Panel 7I

The Struggle to Define a Nation: Rethinking Religious Nationalism in the Contemporary Islamic World

9.00 – 11.00
Chair: Youssef Choueiri, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies; University of Manchester

Syria’s Lebanonization Process: An Historical Excursus within the “Non-Existence” of Syrian National

Demichelis Marco, Catholic University of Sacred Heart

The failure of the Syrian Spring is under the eyes of the whole world; an analysis of possible scenarios and final resolutions is currently impossible, while it is easy to assume that the pre – 2011 Syria will no longer find confirmation in the future: too many deaths, too many indiscriminate killings, too many inter-religious struggles. The failure of this country – which has played a significant role in contemporary Arab history, since the end of WWI to the decolonization process and from the Cold War to the post ‘89 phase – is symptomatically related to an identity fiasco whose responsibility is largely attributable to the political leadership of the al-’Assad family, but also, more generally, to a previous inability to shape a national distinctiveness able to conciliate the country’s different religious and political peculiarities. Pondering on the title it is important to highlight that a country like Syria, which tried to control the richer Lebanon from the ‘70s, promoting a divide et impera policy and triggering from the bottom a long civil war, was to undergo a very similar process, although taking a much longer course from the first half of the XX century. The Syrian “Lebanonization” sequence, only partially attributable to external responsibilities, is the main topic of this article: an historical journey in which Syria’s inability to build a solid country emerges as symptomatic of a reluctance to feel part of an inclusive and plural state: from the French Mandate system to the Alawite disaster of a mono-nationalist- religious identity.

Religious Nationalism in the Official Culture of Multi-Confessional Lebanon

Alex Henley, University of Oxford

The term “religious nationalism” in Lebanon tends to be used as a synonym for sectarianism, since religion is generally regarded as a divisive factor in the country of eighteen sects. This paper’s study of Lebanese religious leaders, however, highlights the emergence of a common religious nationalism in official public discourse. Muslim and Christian religious leaders have developed a language of pious citizenship and faith in the nationstate, using a shared vocabulary of thoroughly modern concepts – combined with appropriate Islamic or Christian content – to invoke a sense of civic and religious responsibility as one and the same. This discourse of religious nationalism will be analysed here as the product of two broad processes in Lebanese history. Over the long term, it arises as an indirect result of state confessionalism, whereby certain offices of religious leadership have been incorporated into an official public culture, making them not only representatives of the sect to the state but also representatives of the state to the sect. In the shorter term, and especially since the 1975-90 civil war, this religious nationalism has come into focus as a direct response to sectarian discourses propagated by various parties and militias. This analysis is based primarily on a comparison of public statements – especially holiday sermons published and broadcast in national media – issued by the Mufti of the Republic and the Maronite Patriarch through the 1975-90 period. These documents are set against the backdrop of wartime ideological production and the twentieth century histories of the two religious institutions.

“Under the Same Flag”: The Copts of Egypt and the Challenges of the Nasserist Nationalism

Alessia Melcangi, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart

During the fifties and the sixties, the Christian Copts, who at the time made up only about 9% of the total population in Egypt, faced many challenges presented by the Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser’s nationalistic ideology. Focusing attention on social and national issues, the ra’is tried to reduce sectarian conflict by integrating the Coptic community within the idea of a new state. The appeal for a strong nationalism rooted in the soil and an absolute and unchallenged leadership became the fundamental pillars of it. The Egyptian nationalism was configured as the glue of national unity and sought to resolve the difficult relationship between din and dawla by exorcising the religious factors under the authority of political power. A nationalization of religion which, in the ideology of the regime, planned to involve the university of al-Azhar and exclude the extremist Muslim Brotherhood in the competition for the control of the official religious references. Although the Coptic minority suffered the expropriations of the sixties and the exclusion from the main responsible political role, the Coptic community found in Nasserist Egypt, a new impetus and a temporary pacification of religious conflicts thanks to a strong national sense of belonging socially.

Religion, Politics and Land: Palestinian Christians and Religious Leaderships in the Midst of the Israeli- Palestinian Conflict

Paolo Maria Maggiolini, Catholic University of Sacred Heart

Focusing on the period between the first and second Intifada, the paper aims to analyse the relationship between politics and religion within the Israeli-Palestinian context, focusing on the participation and engagement of Christian communities, their ecclesiastical institutions and leaderships within the “Holy Land”, with particular concentration on the role of Michel Sabbah, and in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Along with other Palestinian Christian theologians, Michel Sabbah concentrated on developing new meanings and understandings of the message of the Bible, contextualizing its significance within contemporary local political fields and therefore promoting a new role for the local Christians and a new political consciousness. This inevitably introduced a new understanding of the notion of Palestinian nation and the struggle for Palestinian independence. This is testimony to the possibility of reappraising the relationship between religion, politics and territory from the minority perspective and to overcome this boundary, that deserves to be assessed and researched.

Patriarchal Leadership and Institutional Development in the Modern Coptic Orthodox Church

Paul Sedra, Simon Fraser University

The recent passing of Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III has prompted observers and scholars of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community to appraise his enormous contribution to the institutional development of the Coptic Orthodox Church. There are few who would argue with the notion that Shenouda has had far and away the greatest impact upon the institution of the Church since at least the mid-nineteenth century. However, this paper urges a reappraisal of the institutional impact of Shenouda’s predecessor, Kirollos VI. Among observers and scholars of modern Coptic history, the impact of Kirollos on the temporal affairs of the church is often neglected in favor of an exclusive focus of his spiritual influence, and in that connection, the abundant miracles he is said to have performed. Yet, this paper argues that most of the initiatives that led to the vast expansion of Church activity under Shenouda were, in fact, inaugurated by Pope Kirollos VI. Further, a thorough understanding of the contemporary ‘renaissance’ of the Church, often credited to Shenouda, requires an exploration of Church and community dynamics since Kirollos’s rise to the Patriarchal seat in 1959.