To understand the rebellion of Arabs against the west, one must first understand history in its full context. The date is May 1915, Prince Faisal, a descendant of the prophet Mohammad who studied in the Ottoman Empire, was ordered to go to Damascus from Istanbul. He was appalled by the site of Armenians being uprooted by Turkish officers. These events were documented by his personal secretary, Fa’iz El-Ghussein, who noted the unlawful treatment of the Turks against the Protected People of the Muslims, which later was known as the Armenian Genocide.
A year before, Prince Faisal had met members of an Arab nationalist movement in Istanbul where he upheld their values and became a member himself. That organization was called Al-Fatat.
Founded after the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, the underground organization was established in Paris by three Arab students who, although took part in the revolution, were dissatisfied by the new Turkish nationalist agenda against ethnic groups in the region, primarily Armenians. These students were Awni Abd al-Hadi from Nablus, Palestine who studied in Istanbul and Beirut, and Sorbonne University in Paris. He was one of the organizers of the Arab Congress of 1913 in Paris; Rustum Haidar from Baalbak, Lebanon, who later became a political figure in Lebanon and the Minister of Finance; and Ahmad Qadri from Damascus.
Al-Fatat upheld a more inclusive model of the Young Turks’ in the purpose of protecting Arab rights despite religious beliefs. Afterwards, more Arab students were attracted to the organization. Among those who joined were Jamil Mardam, who was part of a prominent aristocratic family and studied at the school of Political Science in Paris; Rafiq Rizq Sallum, a Greek Orthodox Christian, lawyer, and poet from Homs who was marked for his brilliant intellect and was later sent to Balamand Seminary to study theological sciences; Rashid al-Husami, a judiciary official from al-Karak. Some of the members studied at prestigious schools in Istanbul, Beirut, and Paris, and, although they were multilingual, they all spoke a common language rich in intellect and literature; some were part of the Istanbul-based Literary Society, and one even owned and edited the Al Mufid newspaper and provided Al-Fatat with a mode for public expression1.
Members of the organization, to Britain’s dismay, were not savages from the desert. They were educators, scholars, lawyers, artists, activists, proud Arabs, who aided Prince Faisal in the fight for Arab democracy. Some marched by the Prince’s side to free the region, and they were greeted at every stop. People fervently welcomed the new Arab rule.
Without Faisal’s Knowledge, the Allies Planned to Partition the Region, and Use Religion to Factionalize the Arabs
While the Allies planned to partition the Ottoman Empire into sectarian zones where Anatolia would be promised for the Greeks and Armenians, Palestine for the Jews, and Lebanon for Christians - this became public news because of the Balfour Declaration that promised Zionists a Palestinian home, and the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided Syria and Iraq between France and Britain - Prince Faisal made sure to ease the incredulous hearts of the weary Arabs, Jews and Christians in the region by echoing the Al-Fatat values of creating an Arab nation and uniting under one identity where all religious groups’ rights would be preserved under the new social progress of the Arab Independence.
Prince Faisal’s speech in Aleppo in 1918 asserted that “We rebelled for no other reason than to avenge the righteous and to aid the oppressed,” dismissing any rumours that he had sold Arabs to the Allies, for such deed is unbefitting to the descendants of Prophet Mohammad, “When the Turks sounded the trumpet of war, they committed deeds repugnant to humanity…. My father saw that the Turkish government acted neither to advance religion nor to benefit the country. Instead, it proclaimed a holy war in alliance with the Germans. Its aim was to take revenge on the races under its rule, including the Arabs. I am an Arab and I have no privilege over any other Arab, not even by the weight of an atom,” he vowed, in reference to a verse in the Qur’an.
Unlike secularized nationalists, Prince Faisal spoke a language rich in religious references. Despite what had been made public, the Prince showed gratitude for Britain and France, “The Arabs will never forget what they [Britain and France] have done for us, for as long as we exist on Earth.” Prince Faisal concluded his speech, referencing the great Syrian scholar al-Kawakibi, “Aleppo is empty of schools. I wish for it a future as glorious in knowledge as its past,” and the Prince was adamant on recruiting teachers and scholars to lead future generations and adopt reforms for social progress. To care for education was not surprising, for the Prince was a graduate in Istanbul and had served the Ottoman Empire politically and was surrounded by Al-Fatat members who were in prestigious schools and later on became lauded political figures.
