By Tamer A. A Lebanese expat interested in history, politics, religion, and all things Levantine. Originally published on 28 July 2020 on his Blog at medium.com Here
Anyone that has ventured into the online spaces inhabited by those living in and connected to the Middle East, especially Twitter, can attest to the fact that a great amount of time is wasted arguing over, what many would consider, seemingly pointless questions of identity. In particular, the controversy surrounding whether “we” are Arabs or not, which is especially contentious for many Christians from the region, arises often.
I think this is an important subject to explore, as many Muslims and other non-Christians from the region, myself included, grew up holding a somewhat negative opinion of those who reject the Arab identity. This partially stems from the fact that we are not exposed to the perspective that most Christians hold on this matter. Therefore, I hope to shed light on these Christian perspectives in this essay, with a particular focus on the Maronites of Lebanon, as well as share my own personal perspectives on the matter and how those evolved with time.
A Personal Reflection on the Arab Identity
I think it is important to begin by highlighting my personal background, as that greatly influenced my views on Arab identity when I first began to ponder the subject in my teens. I was born into a Lebanese Druze family and grew up in the UAE where the question of identity was not one that particularly concerned my largely apolitical and irreligious family — they may have seen distinctions between themselves and other non-Levantine Arabs, but they reflexively identified as Arabs nonetheless. It is also worth adding that most of my friends growing up were other Levantines and Egyptians, the majority of whom were Muslims who similarly identified as Arabs without putting too much thought into the matter.
Being something of a history nerd, and particularly curious about the history of my own country, I had read about the identity conflict that had long divided Lebanese society and played an instrumental role in pushing the country into a devastating civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. Growing up, I sympathized with what can be described as the leftist-Arabist narrative about the war, which largely views the conflict as one between politically and economically marginalized Muslims and Druzes, who identified closely with the Arab world, and the right-wing Christian elites, who were more closely associated with the West and sought to deny the other communities their fair share in power.
This, in turn, made me view not only the political attitudes of Lebanese Christians with some degree of contempt, but also their peculiar cultural attributes, especially their claim to a Phoenician heritage and the fact that they often spoke French at home and typically gave their children French or other non-Arab first names. In my mind, those were all attempts to deny their self-evident “Arabness,” borne out of a sense of superiority and racism toward the broader MENA region’s Arab populations, including their fellow Arab-identifying Lebanese Muslims and Druzes.
My views on this matter began to change, however, especially after I went to university and began to seriously examine my political views and assumptions. This evolution, in no small part, was aided by diversifying the opinions I exposed myself to, such as replacing a steady diet of Prof. Asad AbuKhalil’s blog posts with far more nuanced perspectives on Lebanese politics and society! This transformation was also aided by open conversations that I had with many MENA Christians about this subject, both on Twitter and elsewhere, and particularly with Lebanese Christians.
Today, I would characterize myself as broadly center-right with a more balanced perspective on Lebanon’s civil war, one that is, in fact, sympathetic to the Christian, or nationalist, cause and identifies closely with Lebanon’s raison d’être as an independent state that serves as a bridge between the West and the predominantly Arab East. Also, when I think of my transnational identity today, I identify more closely with the Levantine/Eastern Mediterranean label than I do with the Arab one, as I now perceive the latter as too reductionist.
Arabism and the Christian Struggle for Survival
Now, the central question of this essay remains — why do Middle Eastern, and particularly Lebanese, Christians reject an Arab identity? Firstly, it is worth highlighting that these Christians are effectively the “First Nations” of our region, remnants of civilizations and cultures that existed prior to the Arab-Muslim conquests of the 7th century. These “nations” principally include the Copts of Egypt, the Maronites of Mount Lebanon, the Roum (or Byzantine/Greek-rite Christians) of the Levant, the Assyrian-Syriac-Chaldean Christians of Upper Mesopotamia, and the descendants of Armenian refugees from eastern Anatolia and Cilicia living mainly in Lebanon and Syria.
