Arabs versus Turks
Will There Be An Independent Arabia?

Isaac Don Levine

[The American Review of Reviews, November 1916]

At the outbreak of the war in 1914 Arabia still presented a conglomerate, picture of dependent, semi-dependent, an independent political divisions. Syria, Mesopotamia, and Hedjaz were under Turkish domination. These three provinces also constituted the most civilized parts of Arabia. In Syria, where Christianity made more headway than in any other part of the Ottoman empire, many miles of railroads had been built. In Mesopotamia, the Constantinople-Baghdad railway, the completion of which was interrupted by the war, proved to be a potent civilizing factor. And, finally, even in Hedjaz, where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located, a railroad was being constructed. At the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula is Aden, guarding the entrance into the Red Sea, and an absolute dependency of Great Britain. So also is El Katr, on the Persian Gulf. North of it is El Hasa, a Turkish dependency now under the influence of Nejd.

North of Aden, on the Red Sea, lies Yamen, whose history goes back 2500 B. C. and where Christianity was introduced long before the Prophet was born, only to be swept away with the arrival of Mohammedanism. An unhappy region is Yamen, torn by internal strife and frequent rebellion against Turkey, which was trying to control the province inhabited by industrious Arabs and Jews. But Turkey never succeeded in wresting complete control of Yamen at the expense of the Imam of the region, who claims direct descent from Mohammed. In 1913 an agreement was reached between the Imam and Turkey by which the Ottoman governor was recognized by the Imam officially, the latter retaining full control of all internal affairs. Thus Yamen should be classified as a semi-dependency of Turkey, as also is Asir, located on the Red Sea between Yamen and Hedjaz, in which the rebel chief Idrisi is still in arms against both Turkey and the Imam of Yamen. Oman, on the Gulf of Oman, is an independent kingdom, with British leanings.

The heart of the Arabian peninsula, however, is still free of any foreign yoke. Turkey never penetrated deeper than the outer shell of the peninsula, and Turkish knowledge of it is even less than that of Europe, which is mighty little. The northern half of the inner part of the Arabian peninsula is known as Nejd. Nejd is bounded by Hedjaz, the Syrian desert, Mesopotamia, and the Persian Gulf on three sides. As its southern boundary the 23° N. latitude may be taken. Nejd is the only real independent entity in Arabia. Its Emir, a scion of the Saoad dynasty, a young man of about twenty-four, is described as a "dashing, crafty leader." This desert kingdom never had acknowledged Turkish rule. Its nomadic subjects look up to the Emir of Najd as the champion of Arabian freedom. No information whatever had reached the outside world on the attitude of Nejd toward the Arabian revolution engineered by the Sherif of Mecca. South of Nejd, between Yamen and Oman, lies the so-called Empty Quarter, the most arid part of the peninsula, void of any kind of habitation, where life, whether natural, political or other, has no soil on which to thrive.

The situation in Arabia, Syria, and the Levant now presents two phases, each of which represents a distinctly individual and independent force in the revolutionary movement among the Arabs. One of these two phases is religious, the other political. The first deals with those currents of thought and action in the Moslem world that are responsible for the failure of the Jehad, or the Holy War, proclaimed in 1914 by the Sheik-ul-Islam under the influence of the Sultan of Turkey. The second is concerned with the nationalist movements in Greater Arabia and the interests of France, Russia, and Great Britain in that territory, A study of the two phases will reveal the causes of the present revolution in Arabia, its full significance, and its probable effects on Turkey and, consequently, on the Great War.


The Arabian nationalist movement is a little more than twenty years old. In 1895 there came into existence in Paris the Arabian National Committee, one of the chief founders of which was Moustapha Kamel Pasha, that brilliant young Egyptian who had devoted all his life to the regeneration of the Arabian people. The aims and purposes of the Arabian Nationalists were set forth in a manifesto issued by them some years later, which said in part:

The Arabs...are awakened to their historical national and ethnographical homogeneousness, and aim to separate themselves from, the Ottoman body and form an independent state. This new Arabian state will be confined to its natural boundaries, from the Tigris and Euphrates to the Suez Canal, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Oman. It will be governed by a liberal constitutional monarchy of an Arabian sultan.

