Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters recently celebrated the fifty-first anniversary of what they refer to as “the March 8 Revolution.” On that day in 1963, a hastily assembled military junta overthrew then president Nazim al-Kudsi and declared itself in control of Syria. Within a few months, officers loyal to the Baath Party had outmaneuvered their allies and assumed sole control. Five decades later, the party is still clinging to power.
The Founder: Michel Aflaq
Today, the Baath Arab Socialist Party—baath is Arabic for “renaissance”—is a mere arm of the ruling apparatus, with no more intellectual independence than a police force or a ministry. But it started as a highly ideological movement of protest against French colonial control, led by the Arab nationalist philosopher Michel Aflaq.
Awkward as a public figure and very much not a soapbox politician, Aflaq’s musings on the historical role of the Arab nation still managed to infuse a generation of young radicals with a sense of purpose and a fierce commitment to anti-imperialism. During the 1940s and 1950s, branches of the party sprang up in several Arab countries, all held together by the top leadership in Damascus.
Aflaq’s problem was that he could never control the party he created. His formative period had been one of intellectual struggle against European colonialism, but with independence in 1946 came an unfamiliar mix of unruly mass movements, sectarian agitation, and military coups. By the early 1960s, most young Baathists spent more time following Palestinian guerrilla action than parsing the party founder’s never-ending essays on national rebirth—and just as it was on the cusp of becoming a real regional force, the Baath Party was ripped apart by an explosion of generational, ideological, social, and sectarian tensions.
The 1966 Baath Party Split
In February 1966, three years after seizing power in Syria, the burgeoning intraparty opposition finally ousted Aflaq and his allies. A radical, socialist Baath regime dominated by Alawite military officers took power, installing Hafez al-Assad as Syria’s new minister of defense. Five years later, after a rash of merciless political and sectarian purges, Assad had eliminated all rivals and appointed himself president.
The 1966 coup had split the Baath Party into two rival factions. While the officers in Damascus quickly reorganized a loyal party leadership, Aflaq fled to Beirut and continued to act as the Baath’s historical leader. He retained the allegiance of some Syrians and many Baathists in other countries.
Court Intellectual in Baghdad
On July 16, 1968, a wing of the party aligned with Aflaq seized power in Iraq. The strongman of the new Baath regime in Baghdad was in fact a former personal protégé of Aflaq’s: a young party tough from Tikrit by the name of Saddam Hussein.
After a period of mild disagreements over foreign policy, Hussein’s wing of the Baath Party government arranged for Aflaq to relocate permanently to Baghdad, where he was made fixture of regime ceremony and hailed as al-qaid al-muassis, “the founding leader.” Aflaq was encouraged to continue writing, and in the following years he kept adding new chapters to his ideological tome, Fi Sabil al-Baath. Still, he was never given a real political role—and for all his fancy titles, he was never allowed to contradict Saddam Hussein.
When Aflaq passed away in 1989 after many years of faithful service to Hussein, the Iraqi leader arranged for a lavish Islamic funeral—even though Aflaq was well-known as a Greek Orthodox Christian and strictly secular to boot.
During the disastrous Iran-Iraq war of 1980–1988, Hussein had begun to employ religious rhetoric to rebuild his crumbling legitimacy. In addition, Iranian wartime propaganda had played up Aflaq’s religious background, as well as his political importance, in order to portray the Iraqi invasion as a conspiracy against Islam.
At Aflaq’s funeral, Hussein insisted that Aflaq had, in fact, secretly converted in 1980 and taken the Muslim name “Ahmed Michel Aflaq.” And so, the dead philosopher ended up interred in a blue-domed mausoleum covered in Quranic engravings, just down the road from Hussein’s Republican Palace in Baghdad.
The Haunting of Aflaq’s Tomb
Not quite fifteen years later, the Iraqi capital fell to the invading U.S. Army. Central Baghdad was sealed off and turned into the Green Zone, a heavily securitized area for government offices and foreign forces, catered to by an anthill of foreign and Iraqi contractors.
The mausoleum of Aflaq, who had dedicated his life to expelling Western forces from the Arab world, ended up inside the Green Zone. An American civilian contractor visited it in 2006 and found that it had been put to use in unintended ways:
When you look inside, and before you get to the headstone, you pass a foosball table. Weights and a bench press are adjacent to the tomb. The US military has converted the interior to a rec room. A dusty chandelier is attached to the ceiling, which is decorated with a sort of faux-mosaic. The walls have been covered with wood, for reasons that are not immediately evident. Perhaps to allow for bookshelves? Two stairs lead down from either side of the grave to cramped, makeshift barracks constructed with plywood. There are dozens of soldiers who live beneath Aflaq’s grave.
To have his mausoleum turned into a gym for occupying U.S. soldiers would seem bad enough an afterlife for the man who dedicated his life to radical Arab nationalism. But as it turned out, this was only the beginning of Aflaq’s postmortem tribulations. A few years later, as the U.S. presence in Iraq drew to an end, the Aflaq mausoleum was turned into a shopping mall. Journalists from the U.S. military magazine Stars & Stripes passed by in 2010 and noted that Aflaq’s grave now hosted a supermarket stuffed with kitsch goods, “selling pirated DVDs, jogging suits and miniature carpets emblazoned with the words ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ to U.S. soldiers and security guards from Peru and Uganda.”
Whatever deeper meaning one might find in this, it was hardly the epitaph that Aflaq hoped for.