The Arab Christians: From the Eastern Question to the Recent Political Situation of the Minorities
From Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East
© 1998 Oxford University Press
Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press
It is difficult to say which of the two models of participation in political life (one based on religious affiliation, the other on a professed 'secular' approach) the minorities tend to follow today. Undoubtedly they follow neither of the two, given the current climate of religious tension and strained identities. There is no sign of the second model and the first deliberately and increasingly accentuates their condition as minorities. So what model can be proposed for the future of Arab Christians?
Before answering, insofar as it is possible to answer this question, we must of course point out the present condition of 'Arab Christians'. Their condition is mainly characterized by a gradual erosion of their numbers. More than by the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, that, despite the way it is presented, it is also a threat to Muslims - perhaps an even greater one - the most severe problems are raised by the perceivable reduction of the numbers of Arab Christians. It is difficult to give precise reasons for this reduction. Experts talk of a population 'eclipse', 14 other researchers are already reporting a certain death. 15 Should the less pessimistic theory become a reality one day, there would have to be a sufficient number of Arab Christians to allow them to play a leading role and to justify attributing them with a 'strategy'.
In this case, what general problems would the study of Arab Christianity present? First of all we must accept the fact that the paradoxical nature of the Christian communities in the heart of the Arab world is unlikely to change and we must act accordingly. For a long time to come these communities will continue to have a dual nature. In their native land they are both religious groups, as they bring together members of the same faith and rite, and national groups, as these members are also citizens struggling for full participation in political life. They are also integrated communities, as far as the world of work, production, and civil society is concerned, while remaining excluded and discriminated against either in the law or in matters of symbolic importance. Lastly, they are communities which help to build the nation when they act as open groups, ready to participate with others, and communities which help to destroy it when they are gripped by fear and fall back on a religious or sectarian identity to replace a precarious national one.
While, unfortunately, Arab identity automatically means a Muslim identity (Arab therefore Muslim) 16 in the eyes of public opinion and sometimes even of Arab leaders or of Islam itself, the identity of Arab Christians is transversal (they are Arabs and Christians). It constantly clashes with its much greater rival, Islam, and has difficulty in establishing a balanced relationship with its other counterpart, the West.
This paradoxical nature of the 'Arab-Christian situation' introduces a second aspect of the problem: the basic complexity of the Arab Christian community, as of any other community. The traditional view of the Christian communities as compact, social groups based on religious identity, deciding and acting as 'one man' within the context of society or the state, must really be abandoned. Like the Ottoman millet, the Arab Christian communities are not a caste. To represent them as a united mass following one patriarch or pastor would merely create a myth. On the contrary they are stratified entities which have been shaped by a large number of different people and by contradictory strategies. They are dynamic entities which serve as a framework for action or as a symbolic landmark for a large number of different people. In this respect the concept of an 'island community' should be replaced with that of a 'matrix community'. Far from being a solid group moving as a single pawn on the social chessboard, to which we can attribute one voice ('the Lebanese Christians think . . .'; 'the Copts believe that . . .'; 'the Syrian Orthodox act in such and such a way'), we must think of the communities like a matrix, composed of institutions, associations, values, and symbolic landmarks, all throwing out, like a kaleidoscope, different attitudes, approaches, and plans of action, both individual and collective, of a large number of people. There are thus different social and political tendencies, as well as numerous different methods of compromise, negotiation, or conflict within a national context, which is itself also undergoing construction. The Christian communities are therefore the architects of their own future. They acquire an identity and a role by interacting with the other forces in their society, in an Arab State which is also searching for an identity and a role.
Here we come to the third aspect of the problem. Although it is quite legitimate to talk of 'strategies' or policies of the minorities, we should undoubtedly make this approach more relative, by considering the practical attitudes of Arab Christians towards human relationships, which have an age-old 'wisdom'. The attitudes of the community leaders, including unfortunately the sometimes excessive ones, often spring from behaviour learned from others and copied. It must be recognized that the twentieth century, a century of hard trials for the Eastern and Arab Christian communities, has witnessed the birth of new obstacles, deriving from a hardening of Islam. The long awaited modernization of Muslim thought and practice, especially in politics, along the lines of Muhammad Abduh, seems to have turned into a fundamentalist reworking of a plan for the Muslim City, where hakimiyya, shura, and dhimma, if not even the wilayat al-faqih, are part of the agenda. In any case, although Arab Christians may take the threat that militant Islam poses to them seriously, nothing prevents them, as Arabs above all, from considering Islamic fundamentalism less as a manifestation of aggression and more as an ideology of resentment, a form of protest against a sense of ill-being in our century. In this respect Islam and Christianity are perhaps closer than they think, as both seek a solution to the problems involved in adapting to our times. Hence, rather than talking in terms of geopolitics or strategies, Arab Christians should commit themselves to reconciliation and responsibility. Such an ethic, based on wisdom, discernment, remembrance, and an insistence on dialogue, tolerance, and mutual respect, seems like a durable, though temporary moral position. While it may be impossible to guarantee the future, this temporary moral stance can at least assure the present.
As for the future, only the achievement of genuine national citizenship will be able to solve the current dilemmas facing the Christian minorities. In the meantime we can still suppose that, even in the worst possible event, there is a future for the Christian minorities, since they play a fairly important role within their society. Yet quite apart from this diversion which hedges the problem, why should a minority have to 'earn' its recognition? Equal rights and full citizenship should be the natural results of integration, but these conditions have not yet been obtained. It is therefore a hard task to write a sociology of Arab Christians. Innumerable factors, from the demographic to the spiritual, must be taken into account, to the point where it becomes a sociology of the uncertain, just like the subject of its study.