The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “PASSION AND POLITICS: The Turbulent World of the Arabs” by Sandra Mackey from Chapter 4 “Nation and Colony” on page 97 and I quote: “The second ideology to come out of attempts of Arab nationalists to move away from Islam was more potent and enduring. The ideology of the Baath, or Renaissance Party, has rumbled through Arab politics for five decades. Its originators, Salah Bitar, a Sunni Muslim from Damascus, and Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian, studied together at the Sorbonne in Paris between 1928 and 1932. Returning to Damascus, they prowled the city in crumpled clothes, torn collars, and dirty fezzes. Unmarried, sometimes unemployed, forced to live on a pittance, they planned the Arab renaissance. By 1940, a year after World War II began in Europe, Aflaq and Bitar had gathered around them a cadre of intellectuals who met on Fridays, the Muslim day of rest. From the beginning of their political odyssey, Bitar played accompaniment for Aflaq.
Withdrawn and eccentric, Aflaq is often called the Gandhi of Arab nationalism. Taking something from Marxism and something from nineteenth-century romantic German nationalism, and super-imposing on them an Arab character, Aflaq poured out reams of nationalist rhetoric. Through his writings, he described the Arab nation as stretching back into the mists of time. Within its boundaries, he included both the mashriq and the maghrib as well as Celicia and Alexandretta in Turkey and Khuzistan, bridging northern Iraq and northwestern Iran. For Aflaq’s Arab nation to achieve deliverance from backwardness and foreign control, the Arabs had to break the shackles of religion, traditionalism, tribalism, and sectarianism. To Aflaq, the Baath Party he created was less a political organization than “an artistic creation that took the place of a novel or a poem. . . and he loved it as an artist would love his own creation.”
Aflaq’s ideology stressed nationalism, unity, secularism, and a vague theory of socialism, but most of all he talked of the Arab renaissance. “In the conditions of the Arab nation today we need a party and a movement that represents in the first place the element of spirit. . . . The true party, the living party, the one that can perform its message for the Arab nation today, is the party that makes its goal the birth of a nation, or its renaissance. . . .” In pursuit of this renaissance, Aflaq coined slogans that ranged from the visionary–”One Arab nation with an eternal mission”–to the banal–”Arabism is love.”
Aflaq’s call for an Arab revival came up against the classical problem of how to reconcile the transformation of Arab society with the orthodox values of Islam. Aflaq approached the dilemma by asserting that Islam was the most sublime expression of Arabism. One grew out of the other. Islam originated as an Arab religion, spoke through the Koran in the language of Arabic, embodied ancient Arab values, and launched the Arabs on the establishment of empire. Islam thus advanced beyond religion to become a culture that enfolded in the flowering of Arab genius. [FOOTNOTE: Aflaq’s arguments offended both Muslims and Christians. The Muslims found unacceptable Aflaq’s contention that Islam was anything other than the revelation of God. And Christians, bristling that his ideology sold out to Islam, dubbed him “Muhammed Aflaq.”]
Aflaq’s rhetoric and writings stayed largely encased in the educated class, where his vision of a single-independent Arab nation capable of transforming the Arab intellect and soul, its politics and society, found a following. For those drawn to the Baath, the slogan “Unity, Freedom, and Socialism” pulled the Arabs above their own unresolved conflicts and lifted from the collective psyche the burden of inferiority imposed by contact with the West. Finding in Aflaq’s often quixotic writings the answer to the impotence of the Arab world, they made of themselves the vanguard of a new age, rebels against all the old values. As such, they vowed to banish tribalism and other outmoded characteristics of Arab society to make way for the future Arab state. Yet they remained a small elite. It was not until April 4, 1947, that the first Baath Congress convened in Damascus, drawing 250 people. Baathism found prominence in the 1950s and finally came to power in Syria and Iraq in the 1960s. For those left from its beginning years, none believed that the romanticism and idealism of the Baath Party would end up in the hands of repressive regimes presided over by Hafiz Assad and Saddam Hussein.
