The New Christian Question

Michael Teague

The December 2009 issue of Qantara, the Paris-based Institut du Monde Arabe’s magazine of Arab culture, is devoted almost exclusively to a reassessment of the current predicament of Christians in the Arab world. Whereas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Christians found themselves at the forefront of the Arab nationalist movement and were instrumental in helping significant portions of the Arab world to appropriate and benefit from modern political, cultural and artistic developments, today the case could not be more different. As Francois Zabbal, the magazine’s editor, points out in his introductory article, any interest shown by the media (and here one would assume the author is referring to the media in France, since in the United States the issue is, predictably, non-existent) in the plight of these unfortunate Christians—the Copts of Egypt or the Assyrians of Iraq for example, always appears in the context of their “decline” and victimization at the hands of Islamist groups. As such, this can be largely understood as yet another symptom of the corrosive effect that “Global War on Terror” language has had on our ability to insightfully analyze the circumstances of those living in the Middle East. Zabbal’s point is that greater effort is necessary if one is truly concerned with understanding the complex and precarious reality of today’s Christian Arabs.

“Christians of the Arab World: New Questions” does not provide a comprehensive list of each and every Christian community in the Middle-East, nor does it seek to pronounce any sort of final word on the subject. Rather, the aim is to construct a framework in which to discuss the situation in a more realistic manner- a framework that takes into account pertinent facts, whether they be of the historical or the on-the-ground variety. In this manner, Zabbal asks why and how it came to be that the Christians, who once played a leading role in the Arab renaissance (Al Nahda), and who were among the most vocal and idealistic proponents of Arab nationalism, now find themselves falling back on the confessionalism they once emphatically rejected. The answers to these difficult questions are not totally obvious, but are perhaps to be found in two articles, one by Bernard Heyberger and the other by Georgine Ayoub, that deal respectively with the Christian relationship with the West and the role that Christians played in the modernization of the Arabic language.

Heyberger’s article is an excellent attempt to grapple with the many paradoxes of Oriental-Occidental Christian relations. He makes the observation that Arab Christians contributed greatly to the commercial success of Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” a film considered almost unanimously by Western Christian standards as anti-Semitic. This is to underline the fact that these Christians share many traits with their Muslim compatriots, such as antipathy towards the state of Israel, but also a more ardent form of religious observance, and often the same sort of distrust of Western rhetoric about democracy and tolerance. For all the similarities, however, it cannot be ignored that the development of Christian communities in the Middle-East throughout the last few centuries can be traced back to the West. Indeed, Arab Christians formed their identity in part around religious practices originating in Europe (the Vatican especially), as well as around the writings of European orientalists.

More importantly, it was this relationship that helped bring about the secularization and modernization of Arabic, and this is the gist of Ayoub’s contribution. She outlines the principal factors that transformed the language from a purely religious tongue into a social and cultural one. This development took place in two different locations during the Nahda-- in Egypt, with Muslim reformers in Cairo, and in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially Beirut, where Christian intellectuals such as Butrus al-Bustani, and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq set about to make their own reforms. Essentially this was an effort to introduce the process of modernity into Arab society, to “vulgarize” knowledge, as it were, to make of language a social institution. Al-Buastani and Shidyaq published dictionaries and encyclopedias that took into account the development of the language over centuries, not just its original Quranic usage. A press was created, and journals and newspapers sought to provide a space in which public opinion could develop, and this example was followed throughout the major capitals of the Ottoman Empire. New words were created to describe new realities. Shidyaq’s “Al-Saq ‘ala l-Saq,” published in Paris in 1855, is not only the prototype of the Arabic novel, but also marks the introduction of the personal pronoun “I” into common usage. But as much as Ayoub outlines these momentous changes, she is equally aware of their inevitable limitations. The Christian intellectuals who made the leap of faith in the name of reform were able to do so because of their otherness. Those mentioned above and the ones who were to follow, Amin Maalouf is but one example, were able to accomplish their feats partly because their familiarity with Western languages that had already become compatible with modernity. Thus, the very condition that allowed them to change the Arabic language in such a drastic fashion was also the basis of their difference in a predominantly Islamic society, regardless of how sincerely they embraced Arab nationalism. They would ultimately have to rely upon the like-mindedness of Muslim reformers to re-evaluate the Islamic foundations of the language, a like-mindedness that has become over the years increasingly less forthcoming.

