Category Archives: Lebanon

Recovering the Role of Christians in the History of the Middle East

(It’s been a while since I’ve posted, because I’ve been working on other things.  One of those things was my participation in a workshop earlier this month at Princeton University, organized by Christian Sahner, Jack Tannous, and Michael Reynolds.  Here, as a guest post, is their post-workshop summary of the discussion, for anyone interested in Middle Eastern religious diversity, yesterday and today.)

Recovering the Role of Christians in the History of the Middle East
A Workshop at Princeton University
May 6-7, 2016
A Summary

On May 6-7, 2016, the Near East and the World Seminar welcomed fourteen distinguished scholars to Princeton University to discuss the place of Christians in Middle Eastern history and historiography. At the outset, speakers were invited to reflect on how the field of Middle Eastern history generally and their work specifically changes when they consider perspectives provided by Christian sources, institutions, and individuals. A working premise of the conference was that although Christians have formed a significant portion of the population of the Middle East since the Arab conquests, the stubborn but understandable tendency of historians to conceive of the Middle East as a Muslim region has had the effect of marginalizing Christian experiences. The result has been to consign Middle Eastern Christianity to a niche specialty alongside larger fields, such as Islamic studies, Byzantine studies, church history, Jewish studies, and Ottoman history. Continue reading

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Louis Sako on Middle Eastern Christians

A few days ago the Telegraph ran an opinion piece by Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon.  Patriarch Sako is an Iraqi with a long history of calling for peace and dialogue in his country.  In this piece, he argues that just as Christianity contributed to Islam in the first centuries of the new religion, so it must learn how to do so again, that Middle Eastern Christians should refuse to emigrate from the Middle East, and that other countries should apply pressure to Middle Eastern countries to ensure that Middle Eastern Christians are not merely a tolerated minority, but citizens with full equality under the law.  It is an interesting piece and well worth reading.

Unfortunately many western readers may not be aware of the degree of the crisis that Middle Eastern Christianity is experiencing, and therefore Patriarch Sako’s points may sound like special pleading.  In part this is due to the human tendency to simplify for the sake of memory, and therefore the Middle East is (mis-)remembered as entirely Muslim for at least a millennium, if not since Muhammad himself.  An article I currently have under review reveals something of how mistaken this is for the case of Syria and Palestine, where even a millennium ago the rural population seems to have been almost entirely non-Muslim, and since in pre-industrial agrarian societies rural populations necessarily dwarfed urban populations, this means that the Muslims were a small portion of the population in the area we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.  When did Islam become not only the religion of the rulers but also the religion of most of the subjects in the Middle East?  The answer must vary for different areas, but scholars presently have no plausible answer.  In the case of Syria and Palestine, I would guess it was after the Crusader period, into the thirteenth or fourteenth century.  In the case of Lebanon, it was in the early twentieth century.  There were still Christian bishops in Arabia in the tenth century (despite the rumor that Muhammad expelled all Christians from the peninsula).  Certain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan are still majority or exclusively Christian, although those areas are smaller and more remote with each passing decade.

One interesting statistic which Patriarch Sako cites is that 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left the country since the US invasion in 2003, which is over half of the Christian population in Iraq before the war.  When Patriarch Sako was born Christians were 10% of the Iraqi population, while today it must be around 2% (=(1,500,000-850,000)/31,234,000).  A similar trend happened slightly earlier in Palestine over the course of the last 90 years, and is ongoing with the Christian populations of Syria and Egypt.  When I was in Aleppo three years ago (before the current violence), I met an Iraqi Christian who was trying to get to Toronto.  The Middle Eastern Christian population is being erased culturally, historically, and demographically.

And yet, it is easy to understand why Christians leave the Middle East.  Extremist groups kill Christians because they view Middle Eastern Christians as foreign agents and illegitimate members of Islamic society, a view which is alien to historical Islam.  On the other hand, the dominant view of traditional Muslim legal authorities, that Jews and Christians should be tolerated as long as they pay an extra tax and never do anything to imply that their religion is better than Islam (such as riding a horse or ringing a church bell), has always left non-Muslim populations vulnerable to violence by extremists.  After Muslim Brotherhood supporters torched dozens of Coptic churches last August, the Coptic authorities again pointed out that they do not have equal or adequate protection from the Egyptian police.  That is why Patriarch Sako is calling not merely for Christians to be viewed as a “tolerated minority,” but as full citizens with equality before the law.  But when the law is not doing its job, finding a less dangerous place to live is fully understandable, even as it makes matters that much more difficult for those left behind.

What distresses me is the degree to which non-Middle-Easterners often unwittingly, through sheer ignorance, adopt the new xenophobic viewpoint of the extremists and consider Middle Eastern Christians as some kind of outsiders in Middle Eastern society.  They were part of that society long before Islam, and have never ceased to be a part of that society.  Indeed, Middle Eastern society is more dominantly Islamic now than at any point in the past.  And yet most educated people in the West are completely unaware of this past, and even historians with their over-developed desire to distinguish between terms still regard “Middle Eastern history” and “Islamic history” as fully synonymous.  (Neither is a subset of the other, for not only have non-Muslims always been a large portion of Middle Eastern society, but there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than in it, since Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country.)  I think progress toward a more inclusive and peaceful Middle Eastern society will be made when people recognize that that society has always been more diverse than today’s propagandists of whatever stripe would have us believe.

Found: Dissension in Hezbollah’s Ranks

It remains interesting to me which news stories spread between which news media cultures.  Yesterday I found a news story about Hezbollah only picked up in English by Lebanese and Israeli news outlets after being run in Arabic only in London’s Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat (“The Middle East”), although today Asharq al-Awsat published the English translation of yesterday’s Arabic article.

