No political figure in the Arab World has been misunderstood or misrepresented, both as a thinker and as an agitator, as Antun Sa'adeh. The founder of the School of Social Nationalism has been called all sorts of things - fascist, Nazist, shu'ubist (i.e., anti-Arab), etc…; he has been billed as a collaborator not to one but several foreign states including, of all, the Zionist State; and his ideology has been disfigured by resonant concepts and views wrenched out of context, turned upside down and then cited as apparently divine justification for the most brutal inhumanities. Some 'critics' have even succumbed to the error of imagining Sa'adeh as an agent of Satan.
As an illustration of this, I have chosen Paul Salem's recent edition Bitter Legacy: Ideology and Politics in the Arab World.(1) On reading the section in the book on Antun Sa'adeh, I was stunned by the number of inaccuracies and factual errors made about Sa'adeh and his party, especially by a writer who is generally highly articulate and analytically objective. However, instead of producing an article-style critique, I have opted to reproduce the section in its entirety and place my remarks and observations in bold as we move from one section to another.
The appearance of Syrian Nationalism
Salem begins his analysis by tracing Syrian Nationalism to the "Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic Christians of the coastal and inner towns of Syria."
There are two major problems with this approach. First, Salem is insinuating that the Syria idea was, at its birth, a Christian confessional response to a predominant Muslim milieu. This is a major factual error because, of all the nationalist ideas that appeared in that time, only the Syria idea took on a secular and cross-sectional character. For example both the Syrian Society (1847) and the Syrian Scientific Society (1867) had Christians as well as Muslims among their members. Moreover, the banner of Syrian nationalism, when it passed to the Syrian emigrants in Egypt, the United States and Europe after the 1880s, was carried forward by intellectual activists on both sides of the religious divide - on the Muslim side, for example, we can mention al-Kawakibi and Rashid Rida and on the Christian side, Farah Antun and Shibli Shumayyil. Indeed, the most extensive writing about the Syrian national cause was done outside Syria. The Syrian intellectuals who migrated in order to avoid Hamid's oppressive rule founded, in their new surroundings, various cultural and political societies and newspapers that focused on Syria in one way or another. The Cairo-based al-Muqqattam, for example, was "the first independent newspaper to endeavour in the cause of Syrian nationalism." Another was Jurji Zaydan's al-Hilal which discussed in an extensive way the main themes of the Syrian idea, though sometimes from a purely Arabist perspective.
Second, the pioneer of Syrian nationalism was neither "Greek Orthodox nor Greek Catholic", but a Maronite, namely Butrus Bustani, who has been billed as "probably the first Syrian nationalist."(2) Bustani first propagated the Syrian national idea in Naffir Suriyya (The Clarion of Syria), a broadsheet which he published in the wake of the sectarian unrest of 1860. In this short-lived publication, Bustani urged the people to brush aside their sectarian grievances and adopt patriotism as a principle of life. In a style of language designed to appeal to the patriotic conscience of the people, Bustani told his audience that it was against the "spirit of the age" to confine individual loyalty to religious sects or to substitute sectarian fanaticism for the love of the fatherland. His motto was "God belongs to religion but the fatherland belongs to everyone." (3)
Bustani was at pains to emphasize the importance of unity for a national revival in Syria. "The backwardness of the Syrians," he wrote, "is the outcome of lack of unity and love among them, and of the lack in them of earnest concern for the welfare of their country, and of their surrender to the power of sectarian fanaticism."(4)
Another influential name was the Maronite Archbishop of Beirut, Youssef Dibs. His History of Syria was the first comprehensive history compiled about the country, and even though it was written from a Christian point of view, it referred to the existence of an exclusively Syrian national cause.(5) In subsequent years, it would be the Maronite intellectuals, like Gibran and Amin Rihani, who would become the standard bearers of the Syrian national cause.(6)
The Syrian Social Nationalist Party: The Power of Proto-Fascist Ultranationalist Party Politics
Antun Sa'adeh was born to a Lebanese Greek Orthodox family in Shuwayr, Lebanon, in 1904. His father, Khalil Sa'adeh, a prominent physician with a passion for political issues, lived in Egypt for a few years before moving to Sao Paolo where his son joined him in 1920. Together, they published al-majallah, a journal for the predominantly Christian expatriate community, which promoted ideas of Syrian independence and political secularism. Antun Sa'adeh's coming of age in Brazil of the 1920s had a decisive effect on the formation of his political views. First, while Arab and Lebanese nationalism were emerging as the main expressions of nationalist sentiment in Syria and Lebanon to the disadvantage of Syrian nationalism, Sa'adeh developed a concept of Syrian nationalism based on a "Syrian" identity that had been popular among Syrian and Lebanese Melchites of his parents' generation but was being eclipsed at home by Lebanese and Arab identities. This notion of a "Syrian" identity, however, which had gained prominence during the late nineteenth century, had been preserved intact in the Syrian and Lebanese expatriate communities of South America. Furthermore, as Thomas Philipp shows, the idea of a separate "Syrian" identity had also grown among the important Levantine community in Egypt who separate "Syrianness" became more conspicuous with the rise of Egyptian nationalism (Philipp 1985, 114). In other words, Sa'adeh's choice of "Syria" as the focus of his nationalistic and patriotic yearnings very much reflects the mood and identity patterns of Lebanese and Syrian expatriate communities both in Egypt and in America to which his father and himself were exposed.
