Habib C. Malik / Feb 19, 2008

Habib C. Malik is professor in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D. C. Previously he taught for a number of years at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.

This article was published in the “Mediterranean Quarterly” Spring 1991



The Middle East is often thought of by Westerners as a monolithic region featuring a single dominant religion, Islam, and inhabited by an enigmatic though essentially uniform race, the Arabs. It is remarkable how far up into the decision-making echelons of powerful Western governments such an unsophisticated and fundamentally erroneous picture of the Middle East is carried, naturally with devastating consequences both for policies and for the people of the region in question.


In fact the Middle East is a complicated and multilayered kaleidoscope of diverse religions, languages, ethnic groups, and integral communities that form anything but a coherent, homogeneous whole. It is a place where ancient coexisting yet competing worldviews have grappled with one an­other through the ages in an intricate confrontation that is at the same time magnificent and deadly. It is the home of a host of non-Muslim peoples who guard their beliefs and struggle to preserve their culturally autono­mous identities with fierce pride. Seen in this light, the problems of the Middle East reveal a whole new complexity.


In 1947, the young Albert Hourani published a small book with Oxford University Press entitled Minorities in the Arab World. The book has gone out of print and since then very few worthwhile studies have appeared on the subject. Hourani, who himself went on to become a pillar of Middle Eastern scholarship, has never returned to a detailed and lengthy reassess­ment of the problem.

This dearth of scholarship on the topic of non-Muslim Middle Eastern minorities, and the apparent lack of interest in an issue hitherto perceived as marginal at best, are very telling. Also telling of the neglect is the unavailability of anything resembling accurate demographic statistics for these minorities. Scholars currently place the number of indigenous Chris­tians in the Arab world (specifically in Egypt, the Sudan, and the Fertile Crescent) at somewhere between 10 and 15 million with the Muslim majority throughout the entire region between Morocco and the Persian Gulf approaching 200 million. The case of the Coptic Christians in Egypt is indicative of the unreliability of statistics. The Reverend Otto F. A. Meinardus, a leading authority on the Copts, placed their number twenty-five years ago at 3.5 million.1  Most Copts today claim there are at least double this number despite vehement denials by the Egyptian government.


Few outsiders may realize it but there are innumerable religious minor­ity groups throughout the Middle East, nearly all of them with roots predating the rise of Islam in the seventh century A. D. There are the Coptic Christians of Egypt; the many Jewish communities still remaining in the Arab world; the Jews of historic Palestine; the Christians of Leba­non, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and southern Sudan---including Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites), Assyrians (Nestorians), Greek Catholics (Melkites), Chaldaeans, Maronites, Latins, and Protestants; the Druze of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel; the Armenians of Lebanon; and others. Even the Muslim majority is itself divided into the two main groups of Sunnis and Shiites, along with a host of esoteric offshoot sects of these two branches, for example the Alawites of northern Syria and an assort­ment of Sufi orders scattered all over the region. And there are also linguistic and ethnic minorities throughout the Arab world who mayor may not share the religion of the majority: the Armenians and the Kurds are two examples, with the former sharing neither language nor ethnic composition nor religion, and the latter sharing only religion, with the Muslim majority.


The largest and most populous of the minorities are those grouped together as Christian Arabs. The expression Christian Arab, however, continues to have an anomalous ring to it. The problem of course is in the combina­tion of the two words. But it also lies in the inherent ambiguity of the word Arab. When indigenous Christian inhabitants of the Middle East, particu­larly the Fertile Crescent, are asked point-blank, "Are you Arabs?" the more cautious and thoughtful among them usually answer back with a question: "What do you mean by the word 'Arab'?"


If by Arab is meant simply someone who speaks the Arabic language, then, yes, they would reply that they are Arabs, and each group has its own distinctive version of colloquial Arabic. Some, like the Lebanese Christians, have made significant literary contributions in classical Arabic and have undertaken monumental translation projects from Western lan­guages into Arabic.


If Arab is meant to signify something purely ethnic or racial, then who is to say what varieties of races and racial mixtures have crisscrossed over the eastern Mediterranean throughout the eons? An ethnic or racial defini­tion is a shaky one at best.


If, on the other hand, Arab has a loose cultural connotation, then again the answer would be a proportionally loose and partial yes, keeping in mind that the Christians of the Levant, while partaking of the general culture of their immediate surroundings, also share strong cultural traits with non-Middle Eastern Mediterranean cultures. The native Eastern Orthodox of the Levant, for instance, still retain many Greek expressions in their liturgy. And there is considerable cultural overlap in matters of cuisine, dress, social manners, and tastes between Levantine Christians and their Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish counterparts.