It will be seen from the words of this manifesto that the future independent Arabian nation was not to be confined to geographical Arabia, but was to include all those possessions of the Turkish empire where the majority of the population was Arabian. Thus, Syria, the Levant, Palestine were all to become part of the new Arabia. However, the vilayet of Hedjah and the district of Medina were to become an independent state, the sovereign of' which would also be the religious Caliph of all the Moslems. This latter plan was a solution of the difficult problem presented in the Moslem world by the religious; power held by the Turkish Sultan as the Caliph in Islam. The autonomy of the Levant was to be respected, and the places in Palestine sacred to Christendom were to retain their status quo. Such an Arabian state would contain a population of about twelve million, 85 per cent, of which would be Moslem.

Negib Azoury Bey, one of the leaders of the Arabian nationalists, in his sensational book "Le Réveil de la Nation Arabe," published in Paris in 1905, went as far as to include Mesopotamia in the projected Arabia and to deny all Jewish claims to Palestine. His dream was a united Arabia, independent, progressive, a force in civilization, a cradle for the renaissance of Arabian art, literature, and science. It was then that the Young Arabians began to exert considerable influence on the Arabian people. Especially was this influence marked in Syria, where the nationalist movement gained more momentum than anywhere else.


A setback to the revolutionary, activities of the Young Arabs was the Turkish Revolution. When the Young Turks turned Turkey into a constitutional monarchy, the Arabs expected some kind of an autonomy for Arabia from the new government. The hopes of the Arabs ran high. They were represented to a large extent in the Turkish Parliament. But it was not very long before the policies of the Young Turks became clear. The Arabian Club, formed in 1908 at Constantinople, was the institution representing those elements among the Arabs who demanded, at least, cultural autonomy from the Young Turks. There is no need to enlarge on the attitude of the latter toward the nationalities inhabiting Turkey. That attitude resembled closely the Prussian attitude toward the Polish population of Prussia. The Turkish "kultur" was to be disseminated by all means among the population of the Ottoman empire. Armenians, Arabs, Jews were to be "Ottomanized" and fused into one political and spiritual organism with the Turks. The result of this program was the re-awakening of the nationalist movement among the Arabs. In 1913 there was held in Paris an Arabian Congress, and the revolutionary activities in Syria and Arabia were resumed.


Along, with these internal agitations of the Arabs, which have now culminated in the revolution, there were also going on the German, French, British, and Russian activities, mainly intrigues, in the Turkish empire. Germany was interested in the Berlin-to Bagdad railroad project, and her agents were infesting Arabia from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Great Britain, in order to secure her Indian possessions and the Aden Protectorate, was seeking to acquire Arabia, thus making the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf British in their entirety. France has long had more than a passing interest in Syria and the Levant. Russia was still concerned with Armenian Turkey.

Perhaps of all the claims these European powers had in Asiatic Turkey none was more justified than that of France in Syria. For France bases her claims on the work of civilization she had carried on in Syria for nearly a century. Compte Cressaty, in the April, 1915, issue of the Revue Politique et Parlementaire (Paris), makes out in his article on "France and the Syrian Question" a very strong case for the French acquisition of Syria. The dominant European language in Syria is French. There are as many pupils in French schools in Syria as in the schools of all other nations combined. France had constructed in Syria and in the Levant about 800 kilometers of railway. And, finally, as well as chief among the reasons for French acquisition of Syria, is the feeling of the Arabs themselves. They are more inclined to France than to any other European nation.

