Lebanese Christians and Their Role in the Middle East: A Conversation with Habib C. Malik

This article was originally published by Providence Magazine on 10 March 2020.

By Habib C. Malik & Robert Nicholson

In a conversation with Philos Project President Robert Nicholson, Habib C. Malik discussed what makes Lebanese Christians unique, the country’s role in the Middle East, US foreign policy oversights, Christian engagement with Islam, and advice he would give to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

RN: Due to its unique history and demography, Lebanon is the closest thing to a Christian country in the Middle East. What makes Lebanese Christians unique? As other Christian populations dwindle around the region, do Lebanese Christians have a special role to play in aiding and protecting them? 

HCM: Lebanon is a small country with a million problems—literally, one followed by six zeros. And yet remarkably—nay miraculously—Lebanon continues to harbor the freest society by far in the Arab Middle East. What accounts for this seeming paradox? The short, and to some blunt, answer is that little troubled Lebanon is home to the last remaining freenative Christian community in the entire Middle East. By “free” here is meant in the first instance not dhimmi, namely not relegated to second-class status under Islamic rule as the vast majority of Arab Christians in the rest of the Middle East have been subordinated at some point or other in their turbulent histories. Lebanon’s Christians fought hard and for the most part successfully throughout their own challenging history, and at a great price in terms of blood and resources, to preserve what they could of their freedoms. The greatest service they could render to the rest of the region’s beleaguered Christians would be for them to remain free, and to act as a shining beacon of freedom for the others and for the Muslim majority of the region as well.

RN: Your father Charles Malik spoke often about Lebanon’s unique vocation as a bridge between East and West, a place where Christians and Muslims can dialogue with each other in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Yet Samuel Huntington might have called Lebanon a “torn country,” a state riven by competing cultures and thus destined to remain unstable for the foreseeable future. Thirty years after the Taif Agreement, how do you see Lebanon’s vocation? Has it evolved? Is it sustainable?

HCM: Lebanon’s freedoms have indeed suffered and shrunk across the board since 1975 when the Lebanon War first broke out, even though they remain higher than in surrounding Arab societies. The Lebanese Christian population has also shrunk—from over 50 percent before 1975 to somewhere around 35 percent today, meaning about a third of the overall population (the two remaining thirds being roughly the Shiites and the Sunnis). These twin marked reductions—in freedom and in numbers—have taken an extensive toll on the Christian community in Lebanon, and they have meant that their prior “role” as the reputed bridge between East and West has been severely curtailed. The other related problem has been the politicizing of everything in Lebanon, including attempts at open inter-religious dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Since delicate political balances need to be maintained inside the fragile country, and since the demographics are not helping, any and all attempts at dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon regrettably become reduced to exercises in traded platitudes and least-common-denominator meaningless intersection points (two Abrahamic religions; two monotheisms; shared ethical pieties; and the like).

Sadly, what Huntington might have said of Lebanon would still ring true today, and this does affect any role the country might wish to play as regards dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Rather than carry through the myriad internal contradictions that afflict Lebanese society to their logical conclusion of inevitable violence, the Lebanese political class has invariably opted for paralysis, another word for kicking the can down the path, as the preferred safer option. So matters on nearly every vital level, and this would include serious inter-religious dialogue between Christians and Muslims, have either been frozen in their tracks, or they have degenerated into harmless yet ultimately meaningless clichés and banalities.

In comparison with the prevailing freedom drought across the region, however, Lebanon’s surviving freedoms look impressive, and their continued protection offers the only hope for the country and the wider Arab surroundings. If we are to speak about Lebanon’s vocation, it would be precisely this as Charles Malik envisioned: the preservation and hopefully eventual expansion of the oasis of freedom in the Arab world. How sustainable this will be depends on how much Lebanon itself can continue to preserve what it has retained of its hard-won freedoms, and in parallel how much the rest of the world, especially those countries that are themselves indeed free, care to chip in to help in this regard.

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