Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Warmed or Burnt by Fire? the Lebanese Maronite Church Navigates French Colonial Policies, 1935

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Warmed or Burnt by Fire? the Lebanese Maronite Church Navigates French Colonial Policies, 1935

Article excerpt

In 1935, the French authorities in Grand Liban (1920-43) re-imposed the Régie tobacco monopoly on Syria and Lebanon unleashing a wave of labor demonstrations by tobacco farmers and workers that turned into a wide national and anticolonial opposition to the French Mandate and its economic policies in the region. This article examines the role played by Patriarch Antoine 'Arida (1863-1955), the head of the Lebanese Maronite Church and a former ally of the French in the national political resistance to the French. 'Arida's leading role in this national movement was met by diverse French responses in Grand Liban and France starting with a dismissal of the economic setback to Lebanese entrepreneurs and businessmen caused by the Régie monopoly and ending with the dismantling of 'Arida's power base and tarnishing his clerical reputation. A close examination of the conflict reveals new layers about the Maronite elite's relationship to the French colonial officers and to their own national partners, namely, the Lebanese Muslims. Against the prevalent emphasis on the harmonious and stable bonds between the French architects of Grand Liban and the Maronite community, the article brings to the fore the growing differences and disagreements between an important segment of the Maronite elite represented by 'Adda and the French colonial powers.' It also discloses the increasing restlessness of a group of Maronite entrepreneurs and clerical leaders due to decline in their economic profits following their integration into Grand Liban, thus expressing "nostalgia" for Petit Liban or the mutasarrifiyya (Règlement Organique, 1864-1918). The conflict between 'Arida and the French captured the uncertainties facing the Maronite elite in the transition from one historical reality to another. The first one was defined by the mutasarrifiyya, which led to the hegemony of a commercial Christian elite in Mount Lebanon and Beirut. This elite enjoyed exclusive socio-political privileges and was nurtured and protected by a conglomerate of European capitalists. The second historical reality was a broader configuration of power that went beyond Mount Lebanon and involved the annexation of several geographical areas with their diverse Muslim populations to Grand Liban. The new national entity, namely, Grand Liban, shared central political experiences with the Arab world and depended on the economic needs of Arab markets, especially Arab Muslim businessmen and consumers. The national ideology of Grand Liban thus depended in no small way on reconciling a local Christian vision of Lebanon to a multi-local Arab Muslim one. 'Arida's confrontation with the French throws light on all these complex features that marked the experiences of the Maronite elites.

France and Lebanon: The Historical Narrative

The prevalent scholarship on the French colonial period in Lebanon, known as the Mandate (1920-43), stresses Maronite loyalty to the French, and the clergy's conformity to French economic and political plans. Libanist discourse itself had emphasized the view that the Maronites relied on the French for "protection" as Christian minorities in the Arab Middle East. Deep "cultural" and "historical" ties compelled France to preserve the integrity of Grand Liban (and earlier Mount Lebanon) as a haven for Christians.2 A multifaceted and nuanced account of the interests and sensibilities of Maronite leaders at the time reveals the tensions and ambiguities in their relations with the French. French colonial strategy and economic investments were significant in shaping these relations. Their role, however, has to be gauged in connection to internal factors in the Lebanese context and local responses.3

Albert Hourani writes of France's "special interests in the Levant," which culminated in its Mandate over Syria and Lebanon.4 These interests included curbing Arab nationalism, solidifying traditional or "potential" ties with "Francophile elements" and "strengthening the position of Lebanon vis-à-vis the interior," that is, the Muslim countries. …

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