Lost in Orientalism: Arab Christians and the war in Gaza

Centuries-old misconceptions compel Western Christians to ignore the plight of Palestinian Christians and Muslims.

Pastor Munther Isaac adds dirt to an installation that shows a figure symbolizing baby Jesus lying amidst the rubble in a grotto ahead of Christmas at the Evangelical Lutheran Church, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, December 5, 2023. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma
Pastor Munther Isaac shows an installation of baby Jesus lying in rubble, symbolising the fate of Palestinian children amid Israeli bombardment in Gaza, ahead of Christmas at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on December 5, 2023 [File: Mussa Qawasma/Reuters]

On February 21, it was announced that the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby refused to meet with Munther Isaac, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor, after Isaac had appeared at a pro-Palestine rally with former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Isaac, whose Christmas Eve sermon went viral for its condemnation of the Israeli assault on Gaza and concomitant Western Christian silence, has repeatedly called for ecumenical peace amid Palestinian suffering.

A week later, Welby apologised and agreed to meet with Isaac. But in his apology X post, the archbishop stated it was wrong to shun Isaac “at this time of profound suffering for our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters”, making no mention of the equal suffering of Palestinian Muslims, with whom Isaac has repeatedly stood in solidarity.

Today, as Catholics and Protestants celebrate Easter, Palestinians of these denominations are barred from visiting their holy places in Jerusalem. Neither the Church of England nor other Western churches have denounced these restrictions on free worship by the Israeli government.

Welby’s refusal to meet Isaac and the continuing silence of Western churches on Israeli crimes perpetrated against Palestinian Christians and Muslims are just further reminders that, for Arab Christians, their place in the West remains tenuous because of Orientalist and Islamophobic views of the Arab world.

Rarely allowed to speak for themselves, Arab Christians are either depicted in the West as hapless victims whose numbers continue to dwindle because of “Islamic fundamentalism” or as heretical Christians whose faith is marked by its cultural proximity to Islam. Driving this is an Orientalist gaze that sees the Arab world as barbaric and uncivilised, with only Western civilising missions and the state of Israel serving as a bulwark against its “terror”.

Ignored in turn are the experiences and perspectives of Arab Christians who lived alongside their Arab Jewish and Arab Muslim neighbours in relative peace and security from the seventh century to the latter period of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of Western imperialism.

From the Crusades onward, Western Christians have seen Arab Christians as the victims of “Islamic terror” in need of rescue. One of Pope Urban II’s justifications for the First Crusade (1095-1099), which resulted in the Western conquest of Jerusalem, was that Muslims destroyed churches, raped Christian women, and forced Christian men to be circumcised.

Similarly, Western observers across the Middle Ages and into the 16th and 17th centuries claimed that the perceived theological ignorance and poverty of Christian communities, such as the Copts in Egypt and the Maronites in Lebanon, were due to the oppressive Muslim rulers who overtaxed them, refused them permission to build or repair churches, and through various means, convinced more and more Christians to convert to Islam.

When Arab Christians were not perceived as victims of “Islamic terror”, they were seen as a product of it. This attitude was apparent in letters by Catholic missionaries who had been dispatched by Rome to the Middle East in an effort to bolster Catholic numbers following the loss of large swaths of Europe to Protestantism in the wake of the Reformation.

Many of them were aghast that Arab Christians had purportedly been Islamised and were thus in need of cultural reform. They also saw Arab Christian religious practices and theological beliefs as evidence of both ignorance and poverty as well as centuries of influence of Islam.

Catholic missionaries frequently grew frustrated when local Christian communities, like the Coptic Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox, refused to change their beliefs to the benefit of distant Rome, referring to them as obstinate and ignorant fools who were more like their Muslim and Jewish neighbours than their European co-religionists.

In the period of European imperialism, European powers established missionary schools as part of their colonisation efforts in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. Europeans strove to reform and civilise these newly subjugated populations, and they saw Arab Christians as potential allies to undermine Muslim powers.

In the wake of widespread Westernisation and modernisation throughout the Ottoman Empire known as the Tanzimat reforms (1839-1876), Christian communities in the Middle East were often politicised as Western fifth columns who potentially undermined the sectarian equilibrium of Ottoman society. This resulted in 5,000 people killed in the Massacre of Aleppo (1850) and more than 20,000 killed in the 1860 conflicts in Mount Lebanon and Damascus.

While most Arab Christians rejected such Western interventions, and many Muslims protected their Christian neighbours during riots, Arab Christians nevertheless became, as historian Ussama Makdisi argues, “the most obvious symbol of the new Europe-oriented Ottoman order of things”.

Yet, even when Arab Christians are Catholics, Anglicans (like the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said) or Lutherans (like Munther Isaac), they continue to be seen as Arabs first, Christians second. They are racialised, Orientalised, and erased in the European view of what a Christian should look like.

What is often absent in this Orientalist view of Arab Christians are their rich histories, cultures and traditions. Ignored are the great contributions of Arab Christians, such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi (808–873), whose translations and commentaries were integral to preserving Ancient Greek philosophy across the Middle Ages and beyond, and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (1805/1806-1887), a central writer of the Nahda, or the Arab Awakening, a period of immense cultural reform and modernisation within the Arab world.

Quick to comment on the purported anti-Christian and anti-Semitic violence of Islam, Western Christians have remained mostly silent on the plight of Palestinian Christians at the hands of Israel. At the root of this stance is the longstanding Orientalist belief that all Arabs are “Muslim fundamentalists” bent on murdering Christians and Jews.

But this ignores the plurality of Arab life and how religious ecumenism between the three Abrahamic faiths has long transcended differences and united people across the Arab world. Western Christian leaders like Archbishop Welby must see beyond their Orientalist views that dismiss the concerns of Arabs and Palestinians like Munther Isaac, regardless of their faith. Otherwise, the plurality of the Arab world and a truly ecumenical future for all will remain lost in Western Orientalist, moral and political apprehensions.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.