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A Greek Orthodox Christian Syrian, Michel Aflaq (1910–1989) became one of two founders, along with his Muslim countryman, Salah al-Din Bitar, of the Baath (Ba’th; “rebirth” or “resurrection”) Party in the early 1940s. He was regarded as the party’s leading thinker. Aflaq considered Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to be a charismatic leader for the Arabs and, with the idea that Baathists could play a leading role in what he saw as the beginning of a pan-Arab state, lent his support to the formation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958. However, Baathists were disappointed with their actual role in the UAR, leading some of them, not including Aflaq, to endorse its breakup in 1961. Aflaq participated in abortive attempts to form another UAR in 1963, following Baathist coups in both Iraq and Syria.
He gave up his position as Secretary General of the National (i.e., pan-Arab) Command in 1965, and took refuge in Europe and Brazil after a radical military faction of the Baath, which he opposed, took power in Damascus in 1966. After the Baathist takeover in Iraq in 1968, Aflaq returned to the Middle East, at first living mainly in Beirut before moving to Baghdad, where he became Secretary General of the Iraqi sponsored Baathist National Command (a bitter rival to the Syrian-backed National Command). The position was essentially symbolic. Aflaq allegedly converted to Islam late in life.
Aflaq was involved in politics from childhood, as his nationalist father suffered imprisonment both by the Ottomans, who ruled the country until 1918, and by France, to whom the League of Nations assigned Syria as a mandated territory. At age eighteen, he went to Paris to study history, philosophy, and literature at the Sorbonne, where he established an Arab student organization before returning home in 1932. Aflaq worked as a history teacher in secondary school for the next ten years. In Paris, he was influenced by Marxist ideas and even contributed to a communist periodical, but never joined the Communist Party, about which he apparently had reservations. Eventually, in his own words, he “became disenchanted and felt betrayed” when the Popular Front government of Leon Blum in France failed to end France’s colonialist policies. This caused Aflaq to think instead of creating a synthesis of socialism and Arab nationalism.
His three attempts to win a seat in the Syrian parliament during the 1940s failed, apparently at least in part because of electoral fraud, resulting in Aflaq’s disillusionment with the democratic route to change. His political activities led to imprisonment for short periods. Aflaq briefly held a cabinet position as minister of education in 1949, after which he decided to play the role of party philosopher rather than office holder. He published numerous essays and short stories portraying the ills of traditional Arab society and calling for change along socialist, democratic, and nationalist lines. Aflaq was not a dynamic speaker but he was effective in talking to small groups, with whom his interaction is said to have been much like that with students during his teaching days. He was noted for his “frugal” lifestyle and for refraining from using his influence for personal gain.
- Aflak [Aflaq], Michel. Choice of Texts from the Ba’th Party Founder’s Thought. N.p.: Arab Ba’th Socialist Party, 1977.
- Aflaq, Michel. In the Cause of the Baath:The Complete Political Writings of Michel Aflaq, 2009, http://albaath.online.fr/index.htm.
- Babikian, N. Salem. “A Partial Reconstruction of Michel Aflaq’s Thought: The Role of Islam in the Formulation of Arab Nationalism.” The Muslim World 67 (October 1977): 280–294.
- Binder, Leonard. The Ideological Revolution in the Middle East. New York: Wiley, 1964.
- Devlin, John F. “Aflaq, Michel.” In Political Leaders of the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Bernard Reich, 32–39. New York: Greenwood, 1990.
- Khadduri, Majid. Arab Contemporaries:The Role of Personalities in Politics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
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