The map of the Arab world on the eve of World War I shows that the entire Arab homeland was under colonial rule: Morocco and Tunisia were controlled by France, with the northern and southern parts of Morocco under Spanish rule; Algeria was part of France; the Italians controlled Libya, and Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, as were Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and the emirates that were sitting on what is today Saudi Arabia. Sudan was a British colony; part of Lebanon was under Ottoman rule under the supervision of various European consuls, and the eastern Arabian peninsula was under British control.
When, after World War I, the Arab states started getting a modicum of formal independence, the noted Lebanese historian Philip Hitti was impressed, and noted in his book “History of the Arabs,” published in 1937, how Egypt had established an independent kingdom, Iraq had its first king since the decline of the rule of the Abbasids, Ibn Saud had established a vast kingdom, and Syria and Lebanon were already independent states. Hitti ended by saying “the Arab star is on the rise.”
These facts show how far along Arabs had come despite all the pitfalls en route. The first spark of pseudo-independence made hearts throb and had people talking about a “rising star,” although it would have been more correct to speak of “a star reborn,” because the Arabs had lost their place at the table of the free world. While under Turkish rule for 400 years they had been deprived of the ability to learn and grow, and during the period of European colonialism they also had their natural treasures seized by Anglo-American oil giants who were allied with military juntas.
Only recently the Americans have revealed that when Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's prime minister in the early 1950s, demanded his country’s share of the oil profits, the CIA worked to overthrow him. What would have happened if Mossadegh had been left alone? Perhaps Ayatollah Khomeini would not have come to power? Furthermore, when the Egyptians in 1956 dared to exercise their sovereignty and tried to nationalize the Suez Canal, then Britain and France, powers in decline, joined with Israel to teach Gamal Abdel Nasser a lesson.
On the other hand, not only did the Arabs suffer under colonialism, they also were reprimanded and humiliated, on grounds that the world had supposedly mobilized to help them but they had refused the offer. Arabs were, and still are, portrayed as if they and modernity are parallel lines that will never meet. But one can objectively say that the Arab liberation movement, after independence, brought the Arab peoples great achievements. Recall the agrarian revolution in Egypt, which brought justice and hope to millions of peasants and opened the gates of education to millions of young people. Look at the enormous material transformations that have taken place in Egypt: the construction of the Aswan Dam, which changed the face of the country, the building of the steel mills, and more.
Today the Arab world is conducting an internal battle that is no less important than the struggle for national liberation. The Arabs are fighting a tenacious battle to be freed from religious extremism, which offers them only one option: turning back the clock several centuries. This battle is first and foremost a battle for hearts and minds, so that the public will be strengthened and able to stand firm against the religion profiteers.
Until recently the West considered the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism a lost cause. Many in the West were convinced that only military dictatorships could function in this region. And yet now, when the Egyptian people have risen en masse against the Muslim Brotherhood, the West is disappointed in the masses. What hypocrisy!
The Arabs, who were wiped almost completely off the map a century ago, are today, with their own hands, fashioning their path into the modern era. Despite the terrible tragedy in Syria, the news coming from the public squares of the Arab world should infuse optimism into every democrat in the world.
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