Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., A Concise History of the Middle East,

Westview Press, 1979: Chapter 13 "The Roots of Arab Bitterness", pp. 181-197.

Few topics of study have generated as much heat as Arab nationalism. Few peoples are as poorly understood as today's Arabs. Even deciding who is an Arab or defining what is meant by Arab nationalism can easily get scholars and students into trouble, with both the Arabs and their detractors. Nevertheless, Arab nationalism seems to be a growing phenomenon in the late twentieth century. In our analysis we may find that what is called Arab nationalism is now dissolving into many different movements, whose main common feature is that they pertain to various Arabic-speaking peoples who wish to control their own political destinies. Thus, it is necessary to study these various manifestations of Arab feeling. And let us not fool ourselves: Arab feeling is strong, and it is likely to grow stronger in the years ahead. It is also sometimes bitter, due to some of the unhappy experiences of the Arabs in the early twentieth century. Let us see what did happen, and why.


What is Arab nationalism? Simply put, it is the belief that Arabs constitute a single political community (or nation) and ought to have a common government. Right away we can see problems. There is no general agreement on who is an Arab. The current definition is that an Arab is anyone who speaks Arabic as his or her native language. This is not enough. Many Arabic-speaking peoples do not typically think of themselves as Arabs, nor do other Arabs so regard them, i.e., the Maronites of Lebanon, possibly the Egyptian Copts, and almost certainly the Jews born in Arab countries who went to live in Israel. Until I hear a better definition, I lean toward one adopted by a conference of Arab leaders many years ago: "Whoever lives in our country, speaks our language, is reared in our culture, and takes pride in our glory is one of us."

Up to the twentieth century, the term "Arab" was applied mainly to the camel-raising nomads of Arabia, the bedouin. To the settled peoples of, say, Egypt or Syria, to be called an Arab was almost an insult. Turks used to call thempis arabler ("dirty Arabs"), which they naturally resented. The idea of Syrians and Egyptians glorifying in being Arabs, let alone uniting their countries in the name of Arab nationalism, as happened in 1958 and almost recurred several times since then, would have been taken as a joke. The question "What are you?" might have rated such answers as "l am a Syrian," "I am a Damascene," "l am a Muslim of the Shafi'i legal rite," or "I am a carpenter." Even a tribal affiliation might have been mentioned, but never "l am an Arab," at least not before the twentieth century. Even nowadays, we must remember that there are some twenty countries that see themselves as part of the Arab world, each with its own government, flag, currency, stamps, passport or identity card, and seat on the Council of the Arab League. None would deny its loyalty to the ideal of Arab unity, yet they go their separate ways. Even common opposition to the state of Israel has not brought the Arabs together; rather, it has divided them even more.

Historical Background

As we review the history of the Arabic-speaking peoples, we should remember that they have not been united since the era of the High Caliphate, if indeed then. Furthermore, they have not ruled themselves (except for the bedouin) from the time the Turks came in until quite recently. The very idea of people ruling themselves would not have made much sense to Middle Easterners before the rise of nationalism. What the settled peoples cared about w4s that a Muslim government ruled over them, defended them from nomads and other invaders, preserved order, and promoted justice in accordance with the Shariiah. It did not matter whether the head of that Muslim government was an Arab like the Umayyad caliphs, a Persian like the Buyid emirs, a Turk like the Seljuk and Ottoman sultans, or a Kurd like Salah al-Din and his Ayyubid heirs. Almost all rulers succeeded either by heredity or by nomination; no one thought of letting the people elect them.

The Arabs under Ottoman Rule

From the sixteenth to the twentieth century most Arabs-all of them, really, except in parts of Arabia and Morocco-were part of the Ottoman Empire. Even in periods of Ottoman weakness, the local officials and landlords were apt to be Turks, Circassians, or other non-Arabs. Lately it has been fashionable for Arab nationalists and their sympathizers to denounce the horrors of Ottoman rule, blaming the Turks for the Arabs' backwardness, political ineptitude, disunity, or whatever else was wrong in their society. What went wrong? How did the state of the Arabs under Ottoman rule compare with what it had been earlier? We have found that there was little deterioration that could be blamed directly on Istanbul. It could even be argued that early Ottoman rule benefited the Arabs by promoting local security and bringing their merchants into closer relations with Anatolia and the Balkans. If the Ottoman decline of the eighteenth century and the overzealous reforms of the nineteenth hurt the Arabs, the Turks within the empire suffered too. If Ottoman rule was so oppressive, why did the Arabs not revolt?

