A Review of the Proceedings from the First Arab Congress

24 December, 2019

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published A Review of the Proceedings from the First Arab Congress 1913 and Relevant French Diplomatic Correspondence, compiled and presented by Wajih Kawtharani, towards illuminating the event's context and the interactions of the Arab, Ottoman, and international policy makers participating in it. The compilation comes in three sections with an introduction by Kawtharani and sets forth two issues generated by "a new memory" sparked by his 40 years of encounters with photos, ideas, places, events, and revolutions that seemed to demand a reassessment of the Congress' positions and vision. The first issue proceeds from the contradiction of opinions between Abdulhamid al-Zahrawi, the main coordinator of the Congress who favored Europe and its enlightened leadership, and Shakib Arslan who famously said "however much we exert ourselves and make a pretense of nationalism, Muslims know only one 'Ummah, and if some of our people fall by the wayside they will despise us all". What then is the extent of the change registered in this Arab binary thinking which became kind of an Arab civil war, raging between sectarian secularisms and confessional Islamism?

The second question is: has anything at all changed in the functional relationship of European actors since the start of the twentieth century, with global foreign powers penetrating the Arab interior with its varied religions, sects, problems, policies and economies, and the innumerable Arab summit conferences and congresses that have taken place since the first "First Arab Congress"?

The Ottomans and the growth of the Arab Movement

The first of three investigations in the first section of the book  "an Islamic approach to studying the Ottoman state," Kawtharani sees the ideological theses accepted as givens for some writers viewing local movements opposed to Ottoman rule and endorsing separatist calls as being calls of separatist national movements that contributed "not only to distorting the view of Ottoman history, portraying the  Turks as conquerors and colonizers, but also distorting the view of Arab-Islamic history, as one in which the flourishing of Arab civilization is predicated on Arab triumph and predominance. Consequently, the centuries of decline and cultural decay – the inḥiṭāṭ - can be considered the result of the predominance of other Islamic peoples and nations, with the centuries of decay viewed as centuries of Turkish rule. Thus, the historical process of de-development, of becoming backward, along with its causes, became associated in the consciousness of the Arab intelligentsia during the period of Western control, with Ottoman Turkish rule. This caused a large gap in the understanding by the Arab intelligentsia of the during the period of renaissance (an-naḥḍa) of the Arab-Islamic past on the one hand and that period's glaring manifestations of the western expansionist future.

Nationalist struggles and their fight for power

The second investigation is of "movements of unification and division: the struggle for power and ethnic-nationalist rivalries," in which Kawtharani posits that to a large extent the history of local political conflict in the Arab Mashreq is a "struggle on the part of local zealots to impose their authority as a fact and thereby acquire legitimacy with the sultan's recognition. These fanaticisms collided not only with one another, but also with their expanding zones of influence in the provinces and roles extending from tax compliance and collection to one colliding with governors and military garrisons imposed on the local populace from the late 16th century, with some of their numbers engaging on an individual basis in trade and tax collection from the provinces. Thus these zealous partisanships clashed and formed alliances with one another entering directly, as local level partisanships, into engagements with internal struggle – a process in perhaps in keeping (suggests Kawtharani) with Ibn Khaldun's concept of the emergence of states in peripheral areas.

International Circumstances of the emergence of the Arab Nationalist Movement

The third part of the first section explores the international context of the emergence of the Arab Nationalist Movement and the programs of decentralized reform, in 1912-1913. The rise of the Turkish-Turani nationalist movements, and the near-total collapse of the state in front of European colonial expansion in 1911 and 1912, stood as an obstacle to the demands of the Arab movement among notables, merchants, and intellectuals, and leading them to move towards Western alternatives then represented in two major projects: a Greater Syria under French tutelage; and a more ambitious British project to create an Arab kingdom, reviving the Arab caliphate around the Egyptian Khedive, under the supervision of the notables of Mecca.

Foreign consulates in Arab cities played an important role (in keeping with the interests of the states represented by them) in monitoring the activities, movements and directives of leaders of Arab reform.   The Arab reform and demands movement that emerged in cities of the Levant between 2012 and 2013 on turn presented European policies with broad opportunities to exploit to further penetrate and dismantle societies in the Ottoman state, especially through persons linked economically, culturally and politically with these consular circles.

Documents of the First Arab Congress

Kawtharani presents in the second section some of the French diplomatic correspondence concerning the congress and conditions in Syria in 1913, with sources and letters referenced in an appendix. The third section, documentation of the First Arab Congress of 1913 includes the Congress's book published in 1913 by the high commission of an Egyptian decentralist party, including presentation of the theme of the Congress which is summarized as informing foreigners that Arabs will shield their lands from occupation by any country preserve their national life, frankly addressing the Ottoman state on the need to implement decentralizing reform in Arab countries.

The book also conveys the names of the members of the participating delegations, the minutes of the four sessions of the Congress held 18-23 June 1913, and includes the speeches delivered therein as well as Arab correspondence world-wide following the congress.

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