Al-Azhar’s declaration opens the door to a new concept of citizenship that unites Christians and Muslims. A beginning, but not yet a turning point

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:21


It is alongside the Arab nations’ other components and the Muslims, first and foremost, that Christians will not only have to build civil liberty and its constitutive elements legally and politically (from freedom of worship and freedom of conscience to democracy) but also reflect on and mutually engage over such issues, if a new climate of trust and a common language are to be established.


A vein of optimism does not seem out of place at the beginning of this reflection on the role of Eastern Christians in the debate about political freedom in the Middle East. And this despite the dramas and suffering that populations (especially the Christian and Yazidi communities) are experiencing in this region where as soon as one war ends, another breaks out. This vein of optimism comes from Paris, from the Arab World Institute, to be precise. In September 2017, this institution inaugurated a large cultural-religious exhibition of works telling (each one in its own way) the wonderful story of the Christian communities that were already living in this land of monotheisms before the advent of Islam. The exhibition begins with the earliest period of Christian Antiquity and two marvels: the ancient Mesopotamian city of Dura Europos (fourth century) and the Rabbula Gospels[1] (sixth century). It passes through the Middle Ages, rich in liturgical manuscripts, and the Ottoman period, illustrated by its characteristic iconography, and reaches our own era, with its literary output. Inaugurated by the presidents of France and Lebanon, the aim of the exhibition is to publicize these very ancient Churches and their great heritage, which John Paul II called Christianity’s “second lung”. The exhibition offers the West, always interested in discovering humanity’s hidden heritages, a good window. It is also an appeal to Western Christians to become aware of the Eastern Churches’ reality, whilst one could legitimately wonder whether, for the Eastern Christians, it might not be a sort of announcement that they are, by now, relegated to museum spaces, being a community in the process of extinction. We do not want to succumb to pessimism (once again) but, rather, to see in the organization of this exhibition a cultural and political act; indeed, even if it is in line with the Arab World Institute’s exhibition policy and follows an exhibition on pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), it falls outside the realm of the ordinary. It is fairly unusual to listen to a Western president who, in the presence of the ambassadors from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, speaks out directly and passionately (as Emmanuel Macron did at the exhibition’s inauguration) about Eastern Christians as a “vibrant trace of that which resists men’s stupidity,” about “France, who is on their side” and for whom “the priority is to defend their history” and about the fact that a shared history and the ties of the past give France a “duty” towards them. To say nothing of his statement that defending Eastern Christians “does not mean accepting compromises, nor defending Bashar al-Assad but, rather, being up to France’s historic task.”



The Identity of Christians in the Arab World

This cultural and political awareness requires a certain caution and a terminological clarification, however. Some people decidedly reject use of the expression “Eastern Christians” as it could be reminiscent of a name given by the orientalists or Latin Christians in a specific period or, again, of the mandates and colonialism, the capitulations in the sixteenth century or the protection exercised by Western powers over this or that Christian community. Others may possibly see in it a reference to the Eastern liturgy but the latter, for the Christians in the Arab world, actually exists as various liturgies: Byzantine, Coptic, Chaldean, Syrian and Syro-Maronite. Even if this appellation describes the Christians of the Near and Middle East collectively and helps readers grasp their cultural reality better, it harms the Christians’ cause since their roots are deeply sunk in the soils of their respective countries. Since the expression “Arab Christians” can suggest a detachment of the faithful from their original Greek or Syriac historical, cultural and linguistic context and indicate an Arab hegemony, intellectuals (including Muslim ones) have, for some years now, come to a sort of agreement over the expression “Christians of the Arab world” to designate people who belong to the Arab countries’ geopolitical and cultural space and whose identity is a historical accumulation of multiple affiliations that are as rich as they are difficult to identify and comprehend. Having said that, let us not forget that, as the philosopher François Zabbal has written, for the Christians, “Arabness was the main path to full integration within the new social body during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Together with Muslims of various confessions, they became promoters of and actors in a collective project the cohesion of which was largely defined by a rejection of the Western Other. This project envisaged a society that was first and foremost Arab and then modern, founded on reason, the sciences and the individual.”[2]


It is in this epistemological context that, as autochthonous Christians who are an integral part of an Arab world in constant turmoil, we can reflect both on fundamental issues such as citizenship, freedom both of the community and of the individual, freedom of worship and freedom of conscience and on a socio-political and cultural project for those countries in which Christians and Muslims together make up the social and national fabric.