Well, at times they did. I have already mentioned the Wahhabi revolt in eighteenth-century Arabia, but that group wanted to purify Islam rather than set up an Arab state. Peasant and military revolts sometimes broke out in Egypt, but for economic rather than national reasons. Some people have seen an anti-Ottoman angle in the policies of Mehmet Ali and Ibrahim. The latter, as governor of Syria, is supposed to have said: "I am not a Turk. I came to Egypt as a child, and since that time, the sun of Egypt has changed my blood and made it all Arab." But Mehmet Ali and his heirs spoke Turkish, considered themselves members of the Ottoman ruling class, and treated the Egyptians like servants. Urabi's name implied some Arab identity (Egyptian peasants often trace their lineage to Arab tribes) and he did rebel against Turks and Circassians in the Egyptian army, but his revolt was mainly an Egyptian one directed against the Anglo-French Dual Control. Uprisings in Syria were frequent, but their cause was usually religious. Tribes might rebel against an Ottoman governor or garrison in Iraq or the Hijaz, but over local grievances.

In weighing these facts, historians have come to feel that Arab identity played no great part in Middle East politics up to the twentieth century. Muslim Arabs felt that any attempt to weaken the Ottoman Empire was likely to harm Islam. Even under Sultan Abdulhamid, for all his faults, the Arabs went on upholding the status quo. Many served in the army or the civil administration and some were among his leading advisers. They might take pride in being from the same "race" as Muhammad and his companions, but this did not make them want to rebel against the Turks, who were Muslims too.

Christian Arab Nationalists

Not all Arabs are Muslim. In the nineteenth century, perhaps as many as one fourth of the Arabs under Ottoman rule belonged to protected minorities. Most of these were Christians, who were less likely than the Muslims to feel a strong loyalty to the empire. But we must pin down each particular time, place, and sect before we can discuss the politics of the Arabic-speaking Christians. Those whose rule mattered most in the birth of Arab nationalism lived in Syria, which then included most of what we now call Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the republic of Syria, and even parts of southern Turkey. Until they came under the rule of Ibrahim ( 1832-1840) or the Tanzimat reformers, there was little reason for Arabic-speaking Christians in Syria to worry about who ruled over them. The millet system gave considerable autonomy to both Orthodox and Monophysite Christians. As for the others, they were usually so well protected by deserts, mountains, or river gorges that they hardly felt the Ottoman yoke. The Maronites (and other Catholics) enjoyed French protection by the nineteenth century, whereas Russia took a growing interest in the welfare of the Greek Orthodox Syrians. From the 1820s on, American and French missionaries founded schools in Syria, as did the British, Russians, and other Westerners, though to a lesser extent. Since Syrian Christians naturally sent their children to mission schools closest to their own religious affiliation, Maronites and Uniat Catholics tended to go to French Catholic schools and to identify with France. This created problems for the Orthodox. Some were converting to Catholicism or Protestantism (out of dissatisfaction with their largely uneducated clergy), and hence sent their children to the relevant mission schools. But even those who stayed in their ancestral faith rarely wanted to go into the priesthood, since all higher clerical positions were held by Greeks, or to attend Russian schools, when few aspired to go to Russian universities.

The Americans provided the answer to their problem, but quite by accident they contributed to the rise of Arab nationalism. The American mission schools, especially their crowning institution, the Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut), tried to serve students of every religion. However, most of them hoped also to convert young people to Protestant Christianity. Since, as many of you know, Protestantism has traditionally stressed reading and understanding its sacred scriptures, the Bible was soon translated into Arabic for local converts. Many of the early American missionaries learned the language well enough to teach in it and even to translate some English language textbooks into Arabic. Until it became clear that they could not go on recruiting teachers and finding textbooks under this system, the American mission schools and colleges used Arabic as their language of instruction. Very reluctantly, they switched to English in the late nineteenth century. Many Arabs were therefore willing to send their children to the American schools, despite their Protestant orientation. The Orthodox Christians especially did so. This raised the standard of Arabic reading and writing among the Syrian Orthodox youth, many of whom went into journalism, law, and teaching. Some also became scholars and writers. Before long they were leading the Arabic literary revival, which (as so often happened in Europe) became politicized into a nationalist movement. Perhaps the growth of nationalism was also fostered by such American ideas as using the schools to develop moral character, stressing social and benevolent activities, and teaching students to find new institutions to fit changing conditions.

