British Relations with the Arab Revolt

More important for subsequent events than the link with al-Fatat was the link connecting the Literary Society [al-muntada al-adabi] with the British and, through the British, the Arab revolt. In October 1916, the British Arab Bureau began financing an Egyptian-based newspaper, al-Kawkab, to promote the activities of the society (and later the Arab Club as well) in those areas of Palestine that had been detached from Ottoman control and were subsequently under British occupation. It appears that the motivation of the British Arabists was twofold. First, members of the Arab Bureau sought to use al-Kawab to spread a “moderate,” pro-British Arab nationalism, a nationalism that would seek accommodation with, rather than rejection of, the West. Second, the bureau sought  to promote the Islamic modernist doctrines, which also informed the editorial policy of al-Kawab, were not only congruent with the nationalism sanctioned by the bureau, they situated that nationalism within a more comprehensive conceptual framework. In addition, members of the Arab Bureau believed that through the endorsement of Islamic modernism they could placate two different sets of critics. On the one hand, the bureau hoped to allay the suspicions of traditionalists who considered the Arab Revolt to be little more than a plot by the West against Islam in general and the caliphate in particular. On the other hand, the bureau needed to calm the fears of those Palestinians and Syrians who loathed the politics of the Sharif of Mecca, which they claimed was based on a conservative interpretation of Islamic law inappropriate for the Levant. 

James L. Gelvin:  Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire, “Patriotic Agitation” to Mass Politics, p. 68.

The British effort to breakup the Ottoman Empire included actively aiding the Arab Revolt, particularly, personalities which could steer the revolt towards a pro-British agenda. The position of those personalities and, in general the nationalists that coalesced around them, quickly faded as they transitioned from a necessary auxiliary of the British to a minor nuisance. Once the British goal of Ottoman collapse had been realized, no power was available to play (nor wanted to play) patron to the Arabs, leaving their fate totally in the hands of colonial powers. The legalism of the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence meant nothing if no power stood behind it.

So was the revolt really a conspiracy against Islamic power? Moreover, knowing the mandated fate of the nationalist cause, is it any wonder that the very anti-western voices the British had tried so hard to suppress would subsequently rise up in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, taking power in the name of the masses who were so wronged?

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