You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 25: Who Stole Democracy from the Arabs?

Who Stole Democracy from the Arabs?

As far as the West is concerned, World War I is largely a European story, but that's only part of the full narrative. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Elizabeth Thompson discusses stolen democracy in the Middle East after “the war to end all wars.”

Professor Thompson, the Mohamed S. Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace at SIS, provides a more expansive understanding of the impact of World War I and the Paris Peace Conference (2:25), including the Syrian Arab Congress that convened at Damascus in 1919 (6:24). She also explains how Britain and France intervened to destroy this newly-declared, independent Arab kingdom (9:01) and why Syrian Arabs were not, at the time, protected by international law or the new League of Nations (10:00).

Based on research she conducted for her book, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs, Professor Thompson breaks down how the British and French attempted to erase all evidence of the Syrian Arab State's democracy (14:54). She also explains why knowledge of this part of history helps us understand more recent events in Greater Syria (18:31) and reveals how different the present-day Middle East might be if the Syrian Arab Congress had successfully instituted a representative democracy in the 1920s (21:45).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Thompson tells us the five changes she would make in US policy that would help people in the Middle East achieve their own democratic desires (11:49).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. As depictions of World War II on the page and the screen have multiplied, World War I has become somewhat forgotten and misunderstood. This wasn't always so. Literature and movies, including All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, The Guns of August, In Flanders Fields, and Lawrence of Arabia flourished from the time of the war through the 1960s. More recently, the movie 1917 drew acclaim and sparked renewed interest in the war to end all wars. In reality, World War I and its aftermath remade the world and caused seismic ramifications we still contend with today.

0:52      KS: One of the most misunderstood parts of a misunderstood war is its impact on the Arab world. While the Treaty of Versailles ended World War I, the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916 parceled out the Middle East into spheres of influence controlled by Western powers, largely the British and the French. Today, we're talking about stolen democracy in the Middle East. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Elizabeth Thompson. Elizabeth is a professor and the Mohamed S. Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace here at the School of International Service. She's a historian of political movements, constitutionalism, gender, and foreign intervention in the middle East.

1:30      KS: And she's the author of three books, including her latest, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs, which was just released in April 2020. Elizabeth, thanks for joining Big World.

1:41      Elizabeth Thompson: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

1:43      KS: And congratulations on the release of your book, and thank you for joining us remotely. We're all still staying home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, and I'm glad you've been able to join us even though we're not in our studio.

2:00      ET: It's nice to have some company and contact with the outside world.

2:02      KS: This is true. Elizabeth, in the setup there, I talked about the way that popular culture has addressed World War I, as far as the West is concerned, it's largely a Western, specifically a European story. But that's only part of the story about part of the world and part of the people who were affected. For listeners who aren't familiar, can you briefly explain what the Syrian Arab Congress was and what led up to it?

2:25      ET: It is true that with the centennial of the war, a more expansive understanding of the impact of World War I—far outside of Europe and the so-called West—has come to the fore, and the newest books that have been published in the last few years since 2014 have redressed the omission of Asian and African and Middle Eastern aspects of that war and particularly how they were affected by the let's just say pretty much a global failure of the Paris Peace Conference afterward. In particular for our topic and for Syria, the fate of Syrians really set the fate of all Arabs who occupied the Eastern half of what was once the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire had governed Southeastern Europe, much of what we call the Arab Middle East, Arabia, and North Africa up until the 19th century.

3:38      ET: And as such, Arabs living in cities like Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo, and so on had developed a lot of political experience. They were quite sophisticated people, highly educated. They were even elected to a parliament right before World War I. Many of them had European educations at law schools and the like. And so when the war ended, they expected to be treated as other allies were, and I should perhaps explain that, that Arab political leaders considered themselves to be allies of the entente of England, France, Italy, and later Greece against the Germans, the Turks, and the Austro-Hungarians who lost the war.