Legend has it that the first Arab nationalist party was a secret society in Beirut, founded around 1875 by five early graduates of the American University. More recently, careful research by a professor at that institution, Zeine N. Zeine, has shown that these students, all Christians, were probably seeking the independence of what we now call Lebanon- not the whole Arab world-from the Ottoman Empire. Anyway, the secret society did not last long. But the commitment of students and alumni of the American University of Beirut, whethet nineteenth or twentieth century, has nurtured the ideas of Arab nationalism and spread them among both Muslim and Christian speakers of Arabic. The American missionaries hoped to convert the young Arabs to Protestantism through exposure to the Arabic Bible; the unintended outcome was to make them cherish more their heritage of Arabic literature and history. Their secular colleagues may also have taught them to respect the Western ideals of liberalism and democracy, but the students applied them to the building of an Arab nationalist ideology. Teachers sow their seed in unknown soil; their students decide what they will cultivate and determine what posterity will reap.

Muslim Arab Nationalists

But Arab nationalism could not have become popular among Muslims if all its advocates had been westernized Christians. The earliest example of a truly Muslim strain within Arab nationalism was a campaign during the 1890s, popularized by a writer named Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (d. 1902), to revive the Arab caliphate, preferably in Mecca. Pan-Islam, strong among Muslims since the 1860s, had called on them to unite behind the leadership of the Ottoman sultans. By juggling a few historical facts, their supporters had proved that the caliphate, maintained by the Mamluks in Cairo from the fall of Baghdad in 1258, had been transferred to the Ottoman sultans upon their conquest of Egypt in 1517. This claim must have bothered some Muslims, since Sunni political theory specifies that the caliph must come from Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh of Mecca. The Ottomans were not Arabs, let alone members of the Quraysh tribe. They had in fact rarely used the title of caliph before the late nineteenth century. Sultan Abdulaziz (1861-1876) had been the first to do so as part of his campaign to strengthen his position among Ottoman Muslims and to counter the harmful effects of Russian pan-Slavism. Sultan Abdulhamid exploited the caliphate even more, trying to win the backing of Egyptian and Indian Muslims ruled by Britain-one of the reasons for his bad reputation in Western history books. Britain's rising hostility to the Ottoman sultan probably affected Kawakibi's nationalism. At any rate, his idea of an Arab caliphate did gain support from the non-Ottoman emirs in Arabia and even Khedive Abbas in Egypt. Although the khedives were descendants of Mehmet Ali, a Turk, they often tried to win Arab support away from the Ottoman sultans. In short, Kawakibi's campaign to free the Arabs from Turkish rule mattered more as a power ploy for diplomats, khedives, and emirs than for its popular following at the time.

The Arabs and the Young Turks

The first breakthrough for Arab nationalism was the 1908 "Young Turk" revolution, which led to the restoration of the long-suspended Ottoman constitution. Suddenly, men living in Beirut and Damascus, Baghdad and Aleppo, Jaffa and Jerusalem were choosing representatives to an assembly in Istanbul. High hopes were raised for an era of union between Arabs and Turks and for progress toward liberal democracy in the Ottoman state. An Arab-Ottoman "Friendship Society" opened branches in many cities of the empire. Even some of the Syrian intellectuals who had fled from Abdulhamid's tyranny to Egypt or America began packing their bags to return home.

Arab hopes soon faded, however. The Arabic-Ottoman Friendship Society was closed down by the Committee of Union and Progress in 1909, although an Arabic literary society was allowed to function in Istanbul as long as it steered clear of politics. Representation in Parliament tended to favor Turks against the various ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities of the empire; furthermore, the elections were fixed to ensure that most of the deputies would belong to the CUP. The Young Turk government, imperiled by European imperialism and Balkan nationalism, resumed the centralizing policies of earlier Ottoman reformers. This made the Arabs feel that their liberties, preserved by the weakness or indifference of earlier governments, would now be in danger. The imposition of Turkish as the language of administration and education (plus the apparent shift from pan-Islam to pan-Turanism) especially angered the Arabs.

