Kamal Junblat (1917-1977), the prince of the Lebanese Opposition in the 1970s, once said: “We have the support of 25% of the Maronites, 50% of the Greek-Catholics and 75% of the Greek-Orthodox.”
I wondered, upon reading this quote for the first time, if we could infer that Maronites and Greek-Orthodox are politically antagonistic. Whereas “political Maronitism” (not used pejoratively here) was a clearly defined trend in pre-1984 Lebanon, and maintained a façade of unity despite its internal diversity, “political Orthodoxism” seems to be harder to identify. In any case, Greek-Orthodox tend to have a better reputation in Muslim milieus than Maronites. They are perceived as “moderates” and politically “milder” compared to the “unflinching” and rather “radical” Maronites. They are also thought to be more secular, contrary to the uncompliant “sectarian” Maronites. It is worthy of noting that, in contrast to the Maronite case, there is no specifically Greek-Orthodox leadership. There only are/were political leaders who happen/ed to be of Greek-Orthodox religion.
Let us now delve into the multidimensional world of “political Greek-Orthodoxism” and dredge up the common characteristics existing within the sect.
Affinities To Syrian Nationalism
It is fascinating to notice how many former SSNP members eventually converted to Arabism (Ghassan Tueni is one of them), knowing that Antun Saadeh (1904-1949) was extremely clear on the fact that the “Syrian nation” is not to be confused or merged with the “Arab nation”. Saadeh admitted there is an “Arab world”; he was sensible enough to acknowledge that relations between “Syrians” and “Arabs” have existed for centuries (if not millennia), but he categorically rejected the idea of an “Arab nation”, especially in “Greater Syria”. In short, Syrian nationalism professes that “Syrians” are Syrian only and that “Arabs” are Arab only (classic nationalist tune).
The failure of Syrian nationalism is certainly due to its lack of consideration towards two fundamental elements: Arabness (‘urûba) and Islam. Most Muslim Syrian nationalists in Lebanon and Syria saw their “Greater-Syrian” identity as a part of their Arab (and sometimes Arab-Muslim) identity. The more Saadeh–and later the SSNP–was categorical against Arabness, the less support he was lent. Conversely, when the SSNP embraced pro-Arab(ist) stances, he enjoyed a wider approval.
One needs to read Antun Saadeh in order to realize how much the unity of the “Syrian People” is important to him. The bad thing about ideologies is that they try to prove socio-historic truths with anti- or pseudo-socio-historic arguments. In that respect, Saadeh tried to prove that the Syrian nation existed–and exists–beyond history, whereas in fact, all nations are purely ideological constructions, and nationalisms purely historical constructions.
After having “proved” that the “Syrian people” was one, despite its internal diversity, Saadeh argued that the common denominator of the Syrian nation was the combination of geography and culture, and proceeded to discard religion (Christianity and Islam) and language (Arabic and Greek) as essential factors.
For years, Saadeh was a teacher of German at the American University of Beirut and was deeply influenced by Germany’s prevailing ethnicist conceptions of identity and nationalism. There is no doubt that he was also influenced by Nazism, as both parties are “national socialist”. Moreover, striking similarities exist between the shape of the SSNP star and Hitler’s inverted Swastika. Finally, Saadeh’s hang-up free judeophobia is another telltale sign: to him, Jews were not part of the Syrian nation, they constituted a nation of their own which could never blend in with other nations or peoples. Horrendous, indeed.
But we don’t know yet why Saadeh crafted his “Greater-Syrian” ideology in this particular fashion and not another. My conclusion is that two decisive parameters of his Greek-Orthodox ethnicity guided his thought.
Paradoxically, the first parameter is religion. Saadeh was a notorious disbeliever and staunchly anti-clerical. He was also a Freemason–a very important “detail” which is not, however, relevant here. In spite of his hard-line secularism, he could not break free from a sectarian collective memory.