Freedom and Citizenship

It is alongside the Arab nations’ other components and the Muslims, first and foremost, that Christians will not only have to build civil freedom and its constitutive elements legally and politically (from freedom of worship and freedom of conscience to democracy) but also reflect on and mutually engage over such issues, if a new climate of trust and a common language with shared meanings are to be established.


The conference on citizenship organised by al-Azhar University in February 2017, on the initiative of the Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb, was an attempt to debate issues that Muslims themselves find rather difficult and controversial: freedom, citizenship, diversity and integration. It constitutes a model of responsible dialogue uniting Muslims of every confession (mainly Sunnis and Shi‘ites) with Christians representing the most demographically significant communities. One of the issues covered during the conference’s four sessions was the relationship between citizenship and sharia and how this relationship is expressed in relation to two big questions concerning Christians and Muslims alike: how must a democratic state manage religious and cultural pluralism? What form of citizenship should a single, plural society have? These questions cannot be answered without referring to both the existing legal and political situation and Islamism’s drift towards a terror-based radicalism.


According to the Lebanese political scientist Antoine Messarra, there is a need to “return to the Arab and Muslim constitutional heritage of managing religious and cultural pluralism. In Islam’s philosophy, law is personal insofar as it recognises the possibility of different legal systems in specific social contexts. The Ottomans, for that matter, managed to maintain their sway over a vast multi-religious and multicultural empire for over four centuries not only thanks to their hegemony and the international context but also thanks to the way they managed diversity through different regimes founded on personal autonomy and positive discrimination.”[3] Such solutions are not specifically Ottoman but they come from the same Islamic philosophy that is opposed to the Western principle of the equality of all before the law (principle that was deemed responsible, inter alia, for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre).


These systems of legal pluralism in religious and cultural matters are anachronistic, however, and they conceal a dhimmī mentality (“protected” second-class citizens). The line of cultural alienation and a nation-building founded on the ideology of forced integration (insihār watanī – pursued by the Arab political regimes, Jordan and Lebanon excluded) cannot be applied either. Indeed, it has generated and will continue to generate all sorts of violent identity-related phenomena, because undermining the legal recognition of pluralism unfailingly results in dangerous drifts. However, it will not be the Christians who resort to violence to show their desire for identity; both because of their religious convictions and because they do not have the power needed to succeed in turning the tide.


The solution is, therefore, to build a new politico-legal system based on the now universally recognised theory of legal pluralism, in line with both the experiences of other states and the modern need to comply with the rules underpinning democracy and human rights.



“The City Umma” versus “The Religious Umma

It is in this context that the question of the status of citizenship and its connection with belonging arises. The novelty of al-Azhar’s declaration lies in its recognition that religious affiliation does not matter in a “city” or political community, because all citizens “form one single umma.” The use of the term umma in a political sense signals a significant step forward. This “city umma” could be reminiscent of the “political community” developed by Aristotle to indicate the totality of citizens who live in a place regulated by civil rather than religious law. We would like to see in this Islamic conception of citizenship a semantic connection and a parallel with the modern notion of legal pluralism. Some optimists have inferred that it would encompass freedoms. But within what political framework can a plural citizenship be put into practice and lived? From the end of the nineteenth century onwards, Christian intellectuals have responded with various proposals: a confessional state, a civil state and a secular state. These were then all united in the appellation “national state”, which referred to the idea of a nation born of the common will of its citizens, to whom it guarantees equality before the law. A sincere and total adherence, on the part of Christians, to the idea of a pure and eternal Arab nation would have convinced them to melt into the social “body” to the point of losing their souls, if one may put it like that. But instead of becoming a common, central space, stripped of clan and community affinities, the new nation-state proved to be the instrument most coveted by the communalist networks. And its fall cannot fail to involve the Christians.


