Syria who had come to Damascus in the wake of his native area's annexation by Turkey.

On 24 October 1942 both Aflaq and al-Bitar resigned from their teaching positions, now determined to devote their full efforts to the political struggle. They slowly gained supporters, and in 1945 the first elected Bureau of the Arab Ba'th Movement was formed, including both of them. The following year, the organisation gained a substantial number of new members when most of the former supporters of Zaki al-Arsuzi, led by Wahib al-Ghanim, joined it.[1]

On the leadership of the Ba'th Party

In 1947 the first party congress was held in Damascus, Aflaq took the pre-eminent position of 'amid, sometimes translated as "doyen"; under the constitution adopted at the congress, this made him effective leader of the party, with sweeping powers within the organization and al-Bitar was elected secretary general.

In 1952 Syria's military dictator, Adib al-Shishakli, banned all political parties. Aflaq took refuge in neighboring Lebanon, along with Al-Bitar. There they came into contact with Akram al-Hawrani, a far more seasoned politician who had recently established the Arab Socialist Party and boasted a considerable following among the peasantry of the Hama region in central Syria as well as a valuable foothold in the military officer corps. The three politicians agreed to unite their parties, and co-operated in the overthrow of al-Shishakli in 1954, following which a congress ratified the merger of the two parties into the Arab Socialist Ba'th Party. The rules and constitution of Aflaq and al-Bitar's party were adopted unchanged. All three were elected to the party's new National Command, along with a supporter of al-Hawrani.

Power politics in Syria, 1954 - 1963

Following the overthrow of al-Shishakli, Syria held its first democratic elections in five years. al-Bitar was elected as a deputy for Damascus, defeating the secretary general of the Syrian Social National Party, one of the Ba'th's bitterest ideological enemies. He became Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1956 and held the post until 1958. Along with other Ba'thists, he agitated in favour of the unification of Syria with Nasser's Egypt, and when unification took place in 1958 he became Minister for Guidance of the new United Arab Republic (UAR). Like many of the other Syrian politicians who had initially supported unification, he found the experience disenchanting, and resigned his position the following year.

When a right-wing coup in Syria put an end to the UAR, al-Bitar was one of sixteen prominent politicians to sign a declaration in support of the secession. Al-Hawrani also signed, but al-Bitar was still known as a Ba'thist whereas al-Hawrani's secessionist position was well-known. Much of the party's base was outraged by al-Bitar's action, although he quickly retracted his signature. The Ba'th splintered in the aftermath of the secession, with a large part of its base turning to Nasserism. Al-Bitar remained close to Aflaq, who retained the party leadership with a pro-reunification line, albeit a more cautious one than that of the Nasserists or the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM), and indeed a more cautious one than much of the party's membership wished for.

In government with the Ba'th

In 1963, a military coup by pro-reunification officers removed the secessionist regime from power. The officers included many Ba'thists, but also initially Nasserists and other elements. They established a National Revolutionary Command Council (NCRC) as the supreme organ of power in the land.

Despite being co-founder of the Ba'ath party, Michel Aflaq had little connection to the government that took power in Syria under that name in 1963. Eventually, the government and he had a falling out and he was forced to flee to Iraq where another Ba’ath Party had taken power. While this party also failed to follow most of ‘Aflaq's teachings, he became a symbol for the regime of Saddam Hussein according to whom Iraq was in fact the true Ba’athist country. In Iraq he was given a token position as head of the party and his objections to the regime were silenced and ignored.

On the other hand, al-Bitar the position of prime minister at the head of a coalition cabinet made up of the various pro-reunification forces. al-Bitar took up the appointment, and was later appointed to the NCRC as well.

However, the military Ba'thists who had taken control were not in tune with Aflaq and al-Bitar. They were of a younger generation, and a more radical disposition, traits they shared with an increasingly influential element of the civilian party membership in both Syria and Iraq. Later that year, the radical elements gained control of the party at the Sixth National Party Congress. The Congress approved a far-left programme evidently inspired by Soviet socialism, and condemned what it termed "ideological notability" inside the party - an implicit attack on Aflaq and al-Bitar. The latter resigned the premiership, which passed to a military moderate Ba'thist officer, Amin Hafiz. Al-Bitar was restored to the position the following year when the ruling group decided to adopt a more conciliatory approach following massive riots in Hama, which the army had to suppress.[2]

In his writings Aflaq had been stridently in favor of free speech and other human rights and aid for the lower classes. He stated that the Arab nationalist state that would be created should be a democracy. These ideals were never put in place by the regimes that used his ideology. Most scholars see the Assad regime in Syria and Saddam's regime in Iraq to have only employed Aflaq's ideology as a pretense for dictatorship. John Devlin in his "The Baath Party: Rise and Metamorphosis" outlines how the parties became dominated by minority groups who came to dominate their society. Elizabeth Picard takes a somewhat different approach, arguing both Assad and Hussein used Ba’athism as a guise to set up what were in fact military dictatorships.