With the fate of Turkey and German interests in the Near East sealed, there remain France, Great Britain, and Russia to divide the spoils. But Russia has no material interest in Arabia and Syria. And the Young Arabs are, therefore, confronted with the aspirations of France and Great Britain only. That these aspirations encroach upon their own nationalistic aspirations is apparent. That to resist France and Great Britain, or either of them, is an impossibility, was just as evident to the Young Arabs. The dilemma was by no means easy of solution. The best that they could do under the circumstances was to choose between the two. And Young Arabia has apparently chosen France.


There appeared early in the year in Paris a book entitled "La Syrie de Demain." Its author is Narda Mutran, a Syrian Arab, a Christian, and one of the leaders of the Arabian nationalists. He was formerly one of the most gifted advocates of an independent Arabian state. The conditions brought about by the war have modified his former views. And what he has to say concerning the future of Arabia is, in all probability, the view now held by most revolutionary Arabs of education.

Narda Mutran gives up the idea of an independent Arabian state, and proposes instead a French protectorate over Arabia and Syria. To this conclusion the author arrives after an extensive review of the situation as it is. France has Algeria, Tunis, Morocco, and it would be but logical for her to take over the Arabian population of the Turkish empire. France would have to grant the Arabs certain measures of self-government. She would let the Arabs develop their own civilization, their own culture, and would also bring to them the fruit of the western European civilization. He holds, then, that France is more entitled to Syria and Arabia than any other European nation.


To substantiate this opinion of the author of "La Syrie de Demain," which, by the way, proved so popular in France that in a short time a second edition of the book was required, there is the fact that in the ranks of the French army about 800 Young Arabs are enlisted. These Arabs, most of them coming from Syria, have volunteered their services to France. No more striking proof of the affection the educated Arabs have for France and the gratefulness they feel for her work of civilization among the Arabs is necessary or possible. By giving their lives for France, these Syrians believe that they are also sacrificing themselves for a regenerated Arabia. They also believe that in return for their services France will have the interests of the Arabs at heart.

That this belief of the Syrian volunteers is not ill-founded has already been proved by events of the past few months. A recent despatch from Berne, Switzerland, tells of the arrival there of Syrian refugees who brought with them a proclamation of the Turkish commander in Syria, which shows the names of twenty prominent Syrians, including officers, magistrates, and journalists, who were sentenced to death for high treason and executed at Damascus and Beirut. In all about 200 persons have been executed by the Turkish authorities. Among these was Sheikh Abdul-Hamid Zehrawi, perhaps the leading Mohammedan identified with the Arab nationalist movement. The executed Arabs all died with "Vive la France" on their lips. The Lebanon district has been surrounded by Turkish forces, according to information in possession of the Marquis of Crewe, recently disclosed by him before the House of Lords, and the inhabitants were on the point of starvation. . The French Government, upon learning of conditions in Syria, through Premier Briand, requested the United States to inform Turkey that it would hold her responsible for the crimes reported to have been committed by her in Syria.


From a political point of view, then, the Arabian situation may be summarized thus: Political Arabia, revolutionary Arabia, that part of the Arabian people that has awakened to a nationalistic conscience and national aspirations, those Christian and Moslem Arabs who have been raised and educated in the European fashion, are for an autonomous Arabia, under a French protectorate, if independence is impossible. The chief significance of the revolution lies in the fact that it is a Pan-Arabian movement, and therefore not in accord with French designs on Syria. That the revolution now going on in Arabia is the product, to a large degree, of the activities of the Young Arabs is proved by the fact that the revolution is come on the heels of the wholesale executions in Syria by the Turkish authorities of Syrian intellectuals. Now, the revolt of last year in Syria was a purely political movement. That it has reverberated so deeply in Arabia speaks for the Arabian revolutionary activities. These activities, if they constitute the main force in the present revolution, may yet cause the establishment of an independent political Arabian state.