In terms of content, Sa'adeh was impressed by the fascism that was growing in Europe and being imitated in the Latin countries of America. He understood its ability to mobilize mass support and create a powerful state.
A closer examination of Sa'adeh's writings and formative ideas in the 1920s and 1930s do not reveals any concrete evidence that Sa'adeh was influence by fascism or that he admired its methods. We challenge Paul Salem to produce a single piece of textual evidence to support this outrageous claim. Neither fascism nor Nazism was a powerful current in Egypt and Brazil where Sa'adeh spent a greater part of his early life.
Indeed, Sa'adeh would establish his Syrian Social Nationalist Party along fascist lines. As Pipes noted, "Party rituals imitated the fascists in many details, from the Hitler-like salute and the anthem set to 'Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles,' to the party's symbols, a curved swastika called 'the red hurricane'" (Pipes 1988, 304).
This is both absurd and bizarre. Daniel Pipes is hardly an authority on Sa'adeh and his crusade against the SSNP (and anything Syrian) is plain as the nose on the face. As to the claim that Sa'adeh imitated fascism's exterior formalities, the following has to be said:
1. Hitler-like salute: there is no resemblance at all, except for the use of the right arm which is to all salutes, between the salute of the SSNP and the Nazi's: one is stretched out and the other is clearly bent. They represent two separate ideals. At any rate, salute is a mark of all revolutionary movements, not a benchmark for ideological judgment.
2. Anthem: the contention that the SSNP anthem is a replica of the German 'Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles,' was popularized by Michael Suleiman in his book Political Parties in Lebanon and since then has been picked up by almost every 'scholar' (including Pipes and Salem) on Middle Eastern affairs. Distinctly from other anthems that extol aggression (the French La Marseillaise and the US Star Spangled Banner), the Social Nationalist anthem is directed at the peace of Syria and centers on the beautiful elements of its land and people and the sublime principles that the SSNP brings. The SSNP thus seeks peace for Syria, but it is the peace of a liberated unified and prosperous Syria where a Social Nationalist order prevails.
3. The curved swastika: the SSNP symbol has been widely misunderstood and often confused with the Swastika. Suffice to say that the "Tempest" (Zawba'a), which stands for the spiritual unity of the Syrian people, was devised before and not after the Swastika became a German national symbol in 1934.
Sa'adeh learned German and was heavily influenced by German writing on nationalism, racism, and fascism.
This is a remarkable generalization about Sa'adeh. A closer scrutiny of Sa'adeh's writings shows that Sa'adeh dismissed German literature on nationalism and race and inclined toward the scientific sociological discourse of Morrison MacIver.(7) In doing so, Sa'adeh excluded the notion of race as a criterion of nationality. In one of his most vigorous statements against the national socialist conception of the N.S.D.A.P, he declared: "The alleged purity of the race or the blood of any nation is a groundless myth. It is found only in savage groups, and even there it is rare."(8) For the same reason, Sa'adeh reproached both Count Gobineau and Chamberlain, the forefathers of National Socialism, and Pascal Mancini who unconsciously lapsed into the use of the catchword race in defining the concept of the nation.
Armed with his patriotism and ambition, Antun Sa'adeh arrived in Beirut in 1929 and took a position teaching German at the American University of Beirut. From there, he had ready access to students and other intellectuals of the country and wasted no time in trying to organize a Syrian nationalist movement. In 1934, he founded the Syrian Social Nationalist party with a small and secretive band of followers.
Sa'adeh arrived in Beirut in 1930 not in 1929 and founded the Syrian National Party in 1932 not 1934.
As mentioned, the SSNP was fashioned along fascist lines with Sa'adeh as its supreme leader. Its objectives were the unification and liberation of Syria and the establishment of a strong and secular state. It was ready to use any and all means at its disposal to achieve those objective. Within months, the ranks of the party swelled with new branches sprouting in the town and cities of Lebanon and Syria. It proved especially popular among the Greek Orthodox community as well as among students and intellectuals who appreciated the movement's secularism and its modern attitude toward state and society. By the late 1930's, the SSNP was the most powerful organized party in the political arena.
This portrayal of the SSNP formative period lacks historical accuracy and contains several unsubstantiated claims. For instance, how do we know for certain that the SSNP was "especially popular among the Greek Orthodox community" when a census of its early membership composition has never been undertaken! Also, what are we to make out of the statement that the party "was ready to use any and all means at its disposal to achieve those objective."?
Indeed, the party's strength and rapid growth were astonishing. Apparently, it filled a gap in an increasingly volatile political environment that none of the liberal nationalist movements had succeeded in filling.
There was no "liberal nationalist movements" in Syria at the time. All that existed were political blocs centred on individual families or influential personalities who no idea of national work. Sa'adeh's ability to break through this anachronistic network was one of his most important achievements.