Prince Faisal became popular among all Arabs and all religions. The Prince found support even in some Greek Orthodox and a few prominent Maronites, including the president of the Lebanese Administrative Council, Habib al-Sa’ad. A Greek Orthodox newspaper in Beirut, Tongue of the Arabs, had celebrated the arrival of the Arab rule on October 2nd in the very terms Faisal preached. Prince Faisal even made sure to pay the Christian leaders in Damascus a visit, for he knew he needed their trust the most. Habib Istifan, a high-ranking Maronite priest who welcomed Faisal with open arms, had warned Christians of the French who were promised Lebanon, stating that they would only bring forth more tyranny.
Arabs Were in Good Hands Without Britain and France
Riad al-Solh, one of the most prominent figures in the Al-Fatat organization whose legacy continues to echo to this day, was enrolled in Istanbul Law School along with other future members of Al-Fatat. He met Faisal in 1915 at a secret Fatat meeting in Damascus, and he had, without a doubt, a strong belief in the educators of Arabs, for many have enrolled in the Ottoman Empire’s schools. Riad al-Solh strongly believed that their teachings have prepared them for democracy. Many Al-Fatat members were once political figures in the Empire, they knew how to lead and they were confident enough to establish democracy in the region without the help of the west. Prince Faisal himself was part of the Ottoman Empire, and he was his father’s representative in the parliament. As the Arab revolt reached all parts of the Empire, more and more scholars and political figures vowed to help and assist the Prince. Needless to say, the Arabs were in good hands.
What Did Arab Citizens of Different Religious Backgrounds Think of the Muslim Prince Faisal?
Unity between all religious groups under one identity was not a foreign idea to Arabs. In fact, it was prominent even during the Ottoman Empire's rule. Aleppo laid in the transition zone between Arabic-speaking Syria, Kurdish highlands to the north and east, and Turkish and Armenian regions to the north and west. It included a large non-Arabic population with different religious fellowships. Despite that, in the early 19th century, many in Aleppo were supporters of the Syrian author and philosopher, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, who influenced a whole generation in the city as he preached Islamic democracy and liberal, progressive thoughts, emphasizing that there should be brotherhood between all Arabs of all religious backgrounds. He even published a newspaper that promoted equal rights for Armenians, Christians, and Jews, which the Ottoman rule tried to censor. His preachings led to his arrest, where crowds of his supporters rallied to release him. After he was freed, he published a book in Cairo, The Nature of Despotism, and in that book he spoke about tyranny and how it violated Islamic teachings. He valued Islamic politics as democracy, and he claimed that Islamic politics is in its truest form when it’s in the presence of unity and brotherhood among all Arabs regardless of religion. And many in Aleppo upheld his values, which is why when Prince Faisal delivered his speech in 1918, he made sure to quote Aleppo’s beloved liberal and progressive voice, al-Kawakibi. And everyone in Aleppo cheered for the arrival of Faisal.
So the Arab revolt was led by the progressive idealists of Al-Fatat organization, that comprised of educated and experienced members; Prince Faisal won the hearts of all Arabs from every religious group; with the help of the Allies, the Ottoman Empire was defeated, and Arab independence was promised to Prince Faisal’s father by Britain and France. This all sounded ideal. So what went wrong?
The Meeting With Allenby - The Betrayal
Prince Faisal had successfully united all Arabs. And in 1918, his march into Damascus aptly reflected his triumph. The Prince marched alongside Nuri al-Said, a native of Baghdad, closely followed by elite Iraqi officers who wished to develop an independent Iraqi state in confederation with Syria. Next to the Prince was Rustum Haidar who represented Lebanon and was one of the founders of Al-Fatat, and alongside him came two Damascenes: General Ali Rida al-Rikabi and Dr Ahmad Qadri, also one of the Al-Fatat founders.