The failure of the project for a progress-based society that the Arab elites from all religions had defended immediately after independence has left the coast clear for religious, ethnic and clan passions. In this context, there have been efforts to respond to the sectarianization of Arab societies. One of these is contained in one of the most important and evocative texts[4] written by His Beatitude Béchara Raï, even before he became the current Maronite Patriarch of Antioch. It is a fervent apologia for the civil state (dawla madaniyya): a state in which all its inhabitants may recognise themselves and one that creates a certain separation of religion both from the state and from politics, whilst fostering the participation of all in society’s construction. The text’s aim was evidently to suggest ways of changing the Lebanese confessional state: in continuing to favour the numerical majority, the latter penalizes Christians who are increasingly becoming a minority in a country that they themselves had shaped in the past.


When the al-Azhar declaration talks of a “national constitutional state” (an expression that often appears in the plural), it does not mean the modern, eighteenth/nineteenth-century state, still less the civil state that Raï envisages. The text of the declaration would root legitimacy of the state concept in the pact of Medina, which the Prophet Muhammad concluded with the inhabitants of Yathrib, before this locality was re-baptized with its current name. Some have seen in this formulation (which talks of constitutionality and calls the pact of Medina a constitution) a concession to Muslim conservatives and fundamentalists who do not accept any political legitimacy that is not rooted in early Islam. The text nevertheless frequently repeats some surprising concepts: “our Arab homelands” (instead of “the Arab homeland”) and “our constitutional states,” thereby contradicting both Arab nationalist rhetoric and Islamic ideology. The latter, in all its variations, has fuelled the Islamization of societies (particularly after the revolution promoted by Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran in 1979), which is why actions such as al-Azhar’s must not be shut up within the walls of mosques or universities but constitute a call for a cultural re-awakening that may promote a culture of gazes that meet.



From Sharia to the Rule of Law

No matter how tied to an Ottoman legacy the constitutional state remains in al-Azhar’s declaration, the reference to religious pluralism should be noted. And the fact that the concept of rule of law is used instead of sharia to express the mode of regulating the constitutional life of this state-city-homeland should be particularly emphasised. The Lebanese intellectual Antoine Courban has commented on this qualitative leap in the following terms: “[It] offers the opportunity to assert that the primary duty of ‘our states’ is to guarantee the protection and rights of citizens. And it is here that the individual is implied, if not evoked. This need to protect citizens is expressed as being in the vital interests of ‘our sons and daughters’. The text does not content itself with mentioning ‘believers’. Furthermore, insisting on diversity within the city, the declaration clearly mentions ‘the Muslim, Christian and other citizens.’ Who are the ‘others’? They are definitely neither Christians nor Muslims. They could certainly belong to other faiths or not even be believers, although the text does not say that. In any event, one would have to be in bad faith not to see a real cultural revolution in such expressions.”[5] Finally, we should note that this notion of citizenship as applied in the national constitutional state categorically rejects the very concept of a “minority”. Because either citizenship exists or the political community is broken up into minority factions that will not hesitate to enter into violent conflict with each other.



What Prospects for the Future?