It showed the power of party organization and the appeal of totalitarian ideologies. Its success hastened the formation of rival political parties impressed with its success but apprehensive about its political message. The establishment of the Kata'ib party, the Ba'th, and Akram Hurani's Arab Socialist party can all be traced partially to the reaction against the rapid growth of the SSNP.
The SSNP's early success, however, cannot be understood in isolation from popular attitudes toward Germany and the rising fascist powers of Europe. As Bassam Tibi has pointed out, the interwar period in Syria and some other parts of the Arab world was characterized by a marked Germanophilia. France and Britain had reneged on their wartime promises to the Arabs and now presided over an unpopular colonial administration stretching from Iraq to Palestine. Germany was regarded as the only serious challenger to French and British power - a theme which German agents tirelessly promoted. Furthermore, a frustrated colonial population was attracted to the machismo and defiance expressed in the fascism developed in Italy, German, and Franco's Spain. Sa'adeh's SSNP was the principal expression in the Arab world of this fascist impulse and the promise held out for Arab peoples by Germany and the other antiliberal regimes. A pseudofascist nationalist organization in Egypt, Misr al-fatat (Young Egypt), did not gain the power or prominence of the SSNP.
This is again shallow talk. Sa'adeh maintained the same distance with the Axis powers as he did with Britain and France. In his first platform speech to the party in 1935 he stated: "We feel now the existence of a strong Italian propaganda in this country in particular, and in the Near East in general. We feel a similar propaganda from Germany and similar ones from other countries. The Leadership of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party warns all its members against falling prey to foreign propaganda. We recognize that there are considerations which call for the establishment of friendly relations between Syria and foreign nations, in particular the European states, but we do not believe in the principle of propaganda. Syrian thought must remain free and independent. When it comes to foreign relations, we are always ready to clasp the hands that are extended to us with a frank, good intention and in a situation of common understanding and agreement.
In any case, after its founding in 1934, the party and its leaders were continuously in trouble with the mandate authorities. In 1935, the French discovered the existence of the party and sent Sa'adeh and several of his lieutenants to jail. Released after six months, Sa'adeh was jailed again in what became a regular pattern of SSNP defiance of government authority. On a tour of Italy, Germany and Brazil in 1939 to gather support for his cause, Sa'adeh was stranded in South America when World War II broke out. He could not return to Lebanon or Syria because the French clamped down on the SSNP, suspecting it of complicity with Axis powers. The party, however, was allowed to resume its activities in 1944 in the wake of Lebanese independence; because Sa'adeh was still in South America, one of his lieutenants assumed chairmanship of the party's organization. To accommodate itself to the popular enthusiasm for Lebanese independence, the SSNP renamed itself the Social party and, in Sa'adeh's absence, charted a new course respectful of Lebanese sovereignty and focusing mainly on domestic Lebanese issues.
There are several problems with this passage, but I will deal with only two. First, the term "lieutenants" is intended to convey a militaristic image although neither Sa'adeh nor his 'aides" had any previous experience in military or militia life. On the contrary, the entire leadership of the SSNP was overwhelmingly educated civilians and professional graduates. Second, the SSNP renamed itself "Social" after Sa'adeh's return in 1947, not during his absence, and it did so not in order to "accommodate itself to the popular enthusiasm for Lebanese independence" but to distinguish its political ideology from existing ones.
Sa'adeh, however, returned to Lebanon in 1947 and quickly set out to purge the party of its conciliatory leadership and to re-establish the themes of Syrian nationalism and Syrian unity. His hostility to the Lebanese state inevitable led to clashes with the government and, after a failed coup attempt, to his capture and execution in July 1949. After Sa'adeh's death, party headquarters were moved to Damascus where a more sympathetic government prevailed. But in Syria, the SSNP came into direct competition with the Ba'th. The founders of the Ba'th, Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, had long discussions with Sa'adeh before founding the Ba'th, reportedly suggesting that Sa'adeh rename the SSNP the Arab Social Nationalist party. Akram Hurani, founder of the Arab Socialist party that had eventually merged with the Ba'th in 1953, had been a member of the SSNP for several years before founding his own organization. But now, the SSNP and the Ba'th were in open competition, advocating contradictory Syrian and Arab nationalist ideologies. The showdown came in 1955 when the SSNP attempted a coup against the Ba'th - dominated government. During the attempt, a SSNP member shot and killed Lieutenant Colonel 'Adnan Maliki, one of the most powerful Ba'thist officer in the army. The Ba'th struck back by purging SSNP members from the government and the army, outlawing the party and riving its leaders from Syria.
It is not true that the SSNP "attempted a coup against the Ba'th - dominated government" in 1955. Nor is it true that Colonel 'Adnan Maliki was a Ba'thist officer. As to the SSNP's role in the assassination of Maliki, it is not widely accepted that the leadership of the party had no prior knowledge or involvement in the whole affair. Even Baathists, like General Tlas - the current Syrian Defense Minister - has readily conceded that the incident was instigated and planned most likely by the Egyptian Secret Service.
