The Arab World Today

By David G. Hogarth

THE Arab world is the world that speaks Arabic. Language is its one satisfactory test, and a much better one than the territorial. It is true that a continuous and fairly well defined area of the earth’s surface contains all the Arabic-speaking peoples (except voluntary exiles living in Java, America, East Africa and other foreign regions); but the same area includes too many speakers of other tongues — of Turkish, for example, or Kurdish or Armenian or Hebrew or Berber or some European language — whose non-Arab speech invariably goes with lack of conscious community with Arabs and even with contempt or hostility. A religious test would be more faulty still; for Christian minorities, which are not only in, but of, the Arab world are numerous. Such are the Egyptian Copts and several denominations which carry on in Syria a pro-Arab tradition, dating from distant days when hatred of Greeks drove Syrian Christians, as eager allies, into camps of the Prophet’s Companions. On the other hand, roughly speaking, all societies whose mother tongue is Arabic, whatever they be racially, are more or less conscious of integral community with an Arab world.

These societies fall into two divisions, Asiatic and African. Such dictotomy by continents is no mere fiction for classification’s sake. It does, in fact, correspond to a difference of political outlook. While the societies of the Asiatic Arab world feel some sense, however faint here or there, of political community, the African Arab societies have little or no such sense in regard to the Asiatic Arabs (or, indeed, to their African fellows), despite religious and linguistic community and the just claim of many to as pure Arabian blood as flows anywhere in Asia. For this duality the variation of geographical conditions is, of course, chiefly responsible; but it is variation of political rather than of physical conditions. The physical circumstance of North African life is not sufficiently dissimilar from that of southwestern Asia to account for the duality, nor has the Red Sea, impaired as it is by the Suez land-bridge, ever been a strong geographical barrier. On the other hand, Egypt, not racially Arab, dominated for the last thousand years by non-Arab foreigners, and pervaded for two centuries at least by European influences, has constituted a sufficient barrier, whose separative effect has constantly been reinforced by influences of opposite lands along almost all the long Mediterranean seaboard of Africa. The encroachment of Europe has provoked many counter-movements of revolt, of which that of Abd-el-Krim and his Rifis is the latest; but it is significant that the most thoroughgoing and best known of all revolts, that of the Senussiya, has issued, not in solidarity with a general Arab Cause, but in withdrawal from all connection with any other societies into a quietist isolation. Accordingly, since my theme is an Arab World, and that must have some community of tradition and hope to be a recognizable entity, I say no more of Africa, but confine myself to the Asiatic block of Arab societies and territories.


The most Arabist of these is, undoubtedly, Syria. Iraq might well have been its rival and even leader, were it not for the strong Iranian leaven in the latter’s social composition, and its remoteness from the western birthplace and focus of nationalist ideas. Therefore, though Iraq is equally exposed to the influence which continually renews the Arab strain in Syrian society — namely, persistent infiltration of desert folk, whose homeland is ever increasing its population but never increases its food-supply — it is less looked to than Syria for the expression and guidance of Arabism. Admitted that its potential resources are much better able to meet the waste which an imperial position would entail. If there ever should be a united Arabia the imperial centre would swing over from Damascus to Baghdad as inevitably as it did more than a thousand years ago, when the Abbasid Caliphate replaced the Ummayad. But the character of the resultant imperial state would be like that of the Abbasid, scarcely more Arab than Persian.

Westernized Egypt and the United States of America have educated, but not de-Arabized, Syria; a lesser, but not unimportant, part has been played by France and other South European lands. In Syria the idea of Arab nationality was first born within the memory of a living generation chiefly through the influence of returned emigrants, which was enforced by that of such home-keeping Syrians as had attended, or been affected by, the Western schools established and maintained in the East by America and the Latin peoples. All these Syrians had imbibed and assimilated ideas of self-determination, even before President Wilson gave them expression and currency. Syrians are quick-witted and commercially minded. By contact with Western societies they quickly learned and thoroughly appreciated one fact at least — that, under Turkish rule, opportunities for making money were less; still less the chances that money made would be retained and enjoyed. The Turks did not govern Syria particularly ill; they were treating it better before the war, indeed, than most of their provinces. But that root fact remained — that Syrians were at a conspicuous disadvantage in comparison with other lands which had become familiar to them, while others, rather than they, enjoyed the best of such fruits as Syria had to offer.

