Across the Bay

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Truth about Dalrymple (Part I)

A long time ago, an anonymous reader left a note turning my attention to a review essay in the NY Review of Books by William Dalrymple. The piece is entitled "The Truth About Muslims" and it is vintage Dalrymple. I've been postponing this post for a long time now, because I don't have time to review my notes on the various books and articles I wanted to include in it. So I've resolved to posting it in increments. It's not ideal, and it will be truncated, but that's the best I can do for now. Here's the first episode. I figured I should post it now right after my previous post where I mentioned some attitudes towards Lebanonists and now "Iraqists." This short review of the segment on Lebanon in Dalrymple's book will show how this Arabist attitude has infiltrated Western (academic and media) conceptions of Lebanon through the 80's and 90's. Hopefully now with the Iraq enterprise, the Lebanese model will find some vindication.

I still haven't found a succinct way of describing the attitude on display in the piece, one shared by the Karen Armstrongs of the world and other such purveyors of apologetics for Islam cum Western Christian self-flagellation (and flagellation of Eastern Christians while they're at it!). I hope that this post will help in crystallizing my thoughts on the phenomenon. I'll first start with a discussion of Dalrymple's book, then move on to the review essay. I hope to show that there is a logical connection between the two works, a common attitude of sorts. Along the way I'll briefly touch on the history of Eastern Christian relations with Islam, and the many assumptions and the misreading (and misleading) that the Dalrymple types inflict on us all.

Dalrymple Goes to Lebanon

Dalrymple is the author of a book entitled From the Holy Moutain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East. In the book he basically writes a diary of his travels through various countries in the Eastern Mediterranean (Greece and Turkey) and the Middle East (the Levant and Egypt), collecting stories by and about ME Christians and their present state.

The book basically treats the Christians as folkloric relics, which is not far from their sorry reality in the ME. However, Dalrymple conveys a sort of contempt and patronizing that is quite insulting. Furthermore, one gets the impression that within Dar al-Islam, that is somehow how the Christians ought to be: silent relics of the past (side note: the root d-m-m, which is the root for the word dhimmi, has, among its various semantic connotations, the meaning "silence").

This attitude is confirmed when Dalrymple's journey leads him to Lebanon and the Maronites. In fact, it's quite explicitly stated by Dalrymple himself:

    After lamenting the demise of a succession of Christian communities in the Middle East which failed adequately to defend themselves, it may seem perverse to criticise the only one that has taken serious action in an attempt to hold its own [i.e. the Maronites. T.]; but even the other Eastern Christians seem to regard the Maronites as something of an embarrassment in their determination to cling on to their privileges whatever the cost. They certainly sounded very different from the defeated and depressed Armenians and Syriacs I had met in Turkey, or the timid, low-key Christians of Syria.

    If nothing else, I told myself, Lebanon was certainly going to be a change. pp. 199-200 (Emphasis added).

There are key words and concepts in there that perhaps might not stand out for an outside observer, but they are without a doubt hot buttons. For instance, the notion that the Maronites are an "embarrassment." Who are the other "Eastern Christians"? I'll answer that, as Dalrymple doesn't. It's the Greek Orthodox (with whom they have a historic animosity, dating back to Byzantine times. It's also all the Melchite (again, Byzantine) sects. The reason, beside historical animosity, is also the fact that the Orthodox and Melchites embraced Arab nationalism and, by virtue of their living in Sunni cities -- not the autonomous Mount Lebanon -- are more used to acquiescence. To quote the Greek Orthodox Charles Malek (who was at odds with Arab nationalism):

    "Their [i.e. the Orthodox] relation to Islam over the centuries may be characterized, in one word,as existentially chequered, morally subservient, and spiritually tragic, although in the Arab world at least, they worked more closely with their Muslim compatriots on civic, social, cultural and national problems than any other Christian group." (For this quote and more on the issue in general, see Fouad Ajami's The Dream Palace of the Arabs.)

The first half of the quote describes the case of all the Christians outside Lebanon, and in Lebanon's Sunni-majority cities. Mountainous Greek Orthodox, like Antoun Saade, maintained their own non-Arabist, Byzantine visions, which were also anti-Maronite but for different reasons, as they both rejected Arabism. But in terms of how Dalrymple means it, this is not true. In fact, the opposite is true. The Maronite Church in Lebanon is the most respected and stable institution with which all Christians and their leaders consult. For instance, the Orthodox patriarch didn't issue a statement on the Taef agreement until he met with the Maronite patriarch and saw what his position was. There are several other stories that completely contradict Dalrymple's premise, but you get the point.

The second jab about the Maronites basically adopting a suicidal policy just to hold on to "privileges" is quite common among leftist commentators, and it soon becomes obvious where Dalrymple gets it from. The first two characters that Darlymple talks to in Beirut are (sorry excuse for a) journalist Robert Fisk and historian Kamal Salibi. Need I say more!? I will, regardless! Let me quote what Fisk and Salibi said to Dalrymple, starting with Fisk.

    "The Arab Christians' principal problem is that the West is Christian," said Fisk, "and in one way or another since 1948 the West has humiliated the Muslims of the Middle East over and over again. The Christians simply cannot divorce themselves from the West, however many times they tell their Muslim neighbours that Christianity is really an Eastern religion." p. 217. (Emphasis added.)

Dalrymple goes on to say:

    According to Fisk it was nevertheless a myth that the Lebanese civil war was in essence a clash of civilisations, Christian against Muslim. It was, he said, more a case of the Maronites against everyone else. Ibid. (Emphasis added.)

Fisk piles it on:

    "The Maronites brought the war down on their own heads. The first event of the civil war was a massacre of Palestinians by a group of Phalangists trying to win power. The Greek Orthodox always realised that the different communities in Lebanon would have to learn to coexist, but the Maronites never came to terms with this. They are a very immature community politically, very stupid, and always letting themselves be used -- first by the French, then by the Israelis, now by the Syrians. The Maronites have always really wanted a francophone Lebanon that they can dominate, totally separate from the Arab world, with the Muslims reduced to some sort of folkloric survival tolerated to please the tourists. Is it any wonder that the Hezbollah headbangers now want to kill them all?." Ibid. (Emphasis added.)

Wait, there's still Kamal Salibi! Stay tuned!