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Emir Shakib Arslan


A tireless proponent of the Arab world, Arslan argued that ethics were an essential guide to a nation’s finding its historical, political and cultural unity.

By Hassan Shami

Shakib Arslan, Lebanon’s “prince of eloquence,” was an influential writer, poet, journalist, historian, translator and an analyst of Arab classical works, a herald and a politician.He was born on December 25, 1869, in Al Shouifat, nine kilometers from Beirut. When he was five, he and his elder brother Nassib were taught how to read and write by a local teacher in Al Shouifat. They went intermittently to a public school until 1877, and were then transferred to the Maronite Hekma School in Beirut. This was a turning point in Arslan’s education, and he would spend seven years at the school. There he was able to study Arabic language and literature with one of its most important experts, Sheikh Abdallah Al Bustani, author of Al Bustan dictionary.In 1866, Arslan moved to the imperial school in Beirut. As he wrote in his autobiography, this school was established by Muslims to educate their children in a manner appropriate to their community. It was in this school that Arslan met Egyptian reformer Sheikh Mohammad Abdou, and they formed a relationship that was to last many years.Abdou and his teacher Jamal Eldine El Afghani had a deep influence on the activity of intellectuals and ideologists such as Arslan. Both emphasized that the intellectual elite should work to modernize and thus protect the Islamic nation. Both men called for reform on the basis of philosophical, soufi, illuministic and gnostic principles. Abdou and El Afghani worked with the traditional ideas of perfection, happiness and salvation, but moved them from the sphere of the soul to that of history and the interests and life of communities. Arslan was profoundly affected by these teachings, and inherited from El Afghani and Abdou a belief in the importance of morals and individual and collective behavior. The mechanisms of the exercise of political power and the organization of society were secondary.Arslan’s interests extended to many different and seemingly contradictory areas. He was interested in taking a more important role in the Ottoman state, which he saw as the primary power facing Europe. At the same time, he worked to maintain the influence of his family within the Druze community, and was attached to an Arabism based on linguistic, religious and family connections.Arslan started to exercise his role and influence in the local Lebanese and Ottoman circles relatively early. He was appointed in 1887 after the death of his father as governor of Al Shouifat, and remained at this post for two years. “I found that the Jebel was too narrow a sphere of action, so I gave it up and went to Istanbul,” he wrote in his autobiography. During this period Arslan started to write for newspapers, and published a collection of poems titled Al Bakoura (Beginning).Arslan was appointed in 1902 at the head of the region of Al Shouf for several months and was reappointed in 1908. In 1913, he was elected member of the Ottoman parliament for Houran and remained at his post until the end of the First World War. His belief in the importance of the Ottoman state led him to travel with a group of Druze volunteers to Tripoli when Italy invaded Libya in 1911. He remained there eight months, until August 1912, in the company of the Ottoman leader Anouar Pasha. When World War I broke out, Arslan also went to the Balkans to supervise the Red Crescent delegations and distribute the aid sent by Egypt to the region’s Muslims.Much has been said about Arslan’s role during World War I and his relationship with Anouar, Talaat and Ahmad Jamal Pasha. That he devoted a large part of his autobiography to his relationship with Jamal — governor of Syria and Lebanon between 1914 and 1916, a time of terrorism, domination and brutality — was a response to the distortions that were widespread at the time.Arslan opposed many of Jamal Pasha’s policies, particularly the exile of numerous Syrians to Turkey and their replacement by Turkish families. While not all Arslan’s mediations were successful, he was able to persuade the Turkish military not to seize the arms of the Christians, and also was able to rescue Maronite Patriarch Ilias Al Hawik from having to pledge his obedience to Jamal Pasha in Damascus. Arslan also managed to have some notables from Al Jabal return to their land after a decision to exile them to Jerusalem had been taken. Among these was Sheikh Khalil Al Khouri, the father of Sheikh Bishara, who became in the 1940s president of Lebanon and who would later intervene to allow Arslan’s own return from his exile in Switzerland to his country in 1946.It was most probably Arslan’s opposition to French and English imperialism that led him to organize an alliance with Germany. He went to Germany in the summer of 1917 at the request of Anouar Pasha, where he met with several high-ranking officials in the ministry of foreign affairs. He also gave a lecture in Munich on the famine in Syria and described how the allies were responsible for it. Arslan stayed in Berlin until the end of 1918, then went to Switzerland at the beginning of 1920. He met Anouar again in Berlin and went to Moscow at the latter’s request.During the 1920s, when secularism was increasing in Turkey and the