Last update: 2021-12-07 14:59:30
During the time of the Crusades, Eastern Christians were already split between belonging to their community and belonging to the broader collectivity in which they lived. A division that still exists today: whether the preference is for the former or the latter depends on the person with whom one is speaking and the form of Islam in which Eastern Christians are immersed. In reality, however, the two identities are inseparable and complementary. Only states founded on the rule of law will be able to guarantee their survival in contexts that are authentically plural in the Middle East.
In his book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, Amin Maalouf tells how Eastern Christians, probably enthusiastic about the arrival of the crusaders whom they saw as brothers in the faith, were quickly so disgusted by their atrocities that they found themselves looking back on the Muslim domination with nostalgia. Better than any other analysis, this episode reflects the ambivalence of the Eastern Christians’ identity, divided as they have been between different forms of belonging: their community belonging, which tends to attach greatest importance to their religious identity, and their belonging to the broader collectivity in which they live, that broader collectivity within which they are called to integrate and which they have a vocation to serve.
This conflict of identities pulling in different directions still exists. In order to gauge to what extent, it is necessary to go back to the very expression “Eastern Christians,” which is not without a certain ambiguity. Indeed, the category “Eastern Christians” embraces an extremely heterogeneous reality ranging from the Maronites in Lebanon to the Chaldeans in Iraq, from the Copts in Egypt to the Greek Orthodox in Syria. Their histories and their cultures are sometimes extremely different, as are their ways of participating in the exercise of power and their involvement in political life. What unites them is basically the fact of sharing the Christian faith, which they practise in an environment where Islam remains predominant and, indeed, is very often the state religion.
Whilst the community tie is certainly incontestable, emphasis on community belonging as the main element of Christian identity is subject to varying evaluations. Indeed, such emphasis risks relegating civic belonging to the background, when it is precisely this form of belonging that is indispensable for eastern Christians’ integration within the societies in which they live. Does not the Lebanese Greek Orthodox perhaps have more to share out with the Sunni in Beirut than with the Syriac Christian in Mosul? Ten centuries after the first crusades, the dilemma described by Amin Maalouf still exists and demonstrates the difficulty of giving expression to community identity and national identity together.
Two Attitudes, Two Dangers
These difficulties are accentuated by the fairly widespread tendency to set in competition two forms of belonging that are, in reality, complementary by vocation. Thus, two rival attitudes can be identified. The first tends to emphasize community belonging, relegating civic belonging to the background. The Christian identity therefore becomes central in defining the individual who claims it. This attitude is fed by the will to preserve the specific characteristics of the community and its members and is kept alive by the fear of persecutions and the size of the threat that, according to the country of belonging, can weigh on practice of the faith. The second attitude, on the other hand, tends to emphasize national belonging: community identity is therefore relegated to the background, where it tends to regard the internal forum, above all.
Paradoxically, these two positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive: very often they co-exist amongst Eastern Christians. The preference for one or the other frequently varies, depending on the person with whom one is speaking or the environment in which Christians happen to live; more precisely, it varies according to the face of the Islam alongside which they are called to live or the nature of the regime in power. Muslim extremism, like political or religious discrimination, helps to aggravate communitarianism, which reveals itself forcefully in situations of danger. Conversely, in societies where all the minorities are guaranteed the possibility of participating in political life and where an open, tolerant Islam prevails, community belonging no longer eclipses national belonging, since it is no longer threatened. In this context, it becomes possible to participate in the construction of a common project with compatriots of a different denomination. The Eastern Christian is then an actor in political and social life; a citizen in every sense of the word.
It is therefore evident that community identity and national identity are both fairly naturally part of the Eastern Christians’ identity. As such, they deserve to be protected and cannot be dissociated or hierarchized. Involving different but all equally legitimate forms of belonging, these identities ought not to be competing with one another.
When taken to extremes, the frequent efforts to make one identity prevail to the detriment of the other are bound to lead to a dead end. In fact, if separated from national identity, community identity becomes a factor that turns people in on themselves and, favouring the community’s interests over those of the broader national collectivity has dangerous consequences. In this respect, the support that Christian communities have sometimes given to the dictatorships in power in some Middle Eastern countries can probably be explained by the protection that the regimes offered them. But this puts them in a dangerous position in relation to those of their compatriots suffering extremely violent persecution at the hands of the rulers. In the same way, the dream that some people cherished of a little Christian state to be built on the ruins of their country of origin has resulted in Christians being considered traitors by those who legitimately intend to preserve their country’s integrity. If carried out to the detriment of national identity, defence of the Christian community identity necessarily exasperates the Muslim community identity in reaction. Denominational conflict then becomes inevitable.
The opposite danger is no less real, however. The very widespread argument that defence of national identity would involve the attenuation of community identities, which would have to be relegated to the internal forum, has equally dangerous consequences. In exporting the political model in use in Western societies to the Middle East’s plural societies, this argument renounces guaranteeing the rights of minorities at an institutional level; in neglecting the sociological realities and ignoring the weight of recent history, marked as it is by various instances of persecution, it contributes to keeping alive a sense of insecurity the most perverse effect of which is the aggravation of the community identity precisely where the intention was to enhance national identity.
No matter how utopian it may seem, respect for the both unique and multifaceted identity of Eastern Christians must pass, first of all, through the construction, in the region, of states founded on the rule of law that take account of the specific features of plural societies. It must be possible, legally, to preserve the difference in forms of belonging without jeopardizing the construction of a lasting common community in which Christians play an active part. No secular dictatorship and no external form of protection can replace the need for democratic systems modelled according to the reality of multicultural societies, which are the only ones capable of guaranteeing the continued presence of Christians and other minorities in the region.
Obviously, that is not to say that the road to be followed in order to achieve this objective is a smooth or always practicable one, particularly if one considers the crisis that the Middle East is currently going through. Nevertheless, it is useful to awaken to the fact that the tragedy that is befalling the region is not only hitting the Christian communities. The brutality that the Christians have suffered these last months has targeted other communities (both Muslim and Druse) with the same barbarity. What is at stake in this part of the world is, in reality, the survival of cultural diversity and the pluralist model and, with it, the individual and collective identity of every individual regardless of the complexity that characterises it.
As a Christian Lebanese, I obviously fear the rise of the Islamic State in Lebanon and the wave of hatred and barbarity that would accompany it. But I am also afraid of having to live the next years in a little Eastern Christian state turned in on itself and worn-out by fanaticism, the advent of which would, in itself, mean the death of Lebanese identity.
 Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Saqi Essentials, New York, 1989).
 See Thierry Hentsch, “L’Orient méditerranéen du Moyen-Age chrétien : la rencontre de l’Islam,” Études internationales, 17 (1986), no. 3, p. 509 et seq (especially p. 520) on this point.
To cite this article
Léna Gannagé, “Christians, First and Foremost, or Citizens? Both, Equally”, Oasis, year XI, n. 22, November 2015, pp. 60-63.
Léna Gannagé, “Christians, First and Foremost, or Citizens? Both, Equally”, Oasis [online], published on 27th January 2016, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/christians-first-and-foremost-or-citizens-both-equally.