Christians in the Arab World: Minority Attitudes and Citizenship

By Mitri, Tarek | The Ecumenical Review, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Christians in the Arab World: Minority Attitudes and Citizenship


Mitri, Tarek, The Ecumenical Review


Christians in Arab Civilization

The Christians of the Arab world have been recognized as communities in law and public consciousness since the birth of Islam. The dhimma statute (for governing non-Muslims), while expecting Christians' loyalty to the Islamic state, has protected them. But it also has implied a degree of civil and political inferiority. Christians were accepted, even legitimized, with a religious plurality that was deficient elsewhere, but this has been a hierarchical pluralism.

In some regions Christians became a minority in terms of power even before they became a numerical minority, such as in Syria, where they outnumbered the Muslims until the 12th century. Despite this, their contribution to the formation of the Arab-Islamic civilization was not marginal. This included contributions in science, art, philosophy and state institutions. The ideas that shaped the thinking and institutions of the Islamic order were not unfamiliar to the Christians. Nevertheless, there were obvious limits because the Christians were asked to be instrumental in building a society where a religion not their own was the cornerstone of their legitimacy. Their undeniably important role was weakened once the task that had defined it had been completed.

Under the Ottomans, the dhimma system of organizing pluralism became the most codified. The millets were both nations and religious communities and enjoyed relative autonomy. During the 19th century this picture changed. The ideologies and political and legal structures developed in Europe progressively penetrated the Arab-Muslim world. On the other hand, the European powers, tempted by the Ottoman Empire's weaknesses, and having adopted an imperialistic attitude, developed relations with various minority communities. The leaders of these communities did not resist this "assistance." In fact, hierarchical pluralism was exploited for the sake of external domination.

The Christians often faced difficult choices, varying according to their character, religious affiliation, social condition and political changes. But on the whole, Christians aspired to a citizenship free from direct or indirect domination from abroad. While their fight for political and civil equality set them in opposition to the moribund Ottoman Empire, it united them with the Muslims in a national struggle for independence. For the majority of Christians, this struggle continued against European nations after these empires had shared the spoils of the First World War.

Thus the stakes of the national liberation struggles were not only over the future of the majority communities, but also the relationships between majorities and minorities. In the search for a new socio-political framework, it was not enough to divide, or accept the division, of a geographic area and the distribution of different ethnic and religious groups throughout the territories. Collective identities had to be proposed in a way acceptable to different communities. Thus, the nahda (renaissance) movement largely initiated and sustained by Christians was primarily cultural; it paved the way for the emergence of political movements.

The role of the emerging national states was reinforced, although questioned in light of an Arab vision of unity, umma, inclusive in cultural-linguistic rather than ethnic or religious terms. This vision was considerably attractive. But neither the states nor the Arab nationalist movements, which had the same ideology as some states, such as modern Iraq and Syria, succeeded in achieving national integration; nor could they radically modify various traditional identifies.

Christian Anxiety, Muslim Pluralism

Today, the anxiety of Christians in the Arab world and their friends is evident. It arises from the effects of their dwindling numbers, the economic and political failures of the national states and fears in the face of rising Islamism. Preoccupation with survival affects both their reading of history and their reflections on the future. …

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