The Arabian Empire

By J. F. Scheltma

[The Nation; September 28, 1918]

"Arabia for the Arabs" is the rallying-cry of the Arabian intellectuals who, stirred by increasingly close contact with Western thought and methods of government, are strenuously exerting themselves to compass in a body politic, an Arabian Empire of their own, the realization of the racial ideals for which they stand. It is to be no Arabian Empire like the Umayyad or Abbassid Khalifate, which sprang from religious association, but a political aggregation founded on national aspirations. Except for the inferences to be drawn from our scanty knowledge of Arabian lands in their "time of ignorance," that is, before the advent of Muhammad as the preferred Prophet—from what has reached us, for example, of the activities of the old princely house of Kinda, and of Tadmur (Palmyra) extending its sway over the Arabs of Arabia proper, of Syria, Armenia, Cilicia, and Cappadocia—we are in the dark about such aspirations ever having repressed the strong tribal instincts of the son of the desert. If they existed at all, the spirit of Islam, exalting religious above national unity, blasted their growth. Islam, coalescing the Arabs, "impatient," as Gibbon phrases it, "of the mildest and most salutary laws that curbed their passions or violated their customs," wrought the miracle rather by holding out the promise of heavenly reward with quite earthly spoils thrown in than by stimulating patriotic devotion. The rise of Islam and the Wahhabite reformation, that divide the history of the Arabs into three periods, sometimes called by a wide-fetched analogy its ancient, mediaeval and modern ones, were both of an almost purely religious character.

With Islam gradually lapsing from the offensive into the defensive and an Arabian movement against Turkish rule gaining in strength, the beginning of the period recently entered was marked, therefore, not so much by the revival as by the birth of national longings. These longings culminated, as already stated, in the desire to establish an Arabian Empire, geographically conceived on the lines of the dependency between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf that Napoleon had in mind when meditating Eastern conquest and dominion. Muhammad Aly, the Albanian, came near materializing it when serving, too, his personal ends as Sultan Mahmud the Second's ambitious Pasha of Egypt. The desire found expression in a report submitted to the French Government, in 1839, by M. Jouffroy. Pointing to the necessity, for France, of supporting Muhammad Aly, he advocated the formation in the Near East of a buffer state, tributary to Cairo, but really controlled from Paris, as a check to Russian intrigue in Constantinople, even more noxious since the provisions of the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessy had reduced the Porte to dependence on St. Petersburg. Sowing distrust also in England and Austria, M. Jouffroy's proposition helped to precipitate the crisis of 1840. Concerted action resulted in the Convention of Alexandria, which ousted Muhammad Aly from Syria and Arabia, and was followed by the Convention of July 13, 1841, which closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles to the warships of all the Powers, as if to justify a remark once made by Czar Alexander I: Whatever suits international convenience, is right.

The idea of an Arabian Empire was again put to a practical test on a limited scale by the secession of Husayn Ibn Aly, Grand Sherif of Mecca, who, in his proclamation of Sha'bân 25, 1334 (June 27, 1916), renounced his obedience to the Ottoman Khalif and assumed the title of King of the Hejaz as a stepping-stone, insha'llah, to a more comprehensive designation and more extensive authority. Without going here into the historical relations of the Grand Sherifate and the Sublime Porte or expatiating on Husayn Ibn Aly's claims to the lesser dignity, we should say that even these are not undisputed. Gen. Allenby's triumph appears to remove any probability of Turkish success in this theatre of war, but if the unexpected should happen and the Turkish troops should still get the upper hand, the Sultan would certainly not delay the removal of his contumacious vassal to replace him by another member of the Qatada family, which has managed to maintain its tenure of the Grand Sherifate for six hundred years. There is, for instance, the Sherif Haydar, held in reserve at Constantinople, who belongs to the Abd'al-Muttalib as Husayn does to the Aun ar-Rafiq branch: However this may be, rebelling against the Ottoman Khalif, Sayyidana, "our Lord," as the Meccans call their Grand Sherif, can count on the feeling of the orthodox Arabs in general, which insists upon the supreme chief of Islam being of the Quraysh clan, a condition not fulfilled by the interlopers of the house of Othman; and on feelings of a more worldly nature as far as regards the Arabs of the Holy Cities in particular, who forget, if ever they could grasp such a broad view of the subject, that to-day's occurrences did not originate in the revolutionary leanings of a single group of men, but are the inevitable outcome of centuries of evolution in religious and political thought.

