On March 8, 1920, the Syrian-Arab Congress declared independence and ushered in a constitution that established the first Arab democracy with equal rights for all citizens, including non-Muslims. But France and Britain refused to recognize the Damascus government, and the French invaded and crushed the Syrian state—destroying the fragile Arab democracy with profound consequences that this book explores in detail.
This accessible historical narrative...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.
Thompson argues that the Western betrayal was ultimately rooted in race. Rather than seeing Arabs as free humans, Europeans (and likely many Americans) perceived them as inferior ... The author, however, shows how the leaders of the Syrian Arab Congress were sophisticated and visionary ... That the interests of great powers override the voices of small nations is an unremarkable observation in diplomatic history, yet reading Thompson’s account of the circumstances in one particular context, and knowing the consequences that followed, is enough to make you feel outraged once again.
...How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs...breaks new ground in its discussion of the efforts of Syria’s short-lived National Congress to fuse liberal constitutionalism and Islam. This synthesis—the creation of an ideological common ground—is immensely important because its absence has wreaked havoc in the Arab countries ever since ... aimed at a more general audience...she has oversimplified the moral contours of her tale a little, likening one French administrator to Iago and playing up the Syrians’ hunger for democracy. But she succeeds in restoring the strangeness, and the lost potential, of this aborted moment of self-rule ... Thompson narrates these scenes with great sympathy and appears to believe that something true and authentic is whispering to us across the decades. Other historians have been more skeptical ... I find her emphasis on French villainy a little excessive. Syria’s dreaded security services probably owe more to the legacy of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who starting in the 1950s built the prototype of the modern Arab dictatorship that was imitated across the Middle East. The French legacy was not all bad.