A Note on the Christian Arabs
Pope Benedict XVI took to Lebanon, on a three-day visit in mid-September, a historic message to the Christians of that country and to those of the Levant as a whole: stay in your homelands, don’t quit Christianity’s birthplace. “Unemployment and danger,” the Pontiff said, “should not force you to migrate for an uncertain future. Act as the makers of your country’s future and play your role in society and the Church.”
The Pope’s exhortation was made against the background of some harsh truths. Iraq which once had a population of one million Christians is home now to a small remnant: a mere 4,000 Christians remain in Iraq. In Syria, Christianity’s oldest community, the Christians are caught in the crossfire as a mainly (but not exclusively) Muslim Sunni rebellion battles an entrenched Alawite regime. In Lebanon, the Christians hold their own in a country of multiple sects and identities. To be sure, they don’t have the preeminence they once had, and their numbers are slipping due to emigration and a lower birth rate. But the principal Christian community, the Maronites, have their own sacred land in Mount Lebanon, a vast clerical estate, and a tenacious attachment to Lebanon and its national creed.
The cruel struggle for Syria raised a thorny issue: do dictators offer a shield for the minorities, and does this springtime of nations in the Arab world endanger the minorities? The liberation of people is not always pretty, the newly awakened bring with them into the political arena their repressed histories and desires. The Arab Spring opened a huge political space for the Islamists. They may not have run away with the great upheaval, but they were the most organized, and they came into considerable power in Tunisia and Egypt, and are destined to have great sway in Syria if and when that despotism is overthrown.
It was a supremely political priest, the newly installed Maronite Patriarch, Bishara al-Rai, who first suggested that the fate of the Christians of the Levant is better served by authoritarian rulers. It was September 2011, a mere six months into the Syrian rebellion. Rai looked with favor on the regime of Bashar al-Assad, he thought it should be granted time to pull off the needed reforms. He called up the tribulations of the Christians in Iraq, and feared that a similar fate awaited the Christians of Syria. Rai provoked a storm, and countless Christian thinkers in Lebanon and Syria rejected the idea that a dictator’s brutality offers a way out. A year later, on the eve of Pope Benedict’s visit, Rai altered his message. The Christians were not with the regime, he said, “We are with the state.”
The Christians do not dwell alone in the Levant, nor live in a political vacuum. Their fortunes are inextricably linked with those of their homelands. There were better times for the Christian Arabs. In the late 1800s, they were pioneers of the national idea, and of the Arab literary and political renaissance. The parliamentary regimes of the inter-war years and of the governments that came to power in the early post-independence years, in the 1940s and 1950s, made ample room for the Christians. The decline of the Christians came with the decline of civil politics, and the rise of the dictators.
So the great debate about the Christians of the Levant is now joined. Arabs of my generation, men and women formed in the 1950s and early 1960s, were bequeathed a tradition of some openness. It wasn’t a “golden age,” and we needn’t adorn it. But in the Lebanon of my boyhood we did hold onto the idea that it was small and petty and bigoted to reduce our world to the attachments of sect and religion. When genuine democratic experiments come to the Arabs, the place of the Christians will be ameliorated. But as that world alternates the rule of the autocrats with that of the theocrats, there shall be no deliverance for the Arabs, the decline will engulf them all, Christians and Muslims alike. Pope Benedict spoke directly to his own, but we have an Arabic saying, I speak to my daughter-in-law so my neighbor can hear me. The Muslims, too, need ponder the message brought them by a visitor who wished them all well.
The Tony Blair Faith Foundation Religion & Conflict blog series tackles a theme that is contested at a number of levels. Some quickly itemise conflicts as religious and others only when the religious dimension is arguably paramount. What characterises these early years of the 21st century is that conflicts with a religious dimension are growing in prominence and geo-political importance, if not in number. In this series, our goal is to examine some of these conflicts from a variety of perspectives while offering our readers analysis of possible ways forward to a more peaceful world. This and all other blogs in the series represent the views of the individual authors and not necessarily the views of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and formerly served as director of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University (1980 to 2011). He is the author of The Arab Predicament, Beirut: City of Regrets, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, and The Foreigner's Gift. His most recent publication is The Syrian Rebellion (Hoover Institution Press, 2012). His writings also include some four hundred essays on Arab and Islamic politics, US foreign policy, and contemporary international history. Ajami has received numerous awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Award for public service (2011), the Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Opinion Journalism (2011), the Bradley Prize (2006), the National Humanities Medal (2006), and the MacArthur Fellows Award (1982). His research has charted the road to 9/11, the Iraq war, and the US presence in the Arab-Islamic world.