24 January 2018

Of Christian Arabs and Arab nationalism


I do realise that I will be opening myself up to charges of hypocrisy on this topic, after all my numerous blog posts denouncing nationalism as a modernist turn away from the old, multivalent political forms that prevailed under Byzantine rule and more broadly in the mediæval world. To these critiques I still hold somewhat. I still believe nationalism links people to state structures far too easily and far too glibly for it to be a comfortable social position, even for a Church which has developed sympathies for it. However, this is a topic which is never as simple as it first appears, and nowhere is the reality of that messier than in the former lands of Byzantium itself.

Arab nationalism is a tricky thing, not least because so many of its early proponents and theorists were Christians, educated in Catholic and Presbyterian colleges in Syria. Dr Nasif and his son Ibrahim al-Yāzijī were Melkites. Butrus al-Bustānī was born Maronite but became a Presbyterian later in life. Dr Faris Nimr Pasha and Nagīb ‘Āzūrī were Orthodox Christians. As with other Christian subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire – the Bulgarians and the Greeks most noticeably – nationalism had a strong attraction to Christian Arabs. The liberation of their people, on a mass basis, from the Ottoman yoke would yield a chance for dignity that the previous subjugation had never offered. There is, I grant, good reason for sympathy here, although it’s something I refer to as a ‘historical accident’: a moment in the relations between Church and state which is passing.

But with Arab Christians there has always been an additional difficulty. Unlike Bulgarians and Greeks in their own homelands, they were always minorities – and always minorities, at that, among potentially-hostile neighbours. Paul Eedle put it best: ‘to be an Arab and a Christian provoked an identity crisis for many long before the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and many sought to take refuge in radical revolutionary movements where religion was not an issue.’ It’s not an accident that an Arab national consciousness began to grow at around the same time as the fundamentalist revival movement led by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb was taking shape elsewhere in the Arab world. The national movement, at least, was non-sectarian. The Muslims who joined and led nationalist circles – figures like al-Kawākibī – were notably friendlier with and more sympathetic to Christians and Jews than their contemporaries were, and abhorred sectarian prejudice and violence. Is it any wonder that Arab Christians, faced with the choices between the loss of their culture and language from the Turks on the one hand, and with the loss of their faith from the ‘revivalists’ on the other, would seek refuge in a third way that could make room for them, as Christians and as Arabs? Is it any wonder that Christians could be driven to support ‘tyrants’ and ‘dictators’, where those same political leaders offer them the one meagre protection they might lay claim to, the one chance at having a voice of their own?

It’s an option that too many Arabs, in too many corners of their own world, have been actively denied by the machinations of the great powers. The irony should not be lost that the Arab nationalist moment – the rising against the Ottomans in 1916 – could not have occurred, as a ‘moment’, without the interference and support of great power politics. In the aftermath, even the strongest and most charismatic Arab nationalist leaders who, like Nasser, tried their damnedest to break free of great power politics, could not manage it.

So, yes, I do have a soft spot in my heart for Arab nationalism – a soft spot which is denied to the more ‘successful’ forms of nationalism like those found in Bulgaria and Greece (or certain Slavic countries further north). The ‘successful’ nationalisms are that much more likely to take the triumphalist road, as they have done. They are that much more likely to deny any king but Cæsar and to cry out for Barabbas. They are that much more likely to rewrite history to suit themselves, to embrace power at the expense of truth. On the other hand, a civic nationalism which has been broken against the shoals of history, which was cast into despair and confusion by the passing of historical events: now that is a nationalism which is capable of coming before the tomb, and weeping there.

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