The Academic conference, "Christian Arabs in the Greater Mashreq: Determinants of Continuity, Emigration and Forced Migration" opened in Doha on Saturday, October 21, 2017. The two-day meeting brings together 20 scholars to discuss the impacts of large-scale changes affecting Arab societies on Christian communities. Beginning the first day's sessions, ACRPS Researcher Marwan Kabalan shared a statistic that provided the framework for the rest of the conference: that today's 14 million-strong Christian population in the Arab Levant is likely to fall to just 6 million in less than a decade.
The proceedings began with two keynote speakers. The first, Kamel Abu Jaber, a member of the Jordanian Senate and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, focused on how the relationship between Eastern and Western churches impacted the relationship between the Arab region and Europe. Abu Jaber, whose talk began with an explanation of how the modern Middle East was shaped by Napolean's landing in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1798, offered the view that the Christian communities of the Arab East had always been fully integrated members of a wider Arab, and decidedly Islamic, civilization. According to Abu Jaber, Muslim Arabs were not begrudging accomplices to an arranged coexistence with their Christian compatriots, but rather willing co-citizens of pluralistic Arab societies.
Abu Jaber offered the view that increased Christian outward migration from the Arab East posed a challenge to Arab nationalism, and served to further Israeli interests. According to the speaker, the exodus of Christian Arabs undid the religious pluralism which had been the bedrock of Arab civilization. According to the Jordanian Senator, the mass emigration of Christian Arabs from their homelands was a problem not only for the Christian communities in question, but for the wider Arab-Islamic civilization.
Abu Jaber was followed by historian Wajih Kawtharani, whose keynote address was titled "On the Crisis of Citizenship: the Myth of Tolerance and the Failure to Transform into a State of Full Citizenship". Kawtharani gave a description of the development of the modern-day nation-state in the Arab countries which once formed a part of the Ottoman realm. According to Kawtharani, the study of the post-Ottoman Arab states and their treatment of religious minorities revealed a few prominent factors. The first of these was part of the natural disintegration of an ethnically and religiously plural Sultanic Empire into smaller nation-states. Kawtharani also stressed that the Ottomans' conception of pluralism, based on the Millet system was simply incompatible with modern states and their emphasis on the equality of rights for all of their citizens.
Christian Arabs Prior to the Nation-State: How do we evaluate the Ottoman Empire?
Yousef Courbagge gave the first of three presentations during the panel that immediately followed the keynote speakers. Courbagge's paper, titled "Christian Arabs in the Ottoman Empire: from Marj Dabiq to Ain Dara" was an attempt to study nearly four centuries of Christian Arab history in Greater Syria. Courbagge, referring to a motif with growing currency around the globe, explained how the Ottoman Empire had at the beginning been seen as more tolerant to Christian communities under its control than the Mamelukes, who had ruthlessly suppressed non-Muslims and Muslim "heretics" alike. In fact, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the privileged social status of Christians in the Arab East meant that the Christian populations in the Arab Mashreq grew approximately six times as fast as the Muslim communities which surrounded them, in contrast to today where higher fertility rates amongst Muslims contributed to the dwarfing of Christian populations in the same countries of the Arab East.
Courbagge was followed by Hala Naufal, whose paper continued the same theme, and took in Ottoman history "From Ain Dara to the First World War". Naufal described how rebellion by the Druze chieftains of Mount Lebanon ended up having long-lasting consequences for the Christian communities of the Arab East and across the wider world. Viewing the Druze as heretical Muslim groups which could not be trusted, the Ottomans encouraged the emigration of Druze and Shia Muslim peasants away from Mount Lebanon (towards the Houran Plain in the case of the former and towards the Bekaa and South Lebanon in the case of the latter) and making way for the rising power of Maronite Christians in Lebanon. With growing autonomy from the Sublime Porte, Maronites living in Mount Lebanon became increasingly dominant in the region—eventually, the Druze aristocrats who had the title to the lands in Mount Lebanon began converting to Maronite Christianity, a unique event in the history of the Arab East. After Mohammed Ali Pasha's conquest of Palestine and Syria sounded the death knell for the Ottoman Empire, increased migration of Christians from present-day Syria to Mount Lebanon and Beirut entrenched Christian political influence in Lebanon further still.
Fadwa Nusair, from Jordan, was the third and final speaker on the same panel. Nusair's paper attempted to give a general overview of the social and political conditions of Christians living in Greater Syria under the Ottomans, particularly before and after the rise of Mohammed Ali in Egypt had shifted social relations permanently by ending legal discrimination against Christian subjects of the former Ottoman realms. Nusair, like the previous speakers, also addressed the massive impact which the relatively more rapid uptake of modern, Western-style education amongst Christian Arabs had on their social status.
This first panel was followed by another two on the same day. The first concentrating on the political and social conditions of Christian Arabs in the Arab Mashreq, and second concentrating on the status of Christian Arabs in the discourse of present-day Islamist movements in the Arab East. The conference will proceed to a second and final day on Sunday, 22 October, 2017.