The story of a pivotal moment in modern world history, when representative democracy became a political option for Arabs - and how the West denied the opportunity.
When Europe's Great War engulfed the Ottoman Empire, Arab nationalists rose in revolt against the Turks. The British supported the Arabs' fight for an independent state and sent an intelligence officer, T.E. Lawrence, to join Prince Faisal, leader of the Arab army and a descendant of the Prophet. In October 1918, Faisal, Lawrence and the Arabs victoriously entered Damascus, where they declared a constitutional government in an independent Greater Syria.
At the Paris Peace Conference, Faisal won the support of President Woodrow Wilson, who sent an American commission to Syria to survey the political aspirations of its people. However, other Entente leaders at Paris-and later San Remo-schemed against the Arab democracy, which they saw as a threat to their colonial rule. On March 8, 1920, the Syrian-Arab Congress declared independence and crowned Faisal king of a 'representative monarchy.' Rashid Rida, a leading Islamic thinker of the day, led the constituent assembly to establish equality for all citizens, including non-Muslims, under a full bill of rights.
But France and Britain refused to recognize the Damascus government and instead imposed a system of mandates on the Arab provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire, on the pretext that Arabs were not yet ready for self-government. Under such a mandate, the French invaded Syria in April 1920, crushing the Arab government and sending Faisal and Congress leaders in flight to exile. The fragile coalition of secular modernizers and Islamic reformers that might have established democracy in the Arab world was destroyed, with profound consequences that reverberate still.
Using many previously untapped primary sources, including contemporary newspaper accounts and letters, minutes from the Syrian-Arab Congress, and diary and journal entries from participants, How the West Stole Democracy From the Arabs is a groundbreaking account of this extraordinary, brief moment of unity and hope - and of its destruction.
Elizabeth F. Thompson is a leading historian of the modern Middle East and Mohamed S. Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace at American University's School of International Service. She is the author of two previous books, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon, winner of two national book prizes, and Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East, published by Harvard University Press.
Religion & politics