And if Arab means some combination of the above, then the response would be a measured yes circumscribed by a corresponding combination of qualifications as the case might merit. However, if by Arab is meant Muslim, or a combination of Muslim with any or all of the above, then clearly the answer would be no.

The caution that characterizes all these responses is the result of a perception by the native Christians that the question, especially when posed by Muslim Arabs, is often a loaded one, and that Arab is identified primarily with Muslim in the back of the mind of the one asking the question. Such deep-seated suspicions are not the products of blind para­noia and have their historical reasons. They point to the unstable relation­ship and tension that has existed between Christian Arabs and the Muslim majority throughout the centuries. In their historical interaction with the Muslim majority, the Christian Arabs have experienced successive peri­ods of stormy upheaval punctuated by brief respites of calm. As a result they have undergone an uneven development involving rapid progress at times followed by prolonged stagnation. Thus the Christian Arabs have had a checkered and lopsided history, and they will most likely have a checkered and lopsided future.


The Christian Arabs are themselves a heterogeneous group. Doctrinally, many are living relics of christological heresies dating back to the early centuries of Christianity. The Copts today remain Monophysites (Christ has a single divine nature); the Maronites were Monothelites (Christ has a single divine will) until the year 1180 when they accepted the supremacy of Rome and joined the Catholic Church. And there are also the Nestorians and Jacobites who are considered heretical because they adhere to theo­logically heterodox positions regarding the ontological status of Christ.


Sociologically, there is great diversity among the Christian Arab com­munities as well. The urban-rural divide distinguishes the largely Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Protestant city dwellers of the Levant from the predominantly Maronite population of the mountains. Although these distinctions have been somewhat blurred in recent years by internal mi­grations, they continue to hold true for a significant portion of the popula­tion. Moreover, the Levantine Christians as a whole differ significantly in terms of social structure, social habits, and racial composition from, say, the Coptic Christians of Upper Egypt. Features endemic to the region as a whole---such as lingering tribalism, feudalism. sectarianism, and other forms of localism-further differentiate the Christian Arabs.



Culturally, the Christians of the Eastern Mediterranean tend to be more cosmopolitan than Christian communities in the interior or in Egypt. But the quality of this cosmopolitanism, or Westernization, differs markedly from one subgroup to the next, and the native Christians' much-flaunted and self-assumed role of "bridge between East and West" often degenerates into superficial imitation, faddishness, crude materialism, borrowing the empty husks of Western culture-and all coupled with an offensive sense of false superiority toward everything Middle Eastern. Fortunately, this is not the whole story, and the authentic cultural yardstick remains that of education, which is highly prized among most Christian communities. Obversely, some Christian Arabs have assimilated so thoroughly with their Muslim surroundings that they have adopted aspects of the majority's mind-set-they have been Islamized culturally to a great extent. An example of this is a pervasive fatalism that one senses colors the outlook on life of native Christians.


And finally politically, the Christian Arabs have spanned the spectrum in their reactions to the various historical phases and political formulations of the Muslim majority. In the days of the Ottoman Empire they usually had little choice but to stick to their pocket of autonomy, or millet. Yet they did step forward at the turn of the century and later took part in-and at times championed-the budding movement of Arab nationalism and inde­pendence from Turkish rule. Members of the urban-educated Christian class of the Levant (usually Greek Orthodox) were ideally suited to mediate the concept of nationalism, essentially a nineteenth-century Western phe­nomenon, between Europe and the Arab East. They felt that nationalism, as a shared political goal with the majority, would serve as the perfect defense mechanism against persecution, assimilation, or stagnation. Some of these Christian intellectuals became more royalist than the king and con­tinued in that vein even after Arab nationalism had taken on a decidedly authoritarian and anti-Western character. Other Christians, like the Maronites of Lebanon who were initially unmoved by the idea of Arab na­tionalism, became outspokenly hostile to things Arab when Arab national­ism entered its radical phase of rejecting the West as imperialist. The first of these groups has remained dubious at best in the eyes of the Muslim majority, while the second group became the object of outright hatred.



The question now arises: How will the Christian Arabs adjust to the postnational phase in the Arab world? With growing portions of the Arab world shedding nationalism as a failed unifying ideological framework in favor of a return to a religious definition of identity, the situation of non-Muslim minorities becomes all the more critical. Clearly, those Chris­tian Arabs who placed their hopes in an overarching nationalism (not to speak of an elusive secularism) as a way to overcome the majority-minority split along religious lines have been bitterly disillusioned. Nor is specific country-by-country nationalism any long-term match for a resurgence of Islamic fervor. The fact, for example, that the Coptic Christians and the Muslims of Egypt share strong feeling of Egyptianism is ultimately no guarantee for the Copts against intolerance or persecution.