How could they react? Not since the time of Muhammad had large numbers of Arabic-speaking peoples mobilized politically to gain unity and freedom for Arabs. How could they oppose a government headed, at least in name, by a sultan-caliph? What good would it do the Arabs of Syria to overthrow Turkish rule, only to become, like Egypt, a dependency of a Christian Great Power? Few Syrians (except some Maronites) wanted French rule. Neither did Arabs in Basrah (now in Iraq) want to be regarded (like Suez) as a vital link in Britain's imperial communications.

The result of these considerations was a low-profile movement of a few educated Arabs aimed not at separation, but at greater local autonomy. It included three different groups: (1) the Ottoman Decentralization party, formed in 1912 by Syrians living in Cairo and aimed at winning Arab support for greater local autonomy at the expense of strong central control by the Ottoman government; (2) al-Fatal ("youth"), a secret society of young Arab, mainly Muslim, students in European universities, who convoked an Arab Congress, held in Paris in 1913, to demand equal rights and cultural autonomy for Arabs within the Ottoman Empire; and (3) al-Ahd ("covenant"), a secret society of Arab officers within the Ottoman army, who proposed to turn the Ottoman Empire into an Arab-Turkish dual monarchy on the pattern of Austria-Hungary since 1867. Each of these groups found backers among educated Arabs living in Istanbul, other Ottoman cities (notably Damascus), and abroad.

But do not let the strength of Arab nationalism today fool you into rewriting the early history of the movement. Most Arabs were not yet Arab nationalists; they stuck by the CUP, the Ottoman constitution that gave them parliamentary representation, and a government in which some Arabs served as ministers and ambassadors, petty officials, or army officers. If Arab nationalism was to mean separation from the Ottoman Empire, this might do more for the Egyptian khedive or the British than for the Arabs of Syria or Iraq. Even though Egypt was prospering, Arabs elsewhere did not crave British rule, let alone a French imperialism comparable to what already existed in Algeria. The Jewish settlers in Palestine, hardly large enough yet to threaten the Arab majority, might Iater aspire to separate statehood, and Arab nationalists opposed this even more than Turkish rule.


The next turning point in the rise of Arab nationalism occurred when the Ottoman Empire decided in August 1914 to enter World War I on the German side. The Young Turks, especially War Minister Enver, may have been influenced by their exposure to German military advisers, but their main motive was to reconquer Egypt from the British and the Caucasus mountain area from tsarist Russia. Muslim Arabs might well have applauded these aims.

Although later writers have castigated the Young Turks for committing the empire, shaken already by defeats in Libya and the Balkans, to war against the Western Allies, I must point out that the decision was highly popular in 1914, when Germany was respected for its economic and military might. The Germans were building a railway from Istanbul to Baghdad that would help hold together what was left of the Ottoman Empire. In addition, a German military mission was in Istanbul, training officers and soldiers to use modern weapons. Two German warships, caught in the Mediterranean when the war started and pursued by the British navy, took refuge in the Straits, whereupon they were handed over by the German ambassador as gifts to the Ottoman government (complete with their German crews, who donned fezzes and claimed to be "instructors"). They replaced two ships under construction for the Ottoman navy in British shipyards, already paid for by public subscription that had been commandeered by the British navy when the war broke out. So strongly did the Ottoman government and people support the German cause that, after the new "Turkish" ships had pulled the empire into the war by bombarding the Russian port of Odessa, the sultan officially proclaimed a jihad (Muslim holy war) against Britain, France, and Russia. All three had millions of Muslim subjects who, if they got the message, would have to rebel on behalf of their Ottoman sultan-caliph.

Britain and the Arabs

The British, especially those serving in Egypt and the Sudan, were worried about how to counter this pan-lslamic proclamation on behalf of the Turco-German war machine, which launched a well-publicized invasion of Sinai in late 1914, just as Britain declared an official protectorate over Egypt. Some units of the Ottoman army did reach the Suez Canal in February 1915. One actually crossed to the Western side under cover of darkness. For several years, Britain had to keep over a hundred thousand imperial troops stationed in Egypt, partly to intimidate the Egyptian Nationalists, but mainly to stop any new Ottoman effort to take the canal, which the British now viewed as their imperial lifeline.

