Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Neo-Shu’ubiyya: is it Hellenism’s turn?

Throughout the West, we are fed the opinion that the recent wave of demonstrations and revolutions across the Middle East constitute an “Arab Spring”, but just how “Arab” is it? What if, this false perception was the byproduct of a school of thought, which was witnessing its own demise as a result of this wave of social unrest? What if, the paradigm shift unfolding before the international stage was both a winter and a spring?

A winter, in a manner of speaking, as the cold and harsh reality of extremism flourishes across the region. From Revolution to Revolution, radical Islamists have descended upon the ruins of Secular Arab Nationalist Dictatorships, waging war against Secular Arabist thought, and ushering in an Islamic Winter of extremist’s beliefs and dreams of an Islamic Caliphate. Yet it is also a Spring, a spring of social awareness, democratic thought, and ethnic liberation. It is this final point, which is the elephant in the room. It is the ‘ethnic card’, which analysts and journalists seem to, deliberately, forget. Whether it is the Berbers of Libya [1] [2] [3] or the Kurds of Syria [4] [5], the forgotten ethnicities of the ‘Arab World’ have begun to spring forth and play major roles in the numerous uprisings against Arab Nationalist Dictatorships across the region.

They call these non-Arab identities the, Neo-Shu’ubiyya, a concept, which is unheard to most westerners. Who have just assumed that the region was homogeneous, an Arabic desert, in which nothing rivaled Arab ethnic consciousness, but this could not be farther from the truth. The largest of these non-Arab identities is Berberism [6] (Berber Nationalism) and Kurdism (Kurdish Nationalism). However, they are not the only ones that dot the Middle Eastern landscape. There is also as Aramaenism, Assyrianism, Pharaonism, Phoenicianism, and Syrianism [7].

These many alternatives to Arab ethnic consciousness share many things in common, but they also have differences, which make them unique. As a result, they can be divided into two distinct categories. Those identities, which are made up of non-Arabic speaking peoples that have managed to maintain their own distinct language, and those natives that used to be non-Arabic speaking, but have since been Arabized.

The Birth of Arab Consciousness and Arabism 

Arabism is the belief that the pan-ethnic [8], Arabic speaking linguistic group of the Middle East and North Africa constitute a single racial or ethnic consciousness. This school of thought emerged within the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century [9]. This initial or primitive form of Arabism was divided into two distinctly different camps, one Christian and the other Muslim [9]. The Christian version was influenced by American Protestant Missionaries who aided in the birth of an Arabic literary revival centered in Beirut. For Christians, it was an attempt to create a secular Arab culture. Something that, if adopted would win them equality with Muslims, as fellow "Arabs" [9]. The American University of Beirut served as the original breeding ground of this secular alternative, a fact, which is attested to by the first historian of Arab Nationalism, George Antonius.

The Muslim version came instead from a growing discontent for the Ottoman State’s attempts at modernization, as well as its adoption of Pan-Turanism, after the Young Turk Revolution. For Muslims, the Ottoman State had slowly become viewed as the ‘betrayer’ of Islam, and; therefore, it was up to its Arabic speaking population to restore the Ottoman Caliphate to its former grandeur [9]. The Ottoman’s betrayal of Islam was also compounded by its policies of Turkification, which threatened the cultural status quo [9]. This added to growing discontent amongst Arabic-speakers as the Empire began to look, to them, more like a Turkish Nation-state than an Islamic Caliphate.

The origins of Arabism 

The seeds of Arabism have their origins in the Al-Nahda, a late 19th century cultural renaissance in Egypt, which spilled over into other Arabic speaking regions. The result of a culture shock from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, the Nahda was not an Arab renaissance, but an ethnic Egyptian one.

The spirit of the Nahda took hold in other Arabic speaking regions of the Empire due to the 19th century Tanzimat Reforms, which were seen as Western Corruption of the Ottoman Caliphate. It is this growing discontent for the system in the Levant, and the revolutionary spirit of the Nahda that led to Arabic Speaking Muslims developing their own national awakenings. In which, intellectual circles developed, Arabism and Greater Syrianism, the latter being a non-Arabist alternative.

