31 January 2018

Antonius and the Arab Movement

Sir George Habib Antonius, CBE

I just finished reading The Arab Awakening by Sir George Antonius, a sweeping and remarkable account of Arab modernity up through 1938, when the work was first published. As it rather needs be, it is a sprawling historical epic, and it can be divided neatly into three ‘sections’. The first section deals with ‘the movement’: its ‘false start’ in the Wahhabi and other ‘back-to-basics’ Islamic reform movements in the eighteenth century; its take-off under the Arab Christian intellectuals al-Yâzijî père et fils and al-Bustânî; its long periods of stagnation punctuated by fiery and impassioned outbursts of organisation and activity. The second section deals with the Arab Rising of 1916 under the ægis of Sharîf al-Husayn ibn ‘Alî and his sons, ‘Abd Allâh and Faysal ibn al-Husayn – including the promises made to the Arab monarchs by the Allies, which were later shamefully broken. And the third section deals with the aftermath of the World War as it pertained to the destinies of the eastern half of the Arab world – the Arabian Peninsula and the Fertile Crescent.

It is not a neutral work, and it does not pretend to be so: in the foreword, Antonius clarifies that the ‘object of this book is primarily to tell a story’, and that it is ‘not the final or even a detailed history’, of the Arab nationalist struggle. And in telling that story, Antonius does not place himself as a disinterested observer but as an insider and an advocate. He is well-placed to offer insights from sources not available to other English-speaking explorers of the topic, and does so with a kind of journalistic zeal. He is nonetheless a gifted writer and a careful scholar, which makes his advocacy on behalf of the ordinary Arab, particularly the ordinary Arab living in Syria or Palestine, that much more pointed and potent.

Antonius himself is a (nominal) Orthodox Christian, though one would not know it to read his history, which is – very typically for the Arab nationalist sentiment of the time – impartial and anti-sectarian on religious questions. Though thoroughly sæcular and non-sectarian, Antonius’ book clarifies and confirms the point that the estimable David Lindsay loves to make, about the formative role played by Arab Christians in the Movement generally and in the concept of Filastin in particular. Antonius includes and gives prominent place to the Yâzijîs, Bustânî and (reluctantly, on account of his heavily pro-French sympathies) ‘Âzûrî as founders and early stewards of the Movement, as well as the central importance of the American missionary societies in cultivating those first generations of independent-minded young Arab leaders, but it soon becomes clear that his sympathies are equally engaged with the Muslim (al-Kawâkibî) and Druze (Arslan) voices who lent themselves to the cause of liberation and unity. He makes note of the difficulties faced by Arab nationalists of the time attempting to navigate upsurges in Islamic piety in various flavours, as well as an active policy of Turkification and centralisation being pursued, first by the tyrannical Ottoman sulṭâns (particularly the treacherous, deceitful, militaristic and ham-handed ‘Abdü’l-Hamîd II) and their pashas, and then by the French Revolutionary-inspired and Meiji-influenced Committee of Union and Progress. Even though ‘unity’ and ‘liberation’ are two goals of the infant Arab movement, they were not particularly keen on the centralised bureaucracy that comes with a modern state. The early Arab-nationalist understanding of ‘unity’ was, if my gentle readers will pardon the analogy, more familial, more local, more Slavophil in flavour (though, more on that a bit later).

Antonius is not without critique of his own countrymen. He shows, with love but not without a bit of chagrin, the dual tendencies of the early Arab activists to lethargy and dormancy on the one hand, and swift, inspired action on the other:
It is in the nature of the Arab temperament to conceive action in spasms rather than on a plan of sustained effort, and the history of the national movement is in a sense a chronicle of vivid outbursts with periods of recovery and preparation between them. It unfolds itself in a pattern of flames shooting upwards from a dull fire of smouldering feeling. The revolutionary effort of the Beirut secret society was the first of a series of waves which were to follow each other at regular intervals.
At the same time, the crucial catalytic rôles played by Arab-nationalist secret societies modelled on the Young Turks, like al-Fatat and al-‘Ahd, are well-documented by Antonius. It was a testament to their discipline that despite arbitrary arrests and torture employed by the Turkish secret police, their existence remained hidden from the Turks until after the World War. The closest they came to learning of al-‘Ahd was in the arrest and kangaroo trial of its founder ‘Aziz ‘Ali al-Masri, whose death sentence (later commuted) had the unintended effect of galvanising the Arab intelligentsia and members of the military against Ottoman Turkish misrule. And they also managed to win over, for example, Sharîf al-Husayn and Faysal to their cause in the run-up to the First World War, when it looked increasingly like the Ottomans would join on the side of Germany.

