Maximilian Felsch is an assistant professor of Political Science at the Haigazian University in Beirut. He is a member of the International Studies Association and regularly publishes articles and commentary on Islamist movements and Middle East politics, in particular on Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. He is co-editor of an upcoming book entitled Lebanon and the Arab Uprisings: In the Eye of the Hurricane, to be published in 2015, and in which he authors a chapter entitled ‘The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Lebanon’.
Religioscope – How do you define Christian nationalism? Is it a mélange of Phoenicianism and political Maronitism?
Maximilian Felsch – Christian nationalism in the Lebanese context can be defined as an isolationist political ideology and force based on particular values and ideas, which include the idea of Lebanon being essentially a Christian nation and the belief that Christians have a historical right to dominate the country’s political affairs. This implies the notion of Lebanon as a conglomerate of multiple and unequal confessional communities and not a society of free and equal citizens. This has, of course, significant implications for the understanding of legitimate political rule. The politics of Christian nationalism aims at maintaining a Christian-dominated Lebanese state, a strong confessional identity among Christian Lebanese and a highly autonomous Christian community.
That said, Christian nationalism must not be confused with Phoenicianism. Thinkers and intellectuals like Michel Chiha (1891-1954) have utilized the myth of a Phoenician heritage after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to legitimize an independent Lebanese state based on a unified and organic Lebanese nation in which confessional identity – it was hoped – would become politically irrelevant. Phoenicians were neither Christian nor Muslim and therefore served both people’s mission very well. In 1943 leaders of Christian Maronites and Sunni Muslims made the National Pact, which contained basic norms of an independent and liberal Lebanese state. This pact was basically an attempt at nation building. The Christian nationalist agenda today, on the other hand, aims at quite the opposite goal, since it demands the segregation of the Lebanese nation along religious lines.
As for Maronitism, it shares more of the values of Christian nationalism, but there are significant differences. Maronitism is rather related to those Maronites of the early 20th century who opposed the State of Greater Lebanon, created in 1920 under the French mandate, and supported a small Lebanon under French protection in the mountains, because the Muslim population is much smaller in that area. This group regained support during the Lebanon crisis of 1958 and the civil war of 1975-1990.
Today’s Christian nationalism no longer questions the borders of Lebanon, while another difference is that this phenomenon is not strictly related to Maronites. Whereas in the past non-Maronite Christians in Lebanon were mainly adherents of Syrian and Arab nationalisms and opposed the separatists’ agenda, contemporary Christian nationalists – although mainly led by Maronites – claim to serve all Christians’ interests.
Religioscope – Can we compare it with European ethno-nationalism?
Maximilian Felsch – Forms of ethno-nationalism appeared, for example, in Yugoslavia after the end of the Cold War. Similar to the Maronites in Lebanon, at that time the Serbs tried to maintain the unity of a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Yugoslavia, but under their own domination. As we know, their mission failed and Yugoslavia collapsed after bloody civil wars into various ethnic nation states. Lebanon is too small for this option and all groups, including the Maronites, accept the territorial integrity of the country. Another striking similarity between the Balkans and Lebanon is that the elites in both cases exploited growing confessional identities instead of preaching a common national identity.
Religioscope – What are the historical milestones of this confessional nationalism?
Maximilian Felsch – Confessional nationalism among Maronites is as old as the Lebanese state itself. But in Lebanon’s early history it was a minority position among the elites. The mainstream desired the national integration of all minorities. For decades Lebanon was seen as a successful example of consociationalism, i.e. a democratic political system in which ethnic or religious groups coexist and cooperate peacefully with each other. But isolationist positions have always occurred in Lebanon when regional crises have caused tensions and identity conflicts among confessional groups. In 1958 it was the spread of revolutionary Nasserism and the unification of Egypt and Syria to form the the United Arab Republic that led to the first civil war in Lebanon and the first militarization of Christian parties. In the 1960s it was the Palestinian resistance to Israel that divided Lebanon and eventually led in 1975 to a 15-year civil war. It was existential fears that provoked the radicalization and militarization of Christians in this period, culminating in the massacres that occurred in Palestinian refugee camps, as in Tel al-Zaater in 1976 and Sabra and Shatila in 1982.
With the end of the civil war in 1990 and the beginning of the Syrian control over Lebanese politics, Christians have significantly lost political influence in Lebanon, while the confessional power-sharing formula has been amended in favour of Muslim communities.
The dynamic developments in the region since 2011 have once again caused existential fears among Christians of all denominations. The Arab world is experiencing increased violence against Christians: in Syria, Christian towns and villages have come under attack and bishops have been abducted; in Egypt, churches were burned when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power; and in Iraq the Christian population is suffering from spreading anarchy. As a result, the Christian population of the region has decreased significantly in recent years. And now the so-called ‘Islamic State’ is carrying out the systematic ethnic cleansing of all minorities and is rapidly expanding the territories under its control in Iraq and neighbouring Syria. At the same time Sunni extremism is also growing in Lebanon. This situation explains the rise of Christian nationalism in the country.
Religioscope – What are the manifestations of Christian nationalism?