Prince Faisal was driven to tears from the warm reception he received in Damascus as all Arabs cheered, cried, and showered the men with flowers and incessant invites for dinner. However, the celebration was short-lived, for the Prince was to meet with General Edmund Allenby, a commander in chief of British forces in Syria, at the Victoria Hotel in the city’s centre. E. T. Lawrence stood by Allenby as Faisal emerged through the hotel door, eyes still gleaming from joyous tears. Lawrence later wrote in the remembrance of such a scene: “They were a strange contrast: Faisal, large-eyed, colourless, and worn, like a fine dagger; Allenby, gigantic and red and merry.” Smiles of victory would soon turn to anger as Allenby revealed to the Prince that his Arab administration would extend only to the Syrian hinterland, not to the Lebanese or Palestinian coast. Faisal protested and swore that the Arabs would never accept French supervision. Allenby suspected such a reaction, and in an attempt to reassure the Prince, he promised that the French military governor at Beirut would not meddle in Arab politics. This revealed that to the eyes of Britain and France, these were not Arabs, alienating Lebanon from Faisal, and how it would then be most appropriate for the city to be led by non-Arabs. Allenby didn’t confirm with Prince Faisal that on September 30th, France and Britain had formally confirmed their 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Agreement was originally secretive, and it stated that France was to directly rule the Syrian-Lebanese coast and southeastern Turkey while Britain would establish a rule in Iraq from Baghdad. Palestine was to be an international zone for both. This all meant a betrayal to Prince Faisal’s father, who was assured by Britain in 1915 that Arabs will be fully independent.
The meeting ended in disappointment. Prince Faisal left to join the celebration his people had thrown for him as all notables cheered and threw themselves in his hands, thanking him for fighting for their independence. The Prince was deeply shaken, and Lawrence was disillusioned at Britain’s betrayal, for he viewed Faisal as a comrade, later exchanging letters with the Prince and referring to one another as brother and friend. Ashamed, Lawrence left Damascus without stating why.
Why The Betrayal?
Despite the whole world applauding Arabs’ triumph against the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France were unable to keep to themselves and seized this opportunity to form a secret counsel where they agreed to dismantle Greater Syria under the guise of helping the Arabs build a nation suited to them because Arabs were unable to do so themselves. But why couldn’t Britain and France retreat back to Europe and leave the Arabs, supposedly, relegate to a state of chaos?
It was similar to the protestors in the Haitian Revolution as stated in the book The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James. In his book, the author exposed how Haitians were able to escape slavery and adopt the values of the French Revolution, only to be tricked by Napoleon Bonaparte, who reimposed slavery in their country. Colonialism is driven by fear, and white supremacists’ hearts beat faster in the apprehension of who is profound and coloured. James reflected the following, “[Bonaparte] feared too the French Revolution which he and his kind had stifled.” Stating that White Europeans simply could not accept that, “among those blacks whom they rule are men so infinitely their superior in ability, energy, range of vision, and tenacity of purpose.”
Appropriately penned in the book, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs, author Elizabeth F. Thompson clearly elucidates James’s point in reference to the events stated in this article:
“...the French in 1920 feared the world order promised by the League of Nations. The Arabs who built their free democratic regime in Damascus had never been slaves. They had been citizens of the sovereign Ottoman Empire. They considered themselves civilized and even white (a view upheld by the American Supreme Court). But French and British leaders…feared that the Syrian Arabs…would undermine their claim to colonial rule elsewhere in Asia and Africa. If Arabs could prove themselves capable of modern democratic government in Damascus, why not also in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Algiers?”
Arabs were The Black Jacobins in the eyes of British leaders. Much like their neighbours, Great Britain saw the world through the lens of colonialism and had agreed amongst their allies that Arabs were in need of dire help, for their illiterate and barbaric, desert nature would demolish their own lands without the Turks to keep them at bay. So France and Britain took the “noble” mission of forcefully helping Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and other nations.
In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence points at his skin and compares it to that of his Arab companion, Sherif Ali. The British officer stated that this is what sets them apart.
Modern Conflicts Between Liberals and Islamic Politics
When separating people by skin tone is not enough, you resort to religion. To fully destroy Prince Faisal’s legacy, fear amongst religious groups needed to take place. And if we’ve learned anything, it is that evil is driven by fear. Undo al-Kawakibi’s work (the Syrian author and philosopher from Aleppo), who preached Islamic democracy and liberalism by creating and funding extremist groups to creep their way through Iran and slowly spread their roots across the Middle East and submerge the region into the trenches in the deepest point of the oceans, away from land-dwellers, so that these nations adapt to their new environment and evolve to a most horrifying, skeletal exterior much like the deep creatures of the oceans.