Even as Antonius acknowledges the failures of al-Husayn and Faysal to successfully advocate for the Arab cause to the Allies or to fight effectively for it themselves, his portrayal of them is nonetheless deeply sympathetic, rendering them as tragic victims of their own honest and trusting natures. Sharîf al-Husayn, already a convinced and die-hard Anglophile (to the end of his days protesting the English as ‘an honourable kind in word and in deed, in fortune and in adversity’) and an expert in carefully-crafted diplomatic language to boot, did his level best to placate both his Ottoman superiors and his English contact Sir Henry McMahon until the critical moment came, whereas Faysal advocated for immediate action on Britain’s behalf, and ‘Abd Allâh prescribed caution. Al-Husayn demanded, and got, assurances from McMahon that Arab independence would be guaranteed and protected in the event of an Arab rising on the Allies’ behalf. In 1916 his hand was forced: the brutal, sadistic Ottoman pasha Ahmed Jamal had, to discourage any Arab nationalist sentiment from making itself felt in Syria, sent out an order for massive numbers of Syrian Arabs to be rounded up, imprisoned and tortured: he then signed death sentences for 68 Arabs suspected of nationalist activity, 13 of whom were identified in custody and 11 of whom (including Muhammad al-Mihmisani, one of the founders of al-Fatat) were summarily hanged without trial.

After such a demonstration of brutality, a revolt became inevitable. Sharîf al-Husayn was forced to act swiftly. He led a few thousand Arab ex-military officers and tribesmen in an insurrection in the Hijâz, capturing several key Turkish fortifications along the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Not only did this force the Ottomans to turn their attention inward and take the pressure off of British troops who were fighting in North Africa, but even more importantly from a strategic standpoint, the Arab Revolt effectively thwarted German communications with the colonies through Ottoman territory. In the two years to come, Ottoman resources would be drained and its manpower sapped trying to put down revolts throughout Iraq, Syria, Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula.

The reprisals against the Arabic civilian populace by the Turks were by no means as dramatic or as broad in scale as the Medz Yeghern, though they were every bit as heinous. A famine struck Syria in 1916 which, by the war’s end, had claimed between 300,000 and 350,000 lives. As with all famines, this one was the result of political choice. In this case, Ahmed Jamal Pasha deliberately withheld shipments of grain into Syria in order to starve the Arab nationalist elements there into submission. The only reason the death toll from this famine did not ultimately rise to the sorts of figures calculated for the Armenian genocide, is that the Allies were stunningly efficient in the aftermath of the war in distributing food and medical supplies to the suffering Syrian countryside.

However, for all the debts of gratitude owed by the Allies – particularly Britain – to the leaders of the Arab Revolt and their supporters among the populace, their actions in the wake of the war fell stunningly short of fitting. The promises proffered to Sharîf al-Husayn regarding Arab independence and political sovereignty in the Fertile Crescent and in the Peninsula were roundly ignored. Instead, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, made by the European Allies completely over the heads of the Arab people, was aimed at essentially turning the Arab lands into a new colonialist frontier between Britain and France.

In Iraq, after a brief struggle against Britain and a successful bid for independence, the state-building project undertaken by Faysal ibn al-Husayn – that is to say, Faysal I of Iraq – met with a mixed record of success. Antonius describes many of the sectarian and ethnic divisions of Faysal I’s Iraq – Shi’ites and Sunnis; Arab Sunnis and Kurdish Sunnis; tribal and urban-intellectual leadership – in a way that sounds eerily contemporary (with the notable exception that the Christian population in Iraq is, sadly, no longer such a force to be reckoned with).

In Syria, however, at first the French mandate behaved themselves with brutality and supreme contempt for the rule of law. Combining a squalid and corrupt colonial bureaucracy with administrators who hardly saw their Arab subjects as human, Antonius describes the first twelve years of French governance in Syria as even worse than the tyranny of ‘Abdü’l-Hamîd. He describes the indiscriminate bombing of villages and the looting of neighbourhoods by French regulars and mercenaries under General Sarrail. Interestingly, not only armed uprisings but also peaceful measures, including mass labour strikes, were used against the French administration to effect. Antonius describes (with some irony and reference to Saul of Tarsus) the sudden and inexplicable change of heart the French High Commissioner of Syria Damien de Martel underwent when it came to the treatment of the people of Damascus. He questions whether it was motivated by genuine humane considerations or simply by pragmatism, but closes his treatment of Syria on a hopeful note that the French have learned from their mistakes going forward.

