How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance
Author: Elizabeth F. Thompson
Publisher: Grove Press UK (Pages: 496; Rs 599)
Those who have seen David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ may recall its rather downer ending with the Arab Council-administered Damascus sliding into chaos as its new rulers, shown as overwhelmingly Bedouin, bicker ceaselessly among themselves and are unable to get to grips with running a modern government, while cynical colonial representatives stand in the wings to take over. Does this stand historical scrutiny, or is it just Hollywood History?
The second largely, but not only due to artistic licence and the dictates of fashioning a celluloid epic. Nor is it even due to the prevailing Western view of the Middle East as a volatile region, notorious for its political instability, social backwardness, religious zeal, and opposition to modernisation.
This perception may be valid, but rather to go down the obvious but rather erroneous path of attributing this to the region’s prevailing ethos, evokes the seminal question that what caused this state of affairs, and was it inevitable/avoidable?
Offering some credible, and rather startling, answers to these questions is Middle East historian Elizabeth F. Thompson in her tale of the short-lived Faisal regime in Syria, the Syrian Arab Congress, and their entwined and sordid fate, and its consequences.
In ‘How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance’, Thompson, a Chair holder in the American University’s School of International Service, presents a riveting story, brimming with possibilities of not only the history and development of the region in question, but even the wider world.
As we learn, there was a small interval of hope in the wake of the First World War as an unprecedented coalition, comprising both liberal reformers and traditional clerics, as well as other elites, sought to lead then ‘Greater Syria’ (present day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine) to a democratic, inclusive, and largely progressive future.
Even the US was in favour, but, as she shows, the domestic setbacks and indisposition of its President, and the machinations, racial attitudes, and territorial grab imperative of the victorious colonial powers, the UK and France, foiled these hopes – and the consequences have been bedevilling the Middle East since then.
Prevailing trends do not indicate that the lost time/chance – the book title is the clue – will be regained any time soon, as Thompson shows, citing the example of the Arab Spring.
She starts with debunking the depiction of Arab ‘governance’ in Lean’s epic – they were not just the Bedouins but also educated, urban-dwelling elite who had held administrative/military posts under the Ottoman rule, and some other myths.
And then the life and efforts of King Faisal, cleric Rashid Rida, politician Dr Abd Al-Rahman Shahbandar, American envoy Charles Crane, and a clutch of British and French politicians, diplomats and soldiers – some honourable and forward looking, and some racist and devious/oblivious, including (former Viceroy of India) Lord Curzon, brings to life the account of hopes generated, encouraged, and ultimately betrayed, in the region, the great European capitals, and the League of Nations in Geneva.
Thompson also tells us why this episode of the Congress, and the Constitution it drafted, has not received attention so far – the vested interests of the UK and France, particularly the latter which went all out to suppress it and retain the image of the Arabs as a people prone to bloodshed and incapable of governing themselves. The parallels with other colonial territories – say India – are striking.
As she notes, this story “has never been told in English”, with Western historians focussing on the military operations of the Allies and their Arab supporters against the Ottoman and German troops and the role of Lawrence.
Some Arab historians do put Lawrence’s role in perspective, but they too end with the “liberation” of Syria in October 1918. And while there is more reliance on Arab documents of the era in four Arabic accounts published on it, the story that emerges is of “national martyrdom, not democracy denied”.
But just imagine what was lost: The Congress produced “a 147-article constitution modelled on its Ottoman predecessor with modifications inspired by American federalism and checks and balances. Most notably, it reduced the monarch’s power, diestablished Islam as the state religion, and granted equal rights to Muslims and non-Muslims alike”.
And if Thompson seems a bit too strident in her language at the machinations, just imagine what the Middle East would have looked like if these goals had succeeded even midway?