In the course of the present unrest across the Middle East and North Africa, it has become clear that questions of identity are going to be extremely important in deciding the future paths of the various countries in turmoil, not only as regards the divide between Islamists and secularists, but also concerning ethnic and sectarian tensions in countries like Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
For Christians in the region, the issue of identity will similarly be important in determining ways to adapt to the changing political order. This naturally raises the problem of how exactly these Christians define themselves. For example, what does it mean to speak of an “Arab Christian”? Which Christians in the region feel the strongest affinity with such a description? Which ones reject it most vehemently?
It is often said that the concepts of Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism were formulated in significant part by Christians who did not wish for their communities to continue enduring discrimination. For instance, one could point to the fact that Michel Aflaq — a founder of the Ba’ath Party — and George Habash, an Arab nationalist thinker who founded the Marxist terrorist group known as the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” were both Christians.
However, what is often overlooked is that these Christians who were the most vociferous and staunch proponents of Arab nationalism and the notion of “Arab Christians” have been either Antiochian Greek Orthodox or Melkite Greek Catholics, two Christian sects concentrated in Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. Aflaq and Habash were Antiochian Greek Orthodox, but a case in point for the Melkite Greek Catholics is the current patriarch of the church: Gregory III Laham.
In an interview with the Italian monthly magazine “30Giorni” back in 2005, Laham even went so far as to state that “the Melkite bishop Edelby… would always repeat: we are Arabs, not Muslims…. I add: we are the Church of Islam.”
As for the terrorist attack in October 2010 on the Syriac Catholic “Our Lady of Salvation” church in Baghdad and similar assaults on Christians in the region, Laham characterized the persecution as a “conspiracy planned by Zionism and some Christians with Zionist orientations… that aims at depicting Arabs and Muslims in Arab countries as terrorist and fundamentalist murderers,” according to a report in Lebanon’s Daily Star.
Meanwhile, when it comes to the uprising in Syria, Laham has condemned the Arab League’s suspension of Syria from the organization on the grounds that the move has caused separation in the Arab world, with the Patriarchate Council affirming the following, as noted by the Syrian Arab News Agency: “The criterion of the Arab League’s success will be through its capability to solve the Palestinian cause, not through division or hostility.”
In contrast, among the Maronites in Lebanon and the Copts in Egypt, the sentiment is more divided. One will almost certainly encounter members of both groups who identify as “Arab Christians,” yet there has been a counter-trend on the question of identity that has never existed for the Antiochian Greek Orthodox or the Melkite Greek Catholics. For the Maronites, an alternative identity has been offered in the ideology of “Phoenicianism,” which traces a link between the ancient Phoenicians and the Lebanese of today, besides taking pride in Lebanon’s multicultural nature. A notable proponent of this view has been the well-known poet Said Akl, who reached his centenary last July.
Among Copts, there is the notion of “Pharaonism,” which prefers to stress Egyptian identity as a combination of descent from the Ancient Egyptians, Egypt’s historically close links with the Mediterranean world, and individual nation-state patriotism. This sentiment is shared by some Egyptian Muslims, and one of the most prominent advocates of Pharaonism in the 20th century was the liberal Muslim intellectual Taha Hussein.
Finally, one comes to the issue of identity among the Christians of Iraq. In this case, we find a virtually unanimous rejection of the term “Arab Christians.” Instead, Christians in Iraq identify as ethnic Assyrians, although among some Chaldean Catholics there is a preference for a distinct Chaldean identity.
There is even a political party for Assyrians known as the “Assyrian Democratic Movement,” which aims to secure an autonomous province for Assyrians in the northern Nineveh plains of Iraq.
One might note in objection to my point that Tariq Aziz — the vice-president of Iraq during Saddam’s rule — was a Chaldean. On the contrary, he is overwhelmingly viewed as a traitor by Assyrians. Not only did Aziz drop his Christian birth name Mikhail Yuhanna, but he also abetted Saddam’s Arabization policy in the north of Iraq, which led to the destruction of numerous Assyrian villages and the inhabitants’ forced resettlement in Baghdad and points south in order to make way for Arab settlers.
What is apparent from these observations is that the degree of absorption of the Arabic language into the various churches correlates with the prevalence of the concept of “Arab Christians.” In the cases of the Antiochian Greek Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic churches, Arabic has come to dominate as the main liturgical language over Byzantine Greek.
The Maronites and Copts used to maintain Syriac and Coptic respectively as their sole liturgical languages even after the Muslim conquests, but have gradually come to incorporate Arabic to a limited degree as their adherents have adopted Arabic as their language of everyday communication. However, the Assyrian churches, whose adherents primarily speak various Eastern Neo-Aramaic dialects as their mother tongue, still maintain Syriac as their sole liturgical language.
In short, the degree of linguistic and cultural Arabization over time has played more of a part in the formulation of identity among Middle Eastern Christians than a simple desire to avoid persecution at the hands of the Muslims majorities.