Mosul, together with Arab societies in general, went through a crisis in the early 20th century looking for allies at a time when the prospect of English and French colonization loomed large. Arab society at the time felt threatened by divisions and malevolent minority projects. Relationships with Istanbul were at their lowest point following the 1908 revolution, which took the Ottoman state into a nationalist secular direction and practically ended the caliphate. This break, however, was not of prime importance in the minds of “Arab Elders," the thinkers, writers, scholars and societal leaders from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia, who were more concerned with finding a new political arrangement to save at all costs the Ottoman regional alliance. For them, the fall of the Ottoman regional order was a red line.
Arab Elders could have directed their intellectual fire toward the political system that had denigrated all Arabs since the new nationalist system in Istanbul that can rightly be held responsible, equally with the rebellion of Hussein bin Ali Al-Hashimi, for driving the wedge of nationalism between Arabs and Turks. They had a different perspective and viewpoint, however, as they believed that the social identity of the Muslim and Turkish peoples, so similar to Arab societies, was the safety valve and protector of the regional alliance. They demanded decentralized self-rule under the political and security umbrella of the Ottomans. A far-sighted strategic initiative, much to the credit of Arab leaders of the time.
The documents of the League of Nations delegation to decide the fate of Mosul in the dispute between Britain and Turkey attest to the fact that the Arab Elders' vision accurately reflected the real wishes and desires of the city's people. Seven years after the occupation of Mosul in 1918, until the League of Nations awarded the contested province to the U.K. mandate of Iraq in 1925, the British had failed in their repeated attempts to overturn the area's collective identity as Ottoman Arabs and were not able to win them over to the concept of a nation-state, despite the colonizer's threats, imprisonments and coercion tactics.
The British tried to dictate to the Mosulis what they should say to members of the League of Nations delegation and how they should answer their questions. They made sure that police and security personnel were present during interviews conducted by the delegation with the people of Mosul. The same authorities severed Mosul’s ties with Syria and Turkey and redirected the city’s economy and society toward the territories under the British mandate in Baghdad and Basra in the south. Mosul was not choosing between Arab Iraq and Turkish Anatolia but rather between being part of a vital, open society – that made it a regional capital of many ethnicities and faiths – and a nationalist identity that turned the city into a limited provincial community.
The Swiss League of Nations team described the makeup of Mosul society, utilizing family, profession, place and religion as building blocks, as one characterized by “fluidity and mobility allowing people the freedom to move, live and work where they wish.” This is the essence of the Ottoman social structure that allowed for freedom of movement and social integration over the large expanse of the empire. This also gave vitality to city societies and provided the engine for economic growth, allowing Mosul to become a commercial and social regional center, a position they lost when forcefully removed from this structure. These facts were, and still are, obviously excluded from school syllabuses in the new nation-state created by the occupiers.
The question is: why is the wisdom of the Arab Elders needed here? It is a known truth these days that well-thought-out policies and sound new strategies are best put together outside the corridors of power where the dirty games of politics are played. The task of determining the future direction of society is the domain of thinkers and societal experts and not career politicians. This is a truth verified by modern, successful societies. Intellectual life in Mosul today is not in a healthy state of being, to put it mildly, and the city is once again ill-equipped for her upcoming strategic battles. Today, Mosul is in real danger of losing her city status, never mind her old position as a regional center.
The challenges and coercion faced by Mosul families and thinkers that disrupted and unsettled their plans and strategies under the British colonial administration are the same as those faced today by the city’s intellectual elite and prominent houses under the rule of the militias of Baghdad's government. Intellectual spaces in the city, like the University of Mosul, for example, are practically out of action, more specifically the Humanities and Social Sciences Departments. Future Mosul generations and researchers will not find any material covering this “Era of the Militias” in the same way that we can find information on the siege of Nader Shah in 1734. This places a particularly heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the Mosel intellectual diaspora.
In 1925, Mosul knew what it wanted but failed in the ensuing strategic struggle due to security concerns. The city also failed in the battle of international trading and political calculations because it lacked a foreign ally.
Today, Mosul wants to win both of these battles. The city loudly declares its refusal to submit to the rule of sectarian militias and wishes to find a suitable international ally. Mosul wants the right to determine its own destiny in order to escape certain death and rebuild the future of its sons, daughters and subsequent generations.
*Researcher and writer on "Arabic-Turkish Strategic Relations and Ottoman Studies"