The fact that ‘Arab’ as a word invokes negative connotations to certain people would likely be unsurprising to most Westerners. Yet it would probably come as a highly surprising fact that this antipathy also comes from the Middle-East.
No, I’m not making a point about Israeli Jews and anti-Arab bigotry. I’m talking about native Arabic speakers, born in Arab countries, who dismissively reject the term ‘Arab’ as a vulgar term at the same time they are identified as Arabs by the majority of the non-Arab world.
Perhaps the main reason for this can be found in the connotations invoked by the very word ‘Arab.’ To many native speakers in the Levant, the word ‘Arab’ is associated with Bedouin people and lifestyle for a plethora of historical reasons. Most people don’t realize, but the Qur’an itself even participates in slander against Arabs, as in the following passage (adapted from the Talil Itani translation: note that the literal translation is just “the Arabs” (العراب) not “the Desert-Arabs” or “Bedouins” or anything else):
(9:97) “The Arabs are the most steeped in disbelief and hypocrisy, and the most likely to ignore the limits that God revealed to His Messenger. God is Knowing and Wise.”
Seems Muhammad didn’t know how to play his audience!
Although most Westerners today don’t need to be told not to say bad things about other groups, recent developments in some parts of the Arab world have gone the opposite direction. Beginning in the latter half of the 20th century, Arabic-speakers in historically Christian Levantine countries such as Lebanon and Syria have sought to re-assert old identities, rebranding themselves as Phoenicians, Assyrians, or Greeks whose ties to the Arab identity exist in language alone. Nassim Taleb, for instance, Taleb proudly refers to himself as a descendant of the Greek colonists in Syria, who intermixed with the Levantine population to form a unique and flourishing Greco-Semitic Christian culture, and many others engage in similar acts of historical reclamation.
While this itself is innocuous and widespread, some people take it too far. Taleb, for instance, has actually suggested that the Lebanese dialect of Arabic is rather an entirely different language – not Arabic, but a direct descendant from the Phoenician/North Canaanite language, which he asserts developed independently, but under heavy Arabic influence. Okay. Now things are starting to get a bit weird.
No, imbecile, Lebanese is not a dialect of Arabic.
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb (@nntaleb) January 14, 2019
Now again, I have no problem with the appropriation of distant history to create newfound identities. If Levantines like Nassim Taleb wish to brand themselves as Phoenicians, or as relics of Byzantine glory, then so be it. What I do not accept on any terms is the para-racist bigotry against the Arab identity that so frequently accompanies these recent developments of self-expression. For instance, see stuff like this:
I would hate to be Arab, and not Lebanese #cultureissodope
— Sammy Mortada (@sammymortada) September 2, 2015
Sure, it is an old tweet – but if you’re in the right circles, you hear this sort of stuff much more commonly. The Lebanese intellectual Said Akl, for instance, famously said “I would cut off my right hand just not to be an Arab.” Among other persecuted minority communities of the Middle-East, such as Kurds (particularly Yazidis), Assyrians, and Armenians, such remarks are even more often heard.
Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of this crap comes from Arabic-speaking Christians, who are unaware of the valuable and enriching role Arabs actually played in Christian history. For instance, look at this map from 565 AD:
As you can see, the picture of Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of Christian East African kingdoms around Ethiopia) is very unclear, and Britain is a veritable clusterfuck of Celts, Latins, and Germanics bashing each others’ heads in. But what about the (very foreign sounding) kingdoms at the northern end of the Arabian Peninsula? It might surprise you to know that both of these were not only Christian – but Arab, too.
The Ghassanids (ar: الغسانية) were a foederatus of the Roman Empire, who played a critical role in securing the empire’s southern border against incursions from Pagan Arab raiders (who themselves formed the main body of the Islamic converts that overran this border in the 620s). While they mostly stayed true to Rome during the initial Islamic invasion, many were forced to convert sometime before the year 900, though others fled as refugees to Byzantium. Incredibly, the Christian influence remained so powerful that the surname ‘al-Ghassani’ still signifies Christian heritage today. One of the oldest surviving Orthodox Christian schools in the Levant bears the name ‘Al-Ghassaniyyah‘ for instance, and while Muslim Ghassanids can be found today. Perhaps most important of all, at least one Roman emperor – Nikephoros the First – was of probable Ghassanid descent.
The Lakhmids (ar: المناذرة) have a similarly impressive history. Although suzerains to the Sassanid Empire, they resisted the influence of state Zoroastrianism for centuries, holding stubbornly to their Christian heritage. They played a similar role to the Ghassanids as borderguards against the nomadic raiders to the southern deserts, although relations with their overlord were far less positive. The Sassanid overthrow and execution of the last independent Lakhmid king Nu3maan may have caused an Arab uprising which left this southern border effectively unguarded, allowing for the early Muslims to stage a bold and sweeping invasion of the Sassanid heartland of Asoristan just decades later, by which time the Persians were critically weakened due to infighting and war exhaustion. Despite repeated betrayals and oppression, some Arab Christians still rallied to the defense:
So what have we learned from all this?
Clearly, the moral matrix of the modern West has internalized – along with a great many other things – the notion that discrimination on the basis of group identity, or attacks against entire ethnic groups, is uncool. There isn’t so much of a ‘lesson’ for Westerners here as much as a reminder – yes, Arab Christians existed, yes, they still exist today, and yes, it’s wrong to draw an equivalence between the Arabic language or identity, and Islam or Islamism. Yet perhaps many Arabic-speakers in the Middle-East too could do with a reminder that anti-Arab bigotry is not only wrong, but historically ignorant and anti-Christian.