In short, Aflaq and al-Bitar were clearly not in any sense in charge of Syria - rather, they were acting as the face of a regime with which they both were ideologically and personally out of sympathy.

Downfall, exile and death

On 23 February 1966 a bloody coup d'état led by right wing extremists, a radical Ba'athist faction headed by Chief of Staff Salah Jadid, overthrew the Syrian Government. A late warning telegram of the coup d'état was sent from President Gamal Abdel Nasser to Nasim Al Safarjalani (The General Secretary of Presidential Council), on the early morning of the coup d'état. The coup sprung out of factional rivalry between Jadid's "regionalist" (qutri) camp of the Ba'ath Party, which promoted ambitions for a Greater Syria and the more traditionally pan-Arab, in power faction, called the "nationalist" (qawmi) fraction. Jadid's supporters were also seen as more radically right-wing. Members of the party's other fractions fled; Aflaq was captured and detained, along with other members of the party's historic leadership, in a government guest house.[3] When the new rulers launched a purge in August that year, Aflaq managed to make his escape, with the help of Nasim Al Safarjalani and Malek Bashour, both close trusted friends and colleagues, and hence was able to flee to Beirut.[4] Aflaq accepted the post of secretary-general of the Baghdad-based Baath party in 1968. He visited Iraq for short stays until taking residence there in the 1980s. He retained his post as secretary-general, although it was largely a formality, as real power was in the hand of assistant secretary-general Saddam Hussein. Aflaq died in Paris on June 23, 1989, following heart surgery.[5]

Aflaq and Islam

Though born a Christian, Aflaq believed that Islam provides Arabs with "the most brilliant picture of their language and literature, and the grandest part of their national history." He did not see the confrontation with the West in Muslim versus Christian terms. Arguing that all three great religions originated from Southwest Asia, he asserted that "religion entered Europe from the outside, therefore it is alien to its character and history." Europeans and Americans, he believed, cannot really be Christian or religious or highly spiritual in the rich way that Arabs can.

Upon his death in 1989 he was given a great Muslim funeral. The government of Iraq claimed upon his death that Aflaq converted to Islam. They also stated that the conversion had not been made public during Aflaq's lifetime because both he and party leaders did not want it to be interpreted politically. A tomb was built for him in Baghdad designed by Chadagee.

However, at the time of his death, Aflaq's family was unaware of his purported conversion.[6] Furthermore, in his book "Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World", the American journalist Milton Viorst mentions that he was told by some Arabs that they were convinced that the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein had fabricated his conversion, and had inflicted on Aflaq a posthumous humiliation. This was allegedly done under the pretext that by Islamizing Aflaq, Saddam would avoid reminding Iraqis of Baathism's Christian roots.[7]


"A day will come when the nationalists will find themselves the only defenders of Islam. They will have to give a special meaning to it if they want the Arab nation to have a good reason for survival." (In memory of the Arab Prophet, 1 April 1943)

"The connection of Islam to Arabism is not, therefore, similar to that of any religion to any nationalism. The Arab Christians, when their nationalism is fully awakened and when they restore their genuine character, will recognize that Islam for them is nationalist education in which they have to be absorbed in order to understand and love it to the extent that they become concerned about Islam as about the most precious thing in their Arabism. If the actual reality is still far from this wish, the new generation of Arab Christians has a task which it should perform with daring and detachment, sacrificing for it their pride and benefits, for there is nothing that equals Arabism and the honor of belonging to it." (In memory of the Arab Prophet -April, 1943)

Further reading

  • Al-Baath wal Watan Al-Arabi [Arabic, with French translation] ("The Baath and the Arab Homeland"), Qasim Sallam, Paris, EMA, 1980. ISBN 2-86584-003-4
  • Al-Baath wa-Lubnân [Arabic only] ("The Baath and Lebanon"), NY Firzli, Beirut, Dar-al-Tali'a Books, 1973
  • The Iraq-Iran Conflict, NY Firzli, Paris, EMA, 1981. ISBN 2-86584-002-6
  • History of Syria Including Lebanon and Palestine, Vol. 2 Hitti Philip K. (2002) (ISBN 1-931956-61-8)


  1. ^ This section is based on the account in Batatu, pp. 726-727.
  2. ^ Seale, p. 94.
  3. ^ Seale, p. 102
  4. ^ Seale, p. 111.
  5. ^ Reich, 1990, p.34.
  6. ^ William Harris, Challenges to democracy in the Middle, Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997, ISBN 9781558761490, M1 Google Print, p. 39.
  7. ^ Milton Viorst, Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World, Syracuse University Press, 1995, ISBN 9780815603627, M1 Google Print, p. 31.


External links


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