The 20th century was a time in the Middle East when nominally secular dictators espousing notions of pan-Arabism -- the ideology of uniting the "Arab World" and downplaying or crushing the different cultural aspects of the region's innumerable sectarian groups -- reigned supreme.
However, as we continue past the first decade of the 21st century, the regional picture is changing. In 2003, the pan-Arabist dictator Saddam Hussein was deposed in Iraq. In 2005 occupying Syrian forces under another pan-Arabist, Bashar al-Assad, were forced out of Lebanon. Now the Arab Spring is demonstrating the Middle East's new Islamist future.
Besides the battles involving rifles and sectarian militias, another fight has been an underlying feature of the contemporary Middle East: Identity. This newly exposed battle is especially prevalent among the region's declining Christian population.
In his enlightening piece on Middle Eastern Christian identity, my friend and colleague Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi concluded, "[T]he degree of linguistic and cultural Arabization over time has played more of a part in the formulation of identity among Middle Eastern Christians than a simple desire to avoid persecution at the hands of the Muslims majorities."
While this statement is quite valid in assessing the situation of Middle Eastern Christians, the current conditions of upheaval and increasing vacuum created by pan-Arabism's failures has created a broad disenchantment with the ideology. With rising sectarianism -- especially as some Islamist groups publicly adopted the remnants of Arabism -- and a generally less ideologically oppressive atmosphere, there has been a flowering of non-Arab identity among the region's Christians.
Non-Arab identity for Christians existed long-before the collapse of pan-Arabism. In fact, the "new" Christian identities are hardly new. Many have their present-day roots from the nationalist spurts that spread through Europe and the Middle East in the late 19th century and continued to develop into the 1940s. If anything, they were simply overshadowed by the more dominant Arabism.
Pan-Syrian ideology was innately non-Arab and primarily led by Christians. In 1943, with its Christian majority, Lebanon was founded as a pluralistic state with an "Arab face" but not with an intrinsic Arab identity.
Many Christians of the Levant, commonly referred to as Syriac-Christians (usually due to their use of Syriac-Aramaic as their liturgical language), exhibit some of the most marked revitalizations of separate non-Arab identity.
These Christians include Catholic and Orthodox sects and are some of the oldest Christian churches in existence. The Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholics, Maronite Catholics, Melkite Catholics and Orthodox, and Syriac Catholics and Orthodox are all considered part of the "Syriac nation." Syriac Christians also call a wide swath of territory -- from northwestern Iran to the shores of the Mediterranean in Lebanon -- home.
Syriac Christian identities have a strong yet heavily debated linkage with the past. Assyrian Christians often emphasize historical connections to the Assyrian Empire. The more nascent Chaldean identity looks to the Chaldean Empire (Chaldeanism) for its historical depth. Syriac Catholics and Orthodox, Maronites, and some Melkites often ascribe to Aramean identity (Arameanism). As such, the Aramean peoples who inhabited the ancient Aramean states are seen as their ethnic progenitors.
In many cases these identities have historically, ethnically, and geographically overlap with one another. In turn, this has caused friction between the different identity groups. In an effort to make some of the identities more broadly acceptable, there has been the adoption of more inclusive terms such as: Assyro-Chaldean/Chaldo-Assyrian (by Assyrianists) or the addition of the more unifying "Syriac-" as a prefix to whichever church or ethnic identity is ascribed to.
As Christian self-identity developed over the years, their identity movements also went hand-in-hand with a desire for autonomy. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey lobbied the League of Nations for independence. A few years after the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), Christians of the country expounded their non-Arab roots. Some concluded the so-called "Christian canton" run by the Lebanese Forces militia (now a political party), should either become independent or maintain autonomy through an eventual federalist framework. By 1979, Iraqi Christians established their own political party, the Assyrian Democratic Movement (Zowaa). The Zowaa fought for an autonomous, if not independent territory in northern Iraq. Today, the party pushes for the autonomy of Nineveh Plains as a safe-zone for Iraq's Christians.
For many of these Christians self-determination is still desired. "If Israel could be revived why not Aram?" asks David Dag, a Swedish based Aramean activist. Acknowledging that current conditions might not allow for such a state, Dag added, "not today, but maybe in the future, a few decades from now."
Still, only a decade ago, the basic struggle for identity was almost lost. Hundreds of thousands of Syriac Christians left or fled their homelands and now live in the West. Also, in many of these countries Christian political presence was marginalized.
In Lebanon, the country's diverse Christian population and history allowed it to become a prime base for non-Arab ideology. This was an immediate threat for Syria, whose regime gained legitimacy from pan-Arab ideology.
| review | 18.07.2012, 18:38 | Admin