The al-Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party is a political party founded upon the Arab political philosophy known as Ba’athism, which promotes secular Arab nationalism, Arab socialism, pan-Arabism, and militarism. Ba’athism developed in resistance to European colonialism in the Arab world, and understood colonialism as the root cause of problems in the Arab world. The Ba’athist movement gained prominence in Syria in the 1940s, championed by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din Bitar. The Ba’ath Party was officially founded in Damascus in 1947. A 1963 Ba’athist coup established the Ba’ath Party as the only legal political party in Syria. Ba’athist General Hafez al-Assad seized power in a military coup in 1970.
In the early years of Hafez al-Assad’s rule he declared that the Ba’ath party has unique status as “…the leader of state and society” which has served to virtually outlaw all other political parties. The slogan of the Ba’ath party is “unity, freedom and socialism” and represents well its early aspirations to shape an explicitly secular pan-Arab movement that is independent from the West. Diverse religious and ethnic communities found the secular emphasis compelling, particularly after their experience of sociopolitical marginalization under the Ottoman Empire, and economically vulnerable groups were hopeful that the socialist platform would lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth, goods and services. Hafez al-Assad initially embraced dimensions of the socialist platform but following the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent diminishment of the credibility of Marxism, he adopted economic liberalization in a piecemeal fashion through the 1980s and 1990s. When Bashar al-Assad rose to power in 2000 he promoted full-scale neoliberal reform without any welfare balances which led to an increase in poverty, unemployment, and income disparity. Protestors of the regime are calling for both economic and political reform.
The secular platform of the party has also been compromised. In the early years of his presidency, Hafez al-Assad successfully resisted pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunnis to declare Syria an Islamic Republic. He did, however, include a constitutional requirement that the president be a Muslim. (Some Islamists challenged his legitimacy as a “heretical” Muslim but a fatwa declaring that Alawis are Shi’a issued by influential Shi’a cleric Musa al-Sadr in 1973 settled that controversy). Religion was only marginally invoked during most of Hafez al-Assad’s leadership but this, too, changed significantly under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad. Following the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent portrayal in the region of the West as waging a war against Islam, the Syrian government promoted an increase in pious Muslim religious expression and representation. In spite of the “secular” definition of the government as formalized in the Constitution, Assad increased public assertions representing Syria as a Muslim nation with slogans such as “Syrians Bow Only to God” and “Oh Syria, God Protects You” plastered on billboards and pronounced in public ceremonies. In a similar vein, pictures of Bashar al-Assad kissing the Qur’an were widely publicized and disseminated.
In a distinct but related effort, the government sponsored the ubiquitous promotion (and eventual containment) of Shi’a Twelver religious expression in public as a way to strengthen ties with Iran and to promote pluralist conceptions of Islam within Syria that could simultaneously challenge the hegemony of Sunni portrayals. In one dramatic example, the reenactment of the Taz’iyeh rituals commemorating the battle of Karbala were permitted to be performed in the courtyard of the (Sunni) Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. When sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’is in Iraq escalated in the mid 2000s, the Syrian government reversed its policy of promoting Shi’a representations and, instead, sought to contain them.
The future of the Ba’ath party in Syria is questionable given its strong association with the Assads and its evolution away from many of its core principles and values.
Richard Edwards, “Baathism,” The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Political, Social, and Military History, ed. Spencer Tucker (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008), pp. 184-185.
Paulo Pinto, “’Oh Syria, God Protects You’: Islam as Cultural Idiom under Bashar al-Assad, Middle East Critique, Vol. 20, No. 2 (2011), pp. 189-205.
Andrew Lee Butters, “Clerical Era: Syria gets Religion,” The New Republic (October 2, 2006), pp. 16-18.