Britain's response was to make contact with an Arab leader in the Hijaz (western Arabia), namely Husayn, the sharif and emir of Mecca. You may want me to explain these grand titles. A sharif is a descendant of Muhammad, of which there were many in the Hijaz, especially in the Muslim holy cities. Protection of Mecca and Medina mattered greatly to the Ottoman sultans; they lavished honors on the sharifs but also played on their rivalries to keep them in line. The various clans of sharifs fought one another for the position of emir (prince), which carried considerable temporal authority.

From the Tanzimat era, though, the Ottoman government was also trying to strengthen its direct rule over the Hijaz, using an appointed local governor. Sharif Husayn, the leader of one of the contending clans (which he called the Hashimites, the clan of the Prophet himself), had long struggled with the Ottoman sultan and his governors, enduring almost sixteen years of house arrest in Istanbul. Even though he remained loyal to the Ottomanist ideal after he became emir in 1908, Husayn disliked the CUP's centralizing policies. One of his sons, Abdallah, had close ties with the Arab nationalist societies in Syria even before World War I. Abdallah went to Cairo, seeking support from the British consul-general, Lord Kitchener, a few months before the war started. The British were not yet ready to plot against the Ottoman Empire, which they had earlier tried to preserve, but Kitchener did not forget the meeting. When he returned home to help in the central planning of Britain's war effort, London became interested in a possible Arab alliance against the Ottoman Empire, using these Hashimite sharifs in Mecca. The British government instructed its representatives in Cairo to contact Emir Husayn, hoping to dissuade him from endorsing the jihad or, better yet, persuade him to lead an Arab rebellion against Ottoman rule.

The Husayn-McMahon Correspondence

In Cairo, Britain's high commissioner (the new title resulted from the declaration of the British protectorate over Egypt), Sir Henry McMahon, wrote to the sharif of Mecca. The British wanted him to start a revolt against Ottoman rule in the Hijaz. Husayn in turn asked for a pledge that the British would support the rebellion financially and politically against his Arab rivals as well as the Ottoman Empire. If he called for an Arab revolt, it was not merely for the sake of changing masters. The British in Egypt and the Sudan knew from talking with Arab nationalists living there that the Hashimites could not rally other Arabs to their cause-especially given the power and prestige of rival families living in other parts of Arabia-unless the Arabs were sure of gaining their independence in the lands in which they predominated: Arabia, Iraq, and Syria, including Palestine and Lebanon. The Arab nationalists did not yet worry much about Egypt and the rest of North Africa.

Keeping these considerations in mind, the emir of Mecca and the British high commissioner for Egypt and the Sudan exchanged some letters in 1915-1916 that have since become famous and highly controversial. In the course of what we now call the Husayn-McMahon correspondence, Britain pledged that, if Husayn proclaimed an Arab revolt against Ottoman rule, it would provide military and financial aid during the war and would support the creation of independent Arab governments in the Arabian peninsula and most parts of the Fertile Crescent.

Britain did exclude some parts, though. These included the port areas of Mersin and Alexandretta (now part of southern Turkey), also Basrah (now in Iraq) and "portions of Syria Iying to the west of the areas [districts] of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo." One of the toughest issues in modern Middle East history is to figure out whether McMahon meant to exclude only Lebanon, a largely Christian region coveted by France, or also Palestine, in which some Jews hoped to rebuild their ancient homeland. Lebanon is more clearly west of Damascus and those other Syrian cities than is what we now call Israel. This view would support the Arab case that Britain promised Palestine to them. But if the province of Syria (of which Damascus was the capital) was intended, what is now Israel and then partly under a governor in Jerusalem may have been what McMahon meant to exclude from Arab rule. Not only the Zionists, but also the British government after 1918, and even McMahon himself believed that he had never promised Palestine to the Arabs. My judgment of the issue is that, since Britain cared more in 1915 about preserving its French connection than about reserving Palestine for the Jews, the area excluded from Arab rule in the Husayn-McMahon correspondence must have been Lebanon. Only later would Jewish claims to Palestine become a moot issue.

