Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Arabists and Christians
Have just finished, several years too late, Robert D. Kaplan's The Arabists, a fine book on those American missionaries and diplomats who in the past two centuries have in some fashion become experts on and/or sympathetic to the Arab world. The book perhaps suffers from the same shortcomings that any book would describing a miscellaneous group as a unified whole. However, it is also remarkably judicious, fair, and accurate, reflecting an attitude I was personally quite familiar with in the 1970s-80s when dealing with Americans in Beirut.

Particularly evocative is Kaplan's observation that the Arabists had particular antipathy for the Eastern Christians, especially Lebanon's Maronites. This was flagrant during the 1975-90 civil war. As one of Kaplan's sources, a younger Cuban-American diplomat, remarked: "It's true, Arabists have not liked Middle Eastern minorities ... I remember once going to a Foreign Service party and hearing people refer to the Maronite Christians in Lebanon as 'fascists.'"

I remember this attitude well, being the son of a Maronite and now married to one. In contrast, this animosity was never directed at Muslims, nor indeed should it have been; in the end, the Arabists were not in the Middle East to make lists of friends and enemies. I always saw this contempt as a gaping blind spot in the American community, an irrational unwillingness to understand how a Middle Eastern minority reacted to perceived threats. It was almost as if a country weaned on the mathematics of majority rule could not stomach a Maronite community (a) asserting its distinctiveness against the grain of the majority of Muslim Arabs, and (b) demanding a stake in the Lebanese state that was greater than its numbers.

I also believe it is one reason why to this day Lebanon's Christians regard the U.S. with deep suspicion.

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