In first grade in Amman, we were asked to divide into two groups, Christians on one side, and Muslims on the other. I stayed with my closest friends, and was pleased to notice we were the larger group. As we were about to start our first religious education class, my enthusiasm was interrupted when the teacher abruptly stopped at my name in the roster. Butros is the Arabic equivalent of Peter, which made me instantly identifiable as Christian, and landed me in the other classroom, feeling dejected.
I had little conception of religion at that time, and my Christian religion teacher took it upon herself to formally introduce me to the faith I was born into as a strict set of rules to be adhered to in attempt to stave off the wrath of God. My innate rebelliousness surfaced, and I asked how we even knew God existed, to which she furiously responded that questioning God’s existence was sure to land me in hell. Later, we learned of the loving God and sang hymns in his devotion. I enjoyed the hymns, but kept the devotion to myself. And so, my skepticism of an organized view of religion started very young, yet my identity as an Arab Christian still persists. My sisters and I grew up listening to my father and mother’s stories about their childhoods in Palestine; stories of family, humor, and ultimately tragic loss of home and homeland. Many of these stories contained within their folds the apparent seamless reality of religious harmony between indigenous Christians, Muslims and Jews - summarily obliterated by the occupation of Palestine and the establishment of a Zionist state. The history of my region, including the occupation of Palestine, is in large part why my unease with the Judeo-Christian heritage has continued to grow, stemming from a rejection of the oppression and injustice that the West has falsely practiced in its name against my people. The irony that the very Eastern place from which I hail is the very birthplace of Christianity is not missed on me, and my family’s heritage had meant that Christianity would always remain an intrinsic part of my identity.
I often joke that Arab Christians must be among the most obstinate people in the world. While the vast majority of people in our region converted to Islam, we clung stubbornly to our faith, which we have been free to practice, as a religion, and as an identity, in the vast majority of the Arab world to this very day. Yet, we are also Muslim by culture. This may not be a notion that every Arab Christian will embrace, but many of us value this hybrid Christian-Muslim cultural identity, and believe that it has a unique place in the vastly diverse spectrum of belonging in this world. It shapes us in an organic way that we could not forgo, without denying who we truly are. Five years ago, I married a Muslim, which is not a very common occurrence in the Arab world. For me, the idea of not marrying someone I loved because of his religious affinity seemed absurd, particularly when the person is from my own cultural background. The marriage, and our join quest to explore our identities has bolstered my own view of my own identity as hybrid, but also deepened my understanding of how the Muslim Arab identity is highly influenced by Christianity.
The view of Arab Christians not as an oppressed and endangered minority, but as an integral part of a collective Arab whole, troubles many. Chief among these, ironically, are those who subscribe to political Islam, and those who align themselves with the mainstream politics of the West. Absent in a well-rooted and pluralistic approach to citizenship in the Arab world, this view of Christians as an oppressed and fearful minority has found fertile ground. It is one of the reasons that some Christians may chose to align themselves with an oppressive regime and justify it as a means of self-preservation. It is also one of the reasons that Christians in the Arab world may chose to align with the West, and by doing so, move further away from our distinctive identity, and inadvertently contribute to the very cultural hegemony we fear.
The dearth of collective discourse on the role of religion in the Arab public domain over the decades has led to the emergence of several exclusionary narratives by different segments of society. As the Arab world negotiates its future in light of the collapse of the post-colonial status quo, a mediation process on the role of religion in public life is critical. If we chose a path of openness, rather than one of fear, the multilayered nature of our Arab Christian identity and its continued resilience in the face of repeated internal and external threats may well serve as one of the symbols of possibility for the pluralistic citizen-centered future that so many of us aspire to.