With this historical primer in mind, “Christians of the Arab World” delves into three specific Christian communities of the Middle-East: the Copts of Egypt, the Christians of Iraq, and the Christians of the Syrian village of Maaloula. In the case of Egypt and Iraq, the picture is rather bleak. Alain Roussillon highlights the unenviable plight of the Copts, who have become marginalized since the 1950s. Previously as staunchly supportive of Arab nationalism as their Levantine counterparts, the Copts became a prime target for Islamic extremists starting in the 1970s. Today the attacks continue, though less frequently, but the situation is compounded by internal divisions within the community. The Coptic pope Chenouda III has, since the (nominal) establishment of multi-party elections in 2005, been a vocal supporter of the Mubarak regime. This has angered many of his constituents, who feel as though this stance reinforces sectarianism and leaves the community susceptible once again to become targeted as sympathizers of a brutally authoritarian regime. These dissenting voices seem to be vindicated by the Christmas massacre of 2009, proof that the Copts have received little in the way of protection or political representation in return for their support of the government.

Sebastian de Courtois writes of the perhaps even more desperate situation of the Assyro-Chaldean and Syriac Christians of Iraq who, since the U.S. invasion of 2003 have been especially vulnerable. What can only be called ethnic cleansing has forced these peoples into the Kurdish north of the country, where they are working to establish an autonomous region within an autonomous region. In order to do this, however, the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council has been forced to make compromises with a Kurdish political system that is not only notorious for its corruption and nepotism, but that represents a culture that has historically been in many ways just as hostile to the Christians of the region. Many have opted instead to become refugees in Turkey and elsewhere.

The Christians of Maaloula in Syria, one of the few remaining places where the Aramaic language is widely spoken, are the subject of Frederic Pichon’s contribution. These Christians and their ancient culture are protected and preserved by the Assad regime, and the situation is in some ways a very inspiring example of the successful cohabitation between Christianity and Islam-- indeed many Muslims go to Maaloula to pray before the Christian religious monuments there. The regime encourages and helps to support these Christians, though, naturally, this fact is often exploited for propagandistic purposes. At the same time, the people of Maaloula live mainly off of tourism; Christians from every imaginable place on earth come to visit, and this leaves many of the younger generation with no choice but to head for Damascus in search of better economic opportunities.
Christian Poche, an ethnomusicologist, writes the final article in the series, about the peculiar tradition of the eulogist in the Christian churches of the east. The evolution of the art of the eulogist has a trajectory that is similar in many aspects to that of the Christian communities as a whole. Over the centuries, eulogists have had to adapt their art, secularizing it in a sense in order to accommodate the ethnic influences by which they have been surrounded. For example, songs traditionally sung in Greek or Syriac had to be translated into Arabic with great care in order to preserve the original character of the music. Influences from outside the region have also left a footprint, like protestant pastors who subjugated the form to western musical notation. Like the Christians themselves, this art has managed to survive either in spite of or because of its dexterity vis-à-vis a variety of external pressures.

During much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, eastern Christians were willing to submit their identity to the needs of the greater Arab nation. Today, with the dream of Arab nationalism having long outlived its immanence, the energy of their sacrifices and achievements are being artificially relegated to a distant past. But this recent effort by Qantara magazine to properly contextualize the current circumstances is no mere funeral oration and should under no circumstances be mistaken for one. The continuing exodus of Christians from the Middle East is not simply some melancholic historical inevitability to which the people of the region are or should somehow be resigned— its implications are in fact potentially quite dangerous, and this is true not just for Christians but for Arabs in general. The Middle East may not be able to sustain the amputation of one of its most integral and dynamic components.

This article appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 62 (2010)

Copyright (c) 2010 by Al Jadid

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