Elizabeth F. Thompson, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of Its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Elizabeth F. Thompson (EF): I decided to write this book in August 2013, during the massacre of Muslim Brothers in Cairo. It marked the end of the revolutionary coalition in Egypt—Islamists and secular liberals, and Muslims and Copts—that had filled Tahrir Square and brought down a dictator, President Hosni Mubarak. By then the Syrian uprising against Bashar Assad had become a civil war pitting Islamists against secular liberals. In stark contrast, I realized, religious leaders and secular liberals had united in Syria in 1920 to replace the Ottoman dictatorship with a democratic regime.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

EF: My book contributes to historical debates on the weakness of democracy and the impact of World War I in the Middle East. It challenges still-prevalent colonial narratives that blame local culture for dictatorship, political violence, and oppression of minorities by demonstrating how the French and British willfully undermined a popular political program of tolerance, equality, and rule of law. The book also offers a new perspective on the origins of popular, anti-liberal Islamism, which I argue must be traced to breaking of the liberal-Islamic alliance forged at Damascus in 1919-20.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

EF: How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs is the third monograph in my effort to understand the ways in which colonial rule shaped political institutions and norms in the eastern Arab world. It may be read as a prequel to Colonial Citizens (2000), and as an expanded, missing chapter from Justice Interrupted (2013). Like those previous books, it uncovers a durable, democratic impulse in Arab politics that has survived since the late nineteenth century. Unlike those books, How the West approaches the topic through the stories of one generation of influential politicians. Their careers dramatize how the so-called Wilsonian Moment after World War I was an indigenous democratic uprising and how foreign intervention drove a wedge between secular and religious parties that has weakened democratic opposition to dictatorship ever since.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

EF: I wrote this book as a readable narrative, in the hope that even non-academics would find the drama compelling. The story is a kind of sequel and corrective to Lawrence of Arabia, showing what really happened in Damascus after Thomas Edward Lawrence left Prince Faisal and Damascus in early October 1918. The blockbuster movie maddeningly ended with an Orientalist picture of tribal Arabs who had helped to conquer Damascus from the Turks, but proved unable to rule it. British Gen. Allenby arrives to restore order. In How the West, Arabs are seen to be politically sophisticated and surprisingly organized. They confront, however, a society devasted by four years of war and famine, and are deprived of basic tools to build and secure a state by their so-called Allies.

I hope the book will force academics and policymakers to rethink why Arabs suffer from dictatorship and sectarian violence today, and so prompt a new research agenda for solutions. I also hope to translate it into Arabic. As a former history student at the University of Damascus, I know how deprived today’s activists are in understanding the non-violent, civil activists of the past. If this book emboldens a new generation, by showing that they stand on the shoulders of older democratic activists, I will feel that my research has truly produced fruit.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

EF: I am working on two new books, which pivot away from my longstanding research agenda on citizenship and colonialism toward a broader rethinking of how East and West have been constituted in international relations. One is an edited memoir of a Greek-French-Hungarian family in Istanbul, using the rise and fall of their fortunes to tell the story of European-Middle Eastern relations over the last two hundred years. The other is a study of cinema and politics, race, and gender, in the Second World and Cold wars. In both I am interested in rethinking the relationship between cultural and socio-political-economic forms of power.

J: What was the most surprising discovery you made in researching this book?

EF: I was astonished to learn, first of all, that members of the secret Arab nationalist group Fatat had read President Woodrow Wilson’s political textbook, The State. Second, I was also fascinated to discover how closely Prince Faisal worked with Sheikh Rashid Rida. His presence in Damascus and his central role in drafting a democratic constitution have not been previously studied. Third, I realized that the constitution drafted at Damascus disestablished Islam eight years before Ataturk did so in Turkey. Syrian Arabs did so through peaceful negotiation, not by crushing the religious class. Finally, I was horrified to learn that the French deliberately mistranslated the constitution to make Article 1 read “Islam is the religion of the state” and so to suggest that the Syrian Arab Kingdom was a theocracy intolerant of Christians. In fact, Article 1 read “Islam is the religion of the King,” not the state, precisely because Congress delegates rejected an Ottoman-style religious state. The Syrian constitution of 1920 stands as the most democratic constitution in the Arab world, on a par perhaps with Tunisia’s constitution today.


Excerpt from the book 

Chapter 10: “The Prince, the Sheikh, and the Day of Resurrection”

A rainstorm drenched Qalamun on the morning of Sunday, January 11, when Sheikh Rashid Rida and his brother set out on a walk to Tripoli. The road turned muddy, so they stopped at the house of a friend, the city’s former mufti. Because of his nationalist views, the French had expelled him from his office. Suddenly, a French messenger arrived with a note from General Henri Gouraud, the French high commissioner in Beirut: would Rida kindly attend the official welcome ceremony for Prince Faisal upon his arrival in Beirut on Wednesday?

After tending to his ongoing legal tangle over the mosque endowment, Rida set out for Beirut the next evening. The trip took six hours. Rain poured down and one of his car’s tires blew out. He arrived near midnight. On January 14, Faisal disembarked at Beirut to enthusiastic crowds. General Gouraud hosted a reception and luncheon for the prince, attended by his top military brass as well as foreign consuls present in the city. Faisal assured Gouraud that the Clemenceau accord would open a new era of peaceful relations in Syria. Gouraud warned him that France would uphold the accord only if all guerrilla violence ceased in the Bekaa valley, which lay between the French and Arab zones. The general sent a guardedly hopeful report back to Paris.

