Elizabeth F. Thompson is a Professor of History in the School of International Service at the American University in Washington DC. Her latest book, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs, shows how the Middle East was on the brink of establishing a liberal, tolerant, and independent society before the colonial powers, particularly Britain and France, imposed their military will and took from the region a chance to establish lasting security.
NP: How does the Sykes-Picot agreement provide the context for what occurred in the Middle East after WWI?
EP: Sykes and Picot was an agreement between the British and the French made in the spring of 1919 with the Russians. It planned to parcel up the Ottoman Empire before its forecasted defeat in WWI. It sought to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, British officials in Cairo were conducting negotiations with an Arab leader known as sheriff Hussein in Mecca, to make a deal that would see the British reward the Arabs with an Independence Day should they help to rise against the Arabs.
It was a big deal to rebel against the leader of the Sunni Muslim world in wartime. The Arabs knew and they didn’t take the position lightly. The Ottoman Empire had been taken over by a military that were perceived to be anti-religious, not conservative, dictatorial. They hanged several Arab leaders during the war and exiled others out of Syria and elsewhere.
The Arabs of the peninsula in Mecca had linked up with Arabs in Syria based on networks existing before the war. They called for a federal structure based somewhat on Woodrow Wilson’s writings. They also looked at Austro-Hungary as an example of an empire that could be decentralized.
Considering what they knew of the horrors of the murder of the Armenians they decided that the Sultan was likely a captive of a very evil regime and they thought it was right to rebel. Secondly, they thought if they rebelled, they would prevent European colonization whereas the Ottomans seemed ready to hand over sovereignty to the Europeans.
NP: What did Arab unity mean at this time? What were unifying factors, how communicative were the different groups?
EP: The group that sheriff Hussein had linked up within Syria and amongst exiles was a group called Fatat. A nationalist movement formed before WWI, amongst highly educated lawyers, teachers, and doctors, and so on.
It began as a movement that recognized the common interest of Arabs within the Ottoman Empire whilst the government was recognizing the Turkish nature of the regime whilst removing Arab elements from the system. Fatat was uniting to defend Arab rights within the empire. This shifted by 1916-7 to a common aspiration for independence.
However, they did not foresee a single Arab state. In the end, they presented at the Paris Peace Conference 1919 a three-part confederation where Hussein would govern the tribal regions of the Arabian Peninsula; Iraq would be part of the confederation centered on Baghdad; and a third state called the United States of Arabia, which would be Greater Syria. This would be what is now Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan.
NP: In the book, you detail how the British and French, despite promises to Arab leaders, cut deals to divide up the Arab lands through secret talks held in the French Embassy in London. What were the motivations behind these talks?
EP: After much contemplation and reading for several years I have concluded that the whole colonial interest in the region was driven by Britain’s need for oil. Both Britain and France had run low on petroleum supplies during WWI. Britain had no oil supplies under its direct sovereign control under its empire so wanted the oil fields that were in Mesopotamia.
David Lloyd George confronted a French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, who had no interest in a colonial empire but also had an interest in oil. Lloyd George made a deal with Clemenceau that gave them Mosul and the oil fields and gave the French 25% of the oil. That became the bedrock of subsequent negotiations over the next two years. When Britain tried to revise the deal, Clemenceau was outraged enough to give in to the French colonial lobby and take colonial rule over Syria.
NP: Did the Arabs know about the deals going on and the failure of the League of Nations to stop colonial control of the Middle East?
EP: One of the things that astonished me most whilst doing the research for this book was that the Arabs were fully cognizant. In most of the prior histories, they are portrayed as uninformed dupes. I found quite the opposite to be true. A central character in my book is a Rashid Rida. He published a well-known magazine read from Morocco to, possibly, Indonesia but certainly India.
He first published in December 1918 an entire issue of the magazine praising Woodrow Wilson as an instrument of God who would bring peace and prosperity to the poorest people in the world. He retains faith in the possibility that the Islamic worlds could become members of the family of nations with equal rights unequal 1922. He goes to Europe after the League of Nations have authorized France to occupy Syria against the Arab’s will and he writes:
“It does not befit the honor of this League, which President Wilson proposed to include all civilized nations for the good of all human beings, nor the honor of its nations and governments, nor the honor of its principles and its intended goals, for it to be used as a tool by the two colonial states. These states seek to use this Assembly to guarantee, in the name of a mandate, the subjugation of peoples.”
He saw that world peace and the future of war were at stake. I believe that the Middle East was at the vanguard of the anti-colonial movements after WWI but Rida saw the threat of colonial ideas but the racism at the core of it.
NP: To ask a counter-factual question, what would have happened if the Arabs were able to create a confederation free from the pressures of European colonial powers?
EP: You know historians don’t like counter-factual questions. I decided it was important enough to pay attention to the connotational they write and the elections the held and to observe the kind of government that emerged in the Spring of 1920.
An article I read by a constitutional scholar who was working on Iraq after the invasion in 2003. He said that the only durable constitutional is one arrived at through passionate debate. Constitutions can’t be results of technocratic engineering. They have the be contracts feely entered in to or they won’t last.
When I looked at the movement in 1920, there were many groups coming together over many weeks in public debates to agree on a 147 article constitutional. As a historian, I am willing to say, on the strength of those debates, that it had legs and would not have disappeared immediately. I speak from the US which is undergoing its own constitutional crises and I’m sure Syria would have had many but I believe what they drew up in 1920 I would say, had there not been an invasion, we would have seen the most democratic state in the Arab world to date.
NP: How was this history concealed for over a century?
Three was a moment when I was in the Sorbonne in Paris. I was looking up a dissertation written by a Frenchman serving in the High Commission at Beirut. He published a French translation of the constitution which differed in important ways than the Arabic version of the constitution. Article 1 says in Arabic that the religion of the king would be Islam. That’s an important point because some wanted a secular republic and others argued for a religious caliphate. They compromised by making the king Muslim.
So, I knew this in French translation it said that the state would be Islam. There is no way the translator could have made this mistake. This must have been a deliberate obfuscation because they did not want a democratic regime to emerge that would embarrass the French and they would not have the justification for destroying it.
These French sources were making arguments that the Arabs were just like the Turks, of the Muslim ‘race’ that was violent, hated Christians and that if the Arabs ruled themselves, they would kill all the Christians just like the Turks did.
I searched for a smoking gun that would say ‘mistranslate this document’ but of course, I never found one. But I hypothesize that this occurred.
How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance was published in April 2020 by Atlantic Monthly Press.
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