What happened to the ideal of multi-religious Arab modernity?

By | December 5, 2021

Ussama Makdisi writes:

By the time I was born in 1968, my grandfather was an emeritus professor and a pillar of Ras Beirut’s small and highly educated Protestant community. But by then, as well, the optimism of the first half of the 20th century had receded dramatically. European empires had long since cynically partitioned the Ottoman Empire and created several new states including Lebanon. The Arab East, of which the small Mediterranean country was an inseparable part, witnessed the vibrant anticolonial politics of the 1950s and ’60s atrophy under a variety of repressive Arab regimes during the Cold War. Lebanon had already experienced a short civil war in 1958.

But the true calamity in the Arab East had occurred a decade before that, when Palestine was shattered by Zionists bent on establishing an exclusively Jewish state. In their drive to realise this ethnoreligious fantasy, they plunged the region into instability and war. The Zionists expelled most of the Palestinian natives from their lands and homes in 1948 and confiscated their property. In response, long-established Jewish communities across the Arab East found themselves scapegoated and imperilled. Since then, Arabs and Jews have been represented as eternal ontological foes as if their bitter contemporary political struggles rehearsed allegedly ancient religious conflicts. How intriguing then to read a poem titled ‘A Lesson from the Zionist Movement’ composed by my grandfather Anis and published in March 1914 in the journal Al-Kulliyya of the Syrian Protestant College – today the American University of Beirut (AUB).

The opening stanzas speak to a time when the word ‘Zionism’ in Arabic (Al-sahyuniyya) had not been completely tainted by the Zionist movement’s later deeds. The poem acknowledges the industriousness of the Zionist colonists who had arrived in Palestine from Europe at a moment of Arab decline. The lesson my grandfather drew from the Zionist movement was two-fold: the first was that the determination and agency of Zionists to revive themselves might spur the Arabs ‘to match them in their endeavour and enterprise’. This exhortation to progress perhaps reflected my grandfather’s distinctly Protestant Arab modernism, which was influenced heavily by American missionary institutions and culture.

But the urgent call for the Arabs to join the caravan of modernity also reflected a ubiquitous trope of the ecumenical Arab intellectual and cultural renaissance known as the nahda. For that same Zionist determination – and here was the more important lesson my grandfather drew – ultimately threatened to overwhelm the Arabs who needed to stop lamenting their glorious past and overcome their present pitiable condition. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email