The next morning, January 15, Rida arrived at the Damascus government’s delegation in Beirut for a personal meeting with the prince. He had been waiting for this moment since September. Faisal arrived just before noon. “He welcomed me with much praise,” Rida recalled.

The thirty-five-year-old prince and the fifty-four-year-old sheikh took an immediate liking to one another. Over the course of more than an hour they spoke frankly. Faisal confided to Rida the terms of the accord with Clemenceau. Since America and Britain had abandoned Syria, they must strike a deal with France, he explained.

Rida warned that the French were laying a trap. Their advisors must not hold any administrative authority in the government, he advised. Syrians must be free to disagree with French advice. And the French must not be allowed to control the police or military. “Their control over security, for example, would allow them to rob the country of its freedom,” Rida pointed out. “I cannot be free in my thoughts or opinions, or in advising my nation against their policy, if they can boot me out of the country for security reasons!”

“That is true,” Faisal admitted. “But if we are united in the service of our country, we can protect ourselves against the dangers inherent in their authority.” The only other option would be to wage war, Faisal reasoned, and he would not take responsibility for that: it was up to the people to choose between the accord and war.

Rida proposed to Faisal a third option. “If they would let you say at the Peace Conference that Article 22 of the Treaty recognizes the complete independence of Syria,” Rida proposed, then Syria could act as a strong nation. It could choose its own advisors, not France. And Syria could “form a national government, elect deputies to the legislature, and enforce the laws.”

International recognition of Syria’s independence would also remove the threat of conquest, Rida argued. “The French Chamber of Deputies will not approve funding for a war of colonization, especially against a country that the peace conference had determined was independent.” Rida demonstrated here familiarity with debates on Syria in the French Chamber of Deputies. Since the 1918 armistice, the socialist deputy Marcel Cachin had led a faction demanding respect for Syrian self-determination.3

Faisal parried that the colonial lobby would be likely to prevail over pacifists in the Chamber. “[France] feels the ecstasy of victory,” he remarked. “Syria would consider an order to evacuate her army occupying Syria as an insult to her military honor.”

Rida’s counsel reveals that he was acutely aware of the ambiguities of legal meaning in the League covenant that could either ensure Syria’s freedom or seal its subjugation. Article 22 provided that “certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory” (emphasis added).

Article 22 left open to debate where sovereignty lay—with the nation, with the mandatory power, or with the League of Nations. Some theorists and policymakers interpreted “nations” to mean “states,” meaning the Syrian state was essentially sovereign. Others insisted that the article did not grant political sovereignty; as a mere nation, Syrians, like Zionist Jews in Palestine, could lay claim only to a homeland, not an independent state. They would remain under the sovereignty of the League (or a mandatory power designated by the League) until they proved the capacity to govern themselves and “to stand alone” in world affairs. Most radically, Balfour would insist in 1922 that mandates belonged to the conquering power. The League was bound to become a “laboratory of sovereignty,” as one scholar put it. It would take years to define the terms of statehood.

In Rida’s view, Syria must exploit this legal ambiguity. Its future depended on obtaining an official pronouncement in favor of the “state” interpretation of Article 22. That was the reasoning behind the Syrian Union Party’s call to draft a constitution for presentation to the Paris Peace Conference. It would prove that Syrians were worthy of a state.

Rida would later claim that he was the first to propose that Syria confront the Allies with the Declaration of Independence as a fait accompli. He was, in fact, only the herald that introduced the idea to the prince. The Syrian Congress had already adopted such a resolution on November 24 and deputies had repeated it to Faisal at an Arab Club meeting on January 22.

Rida and other Syrians saw themselves as players in a global process of establishing a new regime of international law to govern the relations among states. At stake in the Syrian case were general principles that would shape the future of other nations as well. European statesmen and legal scholars had historically excluded non-Christians and non-Europeans from full membership in the family of sovereign nations. The Ottomans were deemed only marginal guests. But Wilson had opened the door to a universal regime of states’ rights. Syrians aimed to keep that door open.

Faisal and Rida said their good-byes over a formal lunch with two French officers, Colonel Antoine Toulat and Colonel Edouard Cousse. As Faisal’s liaisons to General Gouraud, Toulat and Cousse were destined to play a role in the coming independence struggle. As for Rida and Faisal, their January 15 meeting would launch an intense relationship for the next six months.

The next day, just as Faisal departed on the Damascus Road, an ominous rainstorm broke. The prince worried about the reaction of Syrian nationalists to the accord. They would reject the provisions granting control of foreign affairs and internal security to the French and independence to Lebanon. His plan was to persuade the cabinet that these terms were an interim step, not a capitulation.

Faisal’s Return to Damascus

The largest demonstration yet in Damascus greeted Faisal upon his arrival on January 17. The Higher National Committee, led by Sheikh Kamil al-Qassab, had been planning it for weeks. Dr. Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar of the Syrian Union Party also played a prominent role at a general meeting of the Higher National Committee which organized opposition throughout Syria.

Qassab claimed that more than 100,000 people marched. Widows and daughters of war martyrs led the procession, followed by clergy of all faiths, committees of national defense, political parties, notables, the municipal council, civilian and military employees, farmers, doctors, pharmacists, journalists, the Arab Clubs, the schools of law and medicine, teachers, merchants, artisans, guilds, and leaders of the city neighborhoods and nearby villages. They arrived at Marjeh Square with signs reading “The Arab Country Is Indivisible” and “Religion Is for God and the Country Is for All.” Others demanded full independence and a national army. Faisal greeted the demonstrators in front of city hall, promising to heed the people’s will. The crowd cheered when he proclaimed that he and the nation were fundamentally “in agreement for an independent, indivisible Syria.”