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Arab Christians: a lost modernity

About the author
Tarek Osman is the author of “Islamism: A History of Political Islam” (Yale, 2017) and the international bestselling book “Egypt on the Brink” (Yale, 2010). He wrote and presented several BBC documentaries including the Radio-4 series “The Making of the Modern Arab World”, “Sands of Time”, and “Islam Divided”. He writes at tarekosman.com

"With steps such as this, your majesty's wisdom and vision would take Egypt to lead modernity in the east", said Nubar Pasha, a prominent civil servant (later Egypt's first prime minister) whose family had settled in Egypt in the early 19th century. The addressee of the remark was the Khedive of Egypt, and the occasion was the inauguration of the Cairo opera house in 1869 - only the fourth in the world, and the first anywhere in the middle east, Africa and Asia.

Nubar Pasha, the obsequiousness to a ruler aside, was not exaggerating. The era was one of great social progress in Egypt, marked by the establishment of new educational institutions, factories, publishers that translated foreign books, and cultural bodies. Nubar was among those who pioneered this wave of modernity; part of the small, region-wide army of visionaries, business and community leaders and officials who had helped the ruling Mohammed Ali family in Egypt, the feudal masters of Mount Lebanon and the Beys of Tunisia (among other leaders of Arab states) to take their countries forward. Nubar Pasha, like many of those luminaries, was Christian (in his case of Armenian origin).

Arab Christians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - specifically in Egypt and the Levant - were at the forefront of the Arab renaissance that propelled the Arab states toward a cultural and economic resurgence. The process was inspired by Europe, and particularly by the original agent of the Arab world's enforced opening to the modern world: France.

A creative force

Much of it happened in Cairo - and in Alexandria. Al-Ahram, Egypt's leading daily newspaper (and for decades the Arab world's too) was in 1875 founded by an Arab Christian family, the Taklas. Arab cinema and theatre proper were born at roughly the same time, their midwife a group of artists in which Arab Christians such as George Abyad were the most prominent. The second printing machine in the middle east arrived in Egypt with Napoleon in 1799 (Maronite bishops and priests in Mount Lebanon were the recipients of the first, in 1589).

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian investment banker covering the Gulf and UK markets.

Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

"Egypt: who's on top?" (7 June 2005)

"Egypt's crawl from autocracy" (30 August 2005)

"Hosni Mubarak: what the Pharaoh is like" (16 January 2006)

"Can the Arabs love their land?" (22 May 2006)

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"Egypt: a diagnosis" (28 June 2007)

It was Arab Christians who conceived Fouad Al-Awal University (later Cairo University), the first western-style educational institution in the Arab world. The Levant's Dar al-Hikma (House of Wisdom), a 19th-century educational icon, was founded and funded by Arab Christians. Arab Christians such as Salama Moussa and Abd al-Nour Pasha guided the leap from a religion-based teaching doctrine toward a more liberal educational system.

The first banking, translation, and automated manufacturing facilities in the region were also the brainchildren of Arab Christians - again mainly in Egypt and the Levant. Most leading figures in the Egyptian economy, for example, were Christians from al-Saeid (Upper Egypt), or scions of Levantine and Armenian families that had settled in Egypt decades before.

The legal and political realm as well as the cultural and socio-economic one felt the effects of Arab Christians' creativity. Their influence neared the political core of their societies in the early 20th-century when leading Christian families (the Andrawe and Ghali in Egypt, the Edda and Khazen in the Levant) provided royal confidantes and advisors. The modern concepts of civil rule, and of the separation of state and religious authority, found their strongest advocates among two leading Lebanese Christians: the political icon Émile Eddé, and the inspiring former head of the Maronite church, Patriarch Arida.

The leading Arab political parties in the most vibrant decades of the 20th century - which to a large extent inspired the struggle against European colonialism and the formation of Arab nationalism - were the al-Wafd party in Egypt and the Ba'ath party in the Levant; their intellectual leaders were two towering Arab Christian figures, Makram Ebeid Pasha in Egypt and Michel Aflaq in the Levant.

An east-west bridge

For an entire century - from the dawn of the Arab renaissance in the second half of the 19th century until liberalism's decline in the Arab world from the mid-1970s - Arab Christians played a prominent role in the region's development. Their presence crossed the boundaries of the Arab world: north Africa (particularly Tunisia) and Iraq also had well established and influential Christian communities.

The prominence of Christian figures and families was the outward sign of more important realities: that Arab Christians were an integral part of their societies' fabric; that Christians saw the societies in which they were born and bred as the natural environment for them to build careers and fortunes; that Arab societies were inherently tolerant; that these Arab societies were held together by the shared notion of belonging to one nation, irrespective of religion; and (crucially) that personal identity was, to a large extent, defined by that national belonging.

That belonging and identity instilled coherence. Arab Christians had for centuries performed a variety of vital roles: as intellectual link between the east's predominantly Islamic civilisation and Europe; as agents of progress; as representatives of the dynamic diversity at the heart of the Islamic world; as guardians of the richness and plurality of Arab identity.

"I am Egyptian by nationality, Muslim by culture": the famous slogan of the Christian Egyptian, Makram Ebeid Pasha, is perhaps the most succinct definition of the way enlightened Arab Christians saw their identity, cultural affiliation, and social role. Ebeid Pasha (who was elected more than six times to the Egyptian parliament) here recognised that the Arab world is - by history and demography - Islamic; yet he also affirmed the responsibility that Arab Christians have carried in protecting the Arab Islamic civilisation from the danger of seclusion and withdrawal, opening it to the world, and acting as a cultural bridge between it and the west.