One constant ran through the whole panoply of nationalist ideologies—the vague and amorphous feeling that the Arabs constitute one people destined to form one great nation. But simplicity often defies truth. While Europe consumed centuries cultivating a sense of allegiance to a nation-state, the process in the Middle East telescoped into two short decades. Between 1900 and 1920, Arab intellectuals vainly attempted to shift deep-rooted allegiances to family, village, and religion to the virgin concept of a nation stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates. But the drive to develop Arab nationalism faltered, unable to mount the existing realities, Arab nationalists were either unable or unwilling to seriously attack the cultural obstacles standing in the way of unity. The passion aroused by nationalist rhetoric was never able to surmount the group mentality that chains Arab society and drives its politics. As a consequence, Arabs throughout the Middle East floated between the mystique of the “Arab nation” and the security of parochialism within each of the Arab territories. In the end, the overwhelming strength of local priorities won out. Nationalism on any level other than the emotional ceased to be the glorification of the Arab nation and instead linked itself to a specific piece of land and a specific group of people. Although they nursed a desire to revive the wholeness they had possessed under Ottoman rule, the Arabs’ unity lived most in their hostility to the West. And it was strategies to break the Western hold on Arab land that fed the search for Arab destiny between the two world wars. Instead of operating in tandem, a near impossibility under the heel of colonial administrations, each territory on the new map of the Middle East trod its own path. Elements in Syria and Lebanon rebelled against French rule in 1925. Iraq won a form of independence from Britain in 1932, and Egypt in 1936 slipped some of its bonds of colonialism. In Palestine, the Arab population pulled against both the heavy load of British colonialism and the deadly threat of Zionism. It was this death struggle that kept before all Arabs the cause of pan-Arabism.
Palestinians dwell in the past, in the time before Western imperialism, Jewish nationalism, and their own mistakes combined to take their land. As if talking might somehow assuage their wounds, Palestinians pour out their personal and collective story to those who will listen. Over the years, I have covered Palestinian issues from the Persian Gulf to Beirut to the Israeli-occupied territories to Tunis. I have talked to Palestinians from every walk of life from refugees to Western-educated businessmen to the founding members of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction of the PLO. It is an exercise that is both fascinating and repetitious. Whether he or she is old enough to remember or not, each Palestinian has a personal or family story to tell about life in Palestine before the invasion of Zionism and the West. In the decades of exile and occupation, Palestine has assumed historic proportions for those who claim its soil. Over and over, those who retell the stories report that the fields produced the most golden of grain, the orchards the sweetest oranges, the groves the fattest olives. In Palestine, the sky is bluer, the ocean greener than anywhere in the world. These are images of people longing to return to the land of the ancestors or to break the shackles of alien rule. In their minds, desire and repetition combine to transform what was into a beauty beyond what the reality ever was. Usually the retelling of Palestine’s legend consumers significant amounts of time. But once I asked the well-dressed, middle-aged wife of a successful banker in Jordan to describe her vision of life in Palestine. She thought for a moment and then answered in one phrase. “We lived in paradise.”
Historic Palestine was a fragment of jagged geography lying east and west between the gentle shores of the eastern Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the dramatic dividing line between the verdant coastal plain and the bare, crusty hinterland. From north to south it extended from the soft pine-covered hills of the Galilee southward to the Dead Sea and on into the harsh dun of the Negev desert. Its precise boundaries were undefined in political terms because Palestine, by the measure of the modern nation-state system, never existed. [FOOTNOTE: Palestine is a name derived from the Philistines of the Bible.]
Hugging the Mediterranean coast and reaping the benefit of the rains carried in on the winds of the sea, Palestine shone like a jewel to the disparate tribes that moved out of the Arabian penninsula thousands of years ago. It was during the twentieth century B.C. That the Canaanites, a collection of tribes sharing a common language who are part of the mixed heritage of the present-day Palestinians, exercised dominion over Palestine. Then the Hebrews, led by the bearded, magnetic Moses, wandered out of the bleached hills of the eastern wilderness to assert a God-given right to the land of “milk and honey.” For generations, Canaanite defied Hebrew and Hebrew challenged Canaanite for ascendancy. Eventually, the Hebrews emerged dominant.
A thousand years before the Christian era began, David, the Hebrew king, proclaimed from his capital in Jerusalem the kingdom that still marks the high point of Hebrew history. Yet it would not last. Wracked by internal dissension and assaulted by outside powers, David’s kingdom eventually fell.
Lying at the Levantine crossroads of empires, Palestine for centuries served as a battleground for competing powers. By 63 B.C., the Romans possessed Palestine. And for several decades, it enjoyed a stability unknown during many of its years of independent existence. But on the death of Herod in A.D. 4, Palestine once again plunged into disorder. With the challenge to Roman rule coming from the Jews, Rome moved against them with vengeance. In A.D. 70, the Roman rulers demolished the Second Temple, leaving only its western wall. By A.D. 135, following a second revolt under Bar Kochba, the Jews scattered into their diaspora, leaving behind only a remnant. That remnant took up life side by side with the rest of Palestine’s indigenous population, creating another of those heterogeneous societies by which the Levant is defined.