The SSNP was dealt a further blow by a brutal attack on SSNP ideology written by Sati'al-Husri, the foremost theoretician of Arab nationalism, who had previously dealt respectfully with Sa'adeh and his ideology.
Husri's critique strengthened the pan-Arabist front against the SSNP but had no adverse effect on the growth and popularity of the party. In fact, Husri's critique was published to offset a sudden upsurge of support for the SSNP owing to popular disgust with the brutal way with which Sa'adeh was tried and executed.
Defeated in Syria, the SSNP regained breathing space in Lebanon by supporting President Chamoun's government against his Arab nationalist opponents in 1958. The SSNP soon ran afoul of the Lebanese authorities, however, as a result of another failed coup attempt in Lebanon in December 1961. This defeat, and the collapse of the UAR in September 1961 set the stage for a rapprochement between the SSNP and the Ba'th party. Persecuted in Lebanon, the SSNP needed to regain some refuge in Syria; meanwhile, some Syrian members and officers of the Ba'th party who had suffered under the Nasir unity experiment and who had become disillusioned with the goal of immediate pan-Arab unity had begun to see some merit in the SSNP slogan of pan-Syrian unity. It echoed irredentist Ba'thist slogans but put Syria comfortably at the centre of a Greater Syrian state instead of at the sidelines of an Egyptian-dominated pan-Arab state. This new regionalism within the Syrian wing of the Ba'th party contributed to the split within party ranks that culminated in the 1966 putsch against the old guard of the party. As the Syrian Ba'th in effect adopted the Greater Syria foreign policy objectives of the SSNP, the SSNP began to sound more like the Ba'th. It abandoned fascist principles and adopted instead the rhetoric and slogans of the Left. Furthermore, it fell in line with Arab nationalist slogans by declaring that the unification of Greater Syria could be regarded as just a step toward the establishment of a larger Arab state. The transformation was rapid and thorough.
This is all rhetoric. Although a definite transformation between and inside the Baath and the SSNP has taken place over the years, this transformation has been "political" rather than "ideological. The concept of Arab nation has remained a central theme in Baathist discourse as much as Natural Syria is to the Syrian nationalists. The SSNP has never said that the "unification of Greater Syria could be regarded as just a step toward the establishment of a larger Arab state" but toward the establishment of an "Arab Front": the difference between "Arab Front" and "Arab nation" is clear and apparent.
When the Lebanese ware broke out, the SSNP was lined up alongside other leftist Arabist parties and enjoyed very close relations with the Syrian government. Indeed, the SSNP and the Syrian Ba'th had become nearly indistinguishable, as members of the former party joined the latter and served in the Syrian government. Throughout the Lebanese war, the SSNP proved an effective and well-disciplined militia almost entirely under Syrian control with a deserved reputation for daring action. Although there were a number of schismatic attempts to free the party from direct Syrian government influence, under the leadership of Isam al-Mahayri, the party's first Syrian-born and Muslim leader who succeeded to power in 1984, the SSNP came to lie more than ever under Syrian control.
The Ideology of Syrian
Sa'adeh's thought had its roots in the racial and totalitarian nationalist theories popularised by the rise of European fascism in the inter-war period. Fascistic elements were "clearly expressed in Sa'adeh's exalted status, the party's organization, and its ideology, including the stress on bloodlines and mystical nationalism" (Pipes 1988, 304). Sa'adeh admitted that his thought resembled that of the Italian and German fascists but insisted that his nationalist philosophy, Social Nationalism, was original and a product of the history and intelligence of the Syrian nation to which he belonged (Sa'adeh 1959, 32).
We went back to this source and found no such admission (i.e., that Sa'adeh admitted that his thought resembled that of the Italian and German fascists).
Indeed, Sa'adeh's social nationalism should not be misread as Hitler's national socialism, for the Arabic equivalents of social and socialist have entirely different roots (social, ijtima'I, socialist, ishtiraki). Furthermore, Sa'adeh's understanding of Syrian history and the Syrian nation is not altogether dissimilar to the ideas put forward by Father Lammens. Here, however, little evidence links Sa'adeh's ideas about Syria to those of Lammens, for Sa'adeh had formulated his concepts of Syrian nationalism abroad and was influenced much more by German writing than those of French authors. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the propinquity of their views about Syrian nationhood gave Sa'adeh a head start in promoting his Syrian nationalist movement in Lebanon and Syria.
Here again, Salem insists that Sa'adeh was influenced by European, and specifically German, discourses without providing a single evidence to substantiate his claim. The bibliography at the end of his treatise 'The Rise of Nations' shows that the literature that Sa'adeh consulted was mainly British and American rather than German. More importantly, his observations and conclusions in that treatise cast a shadow of doubt on German racialist thinkers like Gobineau and Chamberlain.
