Only Don't Call Them Arabs

January 12, 2011 Topic: DemographyHistoryReligion Region: Middle East

Only Don't Call Them Arabs

The Alexandria bombing that killed Egyptian Christians is a reminder that not everyone who speaks Arabic is Arab.

If anything good has arisen from the recent New Year’s Eve Church massacre in Egypt—if such can even be imagined—it must be the sudden flurry of interest in Near Eastern Christians; the indigenous pre-Arab peoples of the Middle East whose plights and epics of exile and dispossession are an integral part of Arab history and a byproduct of the seventh century Fatah Muslim conquests.

Yet this sudden relevance of the forgotten Eastern Christians has also unleashed a bevy of articles and news reports referring to them by way of the murky “Christian Arabs” label; a misleading—if fashionable—term that deprives them of their historical memories, expropriates their cultural accretions and denudes them of their distinct ethnic identities. This is all in addition to the physical assaults to which Near Eastern Christians are being subjected.

This sort of semantic perversion begs the question “what is a ‘Christian Arab’, and what is it that makes, say, a Copt, an Assyrian, or a Maronite an Arab?” But before trying to fit the term “Christian Arab” to a soothing and pleasing explanation, a definition of what, or who, constitutes an Arab is perhaps in order.

According to Arab nationalist ideologue and publicist Sati’ al-Husri (1880–1967) “every person who speaks Arabic is an Arab . . . [and] every individual associated with an Arabic-speaker or with an Arabic-speaking people is an Arab.” Under no circumstances should those “speakers of Arabic” who reject their imputed Arabness be tolerated, decreed al-Husri; indeed, they are Arabs, he affirmed, in spite of themselves and in spite of whom they think they might be. A less sinister, albeit equally ambiguous, definition is provided by the Arab League which describes an Arab to be "a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, and who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples."

Ironically, whether validating al-Hursri’s coercive premise or the Arab League’s more innocuous one, both definitions remain contested, and both reveal a reductionist, ideologically tainted conception of an otherwise multiform, polyglot, ethnically varied Middle East. Indeed, a good number of Middle Easterners, including the majority of the region’s Christians—and Mizrachi Jews for that matter—do not identify as Arabs, despite being native users of the Arabic language. Add to that the fact that Arabic itself, the vaunted symbol and cement of Arabness, is not a single uniform language, and the plot thickens!

An often overlooked feature of Arabic is its arrogation to be a homogenous speech form, when it is in reality an archaic textual language, closer in its nature to Medieval Latin than to any of Europe’s spoken languages. In fact, what is commonly termed Arabic is on the one hand a written Standard that is never natively spoken, and on the other hand is a group of some thirty distinct languages differing from each other—and from Standard Arabic itself—to the same extent that French is different from other Romance languages and from Latin. Indeed, speaking of a uniform Arabic language common to all Arabs would be tantamount to claiming Frenchmen, Italians, Spaniards and Englishmen to be speakers of a single uniform Latin language. Early twentieth-century Egyptian writer Tawfiq Awwan dismissed this ideological chimera, arguing Egypt to have a distinctly Egyptian Language, Lebanon a sui generisLebanese language, and the Hijaz a uniquely Hijazi language; all separate languages, each with their own peculiarities, none of them warranting the appellation “Arabic.” In this same vein, Harvard University linguist Wheeler Thackston wrote more recently that a Moroccan and an Iraqi, each speaking their own vernacular languages, “can no more understand each other than can a Portuguese [understand] a Rumanian.”

And so, if bona fide Arabs themselves are bereft of a single mutually comprehensible national speech form, how can Middle Eastern Christians—most of whom the progenies of pre-Arab linguistic and cultural traditions—be accurately subsumed into an overarching Arab ethnos? Skilled “users” of Arabic as they might be, Copts, Maronites, Assyrians and others do not view themselves as Arabs and do not take kindly to being referred to as such. This is no aberration. It is an attitude analogous to French-speaking Swiss, Luxembourgers, Senegalese or Belgians defining themselves as native Francophones but not as Frenchmen. Yet, inveterate Arabists (and their defenders in the media and the academy) somehow still deem it justifiable to lump all pre-Arab members of venerable Near Eastern “national churches” under a reductionist “Christian Arab” umbrella.

This is nothing if not a sinister revisionism, a cruel expropriation of pre-Arab cultures, and a brazen repudiation of a critical chapter in the history of the Middle East, the history of the seventh-century Muslim conquests, and the troubled existence of Middle Eastern Christians—and Jews—under an Islam not particularly concerned with pre-Islamic narratives of its conquered territories. Some sixty years ago, using Lebanon as a pulpit to address this kind of historical amnesia and cultural suppression, Lebanese thinker Michel Chiha wrote that:

Conquerors and their conquests have all come, gone, and faded away; yet we have remained. We are the meeting place into which peoples flock and assimilate regardless of their origins. We are the crossroads where varied civilizations drop in on one another, and where bevies of beliefs, languages, and cultural rituals salute each other in solemn veneration.

In the end, this is the Middle East. Not a monolithic “Arab world,” but a diverse human and cultural space composed of Arabs, to be sure, but teeming with non-Arabs, non-Muslims and non-Arabophones, including tens of millions of Christians, who possess their own cultural cognomens, and who must be spared the simplistic, and misleading, “Christian Arabs” designation.