The religious force behind the events transpiring in Arabia at present is to be found in the reason for the failure of the Jehad. The Holy War failed because most of the Arabs do not acknowledge the Sultan of Turkey as the rightful Caliph in Islam, nor do most of the Indian and Russian Moslems recognize the Sultan as such. The Caliph is the spiritual leader in Islam. Any independent Arabian state would have to have in its midst or as its friend the Caliph. It is obvious that so long as the Sultan of Turkey is alone in claiming the right to the Caliphate he, in a measure, is a source of constant menace to those powers in whose dominions there are large populations of Moslems. Great Britain and Russia have long felt this menace. They are interested therefore in creating a new Caliphate in Arabia. Such a Caliphate would be a countermove to the power held by the Sultan. In this both Russia and Great Britain are helped by the Moslems under their rule. These Moslems have long felt a dislike for the Turks. Thousands of them, while on their annual pilgrimages to the Holy Places of Arabia, Mecca and Medina, have been exploited and robbed by the Turks. It was their ambition for some time to set the tomb of the prophet free from Turkish control, and the British, campaign, on the Tigris has even been ascribed to the desire of the Indian Moslems to utilize the opportunity for the accomplishment of that ambition. In this they have had the moral support of the Arabs of Mecca, Medina, and the surrounding country.


It was there that the revolution broke out. The leader of the movement is the Grand Sherif of Mecca, who claims to be the descendant of Mohammed through his daughter Fatima, and therefore possessing the chief requirement for becoming a Caliph. His three sons, all having a European education, are the military commanders of the revolutionary forces. The successes they have so far achieved are of considerable importance. One column has captured Jeddah, the main seaport of Arabia on the Red Sea. Another has taken possession of Kinfuda, a port 200 miles south of the first. Medina, where the tomb of Mohammed is contained, Mecca, the chief city of Arabia, and Taif, sixty-five miles southeast of Mecca, are all in the hands of the revolutionists. By destroying the roadbed of the Hedjah railway for a distance of a hundred miles the Arabs have cut themselves off completely from the Ottoman empire.

The most significant part about the revolt is the possession by the Arabs of all necessary equipment and ammunition. This has evidently been supplied them by the British, and their control of the ports of Jeddah and Kinfuda assures them of further aid from the same source. The manner in which the operations of the revolutionists are carried out indicates a European hand in the entire scheme. The immediate purpose of Great Britain's, Russia's, or France's aid to the revolutionists is, of course, to strike a blow at Turkey. Nothing could be more effective in bringing Turkey to a state of collapse than a successful revolution in Arabia, Syria, the Levant, and the other parts of the Turkish empire which have large Arabian populations will be caught in the revolutionary conflagration if it scores some notable successes against the Ottoman government. That the beginning of the end of the European war should come through such a channel is not at all improbable.


However, as it was pointed out before, Great Britain has more than a passing interest in Arabia. The fact that the head of the revolutionists is the Grand Sherif of Mecca would indicate that he has been slated by Great Britain for the post of a new Caliphate to be set up, probably in Mecca. Should Great Britain accomplish such a result, she would have attained a brilliant success. Its enormous Moslem population would no longer be a source of danger to her, as the new Caliph would remain not only her ally but, very likely, under her military and civil control. This would bring about Britain's ultimate possession of Arabia.

Turkey, if she should continue to exist, would become harmless after losing her power in Islam. To this extent Russia's interest in the Arabian revolution is more than temporary. France could claim Syria and the Levant, and would probably get them, if Britain succeeded in establishing, as in Persia, a "sphere of influence" in Arabia. The religious force engaged in the present revolution does not work in harmony, therefore, with the political-nationalistic force. While the latter demands at least an autonomous united Arabia, the former can bring about but a divided Arabia. Will these two forces combine and produce an independent Arabia? The answer depends on the degree of civilization of the leaders of the revolution, on the spirit that animates them, on their vision and intelligence.


