It takes a nation to protect the nation
Habib C. Malik is professor in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D. C. Previously he taught for a number of years at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.
This article was published in the “Mediterranean Quarterly” Spring 1991
The Middle East is often thought of by Westerners as a monolithic region featuring a single dominant religion, Islam, and inhabited by an enigmatic though essentially uniform race, the Arabs. It is remarkable how far up into the decision-making echelons of powerful Western governments such an unsophisticated and fundamentally erroneous picture of the Middle East is carried, naturally with devastating consequences both for policies and for the people of the region in question.
In fact the Middle East is a complicated and multilayered kaleidoscope of diverse religions, languages, ethnic groups, and integral communities that form anything but a coherent, homogeneous whole. It is a place where ancient coexisting yet competing worldviews have grappled with one another through the ages in an intricate confrontation that is at the same time magnificent and deadly. It is the home of a host of non-Muslim peoples who guard their beliefs and struggle to preserve their culturally autonomous identities with fierce pride. Seen in this light, the problems of the Middle East reveal a whole new complexity.
In 1947, the young Albert Hourani published a small book with Oxford University Press entitled Minorities in the Arab World. The book has gone out of print and since then very few worthwhile studies have appeared on the subject. Hourani, who himself went on to become a pillar of Middle Eastern scholarship, has never returned to a detailed and lengthy reassessment of the problem.
This dearth of scholarship on the topic of non-Muslim Middle Eastern minorities, and the apparent lack of interest in an issue hitherto perceived as marginal at best, are very telling. Also telling of the neglect is the unavailability of anything resembling accurate demographic statistics for these minorities. Scholars currently place the number of indigenous Christians in the Arab world (specifically in Egypt, the Sudan, and the Fertile Crescent) at somewhere between 10 and 15 million with the Muslim majority throughout the entire region between Morocco and the Persian Gulf approaching 200 million. The case of the Coptic Christians in Egypt is indicative of the unreliability of statistics. The Reverend Otto F. A. Meinardus, a leading authority on the Copts, placed their number twenty-five years ago at 3.5 million.1 Most Copts today claim there are at least double this number despite vehement denials by the Egyptian government.
Few outsiders may realize it but there are innumerable religious minority groups throughout the Middle East, nearly all of them with roots predating the rise of Islam in the seventh century A. D. There are the Coptic Christians of Egypt; the many Jewish communities still remaining in the Arab world; the Jews of historic Palestine; the Christians of Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and southern Sudan---including Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites), Assyrians (Nestorians), Greek Catholics (Melkites), Chaldaeans, Maronites, Latins, and Protestants; the Druze of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel; the Armenians of Lebanon; and others. Even the Muslim majority is itself divided into the two main groups of Sunnis and Shiites, along with a host of esoteric offshoot sects of these two branches, for example the Alawites of northern Syria and an assortment of Sufi orders scattered all over the region. And there are also linguistic and ethnic minorities throughout the Arab world who mayor may not share the religion of the majority: the Armenians and the Kurds are two examples, with the former sharing neither language nor ethnic composition nor religion, and the latter sharing only religion, with the Muslim majority.
The largest and most populous of the minorities are those grouped together as Christian Arabs. The expression Christian Arab, however, continues to have an anomalous ring to it. The problem of course is in the combination of the two words. But it also lies in the inherent ambiguity of the word Arab. When indigenous Christian inhabitants of the Middle East, particularly the Fertile Crescent, are asked point-blank, "Are you Arabs?" the more cautious and thoughtful among them usually answer back with a question: "What do you mean by the word 'Arab'?"
If by Arab is meant simply someone who speaks the Arabic language, then, yes, they would reply that they are Arabs, and each group has its own distinctive version of colloquial Arabic. Some, like the Lebanese Christians, have made significant literary contributions in classical Arabic and have undertaken monumental translation projects from Western languages into Arabic.
If Arab is meant to signify something purely ethnic or racial, then who is to say what varieties of races and racial mixtures have crisscrossed over the eastern Mediterranean throughout the eons? An ethnic or racial definition is a shaky one at best.
If, on the other hand, Arab has a loose cultural connotation, then again the answer would be a proportionally loose and partial yes, keeping in mind that the Christians of the Levant, while partaking of the general culture of their immediate surroundings, also share strong cultural traits with non-Middle Eastern Mediterranean cultures. The native Eastern Orthodox of the Levant, for instance, still retain many Greek expressions in their liturgy. And there is considerable cultural overlap in matters of cuisine, dress, social manners, and tastes between Levantine Christians and their Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish counterparts.
