When Europe’s Great War engulfed the Ottoman Empire, Arab nationalists rose in revolt against their Turkish rulers and allied with the British on the promise of an independent Arab state. In October 1918, the Arabs’ military leader, Prince Faisal, victoriously entered Damascus and proclaimed a constitutional government in an independent Greater Syria.
Faisal won American support for self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference, but other Entente powers plotted to protect their colonial interests. Under threat of European occupation, the Syrian-Arab Congress declared independence on March 8, 1920 and crowned Faisal king of a “civil representative monarchy.” Sheikh Rashid Rida, the most prominent Islamic thinker of the day, became Congress president and supervised the drafting of a constitution that established the world’s first Arab democracy and guaranteed equal rights for all citizens, including non-Muslims.
But France and Britain refused to recognize the Damascus government and instead imposed a system of mandates on the pretext that Arabs were not yet ready for self-government. In July 1920, the French invaded and crushed the Syrian state. The fragile coalition of secular modernizers and Islamic reformers that had established democracy was destroyed, with profound consequences that reverberate still.
In How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920, and the Destruction of its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020), Elizabeth Thompson describes the extraordinary, brief moment of unity and hope―and of its destruction.
Elizabeth F. Thompson is the Mohamed S. Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace at American University’s School of International Service.
Schneur Zalman Newfield is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York, and the author of Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism (Temple University Press, 2020). Visit him online at ZalmanNewfield.com.
Schneur Zalman Newfield is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York, and the author of Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism (Temple University Press, 2020).