The latest action of the revolutionary leaders bespeaks a range of vision and a degree of civilization on their part which promises the birth of an independent Arabia. The Grand Sherif of Mecca, the head of the revolutionary movement, has issued a proclamation in which the religious and political forces seem to have joined hands. In announcing a definite rupture between orthodox Mohammedans and those represented by the Committee of Union and Progress, which is now in control of Turkey, the proclamation makes reference to the Committee's disastrous alliance with Germany and, what is vastly more important, it mentions the government's executions in Syria, where, it will be remembered, the revolutionary movement is entirely political in its nature. "Independence and national rights" are words included in the proclamation along with the Preservation of Islam." The text of the Grand Sherif's manifesto, addressed to "all our Moslem brothers," follows in part:

It is well known that of all the Moslem rulers and Emirs, the Emirs of Mecca, the Favored City, were the first to recognize the Turkish Government.... The Emirs continued to support the Ottoman Empire until the Society of Union and Progress appeared in the state and proceeded to take over the administration thereof and all its affairs, with the result that the state suffered a loss of territory which quite destroyed its prestige, as the whole world knows; was plunged into the horrors of this war, and brought to its present perilous position, as it is patent to all....

All this evidently did not fulfil the designs of the Society of Union and Progress. They proceeded next to sever the essential bond between the Ottoman Sultanate and the whole Moslem community, to wit, adherence to the Koran and the Sunna. One of the Constantinople newspapers actually published an article maligning (God forgive us!) the life of the Prophet (on whom the prayer and peace of God), and this under the eye of the Grand Vizier and its Sheikh of Islam and all the Ulema, ministers and nobles!...

In spite of all, we accepted these innovations in order to give no cause for dissension, and schism. But at last the veil was removed, and it became apparent that the empire was in the hands of Enver Pasha, Jemal Pasha, and Talaat Bey, who were administering it just as they liked, and treated it according to their own sweet will.... At one time they caused to be hanged twenty-one eminent and cultured Moslems and Arabs of distinction in addition to those they previously put to death. We might hear their excuse and grant them pardon for killing these worthy men; but how can we excuse them for banishing under such pitiful and heart-breaking circumstances the families of their victims—infants, delicate women, and aged men—and inflicting on them other forms of suffering in addition to the agonies they had already endured in the death of those who were the support of their homes? Even if we could let all this pass, how is it possible to forgive them confiscating the property and money of those people after bereaving them of their dear ones?

We are determined not to leave our religious and national rights as a plaything in the hands of the Union and Progress party. God has vouchsafed this land an opportunity to rise in revolt, has enabled her by His power and might to seize her independence and crown her efforts with prosperity and victory, even after she was crushed by the maladministration of the Turkish civil and military officials. She stands quite apart and distinct from countries that still groan under the yoke of the Union and Progress government. She is independent in the fullest sense of the word, freed from the rule of strangers and purged of every foreign influence. Her principles are to defend the faith of Islam, to elevate the Moslem people, to found their conduct on the holy law, to build up the code of justice on the same foundation in harmony with the principles of religion, to practise its ceremonies in accordance with modern progress, to make a genuine revolution by sparing no pains in spreading education among all classes according to their station and needs.

This is the policy we have undertaken in order to fulfil our religious duty, trusting that all our brother Moslems in the East and West will pursue the same in fulfilment of their duty to us, and so strengthen the bonds of the Islamic brotherhood.

The kernel of the new Arabia has thus been created. With the increasing plight of Turkey, this kernel will grow and expand in all directions. The Arabian tribes who have not as yet joined the revolutionists will undoubtedly respond to the Grand Sherif's manifesto and flock to his banner. Turkey is powerless to prevent the growth of the movement. She has enough trouble as it is in Armenia and in Europe, where the entrance of Rumania into the war again, places Constantinople in a precarious position. The Arabian state will therefore have the opportunity to gather strength and prepare to hold its own at the conclusion of peace in humanity. If the Arabs will present a united front at the expected peace conference, if they will have proved their ability to maintain order and responsible government, they will have the public opinion of the world backing their national claims. With such a power behind them, it is inconceivable that France and Great Britain should object to the regeneration of the Arabian nation.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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