The exclusion of these ambiguously described lands displeased Husayn, he refused to accept the deal, and his correspondence with the British in Cairo ended inconclusively in early 1916. The Ottomans could have headed off any major Arab revolt, but for the stupidity of the governor in Syria, Jemal, who needlessly antagonized the Arabs there. As former naval minister and one of the three Young Turks who really ruled the Ottoman Empire when it entered World War I, Jemal had taken charge of the Turkish expedition to seize the Suez Canal and liberate Egypt from British rule. Although his first attempt failed, Jemal planned to try again. He settled down as governor of Syria while he rebuilt his forces, but did little for the province. Many areas were struck by famine; fuel shortages prevented trains from carrying food to the stricken areas. Meanwhile, the Arab nationalist societies had come together and were wondering what to do next. One of Emir Husayn's sons, Faysal, came to Syria to parley with both the Arab nationalists and Jemal in 1915, but he accomplished nothing. In April and May 1916 Jemal's police swept down on the Arab leaders, including some scholars who were not even nationalists, arrested them for treason, and had twenty-two of them publicly hanged in Beirut and Damascus. The executions aroused so much anger in Syria-and among Arabs generally-that Faysal hastened back to Mecca, a convert to the nationalist cause, and persuaded his father that the time for revolt had come.

The Arab Revolt

On 5 June 1916 Husayn declared the independence of the Arabs and unfurled the standard of their revolt against Turkish rule. The Ottoman Empire did not topple over at once, but large numbers of Arabs in the Hijaz, plus some in Palestine and Syria, began to fight the Turks. Historians still ask whether most Arabs in these areas were truly nationalists. Most probably did not care whether they were ruled from Istanbul or Mecca as long as the outcome of World War I was in doubt.

The Arab Revolt would have many ups and downs over the course of the next two years, but let me keep the story short. Guided by European advisers, of whom T. E. Lawrence is deservedly the best known, the Arab supporters of Emir Husayn and his sons, Abdallah and Faysal (among others), fought on the side of the Allies against the Ottoman Empire. Working in tandem with British imperial troops advancing from the Suez Canal, namely the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, they moved north into Palestine. While the British forces took Jaffa and Jerusalem, the Arabs were blowing up railways and capturing Aqaba and Amman. When the British troops drew near Damascus in late September 1918, they held back to let Lawrence and the Arabs occupy the city, which then became the headquarters for a provisional Arab government headed by Faysal. Meanwhile, the Ottoman army, now led by Mustafa Kemal ("Ataturk"), retreated from Syria. The Turks were also giving way in Iraq before an Anglo-Indian army. Late in October the Ottoman Empire signed an armistice with the Allies on the island of Mudros. The Arabs, promised the right of self-determination by the British and the French, were jubilant. Surely their independence was at hand.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement

But this was not to be. Fighting for the survival of its empire, the British government had promised parts of the Arab world to other interested parties during the war. To backtrack a little, Russia had demanded Allied recognition of its right to control the Turkish Straits. In a secret treaty signed in London in 1915, Britain and France promised to back Russia's claim. For its entry into the war on the Allied side in 1915, Italy later demanded large portions of southwestern Anatolia. The Greeks, too, wanted a piece of Turkey, the area around Izmir, which had many Greek inhabitants. France, heavily involved in the war against Germany on the western front (keep in mind that German troops held much of northeastern France between 1914 and 1918), could not give up all its claims to the Middle East. Given its historic ties with the Maronites, it was natural for France to want Syria, including Lebanon and Palestine. So Britain, France, and Russia drew up a secret treaty known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Signed in May 1916, it provided for direct French rule in much of northern and western Syria, plus a sphere of influence in the Syrian hinterland, including Damascus, Aleppo, and Mosul. Britain would rule lower Iraq directly, and would also advise an Arab government controlling a stretch of land between the Egyptian border and eastern Arabia, thus providing indirect British control from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. A small area around Jaffa and Jerusalem would be under international government because Russia wanted to share in the administration of the Christian holy places. The only area left for the Arabs to live in without foreign rulers or advisers was the Arabian desert.

Arab apologists have claimed that Emir Husayn knew nothing about the Sykes-Picot Agreement until after World War 1. T. E. Lawrence was wracked by guilt because he had worked with the Arabs on behalf of Britain, thinking that they would get their independence after the war while infact they were being manipulated by British diplomacy, if not duplicity. Now I will not deny that Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a book well worth reading, or that Lawrence of Arabia is one of my favorite movies. But they are not history. Emir Husayn did know about the Sykes-Picot Agreement not only from the publication of the Allied secret treaties by the Communists after they had seized control of Russia in 1917, but also from Turkish agents trying to draw him out of the war, and indeed from the British and the French themselves. To Husayn, the advantages of heading an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, who had kept him locked up for so long, outweighed the perils of Sykes-Picot, which the British assured him would not involve the lands he wanted to rule. But to many Arab nationalists, this Anglo-French agreement was a betrayal of their cause, worse because it was not made public until after the war.