The movement for “Arabia-for-the-Arabs,” which germinated obscurely in Syria about the opening of the current century, found sympathizers in all denominations. Though inspired and supported to some extent by Moslems who resented the eclipse of the race that had founded and led the Faith, and who used its sacred tongue, the movement was not at the first, and is not today, essentially Islamic, much less pan-Islamic. Moslems and Christians have lived in Syria on the whole more peaceably together and with less lively consciousness of their religious difference than, perhaps, anywhere else in the Islamic world. With the single exception of Damascus itself, which is an oasis city of the desert rather than one of Syria, the history of its towns contains singularly few episodes of massacre for religion’s sake. In Aleppo and its province, for example, during the black “nineties,” a large Armenian population went about its business in tranquillity. The long story of Druse versus Maronite has been always political — a story of tribal feud, into which creed only entered when either party desired to enlist an ally.


Syrian Arabism being thus a political movement whose aspirations in twenty years rose through decentralization, homerule and self-determination to sovereign independence, it was bound to give serious trouble to any occupying Power. The Turks, through the agency of Ahmed Jemal Pasha, scotched it in 1915; but they had far from killed it when Allenby, on their expulsion in 1918, gave it a conspicuous fillip by putting Damascus and the other chief inland towns under an Arab administration. The desert influence which demands, not good government necessarily, but necessarily self-government, became more operative than ever. If America or Great Britain had acceded to the Syrian prayer that one or the other should accept a mandate for Syria, either would have found its initial popularity but short-lived. As it was, a Power not popular even at the outset except with one Christian denomination and a few “gosmopolites” — one whose former prestige in the Near East had suffered severely of late by invidious comparison of its war effort in that region with the achievements of its chief ally — a Power which the sagacious Arab well knew would prove the most exhausted of the victors — this Power insisted on taking charge. Of the local unpopularity of France — still less of its causes — the unofficial Frenchman, it is safe to say, was wholly ignorant. It takes a world of experience to render him critical of France abroad. I never met one in Egypt who entertained the slightest suspicion that all that was being thought, or spoken, of the British there, would inevitably be thought and spoken of the French, if they should replace Great Britain as the occupying Power. Perhaps even the French Government in 1919 had little better knowledge of the facts, if one may judge by the attitude held and the language used by the best informed French officials during the Peace Conference. None had grasped that the most conspicuous virtue of French colonial administration — its assimilative capacity — was reckoned by the mass of Asiatic Arabs the prime count against French control. At all costs they would remain Arabs. And who in a society of returned emigrants, in contact with the powerful Damascene family sprung from the Algerian hero, Abd-el-Kader, did not know of the assimilative policy of France? When we British, in 1919, knew that any revision of the Sykes-Picot Agreement was out of the question short of open rupture with France, who intended to honor not our, but her own, pledges to the Arabs, as she, not we, understood them, we made many an honest effort (though probably few Frenchmen will believe it) to argue down the anti-French feeling of Syrians. They were bidden consider Morocco and Lyautey rather than Algeria. But in vain. Lyautey they believed an individualist, not a faithful interpreter of the common policy of his race. In any case they objected that, whether a Lyautey came to rule them or not, all profitable enterprises in their country would fall to French financiers; and they said many other things about the destiny of their language, their faiths, their women, which were at worst but half truths, and more often chimerical.

