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Dr. Elizabeth Thompson - How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs

Date(s) - 04/14/2020
5:30 pm - 7:00 pm

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American University School of International Service


Free USD
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OrganizerOffice Of Research, School Of International Service, American University


Join us to discuss the Syrian Arab Conference of 1920, shedding light on just a few of the complexities that shaped, and impact, the region.

Join the SIS Office of Research as Mohamed S. Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace and SIS Professor Elizabeth F. Thompson, discusses her new book How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs.

Introductory Remarks Provided By:

Ghiyath Nakshbendi – Sr Professorial Lecturer, American University, Kogod School of Business, Department of Finance and Real Estate

A native of Syria, Professor Nakshbendi has extensive international business experience. His early career in academia was followed by more than 35 years working in developmental financing, Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs), and commercial real estate. Nakshbendi has worked in business in 15 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the U.K., France and Switzerland. His research interests include water financing and doing business in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. He is active in US and international organizations and has frequent international and domestic speaking engagements, including two speaking tours with the U.S. State Department.

With: Megan Stewart  Assistant Professor, School of International Service Megan Stewart’s research interests lie at the nexus of state formation and civil war. Her work examines the strategic use of violence and governance during intrastate conflict, participation and civilian collaboration in civil war, and post-conflict institution building. Professor Stewart is currently working on a book manuscript, Governing for Revolution, which explores how the long-term strategic goals of insurgencies determine the inclusivity of their social service systems to both impact the war effort, as well as shape the nature of state institutions once conflict ends.

Shadi Mokhtari – Assistant Professor, School of International Service Shadi Mokhtari specializes in human rights, Middle East Politics and Political Islam. She has an extensive background in human rights and women’s rights issues in the Middle East and Muslim World. She is the author of After Abu Ghraib: Exploring Human Rights in America and the Middle East (Cambridge, 2009). In 2012, she concluded a study assessing Green Movement, clerical and popular responses to heightened repression following the 2009 elections in Iran. Since 2011, she has been looking at how human rights dynamics and discourses have changed in and vis-a-vis the Middle East in the wake of unfolding popular protests and political transitions.

About the book:

When Europe’s Great War engulfed the Ottoman Empire, Arab nationalists rose in revolt against the Turks. The British supported the Arabs’ fight for an independent state and sent an intelligence officer, T.E. Lawrence, to join Prince Faisal, leader of the Arab army and a descendant of the Prophet. In October 1918, Faisal, Lawrence, and the Arabs victoriously entered Damascus, where they declared a constitutional government in an independent Greater Syria.

At the Paris Peace Conference, Faisal won the support of President Woodrow Wilson, who sent an American commission to Syria to survey the political aspirations of its people. However, other Entente leaders at Paris—and later San Remo—schemed against the Arab democracy, which they saw as a threat to their colonial rule. On March 8, 1920, the Syrian-Arab Congress declared independence and crowned Faisal king of a “representative monarchy.” Rashid Rida, a leading Islamic thinker of the day, led the constituent assembly to establish equality for all citizens, including non-Muslims, under a full bill of rights.

But France and Britain refused to recognize the Damascus government and instead imposed a system of mandates on the Arab provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire, on the pretext that Arabs were not yet ready for self-government. Under such a mandate, the French invaded Syria in April 1920, crushing the Arab government and sending Faisal and Congress leaders in flight to exile. The fragile coalition of secular modernizers and Islamic reformers that might have established democracy in the Arab world was destroyed, with profound consequences that reverberate still.

Using many previously untapped primary sources, including contemporary newspaper accounts and letters, minutes from the Syrian-Arab Congress, and diary and journal entries from participants, How The West Stole Democracy From The Arabs is a groundbreaking account of this extraordinary, brief moment of unity and hope—and of its destruction.

Reception and book signing to follow.

American University is committed to accessible programming and services. For accommodations, please contact

This event is free. Registration is requested but not required.

To be held in Abramson Family Founders Room, Terrace Level, School of International Service Building, Main Campus, American University. SIS Garage parking is free after five.

4400 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, DC 20016

Selected Reviews:

“In a book sure to interest students of Middle Eastern history, particularly in the 20th century, Thompson fashions an original, authoritative study, laying out the process of the ‘theft’ of Syrian democracy… Bitter lessons from the past unearthed and expertly reexamined.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Thompson has written an outstanding book on the attempts by Western actors to not only reverse democracy in Syria in the early 20th century, but also to deliberately conceal the reality of this reversal. Through rich archival research, Thompson puts forward an important and fascinating corrective to conventional and longstanding accounts.”—Amaney A. Jamal, Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics, Princeton University

“Elizabeth Thompson has successfully combined her mastery of the immensely complex relationship between the Middle East and the West during World War I with her capacity for excellent storytelling and explains better than ever before how the dreams of those who supported the new leaders clashed with the know-how of seasoned colonialists who appropriated lands and imposed political systems that defeated democracy for more than a century since. It is an essential read.”—Leila Fawaz, Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean Studies, Tufts University and author of A Land of Aching Hearts

“This wonderfully readable book tells a grim story about the subversion of democracy in the Arab world. Drawing on an unusually wide range of sources, Elizabeth Thompson shows how the colonial powers systematically undermined not only Arab independence, but also the liberal-Islamist democratic synthesis that emerged from World War I in Syria. She explains how this frustration of popular aspirations opened the way for illiberal, sectarian currents that have played such a large role in the region in the decades since. Both general readers and experts will find great benefit in reading her powerful narrative.”—Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University

“At the end of World War One the Arabs tried to create a constitutional democracy in Syria. Had this succeeded, the country – and the region – might be in a much better way today. But France and Britain conspired to destroy it. Elizabeth F. Thompson has brilliantly recreated this fateful turning point in twentieth century Middle Eastern history. I thought I knew this story well. But the new details she reveals in this riveting account often left me open-mouthed.”—James Barr, author of Lords of the Desert: The Battle Between the United States and Great Britain for Supremacy in the Modern Middle East and A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948.

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