The "origin of nations," argued Sa'adeh in his book by the same name, is based on "a shared life over generations within a territorial boundary" (Sa'adeh 1938, 169). He, thus, credited material over linguistic and cultural factors with the leading role in shaping the boundaries and characteristics of nations. Natural barriers, he argued, defined the limits of a society reach, and vegetation, climate, and topography determined its means of livelihood and way of life. In basing his nationalism on territorial and material principles, Sa'adeh, of course, was at odds with most of the Arab nationalists of his day who based Arab nationalism on principles of common language and history. In defining the territorial limits of Syria, however, Sa'adeh was not altogether consistent. Until his return from exile in 1947, he had considered Syria to comprise roughly the territories of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine. After 1947, however, he added Iraq, part of Iran west of the Zagros mountains, and Cyprus to his concept of Syrian boundaries. Syria was not declared to comprise the entire Fertile Crescent with Cyprus "as its star." His change of heart about the boundaries of natural Syria may reflect the fact that Arab nationalism had convincingly shown the links between Syrians and other Arabs, especially in Iraq. His claim to Cyprus was based on the historical footnote that Cyprus had occasionally fallen under Syrian Arab control; although somewhat outdated, the claim helped distinguish his territorial claims from those of the Arab nationalists of Syria.
Much of this is a re-hash of Yamak's now defective analysis of Sa'adeh's thought. In general, Sa'adeh had not allowed politics to distort his evaluation of national matters. He justified the modifications to Syria's boundaries by drawing on sociology and geography. Sociologically, the Fertile Crescent was perceived as a single organic unit, a community of people without any great variation in either their physical or psychological make-up. What this indicated for Sa'adeh was a new actuality, arising from a single social interaction process and a common sense of belonging. In other words, social assimilation in the Fertile Crescent was never limited to one part to the exclusion of the other. There was always contact between the groups that lived in the area, and there were often conflicts as a result of the attempts of these various groups to establish control over each other. To exclude the Chaldaeans and the Assyrians, from whom the name Syria was probably derived, would be a grave error, and to regard the Chaldaeans and the Aramaeans as two separate people was illogical because in essence "they were, in origin and speech, one people."
It is also worth noting that Sa'adeh had regarded Iraq as part of Natural Syria well before 1947, the years in which he introduced the modifications. In 1936, for instance, he issued a statement in which he stated: "Iraq or Mesopatamia is a portion that completes the Syrian nation and Syrian homeland and which used to form a part of the unified Syrian state in the Selucide era. As such, it should return to the national unity that encompasses it, even though that might entail modifying the name of Syria into 'Suraqya.'
According to Sa'adeh, the Syrian nation had been formed in the early periods of history by the influence of the Syrian environment on the mix of "Canaanite, Chaldean, Aramean, Assyrian, Ammurian, Hittite, Metannite and Akkadian" peoples that came to populate the land. Out of this variety of populations evolved a particular Syrian racial type shaped by the Syrian environment and the racial inheritance of all the various contributing racial groups. The Syrians, therefore, had a distinct physiological constitution. As Sa'adeh argued, "although the Syrians do not have one racial source, they share one set of racial characteristics - the result of their unique blend - that distinguishes them from other peoples in the world". The Syrian racial blend, Sa'adeh insisted, was both distinctive and distinguished. It was a particular blend that brought together the best strains from a set of less-sophisticated racial groups and elevated and refined them over the centuries.
The Syrian nation, according to Sa'adeh, was established long before the spread of Christianity and Islam. Therefore, its identity existed before those religious identities and was more important than them. Even the great wave of Arab immigration into Syria in the seventh century did not alter the Syrian character, for Syria was not Arabized; rather, the Arab immigrants were Syrianized. That the Syrians adopted Arabic did not affect their nationality either, for they had adopted Arabic and abandoned many other languages in the past. He did not think highly of the Arabs as a race. He regarded them strictly as the Bedouin desert dwellers of the Arab peninsula and denied that the Syrians, the Egyptians, or other Arabic-speaking nations were, properly speaking, Arab. The word Arab, he pointed out, was derived from the word for desert, 'urba; the Arab race, he maintained, exhibited the deep physiological and psychological influence of that harsh and primitive environment. Syrians, however, were a sedentary national of the Fertile Crescent. His emphasis on the distinction between Syria and Arabia was a strong as his hostility to the independence of Lebanon from Syria. He insisted that the isolation of Lebanon was artificial and based on religious differences that should not and could not form the basis of any nationalism. Religion had a universal outlook, he argued, whereas nationalism demanded a well-defined attachment to a limited social unit (Sa'adeh 1938, 174).
In the political sphere, Sa'adeh bemoaned the condition of Syria. It was weak and divided, and its social fabric was being torn apart by centrifugal forces of sectarian chauvinism. He saw the Christians of Lebanon tending toward Phoenicianism and the Muslims tending toward Arabism. He regarded both as misguided myths contributing to the demise of the Syrian nation. What Syria needed, he insisted, was a national revival galvanized by a renewed awareness of the reality and history of the Syrian nation and led by the Syrian Social Nationalist party.