From primitive ideology to Cultural Hegemony

In the early 20th century, Muslim intellectuals and some Ottoman Military officials began adopting the Arab identity, which led to the creation of several secret societies and organizations like al-Fatat (the Young Arab Society). However, these Arabist groups had no impact on the identity of the majority of Arabic speakers throughout the Empire. As Englishman, Gertrude Bell once said in 1907, “Of what value are the pan-Arabic associations and inflammatory leaflets that they issue from foreign printing presses? The answer is easy: they are worth nothing at all. There is no nation of Arabs…” [9].

On the eve of World War I, Arabists were but a minority within the Arabic speaking world [9], and if not for Western Powers, such as Britain, would most likely have stayed as such. The so-called “Arab Revolt”, which would transpire near the end of the First World War, had little to do with an awakening Arab consciousness, and much more the personal ambitions of the Sharif and Emir of Mecca Husayn bi Ali [9]. Husayn was not an Arabist. He did not dream of a united Arab nation, but of an Islamic Caliphate, in which his family would rule. Promised such by the British, he allied with Arabist groups and declared the independent Kingdom of Hejaz, and proclaimed himself Malik bilad-al-Arab or King of all Arabs, thus beginning the so-called “Great Arab Revolt” in 1916.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the dream of an Islamic Caliphate never materialized. Instead, the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration divided the region into British and French zones of influence and designated British Palestine as the future home of a Jewish Nation-State. After some resistance, Husayn’s children were compensated, Fasyal ibn Husayn being crowned King of Iraq, and Abd Allah ibn al-Husayn being crowned King of Transjordan. From this moment forward, Arabism would no longer be about the creation of a secular ‘Arab’ culture and identity around the unity of an ethnically diverse linguistic group. The British’s betrayal would propel Arabism from a minuscule idea within the linguistics group into cultural hegemony

Arabism becomes the Middle Eastern equivalent to Aryanism 

As the age of European Imperialism dawned throughout the Levant, the majority of its Arabic-speaking population continued to identify by their religious, sect, or clan affiliations, rather than with the Arabist agenda of an ‘Arab nation[9]. Faced with populations that still had no Arab consciousness, Arabists were forced to fight on two fronts. The first was an internal front, in which they had to develop a doctrine of Arabization. The second front was the eternal struggle against European Imperialism. It is at this time that Arabists like Zaki al-Arsuzi, who believed in the racial superiority of ‘Arabs’, began to be influenced by European Racialists. These influences led to the adoption of elements from fascism into the Arabist struggle to transform a linguistic group into a race.

According to Sati al-Husri, one of the very first ideologues of Arabism, “Every Arab-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab. And if he does not recognize this, and if he is not proud of his Arabism, then we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand. It may be an expression of ignorance; in that case we must teach him the truth. It may spring from an indifference or false consciousness; in that case we must enlighten him and lead him to the right path. It may result from extreme egoism; in that case we must limit his egoism. But under no circumstances, should we say: "As long as he does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab." He is an Arab regardless of his own wishes. Whether ignorant, indifferent, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feeling, and perhaps even without conscience” [10].

Eventually, Arabism, began to spread beyond the Levant, first to Egypt, and then to North Africa. Although Northern Africa had fallen to European Imperialism in the 19th century, resistance until then was always founded in local patriotism. Until the 30s, Egyptians did not see themselves as Arabs; remember the Al-Nahda was an ethnic Egyptian renaissance, not an Arabic one. European Imperialism created solidarity between Arabic speakers from Northern Africa and the Levant. It was European Empires, like Britain and France, which linked together Arabic-speaking lands, which inspired the first idea of an “Arab World” [9].

Arabism’s final transformation

If one looks at European Imperialism as Arabism’s life giver, than it is Zionism, which is its destroyer. The Arab-Israeli conflict transformed the Arabist cause from anti-imperialist to anti-Zionist. After the end of the Second World War, European Imperialism slowly withdrew from the Levant, as places like Syria, Lebanon, and Transjordan became independent. However, these new 'Arab' States were not the only new nations to spring forth from the withdrawal of European Imperialism. Alongside these artificially created States was the State of Israel. A Jewish Nation-state in the heart of the Arabic speaking world, whose existence raised an entirely new dimension to the Arabist cause.

It is within this changing atmosphere that a new generation of Arabist leaders would emerge. As Arabism changed into a revolutionary movement, which promised social revolution through what was called ‘Arab Socialism’. It is within this revolutionary Arabist school of thought that two parallel political ideologies were born, Nasserism and Ba'athism. However, by now each artificially created ‘Arab’ state had its own ruling elite and bureaucracy [9], and as such the dream for a united Arab state began to become impossible. As was shown when Ba’athists and Nasserists attempted to create a pan-Arab Republic by uniting Egypt and Syria for a brief moment. In the end, Nasserists ran the northern region of the Republic (Syria) like a colony [9] and thus leading to the union's abolishment.