The French Government and the French press have this excuse — that on many points they were misled by a small group of super-patriots active in Paris before, during and after the Peace Conference. These Syrians, many of whom resided and intended to reside out of their native land, put a united Syria in the forefront of their case, inveighed against Great Britain as a partitioner, and called on France to be the agent of re-union with Palestine. Occasional demonstrations and fiery language held publicly in Damascus gave color to their assurance that such was the first aspiration of Syrians. But in reality there was no deep-seated or sustained feeling behind those local utterances. They had issued from no more than spasms of academic altruism in this or that urban society. Syrian towns feel little sense of community even with one another; and if any one could get self-government, it would care little what might become of the rest. Detachment of town from town, district from district, tribe from tribe, is instilled and ever reinforced and maintained by the influx from Arabia, and it is a fundamental instinct — fortunately, after all, for the French, since probably it will save Syria to them. They have only to hold on a little while to see Druses, now used as a spear-point by the Syrian rebels, come to blows with and be repudiated by the other Lebanese, to see men of Homs at odds with men of Hamah and Aleppines with Damascenes. Not in Syria by the armed forces of rebellion will the fate of the French Mandate be decided, but by the situation in France. The first two High Commissioners, Gouraud and Weygand, may have embittered the Moslem majority by reliance on Christian minorities and by exalting the Lebanon over the rest of Syria. The third, the anti-clerical Sarrail, may have failed through defects of temper and manner to reconcile the Moslems by his change of policy, while his administration disappointed the Christians and incensed the Druses to ebullition. All three had too many indifferent or frankly bad tools to work with — officers without training or aptitude for dealing with peoples of alien customs and tongues — colored conscripts of indifferent morale and little French civilization. But all the mistakes and defects of the French régime taken together have not united Syria sufficiently to make her capable of thrusting her masters forth — unless at the same time these should be pulled out by failure of French will-power, begotten of the war-weariness of white troops and matured in financial despair. If this ever happens, the last to rejoice should be Great Britain; for white rule is white rule everywhere, and very few in the East discriminate long or deeply between one wielder of it and another. Withdrawal of the French High Commissioner will make every other High Commissioner in the Near and Middle East sit upon a very uneasy throne!

In Iraq (as those on the spot bear witness) the Syrian outbreak has evoked no sympathetic reaction. Certainly there has been no overt sign, and likely enough Iraq is and will remain cold. It has been jealous of Syria since Ummayad days. Further, it has already made and lost its own main effort against western control, and in its failure had certain experiences that abide in memory: first and foremost, that sufficient water is not forthcoming for agriculture in a time of disturbance. Nor does the Iraqi cultivator trust any uncontrolled native government, of whose establishment at Baghdad he can conceive at present, to keep him supplied with enough water for needs that have increased considerably since the Turks left. At worst too, he does not regard the British in his midst, as the Syrian regards the French, as masters come to stay. He half believes that, however it were five years ago, there is something in the actual British profession of being in Iraq simply to guide and protect an infant state constructed out of destruction for which the British were responsible; in fact, that the British advisers will go as soon as they feel that they have made an honest job of their undertaking to set an Arab state of Iraq on its legs. Have they not installed an Arab king (the Iraqi are not very enthusiastic about him) and more than a façade of Arab administration, with which, from year to year, they appear less and less to interfere? They do not keep in the country a quarter of the alien troops that are kept in Syria, and (though only the literati comprehend this) they did exchange their Mandate for a treaty, made as between independent parties and implying full recognition that Iraq is and will be Arab, not British. How the issue of the Mosal dispute may affect this last consideration it is too soon to judge.

The Iraqi is inclined the more to trust the actual British attitude because he has some inkling of the political and economic forces in Great Britain itself which have fostered its development out of a very different attitude held during and immediately after the war. He knows that the British Indian element, which bulked so large among his liberators, did, in fact, assume annexation or, at the least, such an occupation as then obtained in Egypt, to be the inevitable and legitimate sequel of conquest. But the post-war taxpayer at home and the mood of Labor quickly modified this aspiration, and the Iraqi expects that it will not be allowed to revive.


All this statement of his thoughts implies, of course, that beyond all else the Iraqi aspires eventually to uncontrolled self-government and that he does not wish the British or any other aliens to become fixtures in his country. To be candid, he does not wish it. It may be true that the presence of Britons galls him less than that of Frenchmen galls the Syrians, and that, thanks to the better average quality, the better training and the better tradition and practice of the young men exported to overseas administration in Iraq, British relations with the native population are, on the whole, more cordial and intimate. I have read lately an emphatic American testimony, borne by one long familiar with the country and people, to the quality, the honorable intention and the practical devotion to duty of the British officials in Iraq. But that same witness declined to conclude that, either on that or on any other account, British advisers are accepted with uncritical acquiescence, still less with general affection. Their very virtues irk the Iraqi — their energy, their efficiency, their incorruptibility, their insistence on sanitation and cleanliness. He dislikes their superiority and grumbles at the cost of them. But he is prepared to bear them awhile yet. He feels weak within weak frontiers which are beset by more instant and disagreeable foes than immediately threaten Syria — Wahabis on the southwest, Kurds on the north-east, Turks above Mosul; and he is aware that he lives in a house divided against itself. In the face of external danger the partition of Iraq between Shiah and Sunni would be a more serious defect than all the multiple partition of Syria.