Frequent comparisons of Iraq's Saddam Hussein with Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser can be both shallow and misleading. The ultimate rallying battle cry for Muslim Arabs has always been, and will remain, not nation­alistic but religious in tone. The fact that Saddam lacks the personal piety and spiritual credentials to appeal to the religious sentiment will eventu­ally prove to have been irrelevant if the aftermath of the Gulf war ushers in a fundamentalist backlash.


If, then, the Arab world is moving from Ottoman-Western imperial domination through the phase of nation states and on to some revived version of Islamic community, or umma, where does that leave the Chris­tian AI'abs? Here again the Christian Arabs do not constitute a uniform block. The vast majority of them has long ago been reduced by Islam to second-class, or dhimmi, status in their own ancestral lands. This is in keeping with the traditional Islamic view of Christians and Jews as "Peo­ple of the Book" to be tolerated but never treated as equals. Those who have resisted such a fate, namely the 1 million or so embattled Chris­tians of Lebanon comprising (until the Syrian takeover in October 1990) the last remaining free Christian community in the entire Middle East, have lived to see their flawed and ephemeral---but nonetheless unique---experiment in coexistence collapse in bloody shambles around them. In the winter of 1990 their tragedy took a macabre turn as their Maronite leaders, army general Michel Aoun, and militia chief Samir Geagea, plunged them into suicidal internecine strife over control of a territory barely the size of Long Island.


The case of Lebanon merits closer attention in the present context because the fluctuating fortunes of its Christian community over time have acted alternately as a beacon of hope and a barometer of danger for the remain­der of Christian Arabs scattered throughout the region. This is easily attested to if one tours the various denominational apostolates in the greater Beirut area and talks to the local ecclesiastical representatives of the many Christian minorities in Arab lands. In this sense Beirut is a veritable listening post for the conditions, grievances, and aspirations of indigenous Middle Eastern Christians. It is also home to the traditionally freest and most self-assertive Christian community of the region, a com­munity that is always looked up to and watched closely by the others for early signs of impending persecution. In short, the better off Lebanon's Christians are, the easier the rest of the region's Christians can breathe.


However, recently Lebanon's Christian community experienced a pro­found leadership crisis that eventually resulted in a fatal internal split. The Maronites, undeniably the historical spearhead of Lebanon's fight for freedom, self-preservation, and distinctive identity, succumbed to the lethal temptation of ferocious infighting, thereby creating an ideal oppor­tunity for armed Syrian intervention. On the eve of Syria's forced entry into the Christian heartland all existing institutions in Lebanon capable of providing leadership had broken down, or had lost any lingering confidence that people once placed in them. Both the parliament and the presidency had been neutralized by the settlement brokered in the fall of 1989 in Taif, Saudi Arabia, as had the main political parties, including the once-powerful Christian Phalange established by the Gemayel family. And Bkerke, the seat of the Maronite Patriarchate and a onetime bulwark for the defense of Lebanon's freedoms and pluralism, had fallen eerily silent.


Given the importance of the Maronite Patriarchate, this last failure of leadership is particularly ominous not only for the Maronites, but also for all other Christian Arabs. One needs to remember that the political map of the Middle East is in fact superimposed---artificially in many places---over another much older and more basic religious and ethnic map whose intricate design rarely coincides with well-defined boundaries of the existing sovereign states. Similarly, religious figures, not only in the Muslim communities but among the native Christians as well, serve as ethnarchs; that is, they fulfill the roles simultaneously of political and religious leaders in their respective ethnic communities. This reveals that Eastern Christians have not shared with their coreligionists in the secular West the experience of separating the temporal and spiritual powers, even though they might be more prepared in theory to accept such a separation than their Muslim neighbors.


These then are some of the "tribes with flags" inhabiting the Levant that the journalist Charles Glass talks about in his book with the same title. 2  But lest the impression be left that they are merely the exotic stuff of the curious traveler's tales, or the material that the diligent anthropologist encounters on his field trips in the more primitive and out-of-the-way parts of the world, it should be recalled that they constitute integral, vibrant, and deeply entrenched Christian communities that are cultural and spiri­tual expressions of the larger worldview they espouse and have helped to fashion. And this worldview, incidentally, is the very one that more than any other has shaped the civilized West. The tribes in question are thus an authentic face of the landscape in which they dwell-a piece of real estate that straddles three continents and a number of central bodies of water and connecting waterways. They predate the flags under which they are today variously assembled, and taken individually or collectively, their claims to being repositories of the wisdom of the ages ought to be respected.