In the end, Arabist failures in several wars against the State of Israel would culminate in what some call Arabism’s ‘Waterloo’ [9], the Six Days War in 1967. After which, Arabism’s influence slowly declined, in the face of two new voices. One speaking the language of allegiance to the artificially created ‘states’ born from European Imperialism, while, the other spoke of Islam.

The Collapse of Arabism 

Today, Al-Oawmiyya al-‘arabiyya, or Arab Nationalism lies on its death bed, alive, but far from well. After the humiliating defeat of 1967, the Arabist agenda would slowly begin to decline. Setback after setback began to force Arab Nationalism into a downward spiral. First, with the death of Nasser in 1970; next, further humiliation with the 1973 Yom Kippur War; and finally the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Throughout it all, several self-proclaimed ‘saviors’ tried to vie for the right to be the new ‘spokesperson’ of the Arab people. Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, all tried to become the new voice of Arabism. However, the glory days of Arabism are no more. The secular Arab society has fallen to the wayside of history. The popular uprisings of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ have eroded the last vestiges of Arabism [11]. Ba’athism in Iraq is dead. Gaddafi and his Arabist regime are gone. Hosni Mubarak has fallen, and the Ba’athists in Syria, the last bastion of Arabism [11], are fighting for their lives.

A Hellenic alternative to Arabism 

If one looks over the different recorded Neo-Shu'ubiyya, it seems that just about every ethnoreligious community in the Greater Levant region has its own alternative to Arabism, except for one, the Antiochian Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic community. An ethnocultural minority of formerly Koine-Greek speaking Christians, the Roum and Melkite communities, are found across the Middle East, notably in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and the Hatay province of Turkey.

Both self-identifications hark back to their Greek origins. The word Roum coming from the Greek “Romioi”, the self-identification of Eastern Romans or Byzantine Greeks. The term Melkite coming from the Syriac “malkafor ‘King’ or the Arabic “malakifor ‘royal’, originally a pejorative term used by Syriac and Coptic speaking Christians. The word was used for Greek speaking city-dwellers in the Levant and Egypt who accepted the authority of the Council of Chalcedon and the Byzantine Emperor.

Traditionally, staunch proponents of Arabism, these two communities have acted like the vanguard of Arab Christianity identity [12]. With such notable Arabists coming from their ranks, as Michel Aflaq the principal founder of Ba’athist thought and George Antonius the first historian of Arab nationalism. Even other Shu’ubiyya found staunch ideologues from within this community, such as Antoun Saadeh, the founder of the Syrian Social National Party, the leading political party of Greater Syrianism.

So why is it that the regions Roum and Melkite minority have been such staunch supporters of these identities, rather than developing their own counter-trend? One reason may have to do with their Church’s absorption of the Arabic language into their liturgical traditions [12]. Unlike other Christian communities, which have maintained, the liturgical languages, and thus have their own unique, alternative identities to Arabism [12]. In the case of the Antiochian Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches, their traditional liturgical language has been mostly replaced with Arabic [12]. This abandoning of their historical language made their communities the perfect marks for American Protestants in the late 19th century.

Another reason for the lack of their own shu’ubiyya could be their exclusion from the Greek national awakening. Unlike other Greeks, the Antiochians lived outside the boundaries of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. At the time of the Greek Revolution, and during its expansion into its modern borders, Greek thinkers only felt a kinship with other Roum of the Ottoman Empire, which were within the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Patriarchate of Constantinople. Regardless of what language they spoke, whether they were Turcophones, Slavophones, or even Albanophones, as long as they remained Patriarchatists, they were deemed a part of the Modern Greek nation. One can only assume that if the Arabic-speaking Roum had fallen under the jurisdiction of Constantinople, rather than Antioch, they too would have been welcomed with open arms into the Modern Greek identity.

The final reason may be as simple as fear. Fear that such an alternative identity would be seen as ‘foreigner’, further making them targets for Radical Islamists or Arabists. However, such an identity is far from ‘foreign’, in fact, by declaring a Greek identity they would be declaring themselves indigenous. As such an identity would give them a pre-Arab claim over the region, much like that of the indigenous Assyrians/Arameans. This possible reasoning makes sense, given the very public ill-treatment of the Greek minority of Egypt.