The Balfour Declaration

More publicity surrounded a decision of the British cabinet to support the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, formally announced on 2 November 1917. This was the famous Balfour Declaration, so called because it came out as a letter written by the foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, to Lord (Walter) Rothschild, honorary president of the Zionist Federation of Britain and Ireland. Its salient points were that (1) the British government would help set up a national home for the Jewish people; (2) it would not undermine the rights or status of Jews choosing to remain outside Palestine, nor (3) harm the civil and religious rights of Palestine's "existing non-Jewish communities." The Arabs' main objection to the Balfour Declaration was that they made up over nine-tenths of what would later become Palestine. How could anyone create a home for one group of people in a land inhabited by another? Worse still, the inhabitants had never been asked whether they wanted to have their area become the national home for a people who would be coming from far away. In addition, the Balfour Declaration expressed no concern for the political rights of non-Jewish Palestinians, a point that still causes deep Arab resentment. If Britain tried to realize the Zionist dream of a Jewish state, what would be the political status of the Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims of Palestine? Did not this declaration contradict the Husayn- McMahon correspondence and other statements meant to reassure Arabs who had thrown themselves into the revolt against the Turks?


How would these conflicting commitments be reconciled, once the war was over? In November 1918 the guns in Europe fell silent, and everyone hoped that the diplomats would make a lasting peace. During the war, America's President Wilson, one of the finest statesmen of the day, had laid down a set of principles called the Fourteen Points, on which he wanted the Allies to build the peace once the war was won. He denounced secret treaties, proposed self-determination for all peoples (specifically including those who had been under Ottoman rule), and called for the creation of a League of Nations to avert the threat of war in the future. When he came to Europe to represent the United States at the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson was hailed everywhere as a hero and savior.

But Britain and France, the Allies who had borne the brunt of the hghting and the casualties, were determined to dictate the peace. The defeated countries, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, could not attend the conference until it was time to sign the treaties. Russia (now a Communist state that had signed a separate peace with Germany) was also left out. Georges Clemenceau, who headed the French delegation expressed a popular mood when he insisted that Germany must be punished and that France must get control over all of geographical Syria. David Lloyd George, heading the British delegation, agreed that Germany should be punished, but he also sought a formula to bring peace to the Middle East without harming the British Empire. The Zionist (or Jewish nationalist) movement was ably represented by Dr. Chaim Weizmann, while the Arab nationalists had Faysal, assisted by T. E. Lawrence.

The King-Crane Commission

It was almost impossible to reconcile the Middle Eastern claims of the Arabs, the Zionists, the British, and the French, but the conferees did try. Wilson wanted to send a commission of inquiry to Syria and Palestine to find out what the people there really wanted. Lloyd George went along with the idea, until the French insisted that, unless the commission also went to Iraq (where Britain's military occupation was already unpopular), they would boycott it. The British then lost interest, and only the Amerian team went out. This was the King-Crane Commission. It found that the local people desired complete independence under Faysal, who had already set up a provisional Arab government in Damascus. If they had to accept foreign tutelage, they wanted it to come from the Americans, who had no history of imperialism in the Middle East, or at least from the British, whose army was already there, but never from the French.

The King-Crane Commission also looked into the Zionist claims, which its members had initially supported, and concluded that their realization would lead to serious Jewish-Arab conflict. The commission urged that the Zionist program be greatly reduced, Jewish immigration into Palestine be restricted, and the project for turning the country into a Jewish national home abandoned. Faysal and his backers hoped that the King-Crane Commission would persuade Wilson to step in on behalf of the Arabs. Instead, Wilson became preoccupied with gaining American support for his League of Nations. He suffered his paralytic stroke before he could find time to read the commissioners' report, which was not even published for several years.