And if Arab means some combination of the above, then the response would be a measured yes circumscribed by a corresponding combination of qualifications as the case might merit. However, if by Arab is meant Muslim, or a combination of Muslim with any or all of the above, then clearly the answer would be no.
The caution that characterizes all these responses is the result of a perception by the native Christians that the question, especially when posed by Muslim Arabs, is often a loaded one, and that Arab is identified primarily with Muslim in the back of the mind of the one asking the question. Such deep-seated suspicions are not the products of blind paranoia and have their historical reasons. They point to the unstable relationship and tension that has existed between Christian Arabs and the Muslim majority throughout the centuries. In their historical interaction with the Muslim majority, the Christian Arabs have experienced successive periods of stormy upheaval punctuated by brief respites of calm. As a result they have undergone an uneven development involving rapid progress at times followed by prolonged stagnation. Thus the Christian Arabs have had a checkered and lopsided history, and they will most likely have a checkered and lopsided future.
The Christian Arabs are themselves a heterogeneous group. Doctrinally, many are living relics of christological heresies dating back to the early centuries of Christianity. The Copts today remain Monophysites (Christ has a single divine nature); the Maronites were Monothelites (Christ has a single divine will) until the year 1180 when they accepted the supremacy of Rome and joined the Catholic Church. And there are also the Nestorians and Jacobites who are considered heretical because they adhere to theologically heterodox positions regarding the ontological status of Christ.
Sociologically, there is great diversity among the Christian Arab communities as well. The urban-rural divide distinguishes the largely Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Protestant city dwellers of the Levant from the predominantly Maronite population of the mountains. Although these distinctions have been somewhat blurred in recent years by internal migrations, they continue to hold true for a significant portion of the population. Moreover, the Levantine Christians as a whole differ significantly in terms of social structure, social habits, and racial composition from, say, the Coptic Christians of Upper Egypt. Features endemic to the region as a whole---such as lingering tribalism, feudalism. sectarianism, and other forms of localism-further differentiate the Christian Arabs.
Culturally, the Christians of the Eastern Mediterranean tend to be more cosmopolitan than Christian communities in the interior or in Egypt. But the quality of this cosmopolitanism, or Westernization, differs markedly from one subgroup to the next, and the native Christians' much-flaunted and self-assumed role of "bridge between East and West" often degenerates into superficial imitation, faddishness, crude materialism, borrowing the empty husks of Western culture-and all coupled with an offensive sense of false superiority toward everything Middle Eastern. Fortunately, this is not the whole story, and the authentic cultural yardstick remains that of education, which is highly prized among most Christian communities. Obversely, some Christian Arabs have assimilated so thoroughly with their Muslim surroundings that they have adopted aspects of the majority's mind-set-they have been Islamized culturally to a great extent. An example of this is a pervasive fatalism that one senses colors the outlook on life of native Christians.
And finally politically, the Christian Arabs have spanned the spectrum in their reactions to the various historical phases and political formulations of the Muslim majority. In the days of the Ottoman Empire they usually had little choice but to stick to their pocket of autonomy, or millet. Yet they did step forward at the turn of the century and later took part in-and at times championed-the budding movement of Arab nationalism and independence from Turkish rule. Members of the urban-educated Christian class of the Levant (usually Greek Orthodox) were ideally suited to mediate the concept of nationalism, essentially a nineteenth-century Western phenomenon, between Europe and the Arab East. They felt that nationalism, as a shared political goal with the majority, would serve as the perfect defense mechanism against persecution, assimilation, or stagnation. Some of these Christian intellectuals became more royalist than the king and continued in that vein even after Arab nationalism had taken on a decidedly authoritarian and anti-Western character. Other Christians, like the Maronites of Lebanon who were initially unmoved by the idea of Arab nationalism, became outspokenly hostile to things Arab when Arab nationalism entered its radical phase of rejecting the West as imperialist. The first of these groups has remained dubious at best in the eyes of the Muslim majority, while the second group became the object of outright hatred.
The question now arises: How will the Christian Arabs adjust to the postnational phase in the Arab world? With growing portions of the Arab world shedding nationalism as a failed unifying ideological framework in favor of a return to a religious definition of identity, the situation of non-Muslim minorities becomes all the more critical. Clearly, those Christian Arabs who placed their hopes in an overarching nationalism (not to speak of an elusive secularism) as a way to overcome the majority-minority split along religious lines have been bitterly disillusioned. Nor is specific country-by-country nationalism any long-term match for a resurgence of Islamic fervor. The fact, for example, that the Coptic Christians and the Muslims of Egypt share strong feeling of Egyptianism is ultimately no guarantee for the Copts against intolerance or persecution.