Currently there is a worldwide trend involving the breakup of large, unsta­ble entities into smaller ethnic, cultural, and religious ones. Witness the waning of the Soviet Union. There is a return to the celebration of unique­ness and distinctive cultural self-expression. In parallel with this there is a definite shift occurring worldwide from geopolitics to what Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington refers to as “geo-economics.”3 Furthermore, there is a renewed global emphasis on the ideals of freedom, self-determination, human rights, and democ­racy. Great promise of peace and prosperity seems to loom in the immedi­ate future of Europe. Unfortunately, however, the same cannot so far be said of the Middle East with its closed societies, its authoritarian (and often repressive) regimes, and its undercurrent of religious fundamental­ism. "Everything is disturbed and transitional in Arab life and society," wrote Hourani forty-four years ago,4 and it is still so today.


Islam faces a set of severe challenges. The technological revolution is progressing at such an incredible rate that even advanced societies are finding it difficult to keep up. The situation is past being able to be ameliorated by the strong purchasing power of the petrodollar. Even the creation of a native educated elite of technical experts-underway through­out the Arab world at a snail's pace-is not enough to bridge the widening gap. Required is theoretical inventiveness and an aggressive presence and participation at the cutting edge of science. And it is probably too late even for that.


The continued stagnation of the Arab world will undoubtedly result in greater and greater frustration. At times like these, non-Muslim minorities become particularly vulnerable to serving as convenient scapegoats. Given the momentous changes occurring around the world, a stagnant Arab world can only expect a bleak future. Christian Arabs must therefore brace themselves for violent backlashes, particularly as they are seen to be associated with the West.




The faulty manner with which the West has traditionally related to the Middle East is to a great extent responsible for this. For the most part since the end of the Second World War, Western interest and involvement in the Middle East have occurred within the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Prior to that the Middle East was often for Westerners the object of romantic fascination coupled with imperial design-the "Lawrence of Arabia" syndrome. And earlier still it was the killing fields of crusading hordes. Inasmuch as the Middle East remains today the reservoir of much ­coveted natural resources and an arena for economic and strategic compe­tition, the relationship continues to give credence to indigenous accusa­tions of colonial exploitation and imperialism leveled repeatedly against the West. The lot of the Muslim Arab---and by derivation that of the Christian Arab---cannot be a cheerful one if the Western mind and spirit can only communicate with the Middle East in the language of oil and weaponry.


By the same token, it is now an illusion for the Christian Arab to expect the West to rush to his aid should he face the wrath of the Muslim majority. External protection using force is unrealistic; protection through international agencies such as the United Nations is pathetically ineffec­tive; Western use of economic leverage as a guarantee is unlikely any time soon as is any action that would be deemed offensive to the local majority. Western timidity following the 1973 Arab· oil embargo, and lingering repercussions of that timidity even today as seen, for instance, in the deferential attitude of the United States government toward Saudi Arabia's peculiar policy considerations, speak for themselves. Western use of force will occur only when the West perceives its vital material interests in the region to be directly threatened, as in the case of the Gulf war brought about by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.


What the Christian Arab does have a right to expect and a reasonable chance of receiving from the West is more serious attention to himself as a person entitled to rights and liberties and protection under the law. Are these not the universal human ideals that the West is proud to stand for and is preaching---not without some success---throughout the world? Are they not what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, itself coau­thored by a Christian Arab (Charles Malik) and accepted as a standard of conduct by the international family of nations, is all about? Should not the West take its own values more seriously to the extent of including both the Muslim majority and the non-Muslim minorities of the Middle East by offering them, both separately and jointly, a promising vision for the future?


In the wake of the Gulf war, the West, principally the United States, will enjoy an unprecedented opportunity to influence the region positively in the direction of greater moderation, openness, reform, pluralism, and freedom. Such a vision requires bold implementation that in turn requires perspicacious leadership imbued with a sense of fairness. It also requires plenty of patience, and any illusions about speedy results should be abandoned without forfeiting the vision.


All this of course raises the thorny problem of the relationship of Islam and democracy. In the West's excitement to package and export democ­racy to the Third World, sight has often been lost of the extent of readiness by the indigenous cultures to comprehend-much less to accept-the fundamental democratic assumptions, particularly the safeguarding of mi­nority rights, taken for granted, say, in countries such as Britain and the United States. That is why the democratic ideal has rarely encountered fertile terrain in a place like the Arab world, populated as it has always been with an assortment of despots and dynasts. Suffice to say that in Islam-unlike in Christianity-there is no separation of church and state; and the Middle East-unlike the West-has not undergone 200 years of secularization. Therefore, whenever some voices in the West have emphasized democracy as solely a numerical question of one man, one vote, rather than as a question of individual rights, minorities in the Islamic world have suffered.


