Wednesday 28 September 17:00 - 19:00

IAS Forum
Room G17, Ground Floor, South Wing, UCL
Gower Street
London
WC1E 6BT

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Book Talk: 'How the West Stole Democracy From the Arabs'

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Prof Elizabeth Thompson (American University) in conversation with Seth Anziska (UCL).

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 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 Syria’s self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference, but other Entente powers plotted to protect their colonial interests. Under threat of European occupation, the Syrian 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 Syrian Arab Kingdom 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 government. The fragile coalition of secular modernizers and Islamic reformers that had established democracy was destroyed, with profound consequences for the future of democracy in the region.

Using previously untapped primary sources, including contemporary newspaper accounts, reports of the Syrian Congress, and letters and diaries from participants, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs (2020, Grove Atlantic) is a groundbreaking account of an extraordinary, brief moment of equity and justice—and of its destruction.

Sponsored by the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies and the Centre for Palestine Studies at SOAS.

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