In the “Greater-Syrian” Lebensraum (“living space”), the Antiochian Greek-Orthodox Church would be the major Christian community. Saadeh was not wrong when maintaining that the inhabitants of this region have always wandered freely between Mount-Lebanon, Galilee, Palestine and Syria. Relations with Cyprus also existed, which justifies its otherwise absurd incorporation to “Greater Syria”. The “Greater-Syrian” living space remains a Greek-Orthodox living space, having Antioch as a strong religious symbol and Damascus as a consolation for the long-lost Byzantium. Greater Syria is then the modern embodiment of the Syrian province of the Byzantine Empire. Since the Reconquest of the “spoiled” Turkish-Ottoman territory seemed all too improbable to Saadeh, he thought he would manage with the remainder of the Byzantine Empire.
The second parameter–an unlikely one a priori as well–is Syro-Aramaean identity. Although Saadeh recognized that “Greater Syria” is the product of multiple Semitic heritages, i.e., Phoenician, Aramaean/Syriac and Arab, etc., he never considered they had a distinct or specific character vis-à-vis Syrian heritage; to him, all were simply avatars of the same Syrian heritage. In sum, “Greater Syria” is nothing but the territory which would guarantee the best representation of Syriac communities, even if their proportion would not measure up to that of the Sunni majority.
By Syriac communities, I mean the West Syrian Church (a.k.a. the “Jacobite” or Syriac Orthodox community), the East Syrian Church (a.k.a. the “Nestorian” or “Assyrian” Orthodox community), their Catholic counterparts (the Syriac Catholic and the “Chaldean” Catholic Churches), and of course the Maronites. All are Christian Churches of Syriac tradition. Did I forget something? The Greek-Orthodox Church! (And its Catholic counterpart). “Well, would you say, but they aren’t of Syriac tradition…”
Let me first explain why I put the aforementioned terms in quotes. This is not a worthless digression: I once met a person who was very proud to say she was “Assyrian” (ashûriyyeh, meaning “Assyrian” Orthodox). Actually, the terms “Chaldean” and “Assyrian” were invented by Western missionaries and colonizers (after the 16th century A.D.) in order to make the distinction between Catholics and non-Catholics. There is neither a logical nor a historical link whatsoever between Antique “Chaldeans” and Iraqi Catholics, and Antique “Assyrians” and Iraqi Orthodox; this is LUDICROUS. Those appellations are no more than pure linguistic utilities which do no reflect reality. Besides, the terms “Jacobite”, “Nestorian” and “Melkite” were used pejoratively to refer to the heretical Other. “Jacobite” was a “Melkite”-used insult against the heretical followers of Jacob Baradaeus (Bishop of Edessa, d. 578); and reciprocally, “Melkite” was a “Jacobite”-used insult against the followers of the Byzantine Emperor (in Syriac, the Melekh, or King). This lasted until approx. the 12th century A.D.
Now, what is the bridge between “Melkites” (i.e., Greek-Orthodox) and Syriac-Aramaean culture? Well, “Melkites” were/are not Greeks. Their religion is Byzantium’s and their cultural-philosophical influence was Hellenic. Only the elites could speak Greek. As to the people, the “commoners”, they spoke… Syriac. The “Melkites” were Syriac populations which had adopted the religion of the Byzantine Emperor. Everybody spoke Syriac in Syria (it makes sense, doesn’t it), including the hellenized elites, naturally.
Being the Imperial Church, the “Melkite” Church persecuted the “Jacobite” and “Nestorian” communities (the Copts too, but this is irrelevant here)… until the Arab conquest in the 7th century A.D. After the Arab conquest, the “Melkite” Church was the first Church to adopt Arabic as its official language and arabicized its liturgy and heritage very quickly, in contrast to the other Syriac Churches. So quickly that some scholars and historians call it the first Arab Church. This said, by quickly, I mean two centuries; by the 9th century A.D., ca. 85% of its written documents were in Arabic and and 15% in Greek.
In the end, the dream of “Greater Syria” is a modern dream of resurrecting the Ancient Syrian nation and gathering the lands of Canaan, Aram, Assyria and Babylonia together. Just another case of nostalgie d’empire; a nostalgia for a Semitic empire, analogous and opposed to Hitler’s Aryan empire.
Antun Saadeh thought like a true “Melkite”. Wasn’t his ideology subjugated to the inevitable predetermination of a sectarian collective memory? Ah, fatalism… Like an ancient Greek tragedy.
Sequel: Affinities To Arab Nationalism & Communism.