country gave up the Islamic caliphate and its ties, Arslan became a herald of Arab unity. He participated in the Syrian-Palestinian conference in Geneva in 1921, and was elected general secretary, with Michel Lotfallah as president and Rashid Reda as vice-president. In 1923, he called for the establishment of the “Arab pact” and published a statement to the Arab nation that contained proposals and principles for common action. Many similarities exist between this statement and the constitution of the Arab League, which was established in 1945.During the Syrian-Palestinian conference, which took place in Cairo in 1922, Arslan was chosen to defend the Syrian question at the League of Nations in Geneva. Arslan soon made Geneva and Lausanne the center of his activities, working to defend the Arab cause and to promote the aspirations of many countries to independence.In Switzerland Arslan met numerous leaders and important personalities, and worked hard to establish strong relations with other North African political movements. Of particular importance were his relations with the Association of Algerian Scientists, the North African Star, presided over by Messali Al Haj. Arslan also forged close links with the leader of Tunisia’s Neo-Destour Party, Habib Bourguiba. In a message sent from Washington in 1946, Bourguiba spoke of his happiness in meeting Arslan in Geneva. “Arslan lived long enough to see the French defeat and departure from his country and his return as a free man to his homeland. He wished me to return to Tunisia as he returned to Syria and Lebanon.”Arslan’s Arab and Islamic work also included activism in Morocco and Libya. He campaigned tirelessly against a plan by the French in the 1930s to separate the Berbers from the Arab Muslims in Morocco. He wrote countless letters on the subject to the leaders that country’s independence movement, especially Allal Al Fassi, Abdel Salam Bannouna and King Muhammad V.A matter that caused great debate and controversy was the nature of Arslan’s relationship with Mussolini. In 1934, Arslan and Ihsan Al Jabri met the Italian dictator, and Arslan apparently succeeded in persuading him to allow 80,000 Libyans to return to their homelands in Raqqa and Tripoli. In 1935, Arslan’s opponents accused him and the Mufti Haj Mohammad Amin of conspiring with the Italians and taking money from them. An Arabic newspaper in Jerusalem published a letter supposedly written by Arslan to the Mufti, but there were indications that it had been forged.While he was in exile in Switzerland, Arslan worked with the leaders of the independence movements in the Arab world, gave speeches and made appeals in favor of the independence of Syria. In 1937 Arslan submitted 28 volumes of his writings on behalf of this cause to the Syrian ministry of foreign affairs. Through all this work, Arslan managed to continue his journalistic activity, publishing a monthly magazine in French, La nation arabe. He wrote most of the articles for the magazine, which he published from 1930 to 1939. Arslan also wrote studies and researches in the fields of history, language, literature and translation.During this time, Arslan traveled extensively. He went for research as well as for political reasons to the United States in 1927 to attend the Syrian conference in Detroit, and to Moscow the same year to attend the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the October revolution. He also attended the Islamic conference in Jerusalem in 1930 and visited Andalusia in the summer of the same year. He visited the city of Tetouan and in 1934 was part of the peace delegation to settle the dispute between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. When the French-Syrian treaty was concluded in 1936, the French authorities allowed him to return to Lebanon, where he stayed only for a few months. In 1937, he had to return to Geneva because of the differences concerning the application of the treaty.Shakib Arslan spent 13 hours of every day reading and writing. He left about 20 books and wrote tens of thousands of letters. He sometimes made of journeys a reason to write a book whose aim was to remind the Arab people of their past, a history full of achievements, bravery and great actions.He lived through two world wars from the position of an active herald who attempts to participate in the shaping of history and the illustration of morals and ethics that can guide the nation that is called upon to find its historical, political and cultural unity. Although he was very knowledgeable about the European world — he spoke French, Arabic and Turkish, and was well read in German and English — Arslan believed that, when modernizing a society, it was essential to preserve one’s identity.“If we really wish to become Europeanized, in this case we should imitate these people in the way they examine and test things and not to accept a system or a law unless we are sure of its advantages,” he wrote in an article on the subject. “If we want to be Europeanized, then we should follow their example and explore all the aspects of civilization and pursue the paths of scientific inquiries to their most recent achievement while maintaining their customs, inclinations, tastes and remaining what they are, namely Europeans.”“If we really want to become Europeanized, then we should follow their example and remain Arabs.”


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