These Christian communities have shrunk significantly since the early 20th century, when they comprised about 25% of the population of the Middle East, and account for less than 5% of the population today. Much of that decline can be attributed to the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against its Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian/Syriac populations in World War I, as well as the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. However, even to this day, Christians continue to emigrate from the region in larger numbers, relative to their size, than Muslims, and have often, as communities, paid the biggest price for the wars that have ravaged the region in recent years. Indeed, the ongoing war in Syria has resulted in the exodus of up to a million Christians, out of a pre-war population of nearly 2 million. Meanwhile, the Iraq War, and the later ISIS campaign against Christians and other minorities, have dealt an even more devastating blow to Iraq’s Christian population, reducing it from a pre-war population of 1.4 million to less than 250,000 today.
As uncomfortable as this may sound to Arab Muslims, these MENA Christians view Arabness as an imperial identity that was forced upon their ancestors, and one that continues to directly threaten their existence today. This is because, from the point of view of many Christians I’ve spoken with, the Arab identity is inextricably linked to Islam and hence is at odds with their Christian faith. In other words, these Christians tend to believe they cannot become fully Arab without abandoning their religion and culture.
This may sound ironic given that Levantine Christians played a central role in reviving the Arabic language and creating the modern Arab identity during the Nahda, or Renaissance, of the late 19th century. However, it is important to note that this Christian identification with Arabism came at a time when Christians were facing Ottoman oppression and attempting to build bridges with Arab Muslims who were increasingly alienated by the rise of Turkish nationalism. Once this shared Ottoman enemy fell, Arabism began to lose its appeal among Christians, especially as Arabness and Islam started to become more interconnected. This connection was acknowledged by many prominent Arabists, including the Greek Orthodox co-founder of the Ba’ath Party, Michel Aflaq, who wrote that “[the Arabs’] national awakening was bound up with a religious message” and that Arab nationalism was simply “the force of Islam” reemerging “with a new appearance.” (Kanan Makiya, Republic of Fear, p. 198). By the late 1910s and early 1920s, most Levantine Christians had abandoned Arab nationalism — Maronites were largely committed to the project of creating an independent Lebanese state whereas most Greek Orthodox Christians began to identify closely with Syrianism, which sought to incorporate much of the Levant into a united “Greater Syria.”
It is also worth highlighting that, unfortunately, the Christian experience in the modern Middle East gives credence to their fears about Arabism — Christians were often persecuted by Arab nationalist regimes that came to power in the mid-20th century. The Ba’athist regimes in Iraq and Syria, for instance, often forced non-Arabic-speaking populations to adopt the Arabic language and Arab identity. The Assyrian/Syriac Christians of those countries, who did not speak Arabic until a few decades ago, were the primary victims of this forced Arabization, along with the Kurds and Kurdish-speaking Yezidis.
Moreover, even Arabic-speaking Christians were often mistreated by these regimes. The Copts, for instance, who were active participants in Egyptian politics and society in the first half of the 20th century, were politically and culturally marginalized after Nasser and his fellow army officers came to power in a coup in 1952. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of Copts occupying important roles in the Egyptian state. It was, ultimately, minority experiences like these that led the late Lebanese-American scholar Fouad Ajami to conclude that “the forbidden secret” of Arab nationalism was that, in practice, it was “Sunni dominion dressed in secular garb.” (Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, p. 133).
More recently, with the decline of Arabism in the last few decades and the concurrent rise of Islamism, these thinly veiled prejudices against Christians have been brought out into the open. Christians from across the region, Arabic-speaking and non-Arabic-speaking ones alike, went from being marginalized minorities to active targets for extremist groups interested in cleansing the region from “foreign” influences. This was particularly acute in countries where law and order broke down, such as Iraq and Syria, which is why, as mentioned previously, Christians have been among the earliest victims in recent conflicts. Notably, these extremists view Christians as remnants of Western colonialism who have not truly assimilated into mainstream Arab/Islamic culture rather than as indigenous inhabitants of the land with an indigenous Eastern Christian culture that predates Islam.
