Lebanese Diaspora Christians and Global Islamophobia
Amidst the current global wave of Islamophobia, which peaked recently with the so called “Muslim Ban”, a few groups of non-Muslim minorities from the middle east find themselves in an uncertain situation. They are brown, like some of the people you see blowing themselves up on TV, but they and their ancestors have nothing to do with Islam altogether. Some of them were persecuted by radical Islamists, some of them took weapons too. Many of them live in the diaspora. One of these groups of people are Lebanese Christians about whom I am going to talk in this article.
To simplify, there are 2 groups of Lebanese Christians who can be differentiated by the way they perceive the “Christian specificity”, or put simply, the belief that Christian people from the Middle East are different from the Muslim majority. I’ll call the first group the “Specificists” for their strong belief in the Christians being special, and the other group the Assimilationists, who don’t see anything special with being a Christian from the Middle East.
The Specificists try at each opportunity to demarcate themselves from Islam by carrying “Christian” or “Western” names, wearing crosses or other signs which show their religious affiliation, and affirming their religious affiliation at every occasion. They typically believe they do not have “Arab” heritage, they call themselves descendants of the Phoenicians, and they constantly remind themselves and other people that their language, Lebanese Arabic, contains approximately 30% of Aramaic, a sister language of Arabic, however not Arabic. Some of them do not even believe in the current borders of Lebanon, and they call for Federalism to increase political autonomy of the Lebanese Christian regions. Some of them are radically separatists.
The Assimilationists take a different approach. They see themselves as a part of the middle east to which they belong, and they value good relationships with their Muslim neighbours. Some of them too do not believe in the current borders of Lebanon, but in contrast with Group 1, they call for borders wider than those of current Lebanon, including some of the neighbouring countries like Syria (see SSNP). The ones of them understand that an Islamophobic wave will sooner or later harm them too, as one component of Islamophobia is racial (anti-semitic) and not only religious. I would say that the reaction among Lebanese Christians is in a way or another comparable to the reaction of Jews to the state of Israel. Some of them are in full support and see it as the only way for the persecuted Jewish people to survive, and some of them (mostly the ones who are well integrated in their respective countries in the diaspora) see its creation as a potential reason for the rise of anti-semitism in their home countries.
Both these groups are well represented among the Lebanese in the diaspora. A member of this diaspora, who I would confidently include in the above mentioned Specificists is Walid Phares. He is playing an important role in the current Trump administration. In the ears of Trump, he keeps talking of a Lebanese Christian specificity, and advocates relatively Islamophobic policies.
Now after this exposition of the current situation, here comes my personal opinion: I believe in the Christian (and to this extent also to the Druze and Coastal Sunni) specificity, but I do not believe (like some Specificists do) that this specificity can be explained by spiritual, essentialist or religious reasons, but mostly by profane ones. Again to simplify, the Lebanese Christians, druze and Beiruti or Coastal Sunnis pull the education and income levels average of Lebanon up. Among these 3 groups, the Christians are by far the most numerous. While the Specificists attribute the difference in income and education levels to essentialist reasons, I attribute them to partially profane reasons: the Christians were historically always under the protection of France (the Orthodox from Russia). The druze, recognizing the advantage of foreign support, went to look for support in Toscania then by the British empire. France and Britain ruled the world for 200 years before the two world war, and spread their soft power into Lebanon through their universities (USJ, AUB…) which elevated the education levels of the people who went there first. Education being an invaluable asset, it has helped some of the Lebanese Christians in obtaining excellent positions in the diaspora.
Given the above, I believe that the right reaction of Lebanese Christians to the Islamophobic events around the Western world should be one of resistance and adversity, as opposed to a position of distanciation and differentiation, especially when a component of Islamophobia is racial and not only religious, which means that someone who discriminates against a Muslim, discriminates against him for partially the same reasons as he would discriminate against a Middle Eastern Christian.
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