The SSNP was the vanguard of the Syrian nation and must act on behalf of the entire nation. Sa'adeh considered the contemporary population of Syria to represent the Syrian nation only in potentiality. The people of Syria were too riven with misguided sectarian, ideological, and political differences to rise up spontaneously as one nation. Therefore, the party itself, unified as it was in organization and ideological outlook, represented the Syrian nation and state in nucleus. Its members represented future citizens of the Syrian nation, and its political organization represented the future Syrian state (Sa'adeh 1959, 18). In no uncertain terms, the immediate aim of the party was to overthrow the various existing regimes that ruled over a divided Syria and to establish a strong and unified government in their place. Through the establishment of this state, under the absolute control of the vanguard SSNP and its leader, Syria would find the means for its rebirth as a powerful and creative nation deserving of its own place in the sun alongside other great nations.
Because governments were not expected to hand over power willingly, the SSNP was well aware that it would have to accomplish its aims by violent means. This result was not regretted, for Sa'adeh glorified violence and insisted that the aggressive and martial instincts of humans were their highest resource that had to be enthusiastically cultivated. Darwin had revealed that species progressed through competition; nations also, argued Sa'adeh, would only progress through struggle and conflict.
The central theme of the practical side of Sa'adeh's political philosophy is struggle. At no point did Sa'adeh glorify violence, as Salem has claimed, or urge aggression against the existing regimes. As for the 1949 uprising, it was a reaction to the aggressive attitude of the sectarian Lebanese regime and its now much-criticised policy of alienating the secular and progressive forces in Lebanon in order to sustain itself in power.
The History of the Idea of Syrian Nationalism
An evaluation of Salem's 'Bitter Legacy' against Antun Sa'adeh and the SSNP
As mentioned earlier, the party itself was organized along fascist lines. Sa'adeh was called simply al-za'im, the leader. Allegiance was sworn to him personally, and all party laws and policies were decided by him and executed on his authority. In a sense, he was the party. Furthermore, party initiates could not withdraw from the party once they had become members. By taking the oath of allegiance to Sa'adeh and the party, they in effect had given up their autonomous will and even their individuality. They were expected to become Syrian Social Nationalists in every aspect of their inner and outer lives. Moreover, as part of their oath, they had to swear to make Syrian Social Nationalism not only their way of life but also that of their families. The credo of the party was embraced with the same zeal and all-consuming devotion usually reserved for religious movements.
The question of Sa'adeh's leadership and authority has been much misunderstood. Probably the most conclusive reply to this claim was offered by In'am Raad in his paper "A Comparison between Sa'adeh's Social Nationalism and European Doctrines." Raad wrote:
A leader under Fascism is the Destiny of a nation. He is chosen in accordance with Hegelian Destiny, which endows him with personal qualities and confers infinite powers on him … Hence, in Nazi or Fascist society the fundamental law is not Reason but the leader's intuition and inspiration. On this basis, a leader chooses his successor because his will amounts to the will of Destiny.
The Social Nationalist doctrine rejects the idea of individuals chosen by divine will or destiny. Sa'adeh's value lies in the fact that he is the founder and, as such, his leadership is justified. The founder creates institutions not individual leaderships. There is thus a radical difference between the Nazi or Fascist concept of leadership and that of Social Nationalism. In Social Nationalism, the institution replaces the founder and authority is ultimately dependent on the will of the Social Nationalists.
Sa'adeh based his "social" nationalism on the simple premise that humans are social not individualistic beings. People were born into society and achieved their fullest potentiality by abandoning their individuality and becoming one with that society. The original and most complete social unit was the nation - a group of people who shared a long history of living together in a common well-defined natural environment. Individuals could achieve their highest potential only by realizing they're belonging to their nation and subordinating all aspects of their lives to it. Individuals were to dissolve into the nation and to derive all their spirit and consciousness from it. The eighth principle of the SSNP's charter stated that "the interest of Syria is above all interests"; this was not a dry political statement but extended beyond politics to economics, ethics, aesthetics, and even religion. The interest of the nation, as decided, of course, by the party and its leader, determined all choices. There was no room for individual free will or private preference. The national cause was a total cause, and the Syrian Social Nationalist movement was unabashedly totalitarian.
In the realm of religion, worship of the deity was to be replaced by worship of the nation and its state. Indeed, Sa'adeh considered his ideology a new religion, and himself, its prophet. "The world has witnessed the descent of religions from heaven down to earth," he proclaimed, "but today it witnesses the rise of a new religion from earth to heaven." Traditional religions, he complained, had a theocentric vision and enslaved humankind to an unseen being created from ignorance and superstition; his new religion, however, had a sociocentric vision, it liberated humankind. Indeed, Sa'adeh argued, the spiritual unity of society could not be achieved through the traditional religions, for they sowed only superstition and discord. Spiritual unity could only be achieved through the dominance of one outlook on life, one set of values, one metaphysics, one spirituality - that of Social Nationalism. Indeed, for members, being a Syrian Social Nationalist was a religious experience. Initiation was compared to the act of baptism, and devotion to the party often withstood their ultimate test of sacrificing one's life for the cause.