Maximilian Felsch – We can identify three elements of Christian nationalism: firstly, the idea of ‘Christian land’ in Lebanon whose Christian identity is threatened by non-Christian settlers; secondly, the issue of the immigration of mainly non-Christian refugees to Lebanon and the emigration of Lebanese Christians; and, thirdly, the issue of Christian representation in Parliament, which is allegedly particularly unrepresentative of Christians.
Religioscope – Can you give some examples of Christian nationalist behaviour?
Maximilian Felsch – As for the first aspect, Christian nationalists assume that the territory of the Lebanese state is historically divided among the various confessions and that these divisions are sacred. Their agenda aims at maintaining the Christian identity of certain areas by preventing non-Christian Lebanese from settling there. In accordance with this idea, many municipalities pressure locals not to sell their land and property to non-Christians, while some even prevent such sales by rejecting the formal registrations of ‘unacceptable’ changes of ownership. Also, demonstrations are being organized by various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to protest against the settlement of non-Christians in these areas. Politicians of all major Christian parties usually support such events. The lobby group Lebanese Land – Our Land Movement is the most active movement in terms of fighting so-called Muslim ‘misuse of land’.
Even politicians have invested their private money to buy property in their home towns and villages from Muslims, and are hailed as heroes by their community. Currently, the Syriac-Catholic parish in East Beirut is financing the construction of hundreds of apartments in Fanar in East Beirut to be sold exclusively to families of its denomination in order to balance the recent influx of Sunni residents to the area. It is generally a common trend to plan housing projects exclusively for Christians, although in most cases this is unofficial.
The enormous influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon is the second concern of Christian nationalists. The general attitude towards Syrians is very negative. Usually they are accused of being responsible for almost all the problems Lebanon is facing: decreasing security, high inflation, low economic growth, insufficient supplies of electricity and water, low salaries, decreasing job opportunities, etc. Although the negative impact of the Syrian refugees is exaggerated, political figures exploit this mood and sometimes even make xenophobic statements to further spread anti-Syrian sentiments among Lebanon’s Christians. The emigration of Lebanese Christians is a related factor. In this regard, an organization called Labora – an NGO run by a Maronite priest and supported by the leading Christian parties – helps Lebanese Christians to find jobs in Lebanon so that they are not forced to leave the country.
The last element of Christian nationalists is more nuanced. It is based on the perception that Christians are not appropriately represented in Parliament and that non-Christian actors de facto control state institutions. The reality is quite different, however, and Christians in Lebanon are far from being an oppressed minority. As we have seen, Lebanon’s political system is a so-called consociational system in which public offices are distributed on the basis of a specific power-sharing formula that actually strongly privileges Christians over Muslims. For example, although Christians constitute only about a third of the Lebanese population, they are allocated 50 % of the seats in both Parliament and the cabinet. In addition, Maronite Christians are entitled to exclusively occupy all key state positions: only a Maronite Christian can become president of the republic or head of the army, the Central Bank and the Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, Christian nationalists argue that most Christians in those public offices are elected or appointed by non-Christians and therefore do not represent genuine Christian interests. All Christian parties have therefore suggested reforming the electoral law for parliamentary elections so that Lebanese only vote for candidates of their own denomination. Such a system would lead to the further segregation of Lebanese among confessional lines. The original idea of Lebanon’s consociational and confessional electoral system was to promote cooperation and consensus among politicians and citizens of different confessional backgrounds. The current system forces candidates to attract votes from members of various confessional communities. Equally, the Maronite president who is elected by a two-thirds parliamentary majority necessarily needs votes from Muslims MPs too. But Christian Nationalists no longer believe in Lebanese nationhood and therefore question the legitimacy of the current political system.
My argument is that political and religious elites exploit and manipulate the widespread fear of Lebanese Christians that they will end up like the Christian minorities in other Arab countries. These elites are supported by and cooperate with various civil society organizations. Whereas after World War I the country’s political and business elites tried to construct Lebanon as a cultural nation, today’s Christian elites emphasize the importance of Lebanese Christians’ religious identity. It seems that the heritage of the Ottoman millet system in terms of which religious minorities enjoyed a high degree of autonomy is more persistent than the supposed idea of a common Phoenician heritage.
Religioscope – What are the official positions of the main Christian denominations in Lebanon? Do the Maronites, Greek Orthodox, and Armenians agree on how to define this nationalism and its main goals?
Maximilian Felsch – Christian nationalism is a theoretical concept that I use to attempt to analyze the trend towards radicalization in the Christian community in Lebanon. The people concerned do not theorize their own behaviour and therefore do not debate this issue either.
My impression is that the Christian national identity in Lebanon transcends generations and classes, but is particularly well developed in the Maronite community. The Maronites traditionally have a special relationship with the state of Lebanon. Most of them believe that the community’s survival depends on a Christian-dominated Lebanon. Orthodox and Armenian Christians are not that emotionally bound to Lebanon; but as their community members in Syria and Iraq increasingly become the victims of Islamist expansionism, they are becoming more inclined to support the politics of Christian nationalism.
Religioscope – What is the impact of this confessional nationalism on the current political gridlock in Lebanon?
Maximilian Felsch – The political gridlock is exemplified by the failure of Parliament to elect a new president and the failure of the political elite to organize parliamentary elections and agree on an electoral law. Both problems show the unwillingness and inability of the political elites to compromise. When decisions are seen as potentially posing existential threats to an entire religious community, concessions of any kind become extremely difficult to make.