The Old Turks, with all their faults in Arab eyes, were at least true believers of the orthodox persuasion; the Young Turks, suspected of proclivities to rank unbelief and immediately responsible for the joining of Turkey in the great war, are causing financial loss to the inhabitants of Mecca and Medina, not to mention those of the ports of Jeddah and Yambu, by a diminished flow of pilgrims, owing to the increasing dangers and incommodities of travel. Young Turkish theories, as blossoming out in the resolutions and actions of the Committee of Union and Progress, alienated the Arabs also in other respects. Though the cleverest of the Young Turks had devised a scheme of decentralization, advising home rule for the heterogeneous parts of the Ottoman Empire in so far as compatible with their political unity, the Committee decided, on the contrary, for more centralization, hoping to weld the loosely knit provinces into a homogeneous whole by uniformity of laws and speech, trying in Syria and Arabia, as in Albania and elsewhere, to substitute Turkish for the native idiom. This insult, offered to the language of the Book, the tongue of God's revelation, could not be tolerated. It added fuel to the unrest fomented by the partisans of the Arabian National party, whose centres of propaganda were Egypt and Syria. Still under the Turkish yoke in the latter country, they illustrated, in their persistent demands for amelioration of their condition, the truth that strategic railways, incidentally facilitating the introduction of modern improvements, increase the eager impatience for emancipation as well as the soldiers to suppress the disturbances which that desire creates.* [*The leaders of the Arabian movement disclaimed at first any hostility to the Sultan of Turkey as Khalif. See Le Temps of March 28, 1913, where M. André Duboscq repeated a statement made to him by Sayyid Aly Yusuf, who then directed the editorial policy of the Cairene newspaper al-Muwayad: "The Arabian not at all antagonistic to the Khalifate of the Sultan." It should be added, however, that this assertion was considerably hedged by an imposing list of immediately appended exceptions.]

From the aspirations of the Arabian National party to the League of the Arabian Fatherland was only one step. That body wished to separate state and religion in the interest of the Arabs and Islam both; to found an Arabian Empire which, stretching from the Tigris and Euphrates to the Isthmus of Suez, was to embrace a region that from time immemorial has excited the cupidity of Eastern and Western conquerors who strove to subjugate the world, and still remains a bone of contention between thrones and dominions toiling for snug places in the sun. In 1905 the League of the Arabian Fatherland issued a declaration of its aims and intentions, which was forwarded in French to the Great Powers and distributed in Arabic among the peoples of Arabian stock. The League's audacity, profoundly alarming to the Porte, disturbed also the European Governments restlessly engaged in their competitive pacific penetration of the territories named in its programme. That programme, instead of restricting, was rather inclined to extend the boundaries of the Arabian Empire woven in the brilliant texture of Napoleon's Oriental dreams.

Everything that happens in the East, said Sultan Abd'al-Hamid II on a certain occasion, touches the perpetual duel between Great Britain and Russia. Since this observation was made by that keenly watchful critic, the duel, especially in its Near and Middle Asiatic aspect, and if we leave French, Italian, and Austrian claims alone, has first become a triangular conflict on account of the Germans building their Bagdad Railroad, and thereupon merged its bitterness into the animosities of the present universal conflagration. The blows struck in the Asiatic theatre of the war to smash the remnant of Ottoman suzerainty that survived Muhammad Aly's vigorous efforts to reap the fruit of his conquests in an Arabian Empire subservient to his will, indicate clearly enough the significance for the East of the present titanic struggle. With respect to the Grand Turk, the bondman of Germany, not the champion of Islam, as the Powers of the Entente duly impressed upon their Moslim subjects• [•The Powers of the Entente, have not been slow in notifying the Muhammadans under their rule that their falling out with the Padishah did not mean any hostility to Islam. Immediately after declaring war on Turkey, the British Government issued a notice promulgating that the sacred sites of Islam, including those of the Shi'ites, "'will be immune from attack and molestation by the British naval and military forces as long as there is no interference with pilgrims from India to the Holy Places and Shrines in question," France and Russia did not lag behind in reverential assurances regarding the Moslim's bowers of pure felicity.], it means simply an accelerated process of expulsion under the motto deduced by Milman from Lord Palmerston's definition of dirt which, being matter in the wrong place, requires to be removed. Among the international problems that determined the virulent form assumed by the war's proximate causes when the assassination of the heir of the Austro-Hungarian throne had set the ball rolling, the eternal Eastern Question occupied the front rank. Accordingly, the contest shapes its course and will pass through its diplomatic sequel towards an arrangement on the basis of advantages obtained on battlefields thousands of miles apart, which, we fervently hope, will conduce to the final winding up of that damnosa hæreditas.