4:33      ET: More than that, not just because they were allies, but they were explicitly promised an independent state by the British if they fought alongside British troops to defeat the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. And so it was that Wilson, Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, went to Paris with the promise that World War I will not have been fought to perpetuate the system of competing empires that had caused the war and that all peoples of the world, even small nations of the world, would have rights in the post-war world. And so the Arabs thought, oh great, we have a chance to get our independence as promised, not only because of a promise by the British, but under the new system of international law.

5:25      ET: Wilson quickly ran up against the colonial aims of Britain and France who wanted to parcel out the Arab world and colonize it basically during the peace talks and struck a compromise that Arabs could have a brief period of tutelage, called a mandate, issued by the guardian of international law, the new League of Nations, and then they would quickly achieve full independence. When Britain and France continued to drag their heels on those ideas, he sent what became just an American commission of inquiry to Syria in June of 1919, and that is when the Syrian Arab Congress was elected according to electoral rules practiced under the old Ottoman Empire, but now in a territory known as Greater Syria that comprises today's Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. Okay?

6:24      ET: The local people understood that area. The word they used in Arabic was Shan for Syria. And so delegates, about 85 delegates, from around that region gathered at Damascus in June and July of 1919 to meet the American commission and then to write a constitution for the new Syrian Arab Kingdom.

6:45      KS: They had the Congress in 1919 and writing the constitution, that was a part of the Congress. They later declared an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria. Tell us more about that, about declaring this independent Arab Kingdom.

7:02      ET: After meeting the American commission, nothing happened. In fact, it appeared that the Americans with Wilson's stroke and with the American Senate's vote not to join the League of Nations and not to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the Arabs felt they were left on their own. They had no protector at Paris. The British and French seemed to be planning an occupation of Greater Syria. And so they gathered in early March, actually on March 8th of 1920, to unilaterally declare independence on the basis, in their view, a legal basis, and that Article 22 of the League of Nations covenant had granted them provisional independence with guidance from the League and a mandate authority chosen by them. Okay?

8:02      ET: But that was not forthcoming, so they just said, "Okay. We're going to appoint Prince Faisal," who had led the Arab revolt during the war and was ruling in Syria at the behest of the British Army up until that point, and they declared him their chosen King. And they set the task before the Congress to write up a constitution for an independent state. As you might imagine, the British and French did not respond kindly to that and did not welcome the declaration of independence.

8:38      KS: And you write in your book the story of "how Europeans stole Syrians' democracy and expelled them from the so-called civilized world," and that's a quote. Please tell us, how did Britain and France intervene after the Syrian Arab Congress declared independence in 1920?

9:01      ET: On the one hand in the book, I spend many chapters demonstrating that the state that Syrian Arabs established at Damascus had the essential attributes of democracy. It was a representative government. There was a long bill of rights guaranteeing the civil liberties of citizens and expanded the right to vote to virtually all men. Women tried to get the vote. There was a long debate in Congress about it. But under the pending circumstances and fear of a French invasion, they set that aside. A system of a separation of powers was put in place. And unlike any Arab government after 1920 and until much later in the 20th century, the parliament stood separate from the executive, from the King. The King could not dismiss the parliament.

10:00      ET: If the Arabs could not claim even the partial independence granted them under the League, they understood that in essence they would enjoy none of the protections of international law. They would be rendered, and they were, in a category which we might even call subhuman, a category occupied by peoples who had already been colonized around the world in the 19th century. If you're a colonized subject, you have no right to appear at a forum like the Paris Peace Conference, no right to speak at the League of Nations, no participation in the formulation of international law, and certainly no human rights.

10:44      ET: The Arabs actually use the word enslavement to describe the status of people subjected to foreign rule and that they very clearly feared and recognized that that was at stake, that the powers that be at Paris drew an arbitrary line of civilization around the borders of Christian Europe and decreed that non-Christians were not civilized enough to be self-determining and therefore would not enjoy the rights that President Wilson had promised them. The League of Nations covenant had already been ratified when the Congress declared independence. And then, the French had to send in armed forces to occupy Syria. The loss of their independent democratic government was indeed effect.