The claim that Sa'adeh "considered his ideology a new religion, and himself, its prophet"has only to be stated to reveal its absurdity. The statement has to be understood as a "national" rather than a metaphysical affirmation. Did Sa'adeh not say: "There is no Syrian who is not a pious (muslimun) to the Lord of the world"?
Sa'adeh also tried to provide his ideology with a new metaphysics, as it, confident of having deflated the old religions, he now sought to take on modern philosophy. He coined a new word, mad-hiyyah - a concatenation of the Arabic words for material and spiritual - to denote a new metaphysics in which the truth in all human affairs was to be found in a balanced harmony between the material and spiritual realms (Zuwiyya-Yamak 1966, 104). He denied any necessary conflict between these two realms and claimed that his philosophy was superior to those of capitalism, communism, fascism, and National Socialism. The harmony he posited between the material and spiritual worlds provided the philosophical underpinnings for his glorification of power and his belief that might makes right. Influenced by Darwinism, Sa'adeh proclaimed that in the natural and violent contest of nations, power was the only common currency; therefore, the martial virtues were the most necessary and valuable for any nation.
Sa'adeh avoided metaphysical issues altogether and focused on worldly matters. The concept of madrahiyya was coined in order to distinguish his political (not metaphysical) discourse from other discourses which either focused on spiritual factors (like Hegelism or Fascism) or on material factors (Marxism) in their endeavour to explain human development.
The main principles of reform advocated by the party centred around the eradication of sectarianism. Sa'adeh called for the separation of religion from the state, the prevention of men of religion from participating in any political or judicial affairs, and the eradication of all social barriers between different religious sects. He considered that sectarianism was Syria's most serious problem and made his party's first aim to eliminate it and replace sectarian differences with a common belief and allegiance to the principles of social nationalism. The militantly secular stance was perhaps the most popular element in Sa'adeh's ideology. It appealed widely to an intelligentsia who were anxious to reduce the influence of religion and religious men in society, and appealed also to members of minority religious groups, such as the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics, who saw secularism as the only means of breaking out of their communal confinement.
In economic matters, Sa'adeh called for the elimination of "feudalism" and the development of a national industrial-based economy controlled but not owned by the state. All decisions of production would be made in the national interest and distribution would be arranged so that all had what they needed while the productive were justly rewarded. This position echoed the general economic principles of European fascism.
Sa'adeh's economic thought did not echo the "general economic principles of European fascism", which was based on Syndicalism, but the general economic principles of the welfare state which Keynes and others helped to promote during the Great Depression.
Sa'adeh also opposed Communism or any independent trade union activity because he maintained that such activity divided the nation and hindered its progress. Most important of all, the state was to establish a strong army to protect the sovereignty of the Syrian nation from all threats and provide Syrians with a source of pride and discipline.
Piecing together ideas and theories borrowed from European fascism and adjusting them to apply to Syria and the condition of Syrian society, Sa'adeh was able to present a fairly coherent ideological worldview of a Syrian nation, suffering division and repression, on the verge of unity and rebirth.
It is not possible for any person, no matter how intelligent he or she might be, to devise "a fairly coherent ideological worldview" by piercing together ideas and theories borrowed from outside sources. If anything, the aforesaid claim suggests that Salem had made no attempt to read or study Sa'adeh: he relied on Yamak's monograph which, in effect, was pierced together well before Sa'adeh's writings had been collected and published.
What is most remarkable about the movement, however, is perhaps not the content of the ideology itself but rather the forcefulness with which it was presented and promoted. Sa'adeh's great charisma and conviction had a lot to do with this, as did the efficient organization of the party and the zeal of its members.
The Appeal of Syrian Social Nationalism
Syrian Social Nationalism had a much greater appeal as a means for relieving psychological strain than, say, Egyptian or early Arab nationalism. It provided a complete, dogmatic version of social and political realities and urge acceptance of this dogma on the pur authority of the leader. Furthermore, through it philosophy and party practices, it encouraged individuals to abandon their individuality and immerse themselves in the life and thought of the party. By joining such an engrossing party, individuals could escape any personal crises by simply escaping their responsibilities and anxieties as individuals. The SSNP did not simply offer answers to political questions; it did not just offer a new way of life, but a new life altogether. In this sense, Syrian Social Nationalism had a much deeper impact on individuals and their psychological orientations than did other ideologies of the interwar period.
Syrian Social Nationalism, from the perspective of psychological strain in the category of identity confusion, provided a strong social identity to alienated individuals by providing a concrete and powerful image of the Syrian nation, its history, present and future. The process of acquiring this new identity was reinforced by party practices that forced initiates to abandon any assumptions of free will and comply with the authority of the party. By losing their freedom as individuals, persons became, in effect, part of a larger social entity; hence, they could drive their own sense of identity from their absorption into that larger entity. The need for a firm sense of identity was further satisfied through the person of the leader himself. The leader was portrayed as a figure of mythical proportions who symbolized the spirit of the Syrian nation and the spirit of each member of that nation. He was the nation, and identification with the nation meant identification with him. In a sense, all members adopted the identity of the leader.