The situation created by the war, meanwhile, fanned into a blazing flame the always smouldering antipathy between the Arabs and the Turks, and encouraged the Arabs of the new dispensation in their military as in their political endeavor, both of which led to their further defection. The Arabs of the old dispensation, loyal even yet to the Ottoman Khalif, among the cream of his soldiery* [*It is said that more than one-third of the officers in the Turkish army are or were Arabs, many of whom distinguished themselves on the several staffs or in important commands.], became equally dissatisfied, nay, thoroughly disgusted, with the German supreme command imposed upon them by the Young Turks, whom they consider no better than atheists, renegade tools of the Infidel War Lord at Berlin, alias "Hâj Guillun." There are, moreover, indications that the necessity of coöperation has a soothing effect on the hereditary feuds between families and clans, and so introduces a principle of stability into' Arabian affairs, the first thing needed for the organization of an Arabian Empire that will stand. The most turbulent element is already dying out. The Bedawy of the Arabian deserts, the unruly wandering tribes everywhere, are giving way to the influences of Western encroachment upon their territory. Their predicament is the pre-ordained one for backward indigenes, who have to catch up with the advance of humanity or disappear. They cannot stop or retard an Arabian revival which refuses to be laughed at. Other peoples have been reanimated to former glory—why not the Arab? There was something prophetic in the notice with which George Eliot made Daniel Deronda serve the Club of the Philosophers at the Hand and Banner: "We may live to see a great outburst of force in the Arabs, who are being inspired with a new zeal." The reclamation of large stretches of irrigable land will call into existence agricultural communities with a settled, law-abiding population, where now the clannish nomads roam with their interminable quarrels, their thirst for retaliation and blood-revenge. Material progress will aid the ripening and fruition of the national idea.

In this connection, Britain, when asserting her rights to the protectorate over the Arabian Empire in spe at the congress of readjustment after the war, can throw into the balance her initiative in a labor of peace that, opening up the boundless resources of Mesopotamia, will benefit Europe and Asia alike. The carrying out of Sir William Willcocks's plan for the irrigation of the Tigris-Euphrates delta, an English improvement on the French scheme proposed in 1880 by Aristide Dumont, will, according to the latter's alluring picture, reconvert Mesopotamia into a well-watered garden, an Asiatic Lombardy as thickly populated as the Italian one, but healthier and much wealthier. With Mesopotamia as part of an Arabian Empire under British protection• [•Not to mention the Sultan of Lahaj, and other princelings, whose domains are gradually absorbed by the expanding Protectorate of Aden, the Sheikhs of Kuweyt and the Bahrayn Islands, and the Imâm of Maskat, leading chief in the Province of Oman, have already placed their interests under British protection.], an empire that reaches out from the Mediterranean into Persia, since on ethnical grounds it must include Chuzistan (the classical Susiana), Britain will control the main avenue between East and West, and so ward off the mailed fist thrust at the heart of Asia, the menace of an essentially German railway to the Persian Gulf. And as regards the forestalling of a British overland route to India by means of an alternative German highway to the Far East through Persia and Afghanistan via the districts torn from Russia in Europe and Asia by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the mutual friendship there pledged is a flower of poor vitality, and forces are being set in motion that in any contingency will annul its boasted effect on a triumphant outcome of crafty ventures of the kind.

An Arabian Empire, bound up in a federation under Western guidance to constitute a highly developed modern state as imagined by Mahan firmly planted in what is now Asiatic Turkey "with an efficiently organized army and navy, coasting the Black Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Levant" would be of potent, assistance in frustrating the masterful Drang nach Osten for all time to come, by directing in the Near and Middle East more universally beneficent "issues from vast territories to the outer world." This, however, is music to the future. Biding their hour while persevering in their efforts for consolidation on the basis of nationality, the Mazzinis and potential Cavours of the Arabian Fatherland may ponder the wisdom of their proverb: God is with the patient if they know how to practice patience.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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