The Maronites and their Quest for Statehood
One particular Christian minority, namely the Maronites of Lebanon, stands out for its strong opposition to the Arab label and is often subjected to vitriol from other Middle Easterners as a result, especially in online circles. The Maronites are unique in that, of all the Christian communities of the MENA region, they were the only ones that managed, with the help of France, to first gain significant autonomy in Mount Lebanon following the massacres of 1860, and then a full state of their own, known as Greater Lebanon, in 1920.
The Maronites had pushed for the expansion of the Mount Lebanon Mutesarrifate, adding primarily Muslim areas to the north, south, and east, in order to create a more viable state with more arable land. This was intended to prevent a repeat of the partly Ottoman-imposed Great Famine of Mount Lebanon, which saw up to half the population of the mountain starve to death during World War I. The Maronites envisioned this Greater Lebanon as simultaneously a Maronite-defined homeland for Near Eastern Christians as well as a confessional democracy in which all religious communities, including both Christian and Muslim ones, shared political power and representation commensurate to their size.
This formula, unfortunately, broke down not too long after Lebanon gained independence in 1943 due to deep fissures within Lebanese society over questions of national identity and political orientation, as well as the changing demographics of the country, which saw Muslims become the majority of the population. The Maronites, and Christians more broadly, preferred a Western-oriented Lebanon with a Mediterranean outlook, whereas the Muslims and Druzes, especially after the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s, held a more Arab outlook and sought greater integration with neighboring Arab states. The rise of Palestinian nationalism after the Six-Day War of 1967, and the PLO’s use of Lebanon as a base for attacks against Israel, which was later sanctioned by the Cairo Agreement of 1969, further exacerbated these tensions and ultimately engulfed the country in a ruinous civil war that lasted 15 years.
From the perspective of Lebanese Christians, the war at its outset was one of self-preservation, which was, and continues to be, inextricably linked to the preservation of Lebanon as an independent state. In their view, the desire to integrate Lebanon into its “Arab surroundings,” which would further Arabize and Islamize the country, would, in turn, slowly erode Lebanon’s essence and raison d’être as a refuge for Christians with links to both the West and the Arab world. This is why they strongly opposed both the Palestinians’ attempts to drag Lebanon into a conflict they had little interest in and were ill-equipped to fight and the Syrian regime’s attempt to forcibly turn Lebanon into a de-facto Syrian province during and after the conclusion of the civil war.
In summary, the rise of Arabism in the 20th century, in both its nationalistic and cultural components, has had a hugely detrimental effect on the Christians of the region, forcing many to permanently abandon the part of the world their ancestors had lived in for millennia. Only the Christians of Lebanon, who had astutely fought for and succeeded in securing their independence a century ago, have managed to maintain their political and demographic relevance to this day. Yet, even their status is increasingly under threat, with Lebanon’s ongoing economic woes and the increasing political dominance of Hezbollah potentially leading to a large exodus of Lebanon’s disproportionately Christian middle and upper classes in the near future. While Lebanese Muslims and Druzes are equally affected by these economic and political crises, it is the Lebanese Christians who would have most to lose, as a significant decline in their population would greatly erode their outsized political influence in Lebanon today.
These developments don’t just adversely affect the Christians, who face the risk of losing their identity and culture in their exile in the West, but also the countries that had rejected them. Indeed, it is these Christians’ home countries that are left permanently impoverished by the loss of some of their most dynamic minority communities who had often served as conduits through which the latest ideas and technologies, particularly those of the West, entered the region.
It may be too late to halt the rapid decline of Christianity in the Middle East, but acknowledging the negative implications of Arabism and embracing more rooted and inclusive local identities in its place is nevertheless a worthy pursuit. A shift in mindset from regional causes to internal ones, such as tackling corruption and reforming archaic bureaucracies, can only benefit the region’s countries and their political and economic development. More importantly, in countries that continue to retain a semblance of pluralism, such as Lebanon, it also may be the last hope for preserving some of that dynamism and diversity that gave these countries their unique character in the first place.