11:49      KS: Elizabeth Thompson, it's time to Take Five. This is when you, our guest, get to remake the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. Specifically, what are five changes you would make in US policy that would help people in the Middle East achieve their own democratic desires?

12:09      ET: Number one, I would advise, say the next president of the United States, to stop payouts and the selling of military hardware to dictators in the region. Most egregiously, since the coup in Egypt in 2013, we have continued to supply regimes that repressed democratic rights. Number two, a Green New Deal for the international world to improve our international standing and give space to peoples in the Middle East. They have been cursed with the oil curse and the readiness of our government to tolerate unsavory leaders and unsavory politics because of our hunger and thirst for oil. If we turn green, we don't have to do that anymore. Number three, a martial law to aid the refugees. The Middle East has the highest number of refugees around.

13:04      ET: There are 18 million or more Syrians who left their country during the war since 2011. Six million at least are in camps, creating much political instability. And second reason to expend the effort and money of a martial law is that, of course, failed states, look at Afghanistan, look at Libya, are breeding grounds and funnels for terrorist groups and so on. Four, I think we need to promote the integration of the Middle East and North Africa region, we call it MENA, into the world economy. They have been sidelined and excluded. And because of that, opportunities to really grow a middle class, backbone of any kind of democratic political system, has been stunted.

13:58      ET: So that would be number four. And number five, an outcome from my own book that I wrote, is to systematically promote an end to racism, fundamental to international law, as it has grown since World War I. The residues today perpetuate double standards and make it very difficult for human rights groups and others in the region to achieve recognition, support, and tangible gains that would clear a political arena fertile for the growth of democracy. That's it.

14:32      KS: Wonderful. That's a long to do list. Thank you.

14:36 New Speaker: Not only did France and Britain destroy this emerging democratic Syrian Arab State, they have since tried to cover it up. Elizabeth, what has your research revealed about the attempt to erase all evidence of the Syrian Arab State's democracy?

14:54      ET: That was the biggest surprise. I'm glad you asked that question. As a graduate student studying the region, it had never come up that this was a democratic government, right? In fact, all the histories of this period after World War I were written almost exclusively on the basis of European documents. And of course, British and French diplomats had every interest in downplaying the capacity of Arabs for self-rule. They held orientalist and racialist ideas that Arabs came from an inferior culture. And so those sources were inherently biased against the idea that Arabs could become democratic.

15:41      ET: It was the biased use of sources on the one hand and the absence of sources in the written historical record and in the books published over the course of the 20th century about the region that covered it up. But more fundamentally, what was covered up and what was easily retrievable, even in those Western documents, and I'm thinking of particular documents I discovered in the French archive, is the strategy used in 1919 to sort of like put the rabbit back in the hat or something, right? That the Arabs had established this state, they had these promises, and the French saw in Syria a danger to their claim to rule Arabs all across North Africa, which they had colonies in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia at that time, right?

16:44      ET: So what they tried to do was to conflate Arabs with Turks in something called a Muslim race. The Muslim race was inherently violent and inherently disrespectful of law. And they went so far as to try to implicate Arabs who had lived under the Ottoman Turkish government during the war with the Turks' genocide of Armenians. Armenian Christians had been killed and systematically expelled from Anatolia beginning in 1915 by the military dictatorship ruling the Ottoman Empire at that time. In no way, shape, or form did any Arabs take part in that. Many of these Armenian refugees ended up in Syria and had been cared for by Syrians in Syria, Muslims included.

17:40      ET: Prince Faisal and Arab leaders emphasized, A, Arabs are not Turks, and B, Muslim and Christian Arabs were equally Arabs and had equal rights, and that was written into their constitution. Once you understand the strategic use of Islam as a kind of inferior race by the French, you understand the strategic rhetoric used by Arabs to counter that at the Paris Peace Conference.

18:08      KS: How does the knowledge of this part of history, that the West stole democracy from the Arabs in the 1920s, how does it help someone understand more recent events in Greater Syria like the Arab Spring or the Syrian Civil War? Basically, how are we still kind of paying the bill for what the English and the French did back in the '20s?

