In This Review

How the West Stole Democracy From the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of Its Liberal-Islamic Alliance
How the West Stole Democracy From the Arabs: The Syrian Arab Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of Its Liberal-Islamic Alliance
By Elizabeth F. Thompson
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020, 496 pp

This accessible historical narrative focuses on the thwarted Syrian drive for independence following World War I. Thompson traces how a coalition of liberals and religious leaders sought to create a democratic constitutional monarchy in what was known as Greater Syria (an area that comprised parts of present-day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria). They drew inspiration from Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the growing clamor for self-determination around the world. But British and French leaders and bureaucrats, especially the French diplomat and imperialist Robert de Caix, conspired to squash this Arab bid for independence. Thompson imagines what would have happened had Syria gained independence in 1920 and suggests that the resulting state could have offered a model for the marriage of Islam and liberal democracy in the region. This counterfactual is both sweeping and unprovable. In reality, European powers strangled Syrian independence in its crib, and by the late 1930s, an intolerant form of Islam and autocratic Arab nationalism came to prevail in the Middle East.