In Palestine, the Balfour Declaration gave the Arab leadership still deeper misgivings. Sir George Antonius takes pains to describe, not only the lack of hostility, but even the sympathy and brotherly affection Sharîf al-Husayn and his son Faysal both felt toward the Jewish people, and the support even from the local Arab populace for allowing limited Jewish settlement in Palestine on a humanitarian basis. He is eager to defend both the monarchs and their subjects from charges of antisemitism, which he repeatedly attempts to demonstrate is foreign to the sæcular Arab nationalist mind. However – understandably – they were not about to give up their legitimate sovereign claims to the land to make way for a Zionist state-building project, and they saw (rightly so) the Balfour Declaration as a dangerous step in that direction. Here Antonius also makes plain his own sympathies for the plight of the Jews in Europe under the looming storm of fascist hatred – but also his conviction that settling them in Palestine would be no solution worthy of the name at all:
The treatment meted out to Jews in Germany and other European countries is a disgrace to its authors and to modern civilisation; but posterity will not exonerate any country that fails to bear its proper share of the sacrifices needed to alleviate Jewish suffering and distress. To place the brunt of the burden upon Arab Palestine is a miserable evasion of the duty that lies upon the whole of the civilised world. It is morally outrageous.
It is at the very end, though, that the sympathies of the author are the most directly and the most viscerally engaged. Though one can hardly accuse Antonius of being a romantic – his treatment of even historical figures he admires being unfailingly multifaceted, attempting sober, realistic and objective assessments – it is here that his history turns from a story of the movement into a thundering, apocalyptic prophecy and a stirring plea. And that plea for Palestine is – in the finest tradition of the Russian educated class (as, even if he wasn't personally the beneficiary of a Russian education, many of his Orthodox Christian Arab elite peers were) – motivated almost wholly by narodnichestvo. It’s practically Slavophil in its emotional content.

He takes it upon himself to speak to English-speaking audiences on behalf of the politically-voiceless Levantine peasant, attached firmly to his land and to his neighbours by inexpressibly-profound bonds of love, and oppressed not only by British and French mandatory maladministration, not only by Zionist settlement, but also by the shortsightedness and greed of the Arab landowning class and traditional tribal elites. In his own words:
One of the most prevalent misconceptions is that the trouble in Palestine is the result of an engineered agitation… The blindness of that view is clear to-day. Former outbreaks had similarly been explained; but, after inquiry by one or other of the commissions appointed by the mandatory Power, the underlying causes had always been found to have lain in the profound attachment of the Arabs to the soil and their culture. The rebellion to-day is, to a greater extent than ever before, a revolt of villagers… The moving spirits in the revolt are not the nationalist leaders, most of whom are now in exile, but men of the working and agricultural classes who are risking their lives in what they believe to be the only way left to them of saving their homes and their villages. It is a delusion to regard it as the work of agitators, Arab or foreign.
This is a view toward which I am already profoundly sympathetic. But if it seems incongruous and jarring for what reads for the first four hundred pages like an academic history of the Arab nationalist movement, and in the last eight or nine pages like an openly-political, populist apologetic for the working-class, common men and women of the Palestinian soil, even against their own statesmen and élite class – that’s because it is. But it’s a jar that demonstrates very clearly the fine line Sir George Antonius is attempting to walk between scholar and activist; between intellectual and narodnik.

The Arab Awakening was, in its own day, a capital-‘i’ important work of contemporary history, invaluable to the English speaker who wanted to understand the Middle East. And Antonius’ work remains, even in an era where the Arab nationalist dream seems faded and outdated and its supporters thrown into despair and confusion, eerily relevant. Many of the predictive and admonitory aspects of the work – particularly those pertaining to Iraq and Palestine – have indeed come to pass. There are, indeed, weaker passages: it’s hard to read Antonius’ treatment of the House of Sa’ud now, because his belief that their land-grab in the Hijâz would force them to modernise and moderate their followers’ fundamentalism now comes off as painfully naïve. But in the broad strokes, this is still an extraordinary book and well worth the time taken to read it.

Participants in the 1916 Arab Revolt

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