How the West stole democracy from the Arabs

15 July 2020

This talk will look at how Arabs established a democratic government at Damascus in 1919-20 by forging a compromise between secular liberals, conservative Muslims, and leaders of non-Muslim communities as described in How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs. However, the Paris Peace Conference refused to recognize Arab democracy because it threatened British and French colonial rule in other Muslim countries. By authorizing the French army to occupy Damascus, the Conference destroyed not only the Syrian government, but also future prospects for Arab democracy. The book challenges previous understandings of the impact of World War I on the Middle East that focus on nationalism as the primary outcome. Not only did Arabs seek to revive liberal constitutionalism, but they also demonstrated a political sophistication that has been erased by colonizers. The events of 1920 tainted the new regime of international law under the League of Nations with racism and sparked the rise of anti-liberal Islamism.

About the speaker:

Elizabeth F. Thompson is Professor of history and the Mohamed Said Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace at the American University in Washington, DC. Her new book is titled How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance. The book offer a new argument for the importance of the Syrian Arab Kingdom in the history of democracy and the rise of anti-liberal Islamism in the Arab world. Dr Thompson is also author of Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East and the prize-winning Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon. She has received fellowships from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and is former co-director of the National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on the World War I in the Middle East.

About the chair:

Eugene Rogan is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at Oxford University, where he has taught since 1991, a Fellow of St Antony’s College and Director of the Middle East Centre. He took his B.A. in economics from Columbia, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history from Harvard. In 2017 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. He is author of The Arabs: A History (2009, 2017), named a best book of 2009 by The Economist, The Financial Times, and The Atlantic Monthly. His new book, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (2015), was named a best book of 2015 by The Economist and The Wall Street Journal. His earlier works include Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 1999), for which he received the Albert Hourani Book Award of the Middle East Studies Association of North America and the Fuad Köprülü Prize of the Turkish Studies Association; and The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948 (Cambridge University Press, 2001, second edition 2007, with Avi Shlaim). His works are translated into 18 languages.

Webinar recordings

Watch the webinar on our YouTube channel or listen to the podcast.