Little changed in this relationship with the arrival of Islam. Most in Palestine were Christian when the Muslim armies arrived. In the centuries that followed, 10 percent of the population remained Christian. All in Palestine, Muslim, Christian, and Jew claimed a common ancestor—Abraham. Called Ibrahim by the Muslims, Abraham sired Ismail through Hagar and Isaac through Sarah. Each went on to found a nation, Muslim or Jewish. Yet both sprang from the same source, a fact central to the theology of Islam. An inscription that once hung over Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate perhaps best described general Arab attitudes toward Jews in the years before the twentieth century: “There is no God but Allah and Abraham is his friend.”
The Ottoman Turks never colonized Palestine in the sense of planting large numbers of their own people within its borders. Or did they even rule Palestine as a unit. The two northern districts were attached to the province of Beirut; areas across the Jordan River formed part of administrative Syria; while Jerusalem, a religious symbol central to the legitimacy of the Ottoman sultan, was governed directly from Constantinople. The Jews, secure in their identify as a distinct and unique people, regarded the Ottomans as nothing more or less than another colonial master, as did the Christian Arabs, 7.5 percent of the population. But the Muslim Arabs of Palestine, like other Arabs, found symmetry with an empire centered in Islam and balanced against the West. They did not even claim a name for themselves beyond “Arab.” Yet they recognized themselves as an amalgam of the indigenous people of their ancient land—Canaanite and Philistine and Ammorite, and some would claim even Hebrew. [FOOTNOTE: Although the distinct term “Palestinian” did not come into common usage until after 1948, it will be used throughout this chapter and the remaining chapters of this book to distinguish the Arabs of Palestine from the Arabs of the rest of the Arab world.] In the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, they were Arabs sharing Palestine with a small Jewish population. Three decades before the twentieth century reached midpoint, they would be Palestinians locked in a desperate fight for survival against a new group of Jews—the Zionists.
The watershed year in Palestine was 1877, the year before Jews out of the diaspora established the colony of Petah Tikve. The population of Palestine at the time stood at 600,000—roughly 515,000 Arab Muslims, 60,000 Arab Christians, and 25,000 Jews. The Jewish population, almost exclusively Orthodox, were the descendants of that remnant left behind in the great Jewish migration of A.D. 73. Clustered within close-knit communities in and around Jerusalem, they adhered to a traditional way of life. They posed no threat to Palestine’s Arab majority nor its Arab character, for culturally they also formed part of the collage that was the Levant.
In 1881, other Jews from outside began to arrive on Palestine’s shores. The first wave came out of Orthodox communities in eastern Europe. Like the Jews already living in Palestine, most were pious and apolitical, seeking only to live in the land of Abraham. But in 1882, Jews aflame with the Zionist ideology of Jewish nationalism and the vision of establishing a Jewish homeland on the ancient stones of Palestine began to arrive. Coming principally out of Poland and Russia, they followed the example set by Petah Tikva, the original Zionist colony, established near what is now Tel Aviv. Establishing small agricultural communities, the new influx of Jews scattered over the coastal plain, into the hills of Galilee, and over the western approaches to Jerusalem. Ignoring both the existing Jewish communities and the region’s dominant Arab Population, they remained separate. For these new immigrants were not in Palestine to assimilate but to reclaim Eretz Israel. [FOOTNOTE: Hebrew for “land of Israel.”] The whole pattern of invasion and assimilation that had marked the long history of the Levant changed, and with it the Levant itself.”
(YOU CAN SEE, AFTER READING THIS SEGMENT, IN HOW FAR THE ZIONISTS HAVE MOVED TO THE RIGHT IN PALESTINE AND WHY BENJAMIN NETANHAYU, WHO JUST GOT REELECTED THIS YEAR (2015), IS TALKING LIKE HE IS. WILL WE EVER GET A SETTLEMENT BETWEEN THE ARABS AND THE JEWS? IT’S DOUBTFUL, BECAUSE OVER THE YEARS, WHILE THE ZIONISTS ARE INCREASING IN THEIR STANDARD OF LIVING, THE ARABS ARE CONSTANTLY FALLING BEHIND. CBS 60 MINUTES, SUNDAY, MARCH 22, 2015, HAS THE TWO OF THEIR BEST PROGRAMS BACK TO BACK –THE OTHER ONE BEING “MADAME SECRETARY” DETAILING LIFE OF SECRETARY OF STATE AND HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO THE PRESIDENT.
LaVern Isely, Progressive, Independent, Overtaxed Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen and AARP Members