Arabic and its Alternatives: Religious Minorities in the Formative Years of the Modern Middle East (1920-1950)

Picture: Ceiling of the Church of Mary, Reginae Palaestinae, Deir Rafat, Israel

Last December, the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research decided to fund a research project that I submitted together with Dr. Karene Sanchez from the Leiden Centre for Linguistics (LUCL). The project plans to start in June, when, hopefully, two Ph.D. students (for the two Iraq case studies – Jews in Baghdad and Christians in North-Iraq) will have joined the team. Those interested in these positions are referred to the site of Leiden University referred to above. For a Dutch summary of the project, see the previous post.

For the time being, updates on the project will be posted via this weblog; a separate site will be created later this year.

Project summary 

This project aims to revisit the ways in which religious minorities in the Middle East participated in, contributed to, and opposed the Arab nationalism of the post-war years, when the British and French ruled the region via the Mandates. This period of societal modernization and competing nationalisms saw the emergence of new political structures that would define the Middle East for most of the twentieth century. While Arabic nationalism, predicated as it was on the Arabic language more than on Islam, was seen as a positive development by many Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians, others showed increasing uneasiness with its ramifications. This was more specifically the case among those non-Muslims that in addition to Arabic highly valued other languages, such as Syriac, Hebrew and Armenian, but also English and French. Would participation in Arab nationalism also imply giving up the allegiances symbolized by these languages?

Three case studies, into the Jews of Baghdad, the Syriac Christians of North Iraq and the Catholic Christians of Palestine, form the starting point of an inquiry into the linguistic practices and language ideologies of these religiously-defined minorities. How and why did they choose to use Arabic, and how and why did they prefer other languages? What was the role of religious elites, both local and foreign (such as missionaries) and how were their ideas picked up by others in the respective communities? How were these choices related to the strength of competing nationalisms (e.g., Zionist, Assyrian), to theological and ecclesial considerations (e.g., Catholic universalism versus Orthodox particularism?) and to global, local and regional alliances?

A more general analysis of the role of these non-Muslim minorities in the formative years of the Middle East will follow upon the study of these three particular cases. This in-depth analysis, informed by a network of international experts, expects to modify not only the sometimes all too straightforward accounts of Arab nationalism, but also the concept of religious and ethnic minorities itself, since language, in its practical and symbolic components, may well reflect a reality that blurs rather than underlines the seemingly sharp dividing lines between religious and national identities.

For a brief presentation of the project, see also:

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