Once, a thriving community of Indigenous Melkites and second generation Greek emigrants, the Greek community of Egypt was almost destroyed by the rise of Nasserism. The Egyptian Revolution of 1952 saw the closing of Greek institutions like schools and churches, and between the years of 1957 and 1962, resulted in almost 70% of the Greek population fleeing the country. Those who stayed adopted an Egyptian identity or married into the Coptic community. This treatment of ethnic Greeks by Arabists could have only added to the belief that it is better not to embrace their Greek origins.

The winds of change bring new hope to Eastern Hellenism

For the first time, however, the possibility of a Hellenic alternative to Arabism is beginning to blossom in the hearts and minds of one Roum community. In Lebanon, the seeds of Hellenism have begun to take root in a new generation of Antiochian Greeks. It is this generation that Michael Maalouf and Karl El Haddad are a part of, born in the village of Kfaraab in Mount Lebanon Michael is just 18 while Karl, born in Byblos is only 21. They both represent a break in their community’s traditional allegiance to Arabism, and it was because of this that I said down and spoke with them about their beliefs and opinions.

What is your opinion concerning the origins of the Levant’s Greek Orthodox? Are they ethnic Greeks or Arabs?

Michael: Well, I was always taught that we were Arabs that joined Byzantium and converted to Orthodoxy, however, I’ve discovered that this may not be true. I may have Aramean or Greek origins, which is confusing, but I consider myself a Greek not an Arab. I’ve actually started learning Greek, as a way to connect with my Byzantine roots
Karl:  I do not feel Arab. There is an Arabian cultural heritage that is undeniable, however judging by ethnicity or history or even culture in general, I do not feel Arab. The Quran itself mentions the "Rum" (Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire). The history of Islam mentions countless of wars against the "Rum". Since we are the "Rum" (this is what Greek Orthodox Christians are called in Arabic), then how are we Arabs?

In recent years, there has been a growing trend amongst Greek Orthodox in the Levant to embrace a Greek identity. What has the reaction to this been by the Church and others in the community? 

Michael: Well to be honest, I don’t know what goes on in Church politics, but it seems to me that the Church hasn’t reacted. Many Church leaders are afraid to show a Greek identity, because they believe we would face problems with the Arabs. Arabism was created by the Greek Orthodox, as a way to stop the Muslims in the region from harming us. My family originally migrated from Syria because of persecution during medieval times, so no one wants to see that again.
Karl: The Church's response to the rise of the Greek/Byzantine identification in many Orthodox Christians was generally negative, encouraging many institutions (such as the Orthodox Youths) not to take part in this identification, even sometimes to condemn it altogether. While many claim these moves were a step to keep Orthodoxy purely spiritual, others criticized the move as political correctness towards Arabism, as far as saying this was a betrayal to the Greek and Byzantine ancestry of Orthodox Christians in the Levant.

How do you feel about the current situation in Syria?

Michael: It is a tragedy, and part of another conquest plan of the West. I may not know exactly what their plan is, but it seems to be moving towards a large scale war. Ethnic Greeks in Syria have been harmed a lot, and we see no support from the Christian World. No Christian country cares about us in the Levant. We are nothing to no one, only God watches us. Even the Greek Muslims are suffering.
Karl: The situation in Syria is catastrophic. The civil war is becoming more and more sectarian. Minorities cannot be considered safe. This has collateral damage all over the region especially here in Lebanon, where various factions are clearly aligned with one side or the other in regards to the Syrian conflict. Many reports have emerged showing atrocities being committed. Christians are not spared, as we noticed the fall of Maaloula for example (a Christian village north of Damascus where Aramaic is still spoken). The international community doesn't seem to be bothered (as the cases of Egypt, Northern Cyprus, Irak, Kosovo-Metohija, etc). Maybe it's time for the Christians in Syria to do what is necessary to survive in their ancestral lands.

What do you think the future of Arabism is in the Middle East? 

