King Lears of Arabia, by Tamim al-Barghouti

by Tamim al-Barghouti,
courtesty The Daily Star, Beirut

When there is colonial encounter, there are natives who believe in the colonial promise; this is an attempt to remind every contemporary King Lear with his predecessors.

In the first statement of the Arab Revolt of 1917 against the Ottomans, Sharif Hussein, the ruler of the Ottoman province of Hijaz and leader of the Revolt, did not dispute the right of the Ottoman Caliphs to rule over Muslims, nor did he portray the Ottoman presence in the Arab world as some form Turkish occupation.

To the contrary, he asserted his devotion to the authority of the caliph. However, he argued that the Caliphate had come under the control of the relatively secular Committee of Unity and Progress (CUP), which neglected the teachings of Islam, and whose policies, on the eve of World War One
would have resulted in the collapse of the Caliphate, the occupation of Mecca and Medina and thus the end of Islam; Hussein expected a total defeat of the Ottoman Empire, and if it did not fall, he was almost sure that the southern provinces would undoubtedly fall under British occupation. Hussein’s greatest fear was that if the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the war there would be neither an Islamic state nor a Caliph able to keep the spiritual and moral authority over the Islamic world.

As a typical conservative Ottoman official and custodian of the two sanctuaries in Mecca and Medina, he considered the Caliphate to be one of the necessities of religion, limiting the authorities of the Caliph was, to him, a breach of the Sharia (Islamic Law) and a danger to Islam. Since defending the present Caliphate was useless in his view (which was militarily correct), he had to find a way to create an alternative that would become a state for the Muslims in the world.

His idea was to reach a deal with the British, before they won the war, since nothing would motivate them to grant him what he wanted after they won. He thought that the British wanted safe passage to India as well as control of the economic resources of the Middle East, while he wanted an Islamic state that would be the successor of the Ottoman Empire under his own rule. To the Sharif these interests were reconcilable, and the public opinion could accept the idea that the Arab Revolt was for the sake of Islam.

Yet, the interests of the Sharif and the British were not reconcilable after all; the creation of a united Arab kingdom in the Middle East was strategically too dangerous to any colonial power in the world, regardless of how friendly the leadership of such a kingdom was. Instead of giving Hussein the one kingdom he wished for, the British carved out the two kingdoms of Trans-Jordan and Iraq and granted their thrones to two of Hussein’s sons. The contradiction between the ends of Britain and those of the Sharif went far beyond the strategic impossibility of creating a united kingdom in the Middle East; Britain had other allies to consider, namely France, the Zionist Movement and the Saudis. The fulfilment of British promises to those allies eventually cost the Sharif Syria, Palestine, and his own province of Hijaz.

This logic of gaining independence by reconciling national and colonial interests was common among most liberation movements in the Arab world between the two world wars, and it is just as common today under the new wave of American colonialism. For after the American invasion of Iraq, many
Arab governments would compete in attempting to reconcile American interests in the region with the image of independence and unity. Changing school text books of history and religion is argued to be in the interest of Islam and the nation, making peace with Israel becomes the shortest way to achieve Palestinian independence.

These arguments seem feasible given the circumstances of hopeless Arab weakness. Yet they are as faulty as Hussein’s expectations that he could reconcile his dream to the plans of the British; the Sharif of Mecca, the devout Muslim and the descendent of the Prophet fought along side the British and the French and helped them occupy, divide, redefine the world of Islam and got almost nothing in return.

Nevertheless, being yet another King Lear in modern Arab History, the old Sharif held on to what he saw as his right and duty; as soon as the Caliphate was abolished in Turkey by Mustafa Kemal, Hussein declared himself Caliph and attempted to establish a legitimacy as a spiritual, if not a political, leader of all Muslims, especially those in the Arab world.

From the end of the war up until 1925, he held on to his title malik (king) while his son Abdullah held the title emir (prince), Hussein understood that this meant that Transjordan was part of his kingdom. Yet, when Hussein visited Jordan in 1924 the British kept him in Maan, a southern city on the old borders between Hussein’s own Sharifate of Hijaz, which had gained independence after the fall of the Ottomans, and Greater Syria. He was not allowed to stay too long in Amman; to the British, his long presence in Greater Syria could have had the effect of an ideological symbol of Islamism and/or Arab nationalism which could serve as a magnet for resistance groups calling for a great unified Arab Islamic state.

That year, the forces of Ibn Saud situated in Najd (the western plateau of the Arabian Peninsula, Hijaz being its mountainous east) attacked Hussein’s Sharifate and, instead of becoming the Caliph of all Muslims, he lost even the province he used to rule under the Ottomans. Moreover, the British did not allow him to reside in either state led by his two sons Faisal and Abdullah.

Even then, this king with no kingdom, Lear in the storm, holding the claim of being the Caliph of the Muslims, could become a symbol that the British would not like. Claiming that he has been recognized as a Caliph by many Muslims sending him letters while in Amman in 1924, it would have been natural for Amir al-Momeneen (Commander of the Faithful, the traditional title of the Caliph) to ask his sons to recognize him as such, that would have led to some kind of a nominal unity between Iraq and Jordan, a result
Great Britain always refused. The old Sharif was exiled to Cyprus until he fell mortally ill and was allowed to return to Amman in 1931 to die there.