Christians in the Arab World: Beyond Role Syndrome

Article excerpt

In this relatively short presentation, I hope to address the question of the Christian presence in the Arab world. Rather than addressing this in a horizontal way, however, I opt for a more provocative vertical approach that focuses on one aspect of the problem, namely the issue of role, and analyzes it in depth. I am aware, however, that this aspect is interwoven with several other aspects that I am not dealing with here, but would have to be accounted for in a fuller evaluation of the prospects for a Christian future in the Arab world. Consequently, my choosing a rather unilateral vertical approach is by no means intended as a reductionist or dismissive interpretation of the problems posed.

Arab Christians and the Ideology of Role

Over the past two decades, there has been a proliferation of scholarly literature, by Christians as well as Muslims, emphasizing the role played by Christians within Arab-Islamic civilization. (1) This role is perceived not only in terms of the Christian contribution to the rise and blossoming of Islamic culture in the classical era but also with reference to the major achievements of Christian scholars during the revival of Arabic science and literature on the threshold of the 20th century known as al-NahAa. (2) The core of the Christian contribution from the middle of the 19th century onwards is usually delineated along lines of culture and politics. It is claimed that Christians have decisively shaped modern Arab humanism and paved the way for the rise of Arab nationalism. On the whole, Christians are thought to have been both intellectually and psychologically better equipped than were Muslims to become the forerunners of the Arabic "renaissance" because they had no reservations about adopting and propagating modern Western ideas and social models.

It is also well known that Christians in the Middle East today are extremely anxious about their steadily diminishing numbers and feel threatened by an ascending Islamic extremism. (3) Whereas some attempt to downplay such feelings, stressing the capacity of Christians to find their place in the future Arab world and to be useful as much for themselves as well as for other Arabs, others acknowledge the legitimacy of the Christian anxiety yet tend to locate the problem in the more general framework of the political, economic and cultural crisis of the Arab world. (4)

Bringing up the unique Christian role in Arab-Islamic civilization and praising how useful Christians have often been for Arab culture, and thus for Muslims, displays a lot of sympathy for Arab Christians. Yet it also smacks of being a latently ideological approach, which we could refer to as "role ideology." As an ideal-type, this ideology might be sketched as follows: In order to survive, Arab Christians should prove to be profitable. Their existence in the Arab world depends on their ability to play an advantageous role for their neighborhood. Along these lines, Arab Christians would continuously feel impelled to convince their Muslim counterparts that their existence is beneficial, and thus socially and psychologically affordable.

Such a role ideology is not only how some Muslims conceive of the Christian presence in the Middle East, it can also be adopted by the Christians themselves. This is obviously a more delicate phenomenon and by far more pernicious. For in this case, Christians not only seek to prove their efficaciousness and productiveness to their Muslim neighbors, but primarily to themselves. In the final analysis, they would derive not only their self-respect but also their self-legitimization from a role they supposedly have played in the past and continue to play today and in the future. When appropriated and internalized by Christians, the role ideology might be termed a role syndrome. More often than not, multifaceted Christian discourse betrays the existence of such a syndrome.

A role ideology might take several forms. …