Islam today is undergoing what it regards as a spiritual revival and a reassertion of its most basic beliefs. The secular West, by contrast, ap­pears desensitized to spiritual issues. To stop here, however, and regard the plight of Christian Arabs as a lost cause would be too hasty and simplistic a conclusion. With the gradual retreat of communism as a world force, many in the West, relieved to be rid of a major menace, have begun to eye militant Islam as the next great challenge on the horizon. Also, the eventual emergence from the Soviet debris of a Russia more true to its authentic cultural and spiritual identity would be a world development of far-reaching consequences for the Middle East.


But another similarly momentous development has already occurred: the establishment of Israel in 1948 changed everything. For the first time since the early Islamic conquests, by far the strongest power in the region is not the majority, but one of the minorities. And this is likely to stay the case for the foreseeable future despite the Saddams of the world. The implications of this, both actual and potential, are awesome, as will be the long-term effect of the influx of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews to the area.


Furthermore, Western materialism and secularism notwithstanding, a Western spiritual response stimulated by a corresponding Islamic spiritual challenge is not inconceivable. Some are even predicting, perhaps anach­ronistically, that the twenty-first century will see the revival of religious wars, albeit in a new and ominous fashion.


Unfortunately, there is no "and they lived happily ever after" ending to this story. Depending on how Islam intends to meet these new realities and challenges it faces and will face, the fate of the Christian Arabs will be decided. If unbridled Islamic fundamentalism becomes the order of the day, the Christians of the Middle East will have very little to look forward to.


It is to be hoped that Islam will, with time, and after intense soul­-searching and cataclysmic upheavals, choose to join a new peaceful world order now being created. This may require new interpretations of theologi­cal tenets to be undertaken---new fiqh (Islamic legal interpretation) schools to emerge---to accommodate the unfolding realities of the world. Here the West too has a responsibility to make room within the emerging new international order for such a reformulated Islam. This process is fated to move at a glacial pace, and Christian Arabs in the meantime will continue to live as dhimmis, or teeter on the brink of dhimmidom. But a more or less free Christian community will ultimately survive and outlast the pres­ent state of foreign occupation to emerge from the rubble of Lebanon with its abiding distinctive features intact. The logic of history reassures us that such beleaguered but well-rooted communities outlast oppressive occupying regimes.


For the eclipse of freedom in Lebanon to be reversed, the vanishing free press would need to be restored; all restrictions on free expression would have to be lifted; the erosion of liberal education would have to be halted; the stifling of free economic enterprise would have to be averted; and the curtain closing down on Lebanon's open society would have to be raised. In the absence of strong local leadership, resistance to these suffocating trends is presently being conducted from the pulpit of the small parish church across much of Lebanon. The Vatican should know that a weak Maronite patriarch and an ecclesiastical hierarchy prepared to compro­mise on the freedoms of its community, thereby sealing the fate of millions of Eastern Christians in the process, are sure recipes for gradual extinction.


It is essential at the very least that what is ultimately at stake in Lebanon, namely the survival or perishing of free Christianity, be clearly perceived and acknowledged. Lebanon is not merely, as some observers in the West often repeat, a quagmire of seemingly hopeless internal factional strife among a hodgepodge of communities and clans, the Christians in­cluded. If this were the whole story, then perhaps it should rightfully serve as a convenient excuse for not dealing with the problem. However, the real fateful drama underlying Lebanon's agony is a fight for freedom-that precious commodity in this otherwise freedom-starved part of the world.

Much suffering among both the Muslim majority and the non-Muslim minorities of the region will have to occur before the shackles of stagnation and fanaticism and mutual suspicion are finally broken from within, with sincere encouragement from the outside. Only then, alas, can a new dawn, the dawn of a Middle Eastern perestroika, begin to break forth.


1. Quoted in Robert Brenton Betts, Christians in the Arab East: A Political Study (Athens: Lycabettus Press, 19(8), p. 60.

2. Charles Glass, Tribes with Flags: A Dangerous Passage through the Chaos of the Middle East (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990).  80 Mediterranean Quarterly: Spring 1991


3. Edward N. Luttwak. "From Geopolitics to Geo-Economics," National Interest, 20 (Summer 1990): 17-23.


4. Albert Hourani. Minorities in the Arab World (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 109.

Disclaimer: The articles published on this site represent the view of their writers.