Nowadays Islam is viewed as antidemocratic, contrary to the views of Rashid Rida, an Egyptian Islamic scholar, reformer, theologian, and revivalist who wrote his beliefs in his magazine The Lighthouse, stating that Islamic principles and virtues could only prosper in free societies. He believed that British colonialism in Egypt corrupted Muslims, as did tyranny of all kinds. Modern secularists in 1920 did not shy away from their religious views in favour of building democracy. After the Syrian Congress was unlawfully terminated in 1920, Muslims and liberals became two politically opposing camps. The death of Arab democracy in 1920 consequently led to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and anti-liberal Islamic parties who demonized any progressors who had put faith into the US president, Wilson Woodrow, who had promised to fight for Arab independence. As a result, Liberal elites were stigmatized as colonial puppets.
It’s fair to assert that the failure of my country, Lebanon, with its economic depression and increased poverty is attributed to the destruction of Democracy back in 1920, Britain and France’s secret meetings, the rise of anti-Islam groups in Iran, and the separation of Islamic liberalism that united all Alepp’s progressive thinkers as well as Prince Faisal’s efforts to unite all religions under the Arab identity that has been completely abolished by white colonialists of old.
It’s important to spread awareness and understand history in its full context. While European historians viewed Lawrence as the face of the Arab revolt, Arab historians had viewed him as a British officer who assisted the true leader of the revolution, Prince Faisal. While we can’t singlehandedly bring forth democracy that has been taken away from us in 1920, we can learn how it was taken, and we can educate ourselves on how you don’t have to give up liberalism in favour of religion.
My own country, Lebanon, ruled by illiterates unlike those in Al-Fatat, has birthed shame for the homeland in young people such as myself. And as the economy and the stifling political climate in Lebanon continue to worsen, young people grow distant from our proud Arab ancestry and withdraw away from a country that everyone seems eager to abandon. I wrote this article to remind myself, and young Arabs around the world, the history behind the Middle East and how someone in the distant past loved his country and the people in it so much he led a rebellion against one of the strongest Empires that reigned for 600 years. Uniting under a common identity seemed like a work of fiction and a dream that was upheld dearly by Arabs who laboured complacently under the Ottoman rule. But all great change starts with a thought in the mind of a person who has too much affinity to his country.
As Al-Fatat organization spread their word through Al Mufid newspaper, and Rashid Rida resorted to his magazine The Lighthouse to unite people, and al-Kawakibi penned down his progressive voice in censored letters, you too can use your pen to unveil history and betrayals of old to help upcoming generations understand in hopes to guide their future. And much like the members of the multi-religious members of Al-Fatat in Paris who surreptitiously gathered around and Prince Faisal’s ability to win the hearts of the Jews and Christians without shunning his religion, one can surmise, and in a similar tone to al-Kawakibi, true religion, in its purest form, exists in harmony with other religions, under democracy, and united with all people.
1Al-Fatat members included:
Awni Abd al-Hadi from Nablus, Palestine. A Palestinian politician who studied in Istanbul and Beirut, and Sorbonne University in Paris, Awni Abd al-Hadi was one of the organizers of the Arab Congress of 1913 in Paris. His wife, Tarab Abdul Hadi, was a feminist who worked on Palestinian matters, and she co-founded the Palestine Arab Women's Congress (PAWC), which was the first women's organization in British Mandate Palestine.
Rustum Haidar from Baalbak, Lebanon. Rustum Haidar was a political figure in Lebanon, who aided Prince Faisal. Later in his life, he became the Minister of Finance.
Ahmad Qadri from Damascus.
Rafiq al-Tamimi from Nablus, Palestine. He became an educator and a political figure, noting his academic achievements in Turkey at a young age.
Jamil Mardam from Damascus. He was part of a prominent aristocratic family and studied at the school of Political Science in Paris.
Rafiq Rizq Sallum from Syria. He was a Greek Orthodox Christian, lawyer, and poet from Homs who was marked for his brilliant intellect and studied at the Russian Primary School and was later sent to Balamand Seminary to study theological sciences before studying at the prestigious American University of Beirut, and when he finished studying law, he was fluent in Arabic, Russian, Greek, and Turkish as well as mastered the qanun, lute, violin and piano. He was also a member of the Istanbul-based Literary Society.
Rashid al-Husami, a judiciary official from al-Karak.
Abd al-Ghani al-Uraysi from Beirut. He owned and edited the Al Mufid newspaper and provided Al-Fatat with a mode for public expression.
Sayf al-Din & Yusuf Mukhaibar from Baalbek. They were members of the Istanbul-based Literary Society.