Michael: Arabism is collapsing, because Arabs aren’t as strong as they use to be in past conflicts. There is no longer any unity. The Arab World has been targeted for its resources, and the West’s agenda is to prevent the rise of Arab strengthen in order to help Israel.
Karl: Pan-Arabism, as some like to call it, was a dead idea from the beginning, as none of these leaders managed a full-fledged and lasting unity, except Yemen. Secularism in Syria is likely to die if Bashar al Assad falls. So this new Arab world will be more religiously oriented than in the past, with Sunni Muslim hegemony, and a likely adoption of sharia law. This is what frightens moderates and minorities alike.

What message would you like to tell Greek-Americans about your origins and community in Lebanon?

Michael:I may not be sure of my real origins, but I know my ancestors used to speak Greek before the Arabs came. Therefore, I consider Greece as my second country; after all we can’t deny we have Greek origins. Something I am very proud of.
Karl: I would like to tell them that though they are American citizens, they should never forget our shared Faith in God and His Church. Let them remember their culture, heritage and ancestors and continue their legacy for the future generations.

What message would you like to tell the Antiochians in the United States? 

Michael: Find a solution to the slaughter of ethnic Greeks in Syria. 450,000 Christians have fled Syria because of persecution by the Rebels.
Karl: We Greek Orthodox of Antioch have failed, and thus have lost a huge part of our identity, this is why political parties such as Ba'ath (pan Arab) or the Syrian social nationalist party (pan Syrian) saw the light in the early 20th century. These were made by Greek Orthodox Christians. There is a lack of cultural and sometimes spiritual identification, and many go to Maronite services, dismissing orthodoxy as extremist. Others are seculars, while most practicing Orthodox Christians do not feel the need for cultural heritage.

Do you think more Roum are embracing their Greek identity or is it still a small minority within community?

Michael: We are a small minority, but I believe that some in the Levant Party have embraced a Greek identity, while others link Orthodoxy with Arabism. My family’s history books claim us to be Arabs, but I think this is just a brainwashing tactic in order to survive in the Arab World. Church leaders are afraid to show our Greek identity, and people never look through their history
Karl: There has been a rising trend, but the results are not sufficient. The clergy is mostly against it and there is strong dissatisfaction with those posing as the leaders of this identification. I personally feel that making the move politically was a mistake, and a fatal one. It should have stayed cultural, to give a sense to our community. We are already divided by political parties (of other sects) another political party was a childish idea that further divided us.

Closing Thoughts 

The recent wave of revolutions inside the Middle East has destroyed the old order of power in the region. The age of Secular Arabism is at an end. For the descendants, of the former Greek-speaking minority of the region, two paths lay before them. The first is a seemingly easy path. It is clean of debris and the wind echoes a sweet voice, which says come-hither, but it is a path of death, persecution, and servitude. The second is dirty, and debris ridden. Its trees cast shadows that only a fool would not fear, but it is a path of cultural resurrection, equality, and freedom.

As dissident voices grow against the Arab norm, like that of Greek Orthodox priest, Father Gabriel Nadaf, who believes that Israel should stop classifying the indigenous Christians as ‘Arabs’ [13]. The time is coming for Greece and its Diaspora to decide whether Hellenism is ready to accept the return of its eastern descendants. The choice of their own shu’ubiyya is theirs and theirs alone, but the act of acceptance rests with us.  


Karl El Haddad, email interview, September 11, 2013
Michael Maalouf, email interview, September 10, 2013


[1] "Libya's Berbers join the revolution in fight toreclaim ancient identity". The Guardian. 28 February 2011.
[2] North Africa: Berber Renaissance Gains Momentum".
[3] Springtime for them too?". The Economist. 13 August 2011.
[4] Therolf, Garrett; Sandels, Alexandra (8 April 2011). "Minority Syria Kurds join protest, get concessions". The San Francisco Chronicle.
[5] Kurds seek autonomy in a democratic Syria". BBC World News.
[6] Izemrasen N.M. Amazigh North Africa, The West, And The Arab-Islamic Tyranny.
[7] Sami Hanna and G.H. Gardner, "Al-Shu‘ubiyah Updated", Middle East Journal, 20 (1966): 335-351
[8] Ghazi Omar Tadmouri (17 March 2011). "Genetic Disorders inArabs". Centre for Arab Genomic Studies. .
[9] Kramer, Martin. Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity
[10] Translation from Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair [Princeton and Oxford, 2003] p. 72.
[11] Michael Sharnoff. The End of Pan-Arabism Redux 
[12] Al-Tamimi, Aymenn Jawad. Identity Among Middle East Christians
[13] Jones, Ryan. Christians should not be classified as Arabs