In the moral sphere, by shedding individuality and free will, initiates to the SSNP also escaped moral responsibility and the problem of moral choice. They were in submission to the party and its leader. They did what they were told to do and claimed no moral independence. Whatever moral choice was left to them was heavily influenced by the extensive indoctrination and guidance they received from the party. In other words, in most cases they exercised no choice; in situations in which they had to , moral choices were guided for them by the principles and teachings of the party.
In the category of aggression release, the SSNP unreservedly glorified the aggressive instincts and the martial spirit. Aggression was at the heart of the Darwinian evolution of humans; aggression was also the engine of the progress of nations. The venting of aggression, the use of force, and hatred of the adversary, were all central categories in the practice of Syrian Social Nationalism. Aggression toward the enemy was simply the outward expression of patriotism.
Indeed, from the perspective of social psychology, Syrian Social Nationalism was one of the most psychologically satisfying ideologies that developed in the modern Arab world. The reason for this is partially that the ideas themselves, with their emphasis on the abandonment of individual free will, provided an escape from all issues of personal crisis. But more critically, the personality of Sa'adeh himself and the efficient authoritarianism of the party could actually carry out that program of domination of the individual. No other ideological movement in the Arab world, not even the radical Arab Nationalists of the Islamists, attempted such a thorough going domination of the individual.
The Social Dynamics of Syrian Social Nationalism
The membership of the Syrian Social Nationalist party was young, fairly well-educated, and drawn disproportionately from the Greek Orthodox community and other minority communities. Its members were generally of urban or semi-urban middle-class backgrounds. The appeal of a fascist nationalism to such groups can be examined within the sociological categories described in chapter 1. The issue of sectarianism was central to SSNP ideology. From the perspective of minority groups, the SSNP drew its main following from the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities of Lebanon and Syria. As mentioned earlier, these communities, dispersed as they were throughout Syria and Lebanon, partially resisted the idea of Lebanese nationalism, which would cut their communities in half and put their members in Lebanon under Maronite domination; however, they also feared being subsumed in a larger Arab or Islamic political unit that would inevitably be dominated by Sunnis. This is not to say that membership of the movement was strictly confined to these communities, for many Sunnis were attracted to its pan-Syrian outlook while many Maronites found the secularism and pseudoscientific outlook of the party quite appealing.
It is dangerous to describe the "religious or confessional" composition of Syrian Social Nationalism which a census of the party's membership has never been attempted.
From the perspective of class and class interests, it is noteworthy that the SSNP sought to take over control of the central economy and large enterprises; yet it sought to protect the privileges of small businesspeople and small landholders. Understandably this appealed most to elements of the rising middle class. This petty bourgeois element valued private property but, at the same time, felt threatened and overwhelmed by the power of big capital in an uncontrolled capitalist system.
From the perspective of generational opposition, the SSNP was very consciously a youth movement. It accepted no members over the age of forty, and recruited heavily from people in their early twenties. As in the fascist movements of Europe, it saw in youth the energy and malleability necessary for forging a strong ideological movement.
Not only European fascism saw in youth "the energy and malleability necessary for …" but also the Communist parties in Soviet Russia and other countries: would that render the SSNP communistic?
In the end, it was a combination of sectarian and class opposition expressed in several crises with the government that ended the SSNP's activity. Sectarian and religious leaders were alarmed at the thoroughgoing secularism of the SSNP, whereas the upper class feared the consequences of the success of such a totalitarian party. Had the SSNP succeeded in striking an alliance with members of the upper class, as the fascists did in Italy and Germany, perhaps they could have been provided with a better platform from which to woo the middle class and bolster their power. Nevertheless, unlike in Italy and Germany, sectarian cleavages may still have been too much for the SSNP to fully overcome.
It is ironic that at the time of the release of Salem's book (fifth edition in 1999), the SSNP had no less than five representatives in the Lebanese Chamber and a government minister. It was just as active in the Arab Republic of Syria as it was in Lebanon. How Salem could say that the SSNP activity has "ended" is indeed mind-boggling. What is more ironical is that he goes on to talk about the "Legacy of Syrian Social Nationalism" when Sa'adeh's ideas are getting more attention than ever before!
Admitedly, Antun Sa'adeh can be tedious at times because the basic thematic and continuity of his thought are difficult to grasp. This is particulary evident in the current literature which, to this day, has only managed to cover the superficial side of the man and his thought.
1. Paul Salem, Bitter Legacy: Ideology and Politics in the Arab World, Syracuse University Press, 1999.
2. Butrus Abu-Manneh, "The Christians Between Ottomanism and Syrian Nationalism: The Ideas of Butrus Bustani," International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, II, 1980, p. 294.
(3) Naffir Suriyya, Oct. 25, 1860.
(5) See Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798-1939, Cambridge University Press, London, 1984, p. 276.
(6) See Adel Beshara, "Syria in the Thought of Gibran Khalil Gibran" in Kalimat, No. 3, September 2000, pp. 21-29.
(7) See R. M. MacIver, Community, London, 1923, and his books on sociology.
(8) Antun Sa'adeh, The Genesis of Nations, Beirut: SSNP Publications, p. 36.