The rest of the Asiatic Arabs enjoy, more and less, except in a few inconsiderable coastal districts, the self-government that all desire. Their greater enjoyment is in the extreme north and the extreme south; their less in the center between the eastern and western seas. The latter region, comprising spatially the larger part of peninsular Arabia, is experiencing again one of those recurrent phases of its history, when its essential disunion has been obliterated for a time (never long lasting) by the genius of one strong man armed, backed by a small but resolute and disciplined force. The present Wahabite domination of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, Amir or Sultan of Nejd, is the most widely flung Arabian empire since the Prophet’s, and may conceivably prove to emulate even this in respect of duration, by outliving its founder for something like the half-generation which divided the deaths of Mohammed and Ali. At present it rests on three positive supports and a negative fact. First, on the magnetic and powerful personality of Ibn Saud himself, who is as certainly by as much the most remarkable Arab of his generation as Mohammed ibn Rashid was a generation ago. Second, on the suitability of austere Wahabite Puritanism to the mind of the Bedouin, wherever he has not been contaminated by contacts with higher civilization. Third, on the apostolic fanaticism of a comparatively small but single-minded body of Wahabite zealots, drawn from Bedouins and oasis folk of the interior, who live under very primitive conditions. Finally, on the negative fact that, since the withdrawal of Turkey, there is no extra-Arabian power which feels disposed in the least to meddle in the affairs of Inner Arabia.

These assets contribute better to the making of Arab Empire than to its retention. Zealotry, which may render ten men more than a match for a thousand, cannot be sustained at white heat longer by Arabs than by others; and as it cools, the paucity of the zealots and the meagre home resources on which they rest will begin to be patent. Moreover Wahabite zealotry, engendered by primitive conditions of life and ignorance of all but these, has reached the fringes of higher civilizations, where new contacts will modify it, as rapidly as they did after its first ebullition more than a hundred years ago. The settled fringe-folk are not, and will never be, Wahabite. On the east they are not predominantly even Sunnite, while on the west they are Shiite in most of Yeman and loose luxurious livers in the Hejaz cities. In neither quarter is dour Bedouin Puritanism found congenial. The nomads, for their part, have a different grief, which has always awakened sooner or later to dissolve empire in Arabia. A “sheikh of sheikhs,” such as on the largest scale is Ibn Saud, must necessarily prohibit inter-tribal warfare within his borders, and the wider these are, the wider the enforced peace. But since the beginning of time mutual raiding has been the one zest of the Bedouin’s starved life, and its prohibition is no more welcome to him than is prohibition of a national sport anywhere. Add to the account that the maintenance of this empire depends on the character and energy of one man who is little likely to be succeeded by any one at all his equal (Arab “emperors” have rarely found worthy successors, thanks in great part to the immoderate sexual indulgence which their position allows), and the sum will be found to hold out little promise of long duration to Wahabite rule outside Nejd. At this moment it has probably reached its high-water mark on frontiers beyond which there is no sympathy with its peculiar creed and stronger forces wait than its own. A few months ago a body of nearly two thousand mounted zealots tried to pass the frontier into the Trans-Jordan lands. They were met by a couple of armored cars and a couple of aeroplanes, which in a few minutes accounted for just half their number and sent the rest flying for scores of miles. For his own sake it is to be hoped that Ibn Saud will not yield to any Syrian prayer that he should come out against the French, and offer more of his warriors to machine-guns.

Wahabism has enlisted a few supporters outside — for instance in India, in which land, as everywhere else, there are some Moslems of Puritan tendency. But it is inconceivable that it should ever lead a pan-Islamic movement. Even in Arabia itself the creed has always failed of appeal where desert conditions cease to predominate — for instance in Yemen, in Hadhramaut and in Oman. What chance then in Iraq, Syria or Egypt?

As one looks over the Arab World to-day, it appears not less a house divided against itself than it has ever been. Nor does the larger Islamic World, of which it is in name alone the spiritual center, seem in different case. One may trace here and there and now and again some sign of common policy and action, as perhaps in the coincidence of Abd-el-Krim’s effort in the Riff with that of the Syrian rebels. But no sign that now or in the future, any more than during the late war, Moslems will, or can, unite forces in a common effort to prevail again as their first Caliphs prevailed.

Source: Foreign Affairs

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