Allied Arrangements: San Remo and Sevres

What happened instead was that Britain and France came together to settle their differences. France gave up its claim to Mosul and to Palestine in exchange for a free hand in the rest of Syria. As a sop to Wilsonian idealism, the Allies set up a mandate system, under which Asian and African territories taken from Turkey and Germany were put under a tutelary relationship to a Great Power (called the "mandatory"), which would train them in the art of self-government. Each mandatory would have to report periodically to a body in the League of Nations called the Permanent Mandates Commission, as a check against exploitation. Meeting in San Remo in 1920, Britain and France agreed to divide the Middle Eastern mandates: Syria (and Lebanon) to France, Iraq and Palestine (including what is now Jordan) to Britain. The Hijaz would be independent. The Ottoman government had to accept these arrangements when it signed the Treaty of Sevres in August 1920. By this time, the French army had already marched eastward from Beirut, defeated the Arabs easily and driven Faysal's provisional government out of Damascus. The Arab dream had been shattered.

The End Result: Four Mandates and an Emirate

What happened then to the Arabs of the Fertile Crescent? The French had absolutely no sympathy for Arab nationalism and ruled their Syrian mandate as if it were a colony. In order to weaken the nationalists, France tried to break up Syria into smaller units, including what would eventually become the republic of Lebanon, plus Alexandretta (which was handed over to Turkey in 1939), states for the Alawis in the north and the Druze in the south, and even Aleppo and Damascus as city-states. The separation of Lebanon-from Syria lasted (at least up to 1976) because it had a Christian majority (as of 1921) that was determined to keep its dominant position. The other divisions of Syria soon ended, but the Syrian Arabs chafed under French rule, which seemed to become permanent.

The British, on the other hand, sometimes encouraged Arab nationalism, working with the Hashimite family. Husayn still had his government in the Hijaz, but the experience of leading the Arab revolt seems to have gone to his head. He proclaimed himself "King of the Arabs" and later laid claim to the caliphate of Islam. This so offended the British that, as the Saud family rose to power in eastern Arabia, they stood by with folded arms as the Saudis marched into the Hijaz in 1924 and toppled his regime. As for Iraq, British control was threatened by a general Arab insurrection in 1920. Needing a strong personality to calm the country down, the British brought in Faysal, who was approved in a plebiscite as the new king of Iraq Soon peace was restored. The British worked harmoniously with Faysal's government to speed Iraq toward independence. It is ironic that Iraq, once seen as the most backward Arab region in the Ottoman Empire, should in 1932 have been the first new state to gain its formal independence.

What was to be done with Abdallah, whom the Hashimites had hoped would rule in Baghdad? After Faysal was ousted from Syria in 1920, Abdallah gathered a small force of Arab tribesmen, occupied Amman, and threatened to attack the French in Syria. Although he could not have driven them out, the British wanted to keep him out of trouble. Thus Winston Churchill, then the colonial secretary, met Abdallah in Jerusalem and persuaded him to accept-temporarily-that part of Palestine that lay east of the Jordan River, until the French should leave Syria. This provisional arrangement was opposed by the Zionists, who wanted all of Palestine as defined by the 1920 peace treaties to be open to Jewish settlement and eventual statehood. The French feared that Abdallah's new principality would become a staging area for Hashimite raids into Syria. No one expected this "Emirate of Transjordan" to last long, but it did. While the rest of the Palestine mandate was seething with Jewish-Arab turmoil, Transjordan became an oasis of tranquil politics and economic development. The sad story of Britain's mandate in the rest of Palestine must be saved for chapter 16.


The Arabs had been roused from centuries of political lethargy, first by American teachers and missionaries, then by the revolution of the Young Turks, and finally by the blandishments of Britain and France during World War I. They remembered their ancient greatness and longed to recapture it. From the West they learned about rights and freedoms, democratic governments, and national self-determination. Led by members of the family of the Prophet Muhammad, a few Arabs had dared to rebel against the greatest Muslim state left in the world, the Ottoman Empire. In its place they hoped to set up one or more independent Arab states ruled by members of the Hashimite family. Thus motivated, they helped the British and French defeat the Ottoman Empire in World War I, but afterwards the Allies failed to keep the pledges they had made to the Arabs. In the lands of the Fertile Crescent, where Arabs were clearly in the majority, where they hoped to form independent states, where someday the Arab nation might revive its former power and glory, the victorious Allies set up mandates that were merely colonies in disguise. Instead of coming together, the Arabs found themselves being pulled farther apart. One area, Palestine, was even declared to be the Jewish national home, leaving in doubt the future of its Arab inhabitants. Theses were the roots of Arab bitterness put down over half a century ago. In the chapters to come, we shall see the ways in which bitter feelings flourished.