Frequent comparisons of Iraq's Saddam Hussein with Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser can be both shallow and misleading. The ultimate rallying battle cry for Muslim Arabs has always been, and will remain, not nationalistic but religious in tone. The fact that Saddam lacks the personal piety and spiritual credentials to appeal to the religious sentiment will eventually prove to have been irrelevant if the aftermath of the Gulf war ushers in a fundamentalist backlash.
If, then, the Arab world is moving from Ottoman-Western imperial domination through the phase of nation states and on to some revived version of Islamic community, or umma, where does that leave the Christian AI'abs? Here again the Christian Arabs do not constitute a uniform block. The vast majority of them has long ago been reduced by Islam to second-class, or dhimmi, status in their own ancestral lands. This is in keeping with the traditional Islamic view of Christians and Jews as "People of the Book" to be tolerated but never treated as equals. Those who have resisted such a fate, namely the 1 million or so embattled Christians of Lebanon comprising (until the Syrian takeover in October 1990) the last remaining free Christian community in the entire Middle East, have lived to see their flawed and ephemeral---but nonetheless unique---experiment in coexistence collapse in bloody shambles around them. In the winter of 1990 their tragedy took a macabre turn as their Maronite leaders, army general Michel Aoun, and militia chief Samir Geagea, plunged them into suicidal internecine strife over control of a territory barely the size of Long Island.
The case of Lebanon merits closer attention in the present context because the fluctuating fortunes of its Christian community over time have acted alternately as a beacon of hope and a barometer of danger for the remainder of Christian Arabs scattered throughout the region. This is easily attested to if one tours the various denominational apostolates in the greater Beirut area and talks to the local ecclesiastical representatives of the many Christian minorities in Arab lands. In this sense Beirut is a veritable listening post for the conditions, grievances, and aspirations of indigenous Middle Eastern Christians. It is also home to the traditionally freest and most self-assertive Christian community of the region, a community that is always looked up to and watched closely by the others for early signs of impending persecution. In short, the better off Lebanon's Christians are, the easier the rest of the region's Christians can breathe.
However, recently Lebanon's Christian community experienced a profound leadership crisis that eventually resulted in a fatal internal split. The Maronites, undeniably the historical spearhead of Lebanon's fight for freedom, self-preservation, and distinctive identity, succumbed to the lethal temptation of ferocious infighting, thereby creating an ideal opportunity for armed Syrian intervention. On the eve of Syria's forced entry into the Christian heartland all existing institutions in Lebanon capable of providing leadership had broken down, or had lost any lingering confidence that people once placed in them. Both the parliament and the presidency had been neutralized by the settlement brokered in the fall of 1989 in Taif, Saudi Arabia, as had the main political parties, including the once-powerful Christian Phalange established by the Gemayel family. And Bkerke, the seat of the Maronite Patriarchate and a onetime bulwark for the defense of Lebanon's freedoms and pluralism, had fallen eerily silent.
Given the importance of the Maronite Patriarchate, this last failure of leadership is particularly ominous not only for the Maronites, but also for all other Christian Arabs. One needs to remember that the political map of the Middle East is in fact superimposed---artificially in many places---over another much older and more basic religious and ethnic map whose intricate design rarely coincides with well-defined boundaries of the existing sovereign states. Similarly, religious figures, not only in the Muslim communities but among the native Christians as well, serve as ethnarchs; that is, they fulfill the roles simultaneously of political and religious leaders in their respective ethnic communities. This reveals that Eastern Christians have not shared with their coreligionists in the secular West the experience of separating the temporal and spiritual powers, even though they might be more prepared in theory to accept such a separation than their Muslim neighbors.
These then are some of the "tribes with flags" inhabiting the Levant that the journalist Charles Glass talks about in his book with the same title. 2 But lest the impression be left that they are merely the exotic stuff of the curious traveler's tales, or the material that the diligent anthropologist encounters on his field trips in the more primitive and out-of-the-way parts of the world, it should be recalled that they constitute integral, vibrant, and deeply entrenched Christian communities that are cultural and spiritual expressions of the larger worldview they espouse and have helped to fashion. And this worldview, incidentally, is the very one that more than any other has shaped the civilized West. The tribes in question are thus an authentic face of the landscape in which they dwell-a piece of real estate that straddles three continents and a number of central bodies of water and connecting waterways. They predate the flags under which they are today variously assembled, and taken individually or collectively, their claims to being repositories of the wisdom of the ages ought to be respected.