It is especially surprising that this article received a limited run because it describes dissension within Hezbollah’s members over involvement in the Syrian Civil War.  Evidently a certain number of rank-and-file Hezbollah members have petitioned the central Hezbollah command to bring their sons home from the war.  It also reports unidentified Hezbollah estimates that they have sent 20 units of 100 men each into Syria, for a total Hezbollah force in Syria of 2000 men minus casualties.  The report indicates that Hezbollah leaders are asking Iran to step up Iranian support for Assad, saying the Lebanese militant group cannot handle the task of supporting the Syrian regime alone.  Although Hezbollah is suspected of having sent fighters to aid Assad earlier, it was only with the siege of al-Qusayr by loyalist forces in late May that Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, publicly announced Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting in Syria.

The Arabic article has additional details about Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah which are missing from the English translation, but which I am too busy to translate right now, although they may help explain the Israeli interest in the report.  The Arabic also contains a short synopsis of the latest quarrel between Subhi al-Tufayli, former secretary-general of Hezbollah and since 1992 head of a more extreme splinter group off of Hezbollah, and the current leadership.  Al-Tufayli, himself a Shi’ite cleric, apparently pronounced a fatwa saying any members of Hezbollah killed fighting for the Syrian Regime are in hell, a move sure to reduce popular support for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.  Hezbollah apparently responded by getting an Iranian Shi’ite’s fatwa against al-Tufayli himself.

Followers of Lebanon’s intricate political dance will not be surprised, however, by the Maronite Michel Aoun‘s defense of Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War.  Aoun’s “Free Patriotic Movement” party (التيار الوطني الحر) has been allied with Hezbollah since late 2006, and currently leads the “March 8 Alliance” of political parties in parliament, a coalition including Hezbollah.

Lost: The Expected Cost of Syrian Regime Operations in Lebanon

Yesterday Reuters reported that Syrian helicopters bombed the Lebanese village of Arsal.  A couple days ago I blogged on Syrian rebel attacks on the Lebanese village of Hermel, but this is a horse of a different color.  Both sides are receiving some support from Lebanese fighters, but until recently most of this support was individual and unorganized.  The open declaration of Hezbollah‘s military support for the Assad regime last month opened the door to more organized Shi’ite participation, which as I commented is likely to increase after rockets were fired by a rebel group (probably the Free Syrian Army) at the predominantly Shi’ite village of Hermel.  Similarly, the Egyptian shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi recently started calling for widespread Sunni fighting against Assad and Hezbollah, although the organization would be provided by rebel groups within Syria.  Still, many Lebanese Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’ite, remember the dark days of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and have tried to avoid getting more involved in Syria’s current civil war.

Since a Syrian helicopter has bombed the mainly Sunni village of Arsal, the calculus for many Lebanese Sunni Muslims has probably changed.  There is no question as to the source of the attack: Syrian rebels do not have helicopters, and the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA, the state news outlet) claimed responsibility for the attack as an attempt to target fleeing “terrorists” (i.e. rebels) taking shelter in the town.  For many Lebanese Sunni Muslims, this will recall the Syrian involvement in the Lebanese Civil War and the ensuing Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which lasted until the 2005 Cedar Revolution.  The 2005 revolution against Syrian military occupation was sparked by the assassination (widely blamed on Syria) of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, himself a Sunni Muslim.  Since the Syrian regime has now demonstrated its willingness to bomb Lebanese Sunni villages, it is likely that more Lebanese Sunnis will regard non-participation in the conflict as simply willingness to be killed whenever the Syrian regime chooses.  The only option to lying down and playing dead, it may now appear, would be to join forces with the Syrian rebels and attempt to accomplish in Syria what was accomplished in Lebanon eight years ago.  Indeed, for Lebanese Muslims under the age of 25, those most likely to want to get involved in the Syrian conflict, no memory of the pain of the Civil War will dampen the enthusiasm begotten by the victorious Cedar Revolution, which in just over two months threw off the rule of this same Syrian regime which is now being opposed by rebel groups.

Unless their elders can restrain the hot-headedness of a younger generation, the attacks on two Lebanese villages this week will likely increase Lebanese participation in the Syrian Civil War.  Sunni voices calling for keeping Lebanon out of Syria’s war might appeal to the fact that Arsal was the scene of an ambush on the Lebanese army a few months ago, and thus distance themselves as loyal Lebanese from the non-cooperative residents of Arsal, but this is unlikely to be appealing.  And given the mosaic of religious groups in Lebanon (seen in this Wikimedia image), increased Sunni and Shi’ite involvement in Syria’s civil war will lead to renewed hostilities within Lebanon between Lebanese.  According to a recent non-governmental statistical study cited by the Wikipedia article on Lebanon (for political stakes, there has been no official census since 1932), Sunnis and Shi’ites are about equally numerous in Lebanon, but they are distributed into different areas that often include small enclaves of other groups.  This will facilitate inter-communal massacres within Lebanon.

The Syrian regime may have estimated that, having the firepower and a good guess where some rebels (or at least rebel sympathizers) were hiding, they could attack the rebel forces more effectively in the Lebanese village of Arsal.  But the cost of this attack will not be measured solely in helicopter fuel and munitions spent.  Increased involvement of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon will offset the advantage the regime recently acquired through the increased involvement of Hezbollah, and may be more likely to prompt international military intervention to prevent the Syrian Civil War from completely engulfing its western neighbor.  Although Syrian maps of Syria’s borders defy international recognition by claiming Lebanon as merely the most beautiful part of Syria, in this instance acting on the viewpoint that Lebanon was an unruly Syrian province is likely to cost more than the Syrian regime expected.