18:31      ET: Historians don't like to do this unless I've written a book connecting all the dots. If I were to write a book that connected the dots over the past century, my hypothesis, a working hypothesis, as I began to write the book would be these: Number one, that we would understand that democracy is not a new idea and it is not an idea antithetical to Arab or Muslim culture. We have many policymakers in our country who operate on the opposite assumption. We would develop policy on a better basis, and the Middle East, we would understand that democracy has been suppressed, not that it has been unknown or has been resisted. Okay? That radically shifts your understanding of why the politics are the way they are.

19:28      ET: Second, many people who rose up for democracy in 2011, the so-called Arab Spring, rose up against tyranny. We saw in places like Tahrir Square members of the Muslim brotherhood, Islamists, joined secular liberals, young people, and so on, in that common goal. But as soon as the leader was deposed, in that case, it was President Mubarak, they split. There was a mutual suspicion between the two camps. I think that cleavage and that suspicion goes back to 1920 and the destruction of the Syrian Arab Congress. Democracy is something that was politically withheld rather than something that could not find natural roots is an important concept for local activists to get across to people, right? They don't have to learn anything new, and democracy isn't a foreign value system whatsoever, right?

20:40      ET: What they're fighting for is a reclamation of what they already had. And just a final thing on that, Americans and their policy making would benefit by understanding that textbooks in that part of the world have preserved moments like 1920 in the collective consciousness of peoples there in moments of bitterness, right, when they were betrayed by the international system. If we could recognize that errors were made then, we can repair wounds that continue to fuel mutual suspicion, and we can begin moving ahead in history rather than replaying that moment over and over and over again.

21:29      KS: Elizabeth, last question, and this may be one that a historian really wouldn't like because it's kind of a crystal ball question. How different do you think the Middle East would be today if the Syrian Arab Congress had successfully instituted a representative democracy in the 1920s?

21:45      ET: Oh, I do like this question because I have spent a lot of time imagining that. I couldn't write it down in the book obviously, that would be considered speculation, but in order to understand what was at stake at that time, I've had to sort of play games with the counter history. So, thank you for the question. Number one would be what, to reiterate what I just said, we would today have less friction between East and West, right? If in fact we had won confidence and shown cooperation and support a hundred years ago, rather than taking the rug out from under people who were trying to put the world back together after a devastating war and genocide, right? Number two, however, we would not see the exclusionary and often violent Islamism to the degree we do.

22:46      ET: And the flip side of that is we would not see the continued, since 1920, oppression, expulsion, and harm done to non-Muslim minorities. The non-recognition of the Syrians' constitution, which granted equality regardless of religion, must be seen as coupled with the decision after the Paris Peace Conference or at the very end. The Peace Conference ends in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne, which is a treaty that finalizes the peace with Turkey. But that treaty ignored the Armenian genocide. There was never a reckoning for the Turks on what had been done.

23:34      ET: And in fact, there are Kurdish scholars today, people who come from Turkey, who say the failure to hold the politicians in Syria to account on their treatment of a minority allowed them, gave them the green light to do the same to the Kurds, to other Muslims, but not Turks, right? Likewise, we have seen over the past century the progressive at times, just gradual at times, since the rise of the Islamic State, ISIS, the rapid flight of non-Muslim minorities around the Middle East. That, is a sort of sectarian principle upheld by the Europeans in 1920, has come to govern the political norms of the region. The belief that you can have stability and a virtuous government only if you have a homogeneous population.

24:34      ET: And so we would not have had a century of declining minority representation and participation and citizenship. If Syria had become the bellwether of postwar World War I politics in the Middle East, we would see a region in which minorities were incorporated as equal citizens.

24:57      KS: I think that's the last word. Elizabeth Thompson, thank you for joining Big World to talk about democracy in the Arab world. It's been a real pleasure to speak with you.

25:05      ET: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. Appreciate it, Kay.

25:08      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be as great as the day everyone gets to put away their stash of homemade face masks. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Elizabeth Thompson,
professor and Mohamed S. Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace, SIS

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