Islamism and Christianity

Today, the role of Arab Christians is diminishing. A number of factors have combined since the 1970s to produce this outcome: the waning (if not defeat) of Arab nationalism and the meteoric rise of Islamism; the missionary spread of zealous Saudi Wahhabism, backed by unprecedented wealth; and the reorientation of millions of Egyptians and Levantines who travelled to the Gulf in pursuit of better work opportunities.

The accumulating result was a change in the psyche of the Arab world: nationalism retreated, leaving significant ground to religion; national identity retreated and the religious advanced; the traditions that were imported from the west during the decades of modernisation and enlightenment were gradually replaced by values centred around religion, spirituality and conservatism; political Islam became the force which young people started to identify with and advocate.

The once potent liberal forces withdrew to marginalised forums and salons; Arab societies (Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Algeria and elsewhere) shifted their gaze from Paris and London towards Riyadh, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi - and this at a time when those capitals where far more inward-looking than today. Moreover, the ascendancy of Islamism triggered the shy but in its own way equally potent rise of "Christianism" - a conservative, defensive social force aiming to preserve its identity and way of life in face of the Islamic tide. This was very far from the cosmopolitanism of old. Between them, Islamism and Christianism dissected Arab societies on a religious basis.

It has been telling to witness in Egypt (for example) the rapid weakening of civil-society's historic institutions (trade unions, professional associations, social salons, charities) when confronted by the exponential growth of the religion-based juggernaut. It has also been striking to see the dramatic rise in the power of the religious establishment in media, universities and the professions. For the last quarter of a century, syndicates of lawyers, teachers, engineers, doctors and journalists (as well as students unions in all the major universities) have been controlled almost continuously by groups of obtrusively Islamic orientation.

Among the 15% of Egypt's population that is Christian, solid, insular religion-based groupings have emerged in private educational institutions, medium-sized businesses, and specialised professions - all with strong links to the church. The Sunday schools too have regained their popularity after falling away during the1950s and 1960s; Christian-based newspapers, social clubs and charities have mushroomed. At the same time, sectarianism has begun to acquire a more dangerous dimension. In 2006, a play alleged to be ridiculing Islam was the occasion of violent clashes in Alexandria; and the conversion of a Christian lady to Islam sparked violent riots, fiery articles, and a potent sign of displeasure from the ultra-influential Egyptian Coptic pope (in 2007, an attempted conversion in the opposite direction provoked equal passion). 

A retreat from belonging

There is no alarming sectarian divide in Egypt. But the country is experiencing the conspicuous withdrawal of a substantial body of its Christian citizens from the core of its socio-economic life. This, and associated phenomena - emigration and "clustering" - does not bode well for Egyptian society as a whole.

The decline in the active participation of Arab Christians in politics and central social movements in the country is a severe loss, both because of the community's demographic weight and because it represents a retreat from active engagement that an Arab society with great development problems can ill afford.

Arab Christians still hold disproportionate economic power in almost all the societies in which they have a presence (the tragic experience of Iraq is a special case). However, that economic power is confined: it does not translate into active participation in shaping the society's future. Indeed, the opposite is happening: significant Christian interests are steadily being channelled outside their home countries. A senior Lebanese private banker has commented that swathes of Arab Christian money are poised for transfer at any hint of serious trouble. True, across the world capital abhors uncertainty and is typically conservative. Yet, the fact remains that much Arab Christian economic power has come to see its markets as just that: as markets, no longer as homes.

Diversity's new challenge

The diminishing role of Christians is not just an Egyptian problem. Lebanon faces a massive challenge in building real bridges between its different confessional communities.

The decades since the mid-1970s - marked by destructive civil war and wars with Israel, severe sectarian divides, and the dramatic rise of Islamism (most notably the Hizbollah movement) - has heightened Lebanese Christians' self-awareness and self-assertion. Christian Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Yemenis are acutely marginalised. Iraqi Christians are, quite simply, deserting their country; more than 200,000 have left the country since the start of war in 2003, and few will ever return.

In Beirut, the Syrian Protestant College was the first institution ever to teach the Bible in Arabic - in effect "Arabising" eastern Christianity and integrating it into Arabic culture, as well as weaving Arabism into eastern Christianity. It seems that great institutions retain their greatness. The college, which mutated into the American University in Beirut, continued for many years to illuminate, educate and inspire; among the leading intellectuals it housed was Edward Said, the Arab Christian who created a new way of viewing both east and west from the "other" side, and who remains a symbol of a cultural bridge between the Arab world and the western one.

Diversity is a symbol of richness and a source of vigour within societies. The Arabs' - and Islam's - most illuminating societal example is al-Andalus, medieval Spain. This had its finest hour when it was a thriving community that integrated Muslims, Christians and Jews, was open to creative, liberal, progressive ideas, and was - crucially - tolerant. Islam has proved, throughout its history, that it is progressive enough to encompass - even nurture - the "other". There is no doubt that the Islamic political forces will continue to exert significant influence over the future of the Arab world - from the Gulf to the Maghreb. The salient test will be whether, once victorious, political Islam will appreciate the role of Arab Christians and propel them to the role of full partner; and whether the Arab Christians who remain will want to undertake that role.


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