The Arab Socialist Baath Party, called the Ba’th party or the Baath party for short, was founded in Damascus by a group of secular Arabs in the middle of the 20th century when Syria and the rest of the Arab world were still under European rule. The founders of the Baath party included Christians and Muslims. The most prominent of the founding members was Michel Aflaq, an Arab Christian. Baath means renaissance in Arabic and the Baath party was meant to herald a new dawn in Arab politics. Relatively secular by Arab standards, it stood for socialism, Arab nationalism and modernisation and encompassed Christians, Shias and Sunnis. The Baath party had its offshoots in various parts of the Arab world, but it has traditionally been strongest in Iraq and Syria.
The Iraqi and Syrian branches of the Baath party soon diverged ideologically, with the Syrian branch more socialist (and therefore closer to the Soviet Union) and the Iraqi offshoot much more to the centre. The Baath party came to power in both Iraq and Syria in 1963. In Syria, the Assad family came to control the Baath party which soon became indistinguishable from the Syrian state. The Assad family is Alawite, a Shia sect. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein took control of the Baath party and made it his personal instrument of power. Saddam being a Sunni Muslim, Sunnis came to dominate the Baath party in Iraq.
After the fall of Saddam, the Americans banned the Baath party. Members of the Baath party were even banned from holding any position in the new government. Very recently, the New York Times reported that over 35 in the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, including some with ranks as high as general, have been arrested, after being accused of quietly working to reconstitute the Baath Party. Those arrested included Shias and Sunnis.
The Baath party is the only truly secular movement to have originated in the Arab world, which has had a pan-Arab appeal. The only other secular Arab movement is the Fatah Movement, which was formed by Yasser Arafat for the liberation of Palestine from Israel. In a region where there is a dearth of secular movements, the Baath Party stands out for having Shias, Sunnis and Christians under one roof. Saddam Hussein, for all his faults, was relatively secular and ensured that Christians and Shias had the freedom to practice their religion. In the West Bank which is controlled by the Fatah Movement, Arab Christians are similarly free to practice their faith, something they cannot do so easily in Hamas controlled Gaza strip, despite the fact that they have lived there for countless generations. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait which are supposed to be allies of the West have a horrible record of religious freedom compared to Baath party ruled Iraq and Syria.
There are many vested interests in the neighbourhood who do not want secular Arab nationalism to rise again. No, I am not talking of Israel. None of the monarchies in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Oman or Bahrain, want democracy in the region. Israel too would not be cheered by the rise of pan-Arab unity. Despite all that opposition, I believe that pan-Arab secular nationalism can purge the region of many of its ills and possibly help steer the Arabs to a decent settlement in Palestine.
I always thought that it was unbelievably stupid of the Americans to have banned the Baath party. In fact, they ought to have co-opted the Baath party, after purging it of Saddam loyalists, in the fight for democratising Iraq. Currently, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a Shi’ite who is propped up by two leading Shi’ite parties of Iraq, namely Moqtada al Sadr’s party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SICRI). SICRI is very much pro-Iranian and Maliki himself is very close to Iran. For this reason, the Sunnis of Iraq don’t really trust him. For the moment, government armed Sunni militias are co-operating in the fight against the al-Qaeda. However, there is no guarantee that the Sunni-Shia unity will survive the departure of the Americans. The only other secular Arab movement, the Fatah, has been totally discredited in the eyes of the common Arab on the street by its corruption and its close association with the US and Israel. It lost the Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections to fundamentalist Hamas in January 2006, though it has managed to hold on to power in the West Bank by means which are not really democratic.
There is still time to rectify the grave mistake of disbanding the Baath party, which despite the corruption and depravity foisted on it by Saddam, is still secular and is the only pan-Arab nationalist party in the world. I hope that once Obama is in office, the vilification of the Baath party will come to an end and it will be allowed to regain its rightful place in Iraq and the rest of the Arab world.