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
8. The Outcome of the Eastern Question
The Eastern question, which was supposed to lead to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, thus ended favourably for the Western powers. After having fought the Empire, imposed their influence on it, and seized its provinces of North Africa, Libya, and Egypt, they emerged as the victors of the First World War. The Western powers were henceforth the heirs of the Ottoman Empire. The fate of the Eastern provinces of the Empire, which were placed under mandate by the Society of Nations, 12 was decided principally by the French and the British. Almost 150 years passed, from the Kucuk Qainarge Treaty in 1774 to the Mudros armistice, signed on 30 October 1918, before the 'new world order' was established. During those 150 years Arab Christians emerged into a new world: they were no longer part of the Empire but belonged to new nation States.
Before looking at this new situation, we shall try to assess the results of Western influence on Arab Christians in the Middle East. One advantage gained by the Arab Christians after 150 years was the change in their status, on paper at least. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century the Eastern question gave rise to constant pressure from the European powers on the Sultan to declare the equality of all the citizens of the Empire. Those who benefited most from this declaration were non-Muslims, to whom equal rights were granted on two occasions (in the Khatt-i sheriff of Gulkhaneh in 1839, and in the Khatt-i humayan of 1856). This formal recognition of equal civil rights for Muslims and non-Muslims was obtained in spite of the opposition from followers of Islam, who were outraged by such an idea in an empire whose Sultan was also Caliph of the Muslims. Resistance also came from high-ranking Christians, who faced losing the privileges they enjoyed within the structure of the millet . However, the millet system did not in fact disappear. Article 2 of the Khatt-i humayun preserved the rights obtained within the millet, as a renewed guarantee to the minorities ( sic ). The millet only disappeared at the end of the Ottoman Empire. In the meantime Arab Christians became used to the idea of freedom and equality, which they continued to claim through the Nahda movement.
The second fruitful result of the Eastern question for Arab Christians was their modernization. Through contact with the West, with missionary teachers, with Western universities, diplomats, and traders too, Arab Christians were more exposed to modern education and technology than the rest of the population. Their role as cultural intermediaries, their traditional presence in public administration, and their leading position in trade and the professions were reinforced, especially in the future mandates of Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine.
Encouraged by their newly acquired education and their intellectual achievements, it was surely natural in these circumstances that Christians should become promoters of reform in the Middle East. Nahda, the literary movement for the renewal of ideas and of the Arabic language, was the field for debate on fundamental issues: nationalism, Arab identity, women's rights, the importance of progress, and the need to promote a scientific way of thinking among Arabs. In all these areas the reform movement was largely made up of Christian intellectuals (Yazigi, Boustani, Antoun, Chemayyel, and others).
However these 'positive' aspects of the outcome of the Eastern question should not mislead us. In many cases, there was another side of the coin.
First of all we must not forget that the West used Christians as pawns in their disputes over supremacy in the Middle East. The bloody events in Mount Lebanon and the massacres of the Armenians, both at the end of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century, were a result of this. The Armenians found themselves in the crossfire of tsarist Russia against the Ottoman Empire. The annexation of Armenia after the war between Russia and Turkey from 1877 to 1878 was a heavy blow for the Ottoman Empire. The Russians had declared they were going to war to defend the Christians of Armenia. In 1894 the latter were massacred, almost like an omen of the slaughter of May 1915. Several other events during the Eastern question also aroused bitterness among Christians. The Orthodox communities began to distrust the Catholic ones, and both suspected the Protestant communities of being spokesmen for new influences from the West.
There seems very little doubt that it was the European States' assertion of power, which began to be felt in the Middle East at the end of the nineteenth century, which gave rise to a new plan for the region, the Zionist plan. We should not need reminding that, had the West not defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the State of Israel would never have been born. It was a promise made by Lord Balfour on 2 November 1917, on behalf of Her Majesty's government, which eventually allowed the creation of the State of Israel.
The last point to note is the creation of an expectation of protection among the Christian minorities. The constant concern shown by the European consuls for the Christian minorities, attested in numerous diplomatic documents, as well as the number of times they intervened on their behalf at the Sublime Porte, turned them into political patrons of Europe, and made them extremely dependent psychologically on the West. From minorities within the Empire, Christians became children of the West. France's 'humanitarian intervention', as it was termed in international law at that time, on behalf of the Christians of Mount Lebanon, who were massacred by the Druze in 1860, gave credit to the idea that Christians could always count on physical protection from outside. The troops sent by Napoleon III, followed by the French mandate a few decades later, as well as the arrival of American marines on the shores of Beirut in 1958, allowed Lebanese Christians to go on believing for a long time that the West would intervene to help them. Many aspects of their strategy during the war starting in 1975 were based on the idea that the West would intervene as the crisis became international. The outcome of the events in Lebanon helped to remove this illusion.
The Eastern question thus had mixed results for Arab Christians. At the dramatic close of the Ottoman Empire the West, as 'protector' of the Christians, imposed its will on the East. The Ottoman Empire's attempts at reform did not succeed. Middle Eastern society was unable to modernize itself, so the West imposed its own ideas and structures, as well as the form of the States which were created. The fall of communism in the Soviet Union can give us an idea of what happened when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The desire for perestroika recalls the Ottoman policy of tanzimat (restructuring). It simply accelerated the end of the Soviet Union and opened the way to disorder. All this confirms Tocqueville's statement that the worst is to be feared from a weak government which has decided to reform itself. But in the case of the Ottoman Empire there were powers who could put the pieces of the 'collapsed Empire' together again, in whatever way suited them.