To be sure, al-Azhar’s declaration is only a beginning and not yet a turning point. Indeed, this text needs to be translated into practice, especially in the area of training programmes for ulama. It defines the framework for the various groups’ co-existence and leaves the door open for future developments. In its present state, this text is cautiously pro-community, rather than civic in the modern sense of the term. But in the face of the Islamists’ radical extremism, it remains a salutary point of reference not only for Muslims but also for the Arab non-Muslims, who often have a tendency to censor their opponents before proceeding to any critical analysis of their own discourse. This declaration is an extended hand and it is up to the Eastern Christians to accept it and enter into face-to-face dialogue, with total transparency. They are, in addition, called to exert themselves in favour of an authentic form of citizenship without shutting themselves off as a minority, with all the forms of suffering in terms of identity that that entails. The person who has totally understood the importance of al-Azhar’s declaration for citizenship and co-existence, as well as its connection with Lebanon’s message, is the Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Béchara Raï who said, as he returned from Cairo, that “we must stop talking about minorities.”



An Arab World that Wants Justice

Freedom and citizenship are not everything. Christians must broaden their horizons and participate more in the Arab and Muslim world’s struggles: commitment to a Palestinian homeland, aid for displaced persons and refugees, a better handling of the galloping demography, solidarity with the poorest of people, the battle both against the widespread corruption affecting all communities and against unemployment and the fight for an education system capable of passing on the skills that the Arab world needs. If the Western tradition, rooted as it is in modern political philosophy, insists on freedoms as the basis for a good functioning of societies and democracy, then the Eastern heritage – both Christian and Muslim, but primarily Muslim – cannot conceive of freedom in its various expressions without being concerned about justice. Freedom, as it were, cannot be conceived of or lived if there is no solidarity with the surrounding world. Moreover, during the Arab Spring demonstrations, the people demanded freedom, justice and the possibility of taking part in decision-making, in the face of a liberal world that takes no account of the weak. Christians are making their own this demand that affects tens of thousands of young people (more than 30 per cent of graduates are without work) and less-young people who are unemployed or forced to beg for their daily bread. If the Muslim Arab world does not find a solution to these problems, a new Islamism able to ride the wave of discontent will not be slow to push its way to the fore. The ones to pay the price will be the Muslims who are open to dialogue and sharing with others and the Christians, who yet again will be forced to emigrate and turn inwards on themselves.



Leverage for Developing Fraternity

In addition to the two paths the Christians have already taken – that of a militant minority communalism, turned in on itself in Lebanon and elsewhere, and that of activism for a totally secular state (a demand that still exists but is not very influential) – there is evidently a third. Made possible by dialogue between Christians and Muslims, this path is to be sought in citizenship, co-existence, political participation and a cultural renaissance that is faithful to the spirit of Nahda at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Lebanese politician and intellectual Tarek Mitri – a man of dialogue and mediation – says that “the future of the Christians in the Arab world does not only depend on the contributions they make but also on the attention that their Muslim co-citizens will pay them; an attention that must not be condescending but, rather, full of solidarity, in everybody’s interests and sensitive to the treasures of a pluralism that is capable of saving the Arab world from the sorry face of uniformity.”[6] The contribution made by al-Azhar and, earlier still, by the Marrakech Declaration on religious minority rights – signed in Morocco in January 2016 by the religious leaders of various faiths in the Arab world – are models to follow and put into practice over the medium and long term.


[1] These are illuminated handwritten copies of the Gospels that Rabbula (350-436), Bishop of Edessa, had translated into Syriac in the fifth century (Ed.)
[2] François Zabbal, “La question chrétienne dans le monde arabe,” lecture at the Assumptionist European Summer University, 29 August 2010.
[3] Antoine Messarra, “Charia et citoyenneté,” L’Orient le Jour, 6 March 2017,
[4] Béchara al-Raï, “La Charte de l’action politique à la lumière de l’enseignement de l’Église et de la spécificité du Liban,” Beirut, February 2009.
[5] Antoine Courban, “Al-Azhar : un écho historique du message « Liban »?,” L’Orient le Jour, 10 March 2017,
[6] Tarek Mitri, L’inquiétude des chrétiens d’Orient à l’épreuve de la citoyenneté, «L’Orient Littéraire», June 2011,