2002 November 06 Wednesday
Mark Bowden: Baathism Not The Ruling Ideology Of Iraq

Writing on the Innocents Abroad blog John Coumarianos has written an interesting analysis of David Brooks's essay on Michel Aflaq and the origins of the Baath Party. Says Coumarianos:

This is not "us" against "them" in a "clash of civilizations;" it's us against......us. Islamism embodies both the Left and Right Western critiques of liberalism. The Left says that we lack the equality we espouse and that we foster selfishness; the Right says that we're boring, un-spiritual, and ignoble. We should not be completely surprised about what we are up against and what the perennial points of attack against liberalism are. Given the fact that Islamism already represents a kind of "Westernization," the real question is whether Fukuyama is justified in his hopefulness that this mixture of Marxism and fascism can lead eventually to liberalism, as fascism did in Germany and Marxism did in Russia.

Coumarianos makes a number of good points. But his claim that there is a lack of "clash of civilizations" doesn't hold up. Yes, Arab intellectuals incorporated some of the lousier European political ideas into Arab nationalist thinking. Yes, some of what we are fighting amounts to bad ideas of Western Civilization adopted by members of other civilizations. But the reason these Western ideas were so attractive to begin with is that they provided an intellectual basis (no matter how flimsy or wrong) to oppose other Western ideas that Arab nationalists and Islamists already found objectionable. In other words, fascism and other ideas were attractive because they served as useful intellectual tools for propaganda and for organizing in opposition to other Western influences.

Similarly, one can read too much into Aflaq's presence in the Iraqi government in the latter part of Aflaq's life. I've read elsewhere (and its been too long to recall where) that Saddam invited Aflaq to Iraq basically for window dressing. Saddam wanted the bit of added legitimacy that he'd gain in the minds of Arab intellectuals from having Aflaq serving in some minor government ministry post. Aflaq wasn't in Iraq because Saddam embraced Baathist ideology but rather because Saddam wanted to sucker in the people who did embrace Baathist ideology.

Saddam is far more a tribal leader than a party man. See the essay "Tales Of A Tyrant" written by Mark Bowden in the May 2002 issue of The Atlantic for a good sense of how Saddam has cynically used Baathism as a tool as he built up his base of power using the same old rule by most powerful family clan:

The party seized control in 1968, and Saddam immediately became the real power behind his cousin Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, the president and chairman of the new Revolutionary Command Council. Al-Ali was a member of that council. He was responsible for the north-central part of Iraq, including his home village. It was in Tikrit that he started to see Saddam's larger plan unfold. Saddam's relatives in al-Awja were throwing their newly ascendant kinsman's name around, seizing farms, ordering people off their land. That was how things worked in the villages. If a family was lucky, it produced a strongman, a patriarch, who by guile, strength, or violence accumulated riches for his clan. Saddam was now a strongman, and his family was moving to claim the spoils. This was all ancient stuff. The Baath philosophy was far more egalitarian. It emphasized working with Arabs in other countries to rebuild the entire region, sharing property and wealth, seeking a better life for all. In this political climate Saddam's family was a throwback. The local party chiefs complained bitterly, and al-Ali took their complaints to his powerful young friend. "It's a small problem," Saddam said. "These are simple people. They don't understand our larger aims. I'll take care of it." Two, three, four times al-Ali went to Saddam, because the problem didn't go away. Every time it was the same: "I'll take care of it."

It finally occurred to al-Ali that the al-Khatab family was doing exactly what Saddam wanted them to do. This seemingly modern, educated young villager was not primarily interested in helping the party achieve its idealistic aims; rather, he was using the party to help him achieve his. Suddenly al-Ali saw that the polish, the fine suits, the urbane tastes, civilized manner, and the socialist rhetoric were a pose. The real story of Saddam was right there in the tattoo on his right hand. He was a true son of Tikrit, a clever al-Khatab, and he was now much more than the patriarch of his clan.

Racially and tribally based regimes predate the creation of modern fascism. Absent a European intellectual influence the Middle East would still have regimes that were centered around powerful families and clan loyalty with identification extending further out into ethnic group and religious identity. Consanguinity is the biggest underappreciated factor in Western analyses of Middle Eastern politics. Most Western political theorists seem blind to the importance of pre-ideological kinship-based political bonds in large part because those bonds are not derived from embrace of abstract Western ideological models of how societies and political systems should be organized. Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations argument is therefore demonstrated by the Western inability to understand societies that do not fit into any recognizeable modern Western ideological political category.

Update: Mark Bowden is interviewed here about his article on Saddam Hussein:

Does he conform to some kind of typical pattern? Are there aspects of his personality or situation that stand out as unusual?

Some things about him are different. In modern times tyrants have tended to be motivated primarily by ideology. So you have Pol Pot and Mao and Stalin and Hitler and Castro, all of whom were driven by fantasies of creating a higher social order. And then you have tyrants like Mobutu Sese-Sekou and Idi Amin and Papa Doc Duvalier, who were primarily motivated by greed—who were just trying to amass as much power, and have sex with as many women, and eat as much food as they could. Saddam is different in that he appears to be motivated primarily by vanity. And by this romantic fascination with Arabian history—the glory of Arabia.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 November 06 02:19 PM  Axis Of Evil

Andrea Harris said at November 6, 2002 9:24 PM:

I've often thought that the people who profess to be concerned with the "destruction of the American family" take note of what goes on in those parts of the world where the "ties that bind" _really_ bind. The best analogy I can make that might get the idea across to blinded intellectuals of the left and right is that of the Mafia clans -- but even those types of closed-in familial systems are but feeble shadows of the Middle-Eastern and Central Asian tribal model.

Randall Parker said at November 6, 2002 11:37 PM:

Andrea, Yes, its incredibly ironic. Extended families that are incredibly tightly bound are really the enemy of civil society because the alliances of family override any consideration of fairness to people in the larger society. Yet this obvious fact is missing from 99% of the discussions about what is wrong with the Middle East. How can we transform Iraq into a modern liberal democracy if every government worker sees a government job as a route to helping out his clan at the expense of other clans? I keep raising this question because its absolutely core. People have got to stop marrying their cousins and second cousins. Even if that is done it will take a couple of generations before the results fully work thru those societies.

razib said at November 7, 2002 11:20 PM:

communism + china, positivism + latin america, fascism + the middle east, etc. etc.

these are simply superficial philosophical labels swimming on a much deeper cultural ocean that is not really effected by the western ideals that the elites prattle about. you scratch the skin of an arab intellectual, and you get the arab street.

also, aflaq converted to islam before he died ... so said the iraqi regime. so much for baath secularism. appearences matter too...